Fellow Nigerians, many of our citizens missed some of the great lessons to be learnt from the circumstances surrounding the birth of Prince George in London earlier this week. While the whole world was agog with the news, ours was the typical, and so what, fashion. A friend was so infuriated about the reticent Nigerian attitude that an argument soon ensued between us. Let me quickly warn that this guy is practically a white man in Black skin. We have had this running battle for years and all efforts to change his theory that ours is an accursed race have failed.
He returned to his old familiar terrain this week as the news of the Royal birth hit the airwaves like thunderbolt. He had forewarned me early last week, that the Black people lacked passion for such things, as we drove past the Paddington station and saw the way the world media had camped outside the proposed birthplace, some for over two weeks, like they were awaiting the second coming of Christ. My friend had pointed in their direction, and asked me rhetorically: “Please tell me, how many Blacks can you see among those reporters?” I deliberately kept mute so as not to ignite a debate I knew will not end as easily as it started.
“I’ve told you repeatedly that the Blackman can never comprehend how to turn the simple things of life into objects of substance,” he quipped. I knew he was in the mood to propound and possibly expand his usual notion and philosophy of the superiority of one race over another and I wasn’t prepared for his always volatile lecture. But he refused to give up as he fired more salvos from his throat with every ounce of energy in him. “The Black race can’t appreciate good things!” he concluded. At this stage, I could no longer take his tirades. “Our problems are different from that of the Whites,” I said in a Professorial voice. He did not let me finish before he pounced on me again, like a wounded lion:
“What do you mean? All of mankind went through similar problems at different stages of their evolution but they didn’t lament forever without doing something about their terrible condition. See all those journalists working under this heat-wave to await the birth of a child, they are not stupid. The hype around this child is creating employment and job opportunities but you blind people cannot see it. Go and check how much the monarchy is attracting to Great Britain every year. This feverish hype is what keeps it alive. Just imagine all those Americans and how many copies their papers would sell and the viewership on television. They are even paying money to anyone who can describe or get pictures of the Lindo wing at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. They are cleverly clinging to all information available while you guys continue to wallow in your perpetual ignorance…” I stopped him there.
“Would you believe if I tell you I had all my children in that very St. Mary’s Hospital and in the same Lindo’s wing even as a refugee on the run from the military government in Nigeria?” I said matter-of-factly. My friend got even angrier. “Don’t tell me you didn’t take the pictures?” he asked as if my life would ever depend on it. I told him I didn’t. He then lectured me on a subject that is not very popular in Nigeria – History. “That is serious history you have wasted. Just imagine how many news channels would be happy to get those historic pictures from you now. If you were White, you would have taken pictures of the whole place inside out. Now you have to wait for your next life if ever you’re fortunate to go near the place.” He was beginning to sound like an outsider weeping louder than the bereaved. He was furious throughout the rest of our journey home but I wasn’t bothered a bit. When he had calmed down, I narrated the ordeal that made it impossible for me to record my experience for posterity.
We were deeply in the heat of the June 12 crisis when my first child was born. I could not travel at the time. The second was born while we were in exile and on the night I was busy producing the third issue of Ovation and we almost had the baby in a car. At the hospital, I had to stay with the first who was not yet two at the time. By the time we had the third, I had two kids to look after at the hospital. The last baby was particularly difficult as my wife was in labour for over 24 hours and the doctor even told us to prepare for the caesarean section until a Ghanaian midwife appeared miraculously and started speaking in tongues and the baby was delivered. How would I have thought of a camera in the middle of all manner of challenges? The story of my life is a stuff of fiction which must be told in several books for those who think life has been rosy. Even my friend didn’t know this side of me. But he still felt my journalistic instinct should have been sharper despite the odds.
At any rate, I really couldn’t understand what he was fussing about. Nigerians would never pay a kobo extra on those pictures if ever published. Celebrities are still too few and far between in Africa. You can count the authentic ones on your fingertips. We’ve had to create and manage a new class of newsmakers. Unfortunately, most of the so-called high-fliers are usually and almost all those in government circles and power blocks plus their cronies and associates. Most of them are purportedly hated with passion by the ordinary man on the streets who sees every successful man as the source of his misery. The youths who have become substantially frustrated and disillusioned cannot even differentiate or discriminate between the thieving class and members of the privilegentsia. They portray or pretend to resent and begrudge lives of opulence and ostentation while indeed most are searching for their own opportunity to join that elite class they attack with such religious fervour. I was soliloquising…
I knew the discussion won’t end there. The birth of Prince George was bound to take us back, and it did. My friend had promised to return to Twitter, after a long absence, when the baby is born. I had also promised to partake in the celebration of the new-born in the traditional giddiness of Europeans. I returned to Africa while he remained in London. Of course, my friend alerted me as soon as the news broke. He tweeted as he had promised and I followed soon. My friend would later call fuming and vibrating on the phone.
“What did I tell you about the Black people? he started. I asked what the matter was this time. “Haven’t you seen some guys on Twitter saying you were showing off by stating that your children were born in the same St. Mary’s Paddington? When did Nigeria become a country where a writer can’t recount his personal experience as example to others?” he retorted. My response was simple “My job as a journalist is to report reality and chronicle events from my individualknowledge. I’m sure they thought I was showing off some wealth and affluence not knowing I was a common refugee from Nigeria at the time. My family was at the lowest ebb in the name of fighting for democracy and the British Government was graceful enough as to treating us like her own citizens. No African nation would have welcomed us with such warmth and provision.” And the lesson I wanted to draw from it was lost in the cacophony of those who wait to pounce on such opportunities.
In our days at Concord newspapers, Travelogue was one of my favourite columns. I relished the adventures of Michael Awoyinfa and Nnamdi Obasi as they transported us to places we never visited. We prayed to God to give us such dream possibilities in life. Till this day, I savour the exciting reports of CNN’s Richard Quest from one world capital to the other, aboard new jumbo jets, and so on. But in Nigeria of today, you may be accused of blabbing and grandstanding.
I told my friend we must remain trendsetters for others and especially for those willing to lift up themselves from the doldrums of poverty and oppression. We were much poorer in our time and knew the solution was in acting positively than blaming others for our woes. We marched in protest over smaller problems than what we face today. But the times have changed. We can now hide behind our cellular phones and all manner of gadgets to attack real and imaginary enemies. We must learn to tolerate them except where they are downright rude and vulgar. It is normal for people to vent their anger on those they can see. Our leaders are too isolated to be hit directly. They hardly read anything not to talk of going on social media. They live on another planet obviously.
Unfortunately, my friend and I are not on the same page over this matter. He reminded me of the psychology of the African he told me about many years back. It was one of those tantrums I had tried to obliterate from my memory. He had narrated the story of a Shakespearean tragedy staged before a White and a Black audience separately. He said there were scenes in which some members of the White audience actually wept. Now wait for this, when the same scenes were shown to our Black audience, most people actually laughed. The import of this is that the Blackman has the proclivity to treat important matters as a joke.
The gentleman was trying to corroborate and justify the racist comments of a controversial but prolific English author, George Alfred Henty (8 December 1832 – 16 November 1902) whose perception of the Black race was as dastardly as that of his fellow author, Joseph Conrad (3 December – 3 August 1924; originally Polish, JozefTeodorKonradKorzeniowski, but granted British nationality in 1886). Both authors had written at a period of immense prejudice against those they called the Negroes. I think of the two Henty’s book, By sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War was more caustic and acerbic than Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but both explored the theme of civilisation and enlightenment versus savagery and backwardness.
Now read what Henty had to say about us: “They (negroes) are like children… They are always either laughing or quarrelling. They are good-natured and passionate, indolent, but will work hard for a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid beyond…” My narrator believes not much has changed since then; that in fact Africa remains the heart of darkness; that the leaders and their followers continue to live in fools’ paradise while pretending to be insulated from the rest of the world.
My friend wished Nigerians in particular would see that what makes the British society what it is that their leaders try to give human face to governance: that a Prince would be delivered in Paddington, not a particularly posh neighbourhood; that the leaders owe it a duty to tell the people as much detail as possible on even their private lives; that the Queen walks on the streets with cheering crowds around her; that a Prince William found it necessary to compensate the expectant journalists and face a barrage of cameras; that he drove his wife and new baby to Kensington palace, and so on, are important instructions to a modern society.