Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Pastor, biko, find us something

God calls the judges into his courtroom
He puts all the judges in the dock.
Psalm 82:1 (The Message Translation)

Some time ago, I sat in a church service and listened to the Preacher say ‘When you go to meet a man of God, never ask him for money. No no no no.... Ask him to pray for you.’ He was speaking of the role of a Man of God in the lives of his congregation. He was serious. He would repeat it several times over many months. The words even appeared as an entry in the devotional he published monthly. When you look at this statement in the normal human context and place it against the teaching of the bible, it falls short of being true. If you however bring in the Nigerian situation where every man is quick to glean off some change from persons believed to be in a better situation, you would have to humorously dismiss the statement as harmlessly similar to those warnings issued by frustrated mothers to their young children, ‘If you go there, Gbomo gbomo will thief your prick.’ Corrective, but false.
Hate is a very strong word. It is strong, but it is not hard. The ease with which, and the reasons for which human beings hate are so ridiculous that the average mind would hesitate to call a hate action by its proper name. We have thus formed words like racism, anti-Semitism, tribalism, and more recently, Islamphobia, which a friend of mine argues should be called anti-Islamism. One less known of such words is Theophobia. Theophobia refers to a fear and distrust for God, specifically for the Christian God and for his followers. It is the perpetuation of hate acts towards a person because of his or her Christian beliefs. Christians have from time been fed to lions in Rome, sent to concentration unjustly, and are prosecuted and outlawed, in many countries today. Its founder was even hung on a cross and left to die! I cannot say though, despite all these, that the Church is an altogether blameless and saintly institution. In fact, to argue objectively, one could say that the church as we see it today is self-serving and fraudulent. It is not without its sins. Don’t lose your hair just yet. This is a proper argument. Follow me.

I will give two major points in which I will say a lot to support my view. Thereafter, I will go to the meat of my essay which is a plea to Church leaders, to do something for the people. I am not against the church. I believe in its ability to help people, to better their lives, to take a stand against oppression on behalf of the afflicted. I do not throw blows to knock a man down. My jabs are soft hits; calling a man to realize that he has soiled himself.

My first point is on the issue of taxation. The church has long enjoyed the privilege of being a tax free institution: It is the law in many countries. And this law stemmed firstly from sympathy. At the time, the saying poor as a church rat, was very true. Ministries barely got along financially. They were content to just preach the word. Contentment with godliness was great gain. Soon after, argument was made to support this law by saying that contributions to the churches were already taxed, and so could not be taxed again. Nice argument, but I counter-argue by saying that an income is an income. Parishioners in a way pay for the moral instructions, social support and prayers that they get from their parishes. They wouldn’t make contributions readily if they got nothing for their membership. Their contributions are like paying for the satisfaction of seeing a good movie (if it turns out a disappointment, your loss), or getting a stimulating health seminar, only the fees are made out of free will. I’d thus say that if the health coach is taxed though he receives his income from already taxed funds, then should also the minister be taxed! They both receive incomes for services rendered. Do you refuse? Then let me argue from this other point. After Jesus took up full ministry, he was supported by the members of his ministry as recorded in the scriptures. Yet, did he not pay taxes? Did he not even pay the tax for Simon Peter? Please Sir, he did! Has the church erased the instruction to do like the master? And don’t churches today ask dependants to pay a tithe of their incomes from money that has already been tithed by parents or guardians? Ah! Think about that one. I will invent a new proverb. It is this: ‘If the offering tray would pass by the widow and child, then let it also pass by the preacher.’
If you are a follower of Christianity, you would observe that the Christianity of the Christian book, the bible, differs from the Christianity served off the pulpit. In fact many times, they are in conflict. And this is the reason for denominationalism. But that’s another argument entirely. What I am driving at is the fact that the church has cleverly or insensibly forgone its duty to mankind. The reason for this may be that this complacency is very beneficial to the Leaders of the Church. They withdraw from participation in so-called secular matters. They would not take a stand for the people when they are being oppressed by tyrannical governments; they do not put their weights behind efforts to see that fellow human beings get some measure of decency in their day to day lives. They excuse themselves and are excused by their followers by slogans and quotes like ‘not of the world’; ‘this world is not my own’ or ‘heaven: our goal!’ What happens is that by their complacency they become complicit in tyrannical governments. And this is one reason why they are allowed to enrich themselves; it is the reason why they have the ears of the corrupt men and women in power. If the churches were to take a stand (being the largest community in this country, and with considerable influence too) for the people, then would they be serving their real purpose. You may argue that the purpose of the church is exclusively spiritual; that Secular involvements are merely humanitarian additions to their duties. I say false! Let me assure you that Prophet had a Word; and Levite a psalm when they capered righteously over Traveller in Good Samaritan but it was Samaritan who had neither revelation nor song that was praised in the end. I will also assure you that this parable (the most popular of Jesus’) was given in response to the question ‘what must I do to receive eternal life?’ – Spiritual duties get fulfilled when we extend our efforts to fellow men. The eternal life that is harped about by evangelist and pastor, that is the selling point of the Christian message, is to be gotten by opening blind eyes, by relieving burdens; by setting free captives. All these in the physical, then in the spiritual, just as Jesus did. In this, the church has failed.

There are one or two other points by which I may tell you how that the church shirks its real duties and has taken up the role of a greedy, negligent guardian. But I would refrain. To solve a problem is not to pile blame. I promised that I would raise a plea after the above points. And this is what I will now do. The duty of struggle for freedom lies with each one of us individually. This struggle can only be effectual when we are brave enough to examine a matter, probe for soft spots and knock off raw edges. The after effect of such action is that we have truth staring us in the face, in its pure, undiluted form. With truth we can advance on the enemy. We can conquer corruption. If the church is an institution ordained of God, whose foundation cannot be scathed by the very gates of hell, then must it be ready to pick itself up and take a stand. It must become that pillar and foundation of truth and mercy; a tower set against the ill-doings of society. This challenge to take a stand against evil is not thrown to the Church, because the Church is faceless. Who is The Church? The plea is thrown to its leaders who have a taken backseat in pursuing justice. It is thrown to its members who have against teachings of their childhoods, taken up dogma and creed instead of the role a shepherd who comforts anxious lambs. We cannot continue to place insentient or bad church leaders on a pedestal and praise them ends on, when our consciences bleed and cry. I believe we know what is right, but it is cheaper to be popular. I think it is time to say NO! We ought now, to fight for ourselves and for our futures. It has become the time for us challenge the status quo, and say Pastor, biko, find us something!

Saturday, 23 October 2010


This poem is dedicated to all of you in diaspora around the world. In a situation where the head rules the heart, I say do not come back home, at least not permanently. Nigeria may just be a lost cause. But where the heart dictates the rhythms of one’s life and where the smoke fires of granny’s kitchen are sorely missed, then I can only wish you well. I sympathise with you for believing, that east or west, home is best.
Jigawa skies are so beautiful
The bright city watts of Lagos can’t be so dutiful
In Lagos we have girls, booze and carousing
In Gwaram we have girls, taboos and ‘purdahring’
When the rains come, Gwaram, our city in the south
Receiving a rain portion very biased
Comes alive with lush green,
flowing rivers and lovely scenes.

But many nights here in Gwaram I count,
Dreaming of the disappointments of Lagos:
This unholy combo only Lagos can successfully mount.
I toss and turn, counting the hours
Watching as night would cower slowly from day.
A repeat performance keeping a twenty-four date.

Jigawa is peaceful, gentle... night time with lots of fresh air.
But it is not Las Gidi!
With living shanties pulsating seamlessly beside luxurious bounties,
With broken vehicles having larger road inheritance’
than living engines.
Here the men raise their hands
And barbaric voices a mile off are heard showering praises
But in Lagos silent noises only
herald an ebb of violent curses –
Disaster coming assuredly
if lifted hands a situation beckons.

But Lagos is home and I am counting hours
with much sighing and many groans
Many nights I’m longing for the morn,
then by evening I am waiting again
let night transform again into the dawn

Las gidi gives me life, gives me hope,
gives me the know
that someday, I, Alhaji, will to it
be returning.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

They Go When The Rains Come

I arrived Jigawa, northern Nigeria in the dry season. The vegetation then was sparse and dry and one could see miles and miles ahead of the arid Sahel, although occasionally, one’s vision would be blocked by rocky hills that dot the landscape. The land was hot and the heat was very oppressing during the daytime. As evening came the weather would become a little clement. Some evenings and nights though, were also very hot. ‘Welcome to a new world’ the Jigawa road side land mark said, as we entered the state capital. Jigawa was indeed a new world to me. What would I discover? I wondered.
I resumed at the Primary Health Centre in Gwaram and though work was punctuated by the occasional difficult case, the occasional loss of patients, life was very normal. Being a doctor was quite rewarding – most patients went home better. Alive. But this was before the rains came. Sandra, a health worker who had served seven months already before I turned up in Gwaram had mentioned that the number of deaths increased alarmingly during the rainy seasons. She had in the past said some unpleasant things about the local people, so I did not take her words as true, or as important. When the rains came, the weather changed. Green, lush-looking grasses grew everywhere. The people planted millet, rice and maize. The hunters would pile up in a very dead pick-up truck and move about the town at breakneck speed, with the people cheering them as they moved along. Grasscutters would be abundant soon; hunting season was close. If you rode the public transportation motorcycles from one settlement to another, you would see scores of women on open fields doing what seemed to be an esoteric choreography as they planted seeds into the ploughed soil and dug them in with their feet. There were many lively activities, and people were happy with the cool beautiful weather. Jigawa was almost more beautiful during this season than during the dry season. But in our hospital we began to experience an increasing number of deaths. But what was the cause? It couldn’t be the rains. I had to find out.
In medical school, I was taught that malnourished persons and non-immunized children stood a very poor chance of fighting diseases. In practice as a doctor in southern Nigeria, all that was just textbook stuff. Almost all children there were immunized, and even if protein intake was not as much as in the Western world, people had at least the lower ranges of the normal blood protein level. In Gwaram, and many parts of the north, women and children have a dangerous combination of factors militating against their well being. Poor hygienic practices make helminthiasis (worms) prevalent, and bad, oppressive feeding cultures make them nutritionally deficient. These two factors, along with poor response of the care giver or guardian to life threatening situations lead to a prevalence of acute severe medical situations in the hospitals.
With the rains came stagnant pools of water, and with that came mosquitoes. The blast of malaria fever was the needed flint to ignite an explosion of heart failure, recurrent seizures, severe gastroenteritis and other such terrible cases in our already nutritionally starved women and children. Many of the cases already too far gone by the time they arrive the facility. The rainy season that brings joy and increased copulation seems to turn up with winds hiding the flaps of Death’s Angel. Each pelt of raindrop becomes a beat in the macabre symphony that welcomes destruction.
While we can blame the rains for the death of women and children here in Gwaram, there is nothing that can be done to modify or negate it. What we can do however, is negate its undesirable effects. The rights of the male to all fish, meat, yoghurt and other tasty nutritious meals should be challenged aggressively by disease prevention programmes and health educators. It is not enough to tell helpless women who have no control over their choices of food, to eat highly proteinous meals. The men must be swayed towards making these foods available to their women and children. I use the word swayed because this must happen as a cultural shift, with the men being influenced by key societal figures – the Muslim Clerics and the Emirs. There also must be aggressive community medicine which must involve house visits organised to show people proper feeding, hygiene and disease prevention practices.
I have never seen night skies as beautiful as I see from my window late at night in Gwaram and as I walk home from the market in the evenings. But in the rainy season, it seems unsullied beauty lies only in the heavens: the earth is full of death and dying. Even the beauty of childbirth is driven away by near certainty of a maternal death. We cannot do anything about the rains. We cannot change the weather or our tropical climate. But we can change ourselves: we can ensure that we empower and protect our women. We can make sure that the children that come in the dry seasons do not go when the rains come.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


When I first began my quest to be literate apart from the education which I received from the university and other institutions before it, one of the first pieces of literature I read was a 1969 novel titled, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman.’ The book’s intro said it was an expose on women’s liberation and blah blah... and that in fact the book had been made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. What I found from my direct reading was a love story with an out-of-the-box, beautiful story line. However in my subconscious, I mean indirectly, I began to awake to certain aspects of my mental makeup. I became aware that social conventions were many times a hindrance to the full expression of one’s personality and one’s self. The book allowed me to discover that I was a believer in gender egalitarianism, and it led me to understand that mine was a liberal spirit.

But my write-up is not about my deliverance from social norms and conventions, it is about Habiba, my prostitute friend. I met Habiba in Gwaram, Jigawa State, a deeply muslim community with strict cultures. It was the rainy season and almost everyone would fall ill with malaria fever. She had caught an early dose and came to see me at the clinic. She was loose with her dressing, had the hard and battered look that only prostitutes and drunken sailors successfully manage, and had fungal skin infections on her face, a sign of HIV infection. She knew all the men in the facility and called them with a friendly boldness. She constantly referred to herself as Hajia Habiba (title for females who have made holy pilgrimage to Mecca). She was quick to show me her shoulders and said she was scared of needles. At first I was repulsed by her garrulousness, but in time we became friendly, and then friends, but only as far as a non Hausa speaking stranger can become friends with a non English speaking social outcast.

I thought it strange that Gwaram with its *Ba shigar homes, strict muslim dress codes for females and Sharia courts would have its share of ‘business’ women, and so I asked Mumin, a community health worker in the health facility about it on our way to buy balangu for dinner. ‘So that woman today was a prostitute,’ I said, introducing the topic. He told me that she was not the only one available in the town, there were others like her. When I asked why they were not dragged to the Sharia Courts, He expressed surprise and asked me ‘Why?’ ‘I...I thought it was against the law’, I stuttered. He answered gravely that the women were untouchable by the law because they would be able to claim successfully that they have human rights which include the authorization to do what they want with themselves and their bodies. ‘They will pay for it in the end, these women,’ he said in conclusion to our discussion. As a medical officer, I agreed with him but I could not help wondering where this woman got the audacity to go against the grain of such a conservative and stereotyped society, especially as I found out that she had grown up here in this old fashioned town, and that her family are still very much around. I could immediately link her with the book character, Sara, the French lieutenant’s woman.

In the book, Sara starts out a naive little governess who soon meets a French ship-wreck survivor, who she helps nurse back to health and falls in love with. On recovery the French lieutenant leaves town suddenly, leaving Sara heartbroken. She sets out to find him but discovers that he is not the gentleman he claimed to be as she catches him in the company of ‘strange’ women. She is heartbroken and seems unable to return to her job because stories making the rounds are that she had given her honour to the Frenchman but was still rejected by him. She becomes a recluse and settles for being a servant with a new, hard-to-please madam in the village where the story begins. She is looked at by the villagers as being ‘a little crazy’ and earns the nickname the French Lieutenant’s woman. As one reads on, one finds out that Sara’s craziness and heartbreak has little to do with her lover’s disappointment. Hers is turmoil of the mind, a heartbreak caused by the restraints of society. ‘Why can’t a woman be free to express herself and her sexuality? Why is it wrong for a lady to take control of things in a relationship, to make the first move, to give love instead of waiting till it is given or thrown at one? These seem to be the questions that afflict her. She consequently abandons conventional society and resigns herself as a recluse in her new village. But soon she meets, by accident, a young man who she falls in love with, and this time, she takes the reins in directing the affairs of their very abnormal liaison.

Bringing this home, I think that the factors that make women like Habiba go contrary to societal norms may be much more than promiscuity. I believe that in some cases prostitution is an expression of sexual freedom, a form of rebelling against societal strictures... It may be a misguided mode of expression but it is a bold, if not admirable attempt at exercising ones human rights. Sacrilege! I hear you scream. Wait. Hear me out. In most cases, prostitutes are of the low, uneducated, underprivileged classes: they do not have the wherewithal to express their mental rationalisations appropriately – they have no schooling, no role models and sometimes are products of sexual and/or psychological abuse. They are illiterate but are still human. And like human beings they may have notions and convictions about life such that they couldn’t be inwardly happy or outwardly free until they lived according to these notions and desires. I guess I am trying to say that a prostitute may be normal variant of life, and not a nuisance aberration; that they may only be looked upon as one would an artist who is detached from conventional life and living and moves about with unconventional clothing and strange behaviours – They are both just slight disparities contributing to the irony of a balanced society.
We all agree that prostitution has more disadvantages than advantages and so is better discouraged. This however should not be achieved by lining up our ‘beautiful’ sisters and asking the Master permission to throw stones at them. We should instead consider the option of education, policy advocacy and human rights enforcement. If men are taught to see the female folk as different but equal members of society; if women are taught that they need only themselves and their acquired skills for real fulfilment in life, then maybe women like Hajia Habiba will be given a chance. Maybe she would put her free spirit to being a dancer or a musician; maybe she would be a pillar of her community, or maybe a single mother living quietly and minding her business....And maybe I won’t be considering paying her harem a future late evening visit.