By: Ademola Adesola
You know a country by the stories its children tell. You want an unadulterated story of the human condition in a country? Ask its children, those growing souls unaccustomed to the embroidered narratives of the adult world.
In my son’s school the above point became further reinforced for me. March is the “I Love to Read” month in this school. From the first to the last day of the month there are different activities aimed at promoting a strong reading culture in the students. I got the school’s invitation to read to Alfred and his fellow students. In the letter of invitation, I was encouraged to, in addition to the reading, prepare to share some interesting things about Nigeria. Yes, even though the country is largely a kitchen midden of Byzantine dysfunction and is a common reference in the discourse of how not to be a nation, I accepted to share some interesting pieces of information about the country with the class. Thus, I combed through the storied maze of “Nigeriana” and found some mind-blowing gems there. I was going to sell Nigeria’s bright side to these kids from different so-called developed parts of our world. After all, as the late president Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia rightly observed, there is a degree of good in every bad thing.
On Thursday morning I gaily strolled into the class to the expansive welcome of the students and their diligent teachers. All protocols invoked and taken care of, we settled down for the business of reading, a reading punctuated with heartful laughs and other responses I would need to be a child again to make out. In other words, the reading went on like a newly manufactured car on a carefully macadamized road. Thereafter, the students inundated me with what stood out for them in the story entitled “My Family Loves Me.”
We moved to the second segment of the event. Nigeria. Even though I’m heavily invested in Nigeria and I’m deeply concerned about how it ruins its people every minute of a year, I felt no discomfort reeling out the few notable positives about the country. Then came question time. I still didn’t feel any troubled. These are children who are developing their capacity for the business of critical discourse. If they would pose questions about the condition of life in Nigeria, it wouldn’t be uneasy ones – I reasoned. The sweat questions came and I joyously provided the chocolate answers. Then the fat balloons of sweet answers met the piercing pin prick of stubborn facts.
“Electricity is a problem in Nigeria,” a girl declared in a smooth voice. Before the voice in my head completed its “You see, Nigeria always happens anywhere,” another boy hollered “NEPA always took light […] no light all the time.” But before I recovered from my temporary “shock,” two of the teachers had gently asked the boy to hold his horses (Canadians and their incurable overdose of politeness!). Those Nigerian kids wanted to go on to “open book” for me, as Fela would say, about the country their parents loved so much that they found a way to escape from it. But their teachers are Canadians …
For me there was nothing embarrassing in the unadorned memory of Nigeria those children still have. They are in kindergarten, between ages five and six, and so must have left Nigeria when they were younger. Yet, in their smallish houses of memory the worrisome condition of Nigeria occupies a big place. They have the living condition and quality of life in their new country of sojourn to contrast with the one of their birth. And this is the case with most kids in Nigeria; the Nigeria they inhabit terrifies them more than its adores them. It’s no exaggeration that most Nigerian children have known the colour of suffering since they were in their mother’s wombs. They were conceived in biblical suffering, born into a human hell, and grow up in a space of unmitigated precarity. Yet, in spite of the unbelievable horror and tragedy of being born in and living in Nigeria that many Nigerian kids are so well familiar with, the odiously fat hyenas of power at different levels want these kids and their adult parents to doctor positive narratives about Nigeria.
To insist and expect Nigerians abroad to tell stories of a Nigeria they didn’t experience or loudly point to Nigerians doing well with themselves abroad as examples of what being Nigerian means is one sure way to keep the tragic human condition in Nigeria unchanged. The fact that Nigeria is not well has to be minded seriously. You must first agree there is a problem and not pretend about the degree of the problem. That’s how, to borrow the title of a collection of essays by Odia Ofeimun, to take Nigeria seriously. Doing so enables the mind to be attuned to the relevant solutions. We have in Nigeria today an Islamist insurgent group (Boko Haram) waging a coordinated war against the country in its Northern flank and destroying the lives of many a child and adult. Yet, the 11th-century rulers and the jaded minds that are their supporters keep saying that they have vanquished the terrorist group. Unemployment is creaming off the vitality of many people in the country and underemployment is eroding the human dignity of many families, but the insular president in Abuja and the self-serving governors across the states are daily rhapsodizing about a strong economy that only exists in their myopic minds.
You can’t solve a problem you have not duly acknowledged its existence. And for as long as Nigeria continues to pretend that all is well with it and sketches positive narratives about its worsening human condition, its children who are able to make it to functional and thriving polities would play no game in speaking the bard, hard facts of their lived childhood experiences in Nigeria. When Nigeria begins to be liveable, the lives of its people and the experiences of its children – not the vuvuzelas of paid, unfeeling imagemakers of the abominably ballooning “amotekun” of power – will tell the story aptly. That’s what those children in my son’s class underscored.
Ademola Adesola is a PhD candidate sent the piece from Winnipeg, CanadaAdemola Adesola is a researcher at the Department of English, Theatre, Film and Media, University of Manitoba, Canada