July 4, 2011 |
Remember that some older columns are available
If you want
to gauge how badly Nigerians have been animalized, then pay attention to
how, and where, many of them defecate. Just recently, the United Nations
Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that 33 million Nigerians have no
access to decent toilets. As a consequence, said the report, these
citizens of Africa’s most populous nation answer the call of nature in
Is it really only 33 million Nigerians? One is afraid that here’s one
occasion when statisticians have pegged the figure too low. Nigeria – as
I wrote three years ago – may be described as one vast toilet. Anybody
who has traveled from Lagos to Onitsha by road knows that there isn’t
one single rest area with toilet facilities along the route. At stops in
Ore or Benin City, pressed passengers must hurry off into the brushes,
gingerly skating around others’ feces, in order to relieve themselves.
It’s much the same situation in most – perhaps all – Nigerian cities.
Many of Nigeria’s wealthiest men and women have their residential
addresses in Ikoyi and Victoria Island. The two districts boast some of
the grandest, swankiest, most expensive buildings in Nigeria. Yet, some
of the streets of Ikoyi and Victoria Island are monuments to grime and
dirt. The streets are defaced with discarded cans, plastic bottles and
newspapers. They are littered with the rind of oranges, the peel of
bananas, and the shell of peanuts.
But by far the worst infestation in these well-heeled districts is
human. Look around and you’re bound to see, in broad daylight, the
stooped figures of men and women urinating or defecating in full view.
It’s this factor that’s created the legend that the city of Lagos in
general – but Ikoyi and Victoria Island in particular – may well be one
of the world’s most expensive slums.
This habit of doing in public what ought to be done in private strikes
me as pointing to a much deeper cultural crisis. There are several nodes
of the problem.
Let’s begin with what I’d call the animalization quotient. We are
accustomed to lower animals relieving themselves without regard to
location or the presence of others. In adopting the way that dogs,
horses and cattle go about things, Nigerians, in effect, exhibit sheer
animal instincts. It wounds one’s sense of dignity and fellow-feeling to
realize that millions of Nigerians have been compelled to exist and
behave like animals.
Long habituated to inhuman conditions, many Nigerians have ceased
noticing those peeing or defecating in the open. Or, when we notice, too
many of us have lost our sense of outrage at the oddity. Public acts of
pissing and defecation have become – more or less – normal, part and
parcel of our social experience and landscape.
There’s, of course, an undeniable (even if largely uncalculated) health
cost. Often, hawkers of food in Nigerian cities stand close to feculent,
fly-infested gutters and sites of public urination and defecation. God
alone knows how many people, especially children, the elderly and the
ailing, are gravely sickened by contact with fruits and other kinds of
food bought off disease-stalked streets.
In an environment where university research is informed by the vital
issues and needs of society, studies would have been undertaken to
measure the extent of Nigerians’ food supply to open sewage and to
determine the health hazards. If such studies exist, then they ought to
be made public. In fact, they ought to inform a two-pronged public
awareness campaign: on the one hand, emphasizing the urgency of
providing public toilets; on the other, educating Nigerians on the
perils of living in squalid, shit-infested conditions.
Nigerians treasure handshakes. Introductions and discussions are
punctuated by frequent handshakes. I cherish that custom and the rich,
warm connectedness that handshakes express and signify. Even so, owing
to the fact that too many Nigerians have no access to toilets, I confess
to a certain sneaking uneasiness about shaking hands when I visit. For
me, it’s often a dilemma. I know how scandalous it would be to refuse to
offer one’s hand. Yet, I can’t help wondering where the hands I shake
have been, and whether they’ve been washed.
Two anecdotes illustrate the depths of the problem. Two or three years
ago, a fellow writer told me about the chastening political experience
of a mutual friend. Appointed by a state governor as a local government
administrator, this mutual friend was shocked to discover that there was
only one toilet in the secretariat. Marked “executive toilet,” the
facility was meant for his exclusive use as the chairman of the local
government area. The staff of the local government did not have a single
toilet where they could retire when they came under nature’s pressure.
This fellow then decided to remedy the situation by building toilets for
To his utter surprise, the caucus of local government councilors sought
a meeting with him. They wanted him to know that they staunchly opposed
his plan to build toilets. They informed him that his predecessor was a
man of great political wisdom who steered clear of toilets. His
predecessor knew that the way to “move the local government forward” and
to “carry all stakeholders” was to distribute the local government’s
monthly allocations among the councilors. They asked the new
administrator to stay that course.
When he asked them whether workers did not deserve a dignified way of
relieving themselves, their blithe response was that no worker had
petitioned that he or she had a problem about slipping away into the
bush. He then sought to drive the argument in the direction of
self-interest. “How about you?” he asked the protesting councilors.
“Don’t you think you deserve toilets?” They were adamant. They told him
to just give them a share of the public funds – and to leave it up to
them to decide on toilet matters.
The fellow stubbornly went ahead to award contracts to build new staff
toilets. One imagines that the workers were grateful. Even so, the
administrator’s action did not inspire effusive gestures of affection.
Instead, the defied councilors were so incensed that they wrote
petitions against the administrator to the state governor. Alas, the man
did not last long at his post.
More recently, I attended Mass a few weeks ago at the Catholic cathedral
in Awka. Offered for the late Archbishop Albert Obiefuna, the Mass was
so crowded that many of us had to stand outside. When I saw a man go
behind a parked car to pee in the open, I told him that there were
toilets at the cathedral. Ignoring me, he went ahead to do his thing on
the grass, within sight of hundreds of people. I confronted him again
after he was done. “Why didn’t you go to one of the toilets?” I asked.
He smirked mischievously as he replied, “I already started doing it
outside. Next time I’ll go to the toilet.”
I was left wondering if the man really didn’t know that the cathedral
has toilets for the use of congregants. Or was he merely insistent on
what a friend of mine cheekily calls “the joys of doing it in the open”?
No self-respecting people should gloat about such perverse joys!