Nothing chicken about this pox

I had the misfortune, early last month, of contracting chickenpox. According to history books, the origins of chickenpox date as far back as the 14th century. It is unclear where the disease got its name from. One theory is that it is called chickenpox due to its relatively mild nature, when compared to smallpox, a now eradicated disease with similar symptoms but a much higher mortality rate. That theory is bullshit. There is nothing chicken about chickenpox, at least not when contracted in adulthood. Now that we’ve established that fact, let me tell you a few conclusions I’ve reached after my experience with this truly awful disease.

First, let’s get this clear: the chickenpox people contract in childhood is not the same as the chickenpox others get as adults. Medical books would tell you that chickenpox is more severe in adults than in children, but I’m not talking about severity here. The chickenpox people told me they had when they were 6 or 7 and laughed about and said was over in about a week or less after rubbing calamine lotion cannot be the same disease I was afflicted with last month. Virologists may not know this yet, but there are 2 variants of the virus – the type that likes to pester kids and is little more than a nuisance, and its vengeful, malicious sister that only goes after the few of us that were lucky (actually, unlucky) to have escaped the former in childhood. For the purposes of this write-up, we would give to the variant of chickenpox that people contract in adulthood the fancy name “chickenpox AD”.

Chickenpox AD was invented by the CIA. No, I didn’t spend all my time in quarantine gorging on conspiracy theories, and I haven’t lost my mind either. But I am 100% certain about this: Chickenpox AD was deliberately created by a covert programme established by the CIA. I arrived at this conclusion, not through research, but intuition and very simple logic. First, chickenpox AD is not a creation of nature. Why? Because nature does not have the capacity to create a disease so evil, so virulent, so … ugh. Words fail me. Man on the other hand? We all know fully well man’s infinite capacity for evil. It’s a smoking gun really: if nature didn’t do this, then man must have. If it was man, of course we know who was behind it. Like we know who’s behind HIV, the Middle East crisis, Ebola, Africa’s underdevelopment and half of the problems of the world. The Americans of course!

After contracting chickenpox, you realize, in a very profound sort of way, that you are (or used to be) very good looking; you just didn’t know it then. By the time the outbreak of blisters on your face is full blown and you look into the mirror and Gollum stares right back at you, you would realize – in that brief, illuminating moment – how beautiful you once were. My recommendation for anyone that is insecure with their appearance: a healthy dose of chickenpox AD with concentration on the face. You would be grateful to have your face (or a semblance of it) back when the blisters have scabbed over. By the time my black spots have completely faded – I hear this can take as much as a year (chai!) – I’m sure I will think I look like David Beckham.

One of the most remarkable ironies of chickenpox is that it is when you have it that some people will insist on visiting you. Now, that anyone would want to visit someone with a highly contagious disease that requires being in quarantine makes little sense, right? Well, so does the way of the world. I am not talking about the kind visits of genuinely concerned close family and friends. God bless them. No, I am talking about that guy that has been asking you out for several months but you’ve kept turning down. He would want to come around, offer his sympathy from the safety of a few metres away, while thinking to himself: so this babe can look ugly like this? Thank God she never gree sef. Who knows what her face will be like after this. Or that busybody neighbor that is a nurse, who takes the saying “seeing is believing” a little too literally, and would insist, in spite of your assurances that you have chickenpox, on visiting you to confirm it with her own eyes.

Apparently, everybody and their dog has had chickenpox at some point in their lives. The standard response from folks to my disclosure that I had chickenpox was that they too, their spouse, sister-in-law and third cousin had had it too. Although most people appear to have had it in childhood, several people contracted it in adulthood like me, and were willing witnesses to how awful the disease is when contracted in adult life. I don’t know whether those stories made me happy or sad. They may have been meant to provide some “you are not alone in this” consolation, but at that time I would have given anything to have roles reversed and be the one consoling the other person. Anyway, now that I’ve had mine – and survived it – I wear my survivor badge proudly around my neck and look forward to the day I have a first opportunity to comfort someone with my “oh dear, so sorry about that; I also had chickenpox in er .. yeah it was June of 2015”.

I emerged from my experience with chickenpox generally a more grateful person. The denial, during the period that you are infectious, of little liberties we often take for granted – a hug from your spouse, carrying your child in your arms, taking an evening walk in your neighbourhood – generally leave you a little more appreciative. I’ve told some folks that in order to ensure that Damisi – my 19 month old son – didn’t get infected, my wife locked me up in a dungeon in the basement of the house and passed food to me under the door. That, of course, is a joke – but that was how my 10 or so days of isolation sometimes felt. I am still haunted by the bewilderment in Damisi’s eyes that evening he innocently ran towards me – expecting me to sweep him up in my arms and I had to literally flee from him. It almost took having to get a certificate of discharge from a government hospital for my wife to readmit me into our bedroom. I cannot remember any other time sleeping on my own bed had felt so good.

The word “affliction” has several definitions in most dictionaries. One of its definitions in the Free Dictionary is “a condition of pain, suffering, or distress”. I don’t know why the writers of dictionaries bother with so many words. If I ever get to write a dictionary, here’s how I would define the word “affliction”:

Affliction

noun \ə-ˈflik-shən\ Chickenpox AD.

 

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Bobby Super

****
I had never been a one barber guy until I met Bobby. That was when I first moved to Surulere. It had been two years, and in that period, no other barber had touched my hair. It was Bobby or nothing. Before then, getting a haircut or shave had always been about convenience. Sometimes, I would recline at my desk at work and run my fingers along the sides of my face. I would get irritated by the straggly beards, and decide to get a shave on my way home. Other times, I would be out somewhere, spot a barber’s shop and decide I might as well get my hair cut. My hair clipper was always in the backseat of the car.

****
Meeting Bobby was fortuitous. I was on my way home from work one evening when I realized I hadn’t made enough copies of some court processes that I had to file early the next morning. I needed to find somewhere I could make extra copies that evening. I began to drive slowly when I turned into Ajao Street, hopeful that there would be somewhere to make photocopies in the shacks that lined the road. I parked my car on the other side and darted across the road. I walked slowly, parallel to the road, keeping an eye out for those “make your photocopy here” signs. I could see a store that sold stationery, another that sold bootlegged DVDs, but nothing that looked like what I was looking for.

I decided to ask someone. There was a man standing in the doorway of a shop to my right, his back to me.
“Excuse me,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder.
He turned around. He was about my height, slim and light complexioned. He had jet black hair, neatly styled into waves and a full, lustrous beard.
“Please do you know if there is any business center around here?” I asked. “I need to make some photocopies.”
“Ah, sure,” he said. “Let me show you.”

I followed him to a tin roofed shack, a few metres away. I stooped to peer inside. In the dim light, I could make out a young girl seated on a stool, slumped over a copier, asleep.
“Hello!” I called out loudly. “I want to make some photocopies”.
The girl rose up groggily from the stool, rubbing her eyes.
I turned to the man beside me. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied with a smile, and then very quickly added: “Sir, that’s my barbing saloon there.” He pointed to the shack where he had been standing when I first saw him. “Anytime you need a fine haircut, I’m here for you.”
“No wahala,” I muttered, beginning to turn back.
“My name is Bobby,” he said, stretching out his hand.
I hesitated, wondering what the formality was all about.
“Nice to meet you,” I finally said, grasping his hand.
Bobby didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t introduce myself.
“Nice to meet you sir,” he replied, flashing a smile.

****
Bobby’s place wasn’t far from my house, so I decided, the following week, I might as well try him out. I didn’t expect him to recognize me, but the exuberant way he welcomed me immediately quashed my doubts.

I was struck by his dressing. He was wearing a slim pair of corduroy pants and a button down collar checked shirt, neatly tucked in. His shoes were once white sneakers. His red nerd glasses finished off the distinctive look. Although none of what he wore looked expensive, I could tell that deliberate effort had gone into his appearance.

The barber’s shop was small – its dimensions no more than 10 feet on either side. It was sparsely furnished: two barber’s chairs equally spaced apart in front of a rectangular mirror on the wall; and underneath the mirror, nailed into the wall, a wooden slab that served as a makeshift shelf. Bobby shared the shop with another barber – a much older Yoruba man he called Baba.

Bobby was very meticulous in the way he went about cutting my hair. First, with an elaborate sweep, he spread the barber’s cape over me and then deftly fastened it around my neck. Then he arranged my haircutting kit – hair brush, duster, combs and aftershave – carefully on the shelf, like a surgeon arranging his tools. He spent almost a minute sterilizing the clipper, even though it was mine. I found it all slightly irritating. But I was impressed with the cleanness of the shave when he was done.

I was also impressed by his English. It was near faultless. He never used a wrong tense or pronounced a word wrongly. I asked him once how much education he had, and immediately regretted asking the question. He launched into a nearly 10 minute long account of his life: how he was born in Benin in the early 80s to a single mother who sold bread on the streets; how she had slaved away to see him and his siblings through school; how he had written “JAMB” 5 years in a row since leaving secondary school, and failed each time; how he had started “this barber work” as a means of earning a living whilst he saved up for the cost of the application forms as well as private tutoring; and how it remained his dream to be a university graduate someday. He wouldn’t have stopped, if not that there was no hair left to cut.

After that encounter, I knew Bobby would take a mile if I gave him an inch. So I deliberately avoided conversation. As soon as he began talking, I would bring out my mobile phone and bury myself in my Twitter and Facebook feeds. I showed no interest in anything he said; grunting monosyllables in reply to his pointed questions. He seemed to figure out that I wasn’t interested in making conversation, and his chitchat dwindled as the weeks went by. I came in, usually after giving him a call first to check that he was around and there were no other customers waiting; got a haircut and a shave in 10, 15 minutes; paid him; he thanked me and I left. It was extremely efficient.

Bobby was also a salesman; there was nothing he didn’t try to sell to me. This week, it was a leather clipper satchel bag, the next week it was some revolutionary shaving bumps lotion. I bought most of what he pressed on me; it was hard to resist his insistence. It wasn’t until I saw on Konga the same clipper he had sold me a few weeks back for half the price he had sold it to me that I realized he had been shafting me.

I was upset about it and challenged him the next time we saw. He protested and swore he hadn’t cheated me. That the clipper he had sold me was an original and that his gain on it was a mere thousand Naira. But he had a sheepish look about him and kept apologizing. I calmed down and sat down to get my hair cut. At least he didn’t give me shaving bumps, I said to myself.

****
I first met Bobby’s girlfriend a few months after I started using him. He didn’t have to introduce her; I knew, from the way she strutted around, and the deliberate way he acted around her, who she was. I also knew from the minute I set my eyes on her that I didn’t like her and that she was the wrong choice for Bobby.

I don’t know if my dislike had to do with her appearance – heavy makeup; fake eyelashes; blonde-dyed hair; lots of bling-bling. She couldn’t have been older than 17 or 18 and it wasn’t even 9 in the morning. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that she came into the barber’s shop and didn’t greet a single person – not even Baba. Bobby asked that I excuse him and took her to a corner. In the mirror, I saw him bring out a wad of money and press it into her palm. I shook my head in pity. I was certain this fake, snotty girl would only be a liability to a young, hardworking man struggling to better his life. But it was none of my business, so I reached for my mobile phone on the shelf.

****
I arrived at the barber’s shop one wet Sunday evening, and was surprised to find a guy I didn’t know standing over Bobby’s barber’s chair. I stopped in my tracks.
“Bros, you need haircut?” the strange man asked.
“Where is Bobby?” I asked.
“Bobby?” he repeated, a confused look on his face. “I don’t know who is Bobby”.
Baba wasn’t around to ask; he didn’t work on Sundays.
“Bros, try me. I dey barb correct.”

But I was no longer listening to him. I whipped out my phone, and soon had one of Bobby’s weird highlife caller tunes blaring in my ears. I had his number on my speed dial.
“Hello sir,” I heard Bobby chirp.
“Where are you? I’m at your shop.”
“Ah. I’ve left that place sir. I now have my own shop. Give me 5 minutes; I’m coming to get you.”

I stood at the entrance, my clipper bag swinging in one hand, waiting for him. The new guy must have figured out that it was no use, and was now seated on the barber’s chair that used to be Bobby’s, quietly observing me. I stepped out of the shop as soon as I spotted Bobby’s yellow smiling face bobbing along as he jogged across the road towards me.
“Good evening sir,” he said, immediately collecting the clipper bag from me as was his habit. “I’ve left this place o. I now have my own barbing saloon.” His face was flushed, whether from excitement or breathlessness, I couldn’t tell.
I asked him where this new place was and whether I needed to take my car. There was no need to take the car, he told me. It was nearby and besides the road was bad.
“So you moved to a new place and didn’t think you should let me know,” I said, as we crossed to the other side of the road.
“Ah, no o,” Bobby protested. “I Whatsapped you. You didn’t get my WhatsApp?”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know whether to be amused or irritated that he felt it was okay to send me a message on WhatsApp instead of calling.

We soon turned into a side street. It was riddled with puddles. I treaded carefully to avoid flecks of mud splashing on the bottoms of my pants. We passed some kids making a racket as they played football in the yard in front of a house. Their hands and feet were encrusted with mud. We kept going. I was getting irritated. Maybe I should just have allowed the new guy cut my hair. We came upon a refuse dump that gave off a terrible stench. I plugged my nostrils with my thumb and index finger as we went past. I had never been to this part of Surulere before; I didn’t even know it existed. I was just about to ask where the hell we were going when we arrived at a wooden stall. Bobby stopped in front of it, turned towards me and announced with a smile: “Welcome to my barbing saloon sir.”

His new place was about half the size of the old one. It was like a box. In one corner was a wooden chair, facing a small mirror. In the opposite corner was another chair, and behind it a hairdryer and wash basin. Did he also plan on having a hair saloon for women in here, inside this shithole that could barely take two people? I couldn’t believe it.

I sat down without saying a word, staring at my angry reflection in the mirror whilst Bobby got my things out of the clipper bag. The chair wasn’t high enough – all I could see in the mirror were my head and shoulders. Why would he leave the old place for this? As far as I was concerned, this wasn’t progress. It was like an oven inside the stall. It had no window and there was little the lone fan mounted on the wall could do. Bobby wiped the sweat from my head intermittently, with my face towel, apologizing profusely as he did. Although I was seething inside, I still didn’t say anything. I just wanted him to be done so that I could get out of there.

When he was done, I didn’t wait for the customary brush down before stepping outside. He joined me shortly and handed my clipper bag to me. I gave him the five hundred Naira note I had removed from my wallet whilst waiting.
“Here’s my complimentary card sir”, he said handing me a card in return.
The edges of the card weren’t evenly cut, and its cardboard was of an inferior quality. Splashed in bright gold lettering were the words “Bobby Super Barbing Saloon”; the ink of the letter “n” in “saloon” smudged.

I looked up from the card to find Bobby looking intently at me, a glint of pride in his eyes. I knew the proper thing to do was to congratulate him. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I nodded, brought out my wallet from my back trouser pocket and carefully tucked the card into one of the slots.

****
I don’t know what it was that made me stick with Bobby after he got his own place. But I was back there the following weekend, and the one after that. The things I hated most about the new place were having to park my car some way off and finish the rest of the journey by foot because sections of the road were in very bad condition and the cramped, airless inside of the barber’s shop.

He shared the stall with a hairdresser called Ada. I found out that that they had pooled resources together to acquire and furnish the stall, and also shared the costs of fueling and maintaining the generator. The generator couldn’t power the clipper and hairdryer at the same time, so whenever there was no power and they both had customers, someone had to wait for a few minutes for the other person to be done. Each time, Bobby would plead with Ada that he was almost done and that she should give him a few minutes. She usually agreed, grudgingly.

Bobby told me about how opening his own barber shop was the best decision he had ever made. Back at his former place, he had to remit as much as half of his daily earnings to the owner of shop. Now he was making enough money to be able to save some.
“That’s if your babe doesn’t collect everything from you,” I quipped, unable to help myself.
Bobby doubled over and roared with laughter. He looked both surprised and delighted that I would make such a joke.
“Sir,” he began, when he finally stopped laughing, “But you understand these things. You know your boy has to represent.”
“No problem then,” I replied. “Give her all your money and be drinking garri.”
Bobby laughed again, a hearty laughter that seemed to come from the inside of his belly.
“Sir, I can’t lie,” he said, in a quieter tone. “I love that girl.”
I didn’t say anything else after that, and he cut the rest of my hair in silence.

Bobby practically lived in the barber’s shop. I was surprised when I called him at past 9 pm on a weekday and he said he was still at work and I could come over. He was as bright and chirpy as ever when I arrived. As he took my things out of the clipper bag, several voices outside chorused “Bobby Super!” He acknowledged their cheers with a raised fist. Apparently, that was now his nickname in the neighbourhood. I caught a glimpse of his grin in the mirror. I was genuinely glad for him.

****
Bobby had just started with my hair, one Saturday morning, about a month after he opened his barber shop, when his girlfriend appeared in the doorway. There was something ominous about her manner.
Bobby immediately leaned closer to me and whispered, “Please sir, can you excuse me for one minute?”
I nodded. He switched off the clipper, set it down and quickly stepped outside. They stood facing each other, in hushed conversation. I decided to check what was happening on Twitter. I looked up from my phone a few minutes later. They were still talking.
“Guy, hurry up abeg,” I snapped. Did he think I had all day?
Bobby hurried back inside.
“Sorry sir.” Then to Ada: “Please help me give her a chair to sit on.”
Ada carried the other chair outside. Bobby’s girlfriend sat on it, waiting for him to finish. I wasn’t in a hurry though. I deliberately asked Bobby to go over this and trim that; I wanted to keep her waiting for as long as I could. As I stepped out of the stall, I glared at her with disdain. She glared back at me, fearlessly.

The following weekend, I noticed something odd about Bobby – a distracted air about him, like he had something on his mind.
“Is everything okay?” I asked him, as I retrieved money from my wallet to pay him.
“Yes sir,” he replied, forcing a smile.
“Are you sure?” I pressed.
“Yes sir; no problem sir,” he said, this time with a more convincing smile.

****
“Where’s Bobby?” I asked Ada, as I stepped inside the barber’s shop. “I’ve been trying to call him, but his phone is switched off.”
“Haa,” Ada cried, “They’ve arrested Bobby o.”
“What do you mean? Who arrested him?”

I listened in silence as Ada narrated how Bobby had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and procured an abortion for her at a backstreet hospital. The abortion had gone awry and almost resulted in her death. Her dad, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, was livid and had gotten Bobby arrested and locked up at Area C. According to Ada, he had been in detention for almost a week. I asked her what efforts had been made to get him out on bail. She said his roommate and some friends had been to the police station, and were asked to bring N500,000. The policemen claimed most of the money was to offset the medical expenses of Bobby’s girlfriend, who was still under admission at the General Hospital. The demand had been negotiated down to N100,000, but amongst themselves Bobby’s friends had only been able to raise a fraction of it.
“What about his family?” I asked.
“He no get family for Lagos,” Ada replied.
I shook my head. I had been so right that that bitch was only going to get him into trouble.
“This is serious,” I muttered, folding my arms over my chest.

Ada and I stood looking at each other in silence. Although she hadn’t said anything about whether I could help, I could tell from the expectant look on her face what she was thinking. But there was no way I was getting involved in this. I didn’t even have to think about it. This wasn’t my problem, and I wasn’t going to make it mine.

It was a good thing too that I had always kept conversation with Bobby to the minimum – I would probably have been the first person he would have called after his arrest if he knew I was a lawyer. Then I would have been forced to go to the police station, and argue with the policemen that bail was free until I was hoarse. Eventually, we would have come to a compromise. Then I’d have had to fork out maybe N50,000 of my own money to “settle” the policemen and then chase after Bobby for reimbursement for the next two years.
“Well, they have to release him eventually,” I said, breaking the silence. “They can’t keep him locked up forever.”

My parting words to Ada, as I turned around to leave were: “I would check back next week.”

****
I suspected that something was wrong, when I saw, from a distance, a group of people huddled in front of the barber’s shop. Then I realized that the barber’s shop wasn’t open – I could see the giant padlock on the barricade across the door. What the hell was going on?

When I got to closer, I saw that everyone wore long, mournful faces. One of the women was in tears. She looked familiar – yes, it was the tailor from down the road that sometimes came around the barber’s shop to chat with Ada.
“My God,” I heard one of the women cry, “they just wasted that boy’s life.”

I didn’t have to ask who she was talking about. Bobby was dead. The circumstances of his death were unclear. One version of the story was that he had been tortured whilst in police detention and bled to death from internal injuries. The police maintained he had suffered an asthmatic attack in the middle of the night, had been rushed to a nearby hospital, but was dead on arrival. No one believed their story. Someone talked about how Bobby had tried to persuade his girlfriend to keep the baby. But his girlfriend, Aoise – who had only just finished secondary school – had said her father would kill her.

Later that night, as I lay in bed thinking, I reached for my phone on the bedside table. I opened WhatsApp and navigated to my chats. My heartbeat quickened as I scrolled down. Would I find a message from Bobby informing me of his arrest and pleading for help? There was one message from him, but it was sent several months back. I had never opened it. It read: “Gud evening sir. Just 2 inform u i now have my own barbing saloon located at Banjoko Street behind Celestial Church. Thanks for ur patronage. Bobby”.

© Olutola Bella June 2015

Post script: We’ve been thinking for sometime about what to do with this blog, what else we could talk about, without losing our identity. Since we enjoy telling stories, we’ve decided to add short fiction to the offering on bellanchi. We hope you enjoyed this story and would be glad if you shared it with your friends.

How to enjoy living in Nigeria

You’re still in Naija? Wow!

I don’t know how you do it; I’d have gone crazy living in that country.

If you had the opportunity to live elsewhere, would you leave?

 I get it all the time – family and friends abroad questioning the rationality of my decision to continue to live in Nigeria. I’m sure you do too. I often ask myself the same question: why I choose to remain in this dysfunctional place. It’s a question I have not been able to answer and doubt I ever will.

 What I have zero doubt about is that I love living in Nigeria. The trick to enjoying living in Nigeria is living in Nigeria long enough. You get better at it with time.

 Here’s what I think you need to do to be able to live happily in Nigeria:

 1.            Invest in good generators

Treat your generators as if your life depends on them. In reality, it does. Forget comfort and quality of life. Your sanity is what is at risk here. Don’t be deluded into thinking you can get by with one generator. Or one generator and an inverter. You can’t. You’re better off having only one functional kidney than having only one generator. Think about it: of what use is an inverter during a weeklong blackout? Your generators are indispensable.

Do not expect the power situation to improve. Further down, you would see why you should, as a general rule, expect nothing. Call me a terrible cynic and mutter “God forbid bad thing” under your breath, but Nigeria may never have regular power supply. Surely, you have seen that old newspaper cutting about a 1985 deadline for power cuts. I won’t even go into talking about how a generation of kids that shouted “up NEPA!”, each time power was restored, are now grown up and have kids that shout the exact same words.

Set aside a fixed percentage of your monthly income for the running and maintenance of your generators. Many of us don’t pay tax anyway, so quit grumbling about having to devote your hard earned resources to generating power. Yes, electricity is the responsibility of government, but don’t be silly. Even Aso Rock – the seat of the federal government – depends on generators. If it provides any comfort, think of the money you spend on your generators as the tax you pay to the government.

2.            For entertainment, look no further than Nollywood

It’s been a bad day. After getting reprimanded by your boss for letting a deadline slip, you call it a day and head home. But it’s one of those days when the whole city grinds to a halt for apparently no reason. After spending almost two hours in traffic, you have a headache by the time you get home. To relax, you decide to watch some TV before going to bed. You pick up the DSTV remote control and skim through the Guide. You are on a long thing. Why not just watch Africa Magic?

africa magicHold on! I know a lot is wrong with Nollywood; trust me, I can write a book on the subject. I am as irritated as you by the overacting and plots that are as obvious as a freeway. It upsets me that Nigerian script writers cannot tell the difference between comedy and farce. But we have to be realistic here. Living in Naija is so stressful that the less application of the mind your choice of entertainment requires the better for you.

Why compound your headache trying to figure out what Neo is fighting against in The Matrix? Do you really want to spend the few hours of sanity you have in a weekday unravelling the meaning of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Why bother with the suspense, convoluted plots and sophisticated dialogue of western cinema when you can enjoy a simple, delightful story of lover boy Ramsey Nouah falling in love with delectable Genevieve? Get off your high horse, pick up the remote control and change the channel to Africa Magic.

Same applies to music. I love alternative rock, but I must admit that it does not deliver the instantaneous, quick fix high that I get from Naija hip hop. I am no psychiatrist but I am certain of this: there is no kind of depression that a playlist comprising of Iyanya’s Kukere, Davido’s Skelewu, KCee’s Limpopo and Wizkid’s Caro, played loudly on a Saturday morning, cannot cure.

3.            Private or nothing

The only institutions that work in Nigeria are private owned. The sooner you accept that reality, the better for you. You have to be terminally ill and not believe in miracles to decide to go to a public hospital. Forget the myth about most people not being able to afford private healthcare in Nigeria. Many desperately poor Nigerians wouldn’t touch a public hospital with a ten foot pole. And it makes no difference to them that the private hospital on their street is little better than a shack. In a typical government owned hospital in Nigeria, you have to buy everything yourself – be it drugs, blood, IV, gauze or plaster. You end up paying as much as you’d have paid in a privately owned hospital. So what’s the point?

If it matters to you that your children graduate in your lifetime, you had better send them to private universities. If you can’t afford private tertiary education, please ensure that everything else is private: crèche; daycare; kindergarten; primary school; secondary school; summer school; extra mural classes; everything! PHCN has been privatised; the refineries may be next. Don’t be left behind in the private revolution. Embrace the private sector or perish. It’s as simple as that.

4.            Know the people that matter

Whoever invented the expression “well-connected” must have been a Nigerian.

In Nigeria, a simple phone call to the right person can get your son admitted into his university and course of first choice even though his scores were fifty marks lower than the cut-off, or result in a tanker of diesel being delivered to your home, notwithstanding a crippling, three-week long, nationwide scarcity. Being well-connected to those that matter can be the difference, after a blowout of your neighbourhood’s transformer, between enduring several weeks of blackout and the transformer being fixed by PHCN the very next day. On more than occasion, a contact on my mobile phone has spared me from spending a whole day at LASTMA’s office and forking out a N25,000 fine. One phone call to the Right Person, another phone call from the Right Person to LASTMA’s Oga At The Top and my impounded car was released without me parting with a dime. 

Knowing the right person can even result in the award of a multibillion Naira contract to the company you incorporated yesterday. In Naija, you can go to bed broke and wake up a billionaire, literally. Why on earth would anyone not want to live here?

 5.            Act like a Big Man and show off while you are at it.

 Nigeria is a showman’s heaven. There is nothing we don’t use in posing. Tinted car windows; bluetooth headsets; Blackberries; Brazilian hair; sunglasses, Ipads; contact lenses; number of followers on Twitter – name it! If you’re the notice me kind of person, Nigeria is made for you.

 Although you may not realise it, you are a Big Man. Being a Big Man is very relative. There is a guy in my neighbourhood who supplies me cooking gas. He rides a motorcycle. He is a Big Man. He does not have to trek or jump on buses like many others on the street. You should see him astride his bike; you’d think he owned the street.

 If you can afford an SUV, get one. If you cannot afford one, get an SUV all the same. You will find a way to pay for it. SUVs not only elevate you into the league of Big Boys, 4WD suspensions are your only chance against the potholes on Nigerian roads. Holidays are not for getting rest. They are for taking pictures that you’d show off on twitter and Facebook.

 In Nigeria, you are only respected if you are a Big Man. You’re a Big Man only if you act like one. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.

 6.            Acknowledge that there is a God

 For a Nigerian, nothing is more reassuring than knowing you have someone up there, looking after you. If not by God’s grace, how do you think you’ve been able to escape being killed by witches, road traffic accidents, “brief illnesses”, ritual murderers, armed robbers, kidnappers or plane crashes? In a city like Lagos, leaving your house in the morning and returning home safe at the end of the day is a little short of a miracle. If you don’t believe in God, to whom or what do you attribute your continued existence in spite of all odds? Fate? Yes, I know you are a rational, thinking being. This is why I should remind you of this statistic: the life expectancy of a Nigerian male and female as at 2013 are 49 and 55 years respectively. Should we then say sir that you only have 49 minus your current age in number of years to live? Oh, you’re over 50? Sorry sir, you are now officially in extra time. Aha!

I can understand why atheism or agnosticism can be attractive to the intellectual in the western world. There’s a certain predictability to life and death. Airplanes don’t just drop out of the skies. Gunmen don’t wipe out entire communities in a single night. Serious diseases are likely to be diagnosed early and are well managed if not cured outright. In the advanced economies, it is very easy to think one can do without God.

In Naija, you have no choice but to acknowledge and seek God. It is the only way you can find peace. The alternative is to live each day fearing it would be your last and sleeping at night with one eye open.

7.            Have little or no expectations and learn not to take anything for granted

Do not expect that there would be electricity when you get back home after a long day at work. If there’s none, you won’t be disappointed. All you have to do is take off your work clothes, wear something more comfortable, get the jerry can out of the boot, pour fuel into your generator and power it on. On the contrary, if there is electricity, you are delighted. Not only are you spared of the hassle of fuelling the generator, you can do without buying fuel tomorrow because you haven’t had to use the fuel you bought today. Now you can turn on the air conditioning and settle down to a nice Nollywood movie in your well chilled living room.

Do not expect the internet connection to be fast or the security guards at your place of work to be efficient. Do not expect that your newly hired driver knows how to drive or that your housemaid would not steal from you. If he can drive and she does not steal, you can count yourself amongst the luckiest Nigerians on earth.

Expecting things to work in Nigeria is a highway to frustration and disillusionment. If you want to be happy in Nigeria, don’t expect anything. And don’t take anything for granted. That way, you are overjoyed when power is restored and stays on for the rest of the night – it typically doesn’t last longer than an hour –; you are relieved that the Okada that was going the wrong way only caused a minor dent – imagine what could have happened to the pregnant passenger if you hadn’t slammed on your brakes –; you are grateful it was only a small amount of water the impatient driver splashed on you – you would have been soaked to the skin if you had been a few yards closer –; you are even happy that although it was a lackluster performance, the Super Eagles didn’t get beaten by the Mauritanian minnows.

To be happy in Nigeria learn to appreciate and cherish the simple things of life.

I am on twitter @bellanchi

Post script: A version of this post was first published as a note on Facebook on July 31 2009. That it remains as relevant almost 5 years on is a testament to both the enduring nature of the principles and how little Nigeria has changed.

Ehen, who kom carry last na?

The parable of the workers in the vineyard is one of the stories in the Bible that baffles me most. For the sake of those who don’t know the story, here’s a quick narration: a landowner goes out at the break of dawn and hires some workers for his vineyard. They agree a daily wage of a penny. He sends them off to the vineyard to begin work. A few hours later, he runs into another group of people standing idly in the market. He hires them and sends them off to the vineyard to join the first set of workers. This sequence of events is repeated over the course of the day, with the last group of workers hired late in the evening. Nothing remarkable, I agree, but only until the day is over and it is time for the workers to be paid their wages. For some reason, he decides to pay the workers in inverse order of the time of their hire. He pays the set of workers he hired last a penny. Those he hired first also receive a penny. Predictably, they are upset, and not unreasonably so. Surely, it was unfair that those that had worked longest should receive exactly the same wages as those who had worked for less, right?

***

Life too, as many of us have now found out, is often not fair. We like to imagine that people always get their just deserts. That the smartest guys end up at the top; hardworking people achieve success in the end; and the wicked will eventually get their comeuppance. It doesn’t always work out like that. If there’s one thing life seldom gives, it’s what we think we or others deserve.

***

Remember Bayo that was in our class?

Bayo…? That had two extra semesters?

Yeah, that’s him. I ran into him at the bank. He’s done very well for himself o. He’s into real estate development.

Really?

Yeah. I saw him off to his car. The guy drives a 2013 G550 mehn.

G what! You’re joking. The same Bayo?

Many of us still react with an emotion that ranges from mild surprise to utter disbelief when we are confronted, in later years, with the success of people from our past. They might be a former classmate at secondary school; a fellow analyst at the firm where we got our first job; or a girl that lived on the same street as we did twelve years ago. Whoever they are, there’s that common denominator – we knew these people when they were nobodies, and not just that, at the time we knew them, there wasn’t the slightest indication they would turn out any good.

Remember that efiko† in your university days; the one who won all the prizes at the Convocation and was the darling of all the lecturers? Where do you think she is now? In a top job at a big multinational earning twice the pay of her contemporaries and higher up the ladder than co-workers twice her age, right? Wrong. Majority of the career high-flyers I have come across in my professional life were not top-of-the-class students. Wait a minute, don’t get too excited, they were not stupid either.

Well, here we are, all these years later, comparing notes, unpleasantly surprised by how well those we had written off as ne’er-do-wells have fared.

***

Rotimi was that guy every girl wanted to be with and every guy wanted to be like. He was a good looking bloke – dark and tall, with an athletic build and boyish looks. His parents were well to do. He lived in a BQ in the Staff Quarters, drove a very clean Corolla and was always impeccably dressed. He had swag – not the in-your-face type that some of us find obnoxious – but a charming, likeable kind. As you’d expect, Rotimi had the pick of the best chicks during his undergraduate days at Ife. When I found out that he had been with Solape – a sweet, pretty 100 level law chick I was weighing a move on – I was very upset at how life and circumstances made it so easy for some guys to have all the chicks whilst the rest of mankind roasted.

Fast forward to present day. Wole – a friend from Ife – is getting married and I’m at The Haven, the venue of the wedding. I am threading my way down a narrow aisle – distracted by a girl in a red dress across the hall – when I bump shoulders against someone coming from the opposite direction. I look up to apologize and recognize the face. It is Rotimi, as devilishly handsome as ever.

Wassup. How you dey? I say. My tone is measured. I haven’t completely forgiven him over Solape.

Hey! How’re you doing man? he replies, clasping my hand enthusiastically. Long time.

Yeah I reply, noticing only then that there’s a woman standing behind him.

He draws her closer. This is my wife.

I burst out laughing. Okay, seriously, I don’t laugh, but I don’t know how I am able to keep myself from laughing.

Your wife I say aloud, stretching out my hand. What! How? Why? But I don’t say these aloud. Hi, I’m Tola.

My name is Fisayo, pleased to meet you she replies. Her voice is laced with a distinct Yoruba accent.

She is all smiles as she shakes my outstretched hand. But the smiles do not help the situation. I know that not everyone is pretty and I do not – okay let’s change that to try not to – judge people or discriminate against them on the basis of their looks. But I think everyone should look a little nicer when they smile and no one should turn up at a wedding slovenly dressed. I cannot believe my eyes.

Later on, I am seated at a table with friends, exchanging banter. But my mind is elsewhere. I am thinking of what on earth could have made Rotimi – the bad ass, smooth talking ladies man from back in the day – end up with a wife like that. Did she get pregnant? No, it couldn’t be: what would he have been doing with her in the first place. I am generally not superstitious, but I can’t help wondering if she had laced his food with a love potion, the way they do in movies on AfricaMagic Yoruba. I shake my head in disbelief. What was the point of dating all those gorgeous girls at Ife if this was going to be his last bus stop? I can make no sense of it.

Surely, I’m not the only one here that has a story like this to share. I know you must have run into an old flame at some social event, hand in hand with her beau, and come away from that encounter immensely pleased that she didn’t, if appearances are anything to go by, get an upgrade after dumping you.

There was a spring in my step as I left The Haven later that evening. It had nothing to do with the Moet I’d had at the wedding, even though I’d had quite a bit. It wasn’t the pleasure of catching up with old friends and former classmates. This is why I was thrilled: I may not have had an illustrious record in the dating game, but if there was a Girlfriends and Wives Contest that day, I could decide to show up without my babe and still finish ahead of Rotimi.

***

Would you have imagined, back then, that that your roommate at Idia Hall who was notorious for being an aristo‡ would be happily married today, with a devoted husband and two adorable kids?

She didn’t contract HIV?

Nope.

Her womb wasn’t damaged by all the serial abortions they said she’d had?

Nope.

Her husband doesn’t know or care about her sordid past?

Sorry, darling, no again.

It’s not fair!!!

Say hello to life.

***

I am no Bible Scholar, but I’ve been told that the meaning of the parable of the workers in the vineyard is this: the decision of the landowner – who represents God – to pay all the workers the same wage was an act of mercy – to the workers that were hired later – and not injustice – to those that were hired first. In other words, it is up to God who He decides to show mercy.

Perhaps there’s logic to the events in the other stories after all. Bayo may have struggled to remember what he had just read the instant he flipped the page, but what does that have to do with an eye for opportunities and good judgment, which are integral to succeeding in business? Here’s what I tell every young, bright-eyed student that asks for my advice: read your books, but don’t imagine for one second that good grades would give you anything in life more than bragging rights amongst your peers and a shot at a decent first job. It was possible that Rotimi had finally realized that meaningful relationships didn’t have to be hinged on physical attractiveness. Perhaps Fisayo had some extraordinary virtue I knew nothing about that compensated for the sloppiness. Plausible, hmm? To be honest, not that I care. The next time I see Tony at a client meeting dressed in an oversized suit – the same Tony that made some of us not want to come to school on Out of School Uniform Day because his older siblings that lived in Yankee sent him box loads of baffs♠ – I will still smile smugly, adjust the lapel of my tailored jacket and say to myself ehen, who kom carry last na?♦

I am on twitter @bellanchi

Efiko – Slang meaning “nerd”.

Aristo –  Slang for a young girl or woman (usually a student) who regularly has sex with older married men for money. Could also be used to refer to such men.

Baffs – Slang meaning “nice clothes”.

Ehen, who kom carry last na? – Roughly translated, spoken cheekily: “so who finished last after all?”