“Iboun loun lo?”
It was already the second time this guy was asking me something, but I think he was starting to realize I had absolutely no clue what he was saying.
“How much to get to Ikoyi? “ I asked, the frustration now evident in my voice. My pidgin is terrible and I didn’t feel like getting the “Huh?” I usually get. It felt like 100 degrees and I had been standing in sauna-like conditions for at least 10 minutes trying to flag down a taxi. My lungs were full of the concoction of steam and dust that Lagos cooks up every afternoon.
I thought I was lucky when this driver stopped, but now the old man’s eyes widened as he stared at me, from head to toe while gripping the worn steering wheel of his beat-up Corolla. He could barely keep a straight face; fighting back a smile, he turned his eyes away from mine before confidently speaking,
“Ahhhhhh Oyinbo! No wahala…5K, I go take you!”
5000 Naira? I had just ridden with a friend days before, the same distance, for 750 Naira! I sighed loudly, realizing that my American accent was the cause of this. After negotiating back and forth, we agreed on 3000 Naira and I quickly slid into the cab.
I searched for my seatbelt to no avail as we hit an open stretch of road towards the newly built Lekki Tollway. Horns honked incessantly as cars and SUVs danced dangerously around each other, often within inches of sideswiping or rear-ending, but always darting quickly around their counterparts before disappearing into a sea of traffic.
“Can you turn on the AC, please?” I asked, not sure if melting me in the backseat was part of a diabolical plan to take all the money I had, or if the old man was just stingy due to the ongoing fuel shortages across the city. He stared straight ahead, shaking his head
“There is no AC…you have to wind down your window”
Too hot and tired to complain, I followed his instructions allowing the warm breeze to hit me as we continued down the stretch of road. Staring out the window ahead I observed cars swerving left and right to avoid a large pile of clothes that must have fallen off a truck and into the middle of the tollway. The old man craned his neck to see the commotion ahead and started to veer left as we approached the pile of clothes.
It was then I noticed something…
As we drove closer, I noticed what appeared to be an arm and legs strewn carelessly against the asphalt. I made out the shape of a head, then the brown and crimson streaks against the remnants of a tattered and dirt-smudged shirt. A single-arm reached out over the limp body as if that person’s last action was reaching for something they would never be able to grab on that road. Chills ran across my body and I immediately became nauseous as the old man narrowly avoided running over the body.
“Did you see that? There’s a dead body in the street? We have to stop and call someone…” I tried to calm myself but the words were flying out of me quickly.
The old man stared ahead and continued driving.
“SIR!” I screamed, “There’s a DEAD BODY in the middle of the road and someone is going to run over it, we have to call someone! We have to call the police or 911…I mean…we have to call an emergency line”
The old man continued driving. His eyes focused on the rear-view mirror for a few seconds and I saw as he tried to determine whether or not I was serious. He then stared ahead and continued driving. A few minutes later as we pulled into traffic, I heard the old man speaking.
“…once a week, at least” he mumbled, shaking his head.
“Once a week what? “, I asked, still irritated at his silence and apathy from earlier.
“Once a week I see dead body for this road, “ he replied somberly “We are used to it.”
“How can you be used to it?” I screamed, “How can you be used to a man lying dead in the street?”
The old man then spoke quietly.
“My son, we are dead already. No one will move that body from the road because they do not know that man. ‘What is my own? Is it my brother?’; that is what they will say. There is no fuel. There are few jobs that most people on this road are heading to. There is no light. There is no policeman that you will trust. There is no one who cares about us, so we have learned not to care about each other. Where man go die, he go lay.”
I grew angry. I explained to him how it was the fault of the government. The president and others like him that swooped into political positions to exploit them for money and power while plunging the rest of the nation into debt, dysfunction, and despair. Before I could speak more, the old man continued…
“In truth, sir, with all due respect…this country is dying because of you.”
I was too shocked to respond, so he continued:
“I know you are a Nigerian like me, but you are NOT like me. You come in December during festive season. You stay for a week…maybe two. Sometimes you stay a month. I drive you to parties and weddings, shopping, and movies. You eat, you drink, and you enjoy. When you come, we turn generator on for you. We bring you light and hot water. We bring you food and too much to drink. Well, when you are good and drunk, you go back to Yankee or Jand and you remember how wonderful things were. But you do not care. You do not care who the president is. You do not care that there is no light, as long as there is light when you are here. You do not care that we are poor or that we are dying, you only care that things are not poor for you during the two weeks you are here.
You are supposed to be here. You are supposed to be governors and senators. You are supposed to be ministers and business owners. You are supposed to make this place better because you have seen things we have not. You have learned the right way to do things in the countries where you stay; as for leading, we cannot and we know it. We are dead already…we were infected by the corruption of our leaders, we no longer cry at the sight of death, we no longer want what is for the greater good. We only want to ensure that our own family does not die tomorrow. Our children say, ‘If I see my own, I go chop am’…any opportunity to take, they will take. We will lie, we will cheat, we will steal, we will kill, and we will deceive to achieve the kind of life that our neighbor does not have, but would gladly kill us to get.
Whatever you want to see, come back and build it. Come back and take over this government. Come back and take over these businesses because those of us here cannot change the problem we are causing. But do not come back to take from us and then go…do not come back and become one of them.”
We drove in silence for the next few minutes before the old man slowed the car, parking beneath a group of trees on the side of the road.
“This is where you wanted to stop…4,000 naira”.
“I thought we agreed on 3,000…” I replied dryly.
“Ohhh…forgive me sir”, he smiled, “I’m an old man and I forget things easily.”
I gave him 4,000 Naira and thanked him for his wisdom.
“You’re welcome oloshi!” he drove off chuckling.
We want our lives to matter to everyone else in the world, but do they matter to us? Living in Nigeria desensitizes you to death, robbery, kidnapping, poverty, governmental failure, and more. Approximately 11,000 people have died at the hand of terrorism in Nigeria since 2009 and what has that done? Has it stopped Nigerians that were born, raised, or live outside of Nigeria from going back home for Christmas? Has it stopped you from partying in Nigeria? Has it stopped those living in Nigeria from going to work? At what point do we stop and take stock in the fact that our lack of reaction shows how much Nigerian lives matter to us. They don’t matter until the lives are our own or of the ones we love. If we don’t display care for our own people, who will? The media? The US doesn’t need our oil or have any major political need for us, so why are we expecting to be rescued by them?
The truth is that the Nigerians who have the power, education, and connections to effect change are comfortable; either they can run to the US or UK to get away from it all, or they have enough resources to insulate themselves from the chaos in Nigeria. In fact, many of us who have gone back to Nigeria, literally have gone back to capitalize on that chaos and lack of infrastructure. The only question we should be asking is what act(s) of solidarity will it take for the Nigerian people to be heard and feared? Is it protesting? Is it boycotting banks or certain businesses? Is it forcibly (and physically) removing certain key politicians from their offices? Is it voting?
What is the thing that we should be doing that could truly affect change in Nigeria? Praying for change is wonderful, but that faith without works is just throwing words into the wind. We need to figure out what we can all actually DO.