Okey Ndibe

Recent Commentary | The Toilet Named Nigeria


Monday, July 4, 2011 | Remember that some older columns are available in PDF)
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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 the open.

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 staff.

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!  
      


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