By AMINA SALIHU
I have always been fascinated by the quotes and inscriptions on the back of trucks and lorries – the kind with wooden panels popularly referred to as 911 — and on Mitsubishi and Hiace Dyna buses. The big Mercedes buses (aka luxurious buses) are, of course, in a class of their own on the subject. They have reinvented the English language, turning it on its head and truly owning it like a sort of extended family member’s right to name the child. After all, we are related to the English, at least by colonialism.
The caption of the article, Who Is Free, was written on the rear of a Mitsubishi Hiace bus, the very type we use for transporting sachets of water (more appropriately known locally as ‘pure water’. Who Is Free is proper Queen’s English, all right, but the reality it portrayed was quite separate and distinct from the one commonly associated with modern-day England. Precisely because it lacked the question mark at the end of the sentence, the phrase became more rhetorical than a poser. If words could tell 1,000 stories, those few words did.
I met Who Is Free on the Gwagwalada part of the Abuja-Abaji-Lokoja Expressway on my way to the University of Abuja in August 2011. If ever there was a competition for a death trap road, the Gwagwalada road would certainly make the finals and possibly draw the keen attention of the editors of the Guinness Book of World Records. It is some 23 kilometres of potholes the size of craters and burrow pits, defying description and in fact leaving one in awe about the possibility of the existence of such plagued roads in a 21st-century Nigeria that is working to meet a 2020 dateline to be a developed nation. Over 5,000 preventable deaths occur on Nigeria’s roads annually.
For the better part of 15 minutes, I rode behind Who Is Free, because there was no question of ‘overtake’, for coming in the opposite direction of the single carriage road were heavy-duty petrol tankers and other like trucks. In between listening to the radio and carefully navigating the potholes, I had enough time to contemplate and weave a life around the journey of ‘Who Is Free’.
The open rear of the van faced me. In it was a girl sitting close to a young man who was next to an elderly person. To the left of the girl were two grey plastic chairs. They could once have been white. And to her right was a micro industrial blending ‘engine nika’ machine. The two men and the girl all sat on sacks of produce. They were on a journey towards Lokoja.
I could not help but think what other options might be open to this girl were she to be born to parents who were well and able to meet her needs. Would she be in school? She looked barely 15. Would she be on her way to visit a friend in a car or bus or taxi, rather than travelling on bags in the back of a Dyna Mitsubishi truck to God knows where? Could she be going to join the hoard of children in forced and unpaid labour found in various well-to-do households in Nigeria? Could she be running away from such a home? Or going to join a brothel or fleeing one for a life of perceived freedom simply because she knew that what lay ahead must be better than what she was leaving behind? Could she be going to her marriage bed with a suitor who was her grandfather’s kolanut mate who just needed one more hand to farm the land and massage his old, tired bones?
I cringed for a wasted future of another Nigerian whose life was already in jeopardy, if her mode of transportation and her few rags were enough indicators of her kind of life. In the 2010 global report on trafficking in 2009 alone, the government of Nigeria convicted 25 traffickers and provided care for over 1,109 survivors of trafficking. This is said to be an increase over that of 2008!
Unsafe ‘illegal’ abortions go on every day while we play the ostrich, burying our heads in the sand denying that they do. Every year, Nigerian women obtain approximately 610,000 abortions, a rate of 25 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. I wonder what access to timely, free education and family planning information could do to change the life of my girl (in the back of the Dyna truck travelling towards Lokoja) and her sisters.
As I made to veer off the Lokoja road to the university road, I bumped into another pothole. (I could not change directions because still coming in the opposite direction was traffic and this time a government convoy with lights flashing but equally swinging and swaying as the potholes dictated their movement.) Who Is Free stared at me mockingly in that instance as if saying, “As long as we all, high and low, use the roads in the shaved state they are in, nobody is free.” Neither the convoy of the senior government officials, nor the Okada (commercial motorcycle) rider, trucks, the passengers and even the pedestrians. Our destinies were intertwined by the poor state of the road on which we were travelling.
Borrowing another aphorism from the inscription on the 911 truck, I saw long ago – No One Knows Tomorrow – it becomes necessary to ask, how much has been spent on roads by governments without a tangible result to show for it? In 2011 alone, the capital budget for the ministry of works stood at N129 billion. Such question(s), such exercise, in the circumstance, could prove as profitable as staring at a black hole!
I think Nigerians are said to be the happiest people in the world because we laugh a lot but we do not do so because life is funny. We laugh because we have become very adept at fighting life with sarcasm – that bitter cutting-edge wit that insulates and allows you to laugh at yourself and at life itself. Nigerians are a people of such wisdom and patience they know that that which is hot will one day be cool. So why fret? The trouble is, we could lose irreparable grounds while we stoically accept our destiny.
We must begin to ask questions and demand answers. For instance, why are 85 per cent of our roads in the sorry state they are in after billions of naira have been sunk in them? Why should every Nigerian child not go to school, be assured of a roof over his/her head and of a full stomach and the joy that comes from being cared for and loved? Even if some of us send our children to the best of schools in the world and shield them behind high-barbed wires/fortified walls and only take them to the supermarkets, will any of us be free until equity is achieved? By ignoring this simple dictum of doing onto others as we expect to be done to us, we have chosen the easier but in the long run, more difficult road. Should we not rather take the road less travelled by, and make a difference in the lives of others? That way lies true freedom.
(Amina Salihu, a development consultant, is co-chairperson, People and Passion Consult, Abuja.)