Oyindamola Olofinlua

Coronavirus: Owambe, “not my portion” and the rich man’s disease

As my barber washed his hands in preparation to cut my hair that Saturday morning, I got a gentle reminder that coronavirus was indeed in town and everyone has a role to play to stop its ravenous spread. But as he began to cut my hair and got into gist mode, he must have noticed I was unusually hesitant. My concern: “If this guy get this coro-something nko?” But that thought was only for some time. After holding off for a while, I chilled a bit. You know, in our culture, there is only how far one can keep away from others without appearing to lack manners, aka home-training.

Just as our gist entered gear 5 amid laughter, I asked Akue — as I fondly call him — why he was gaily dressed.

“Today is my neighbour’s son’s wedding at Abule Egba. You know Segun na. His dad owns the shop here,” he said, pointing next door.

Indeed, I know Segun and his dad, the tailor. I was happy it was Segun’s day of joy. “You will leave your salon for faraway Abule Egba to party on the day your business moves the fastest.”

Akue confirmed to me that the man was like a father to him and I let the matter slide. His comrades already flanked his shop waiting in their aso ebi for their ride. Akue had put an Uber driver friend on standby to take them to Abule Egba.

“Na only two hours I go spend for there,” Akue said. He planned to take a maximum of four hours from his work and return by late afternoon when his business typically peaked. He had planned traffic into the equation.

It was much later, as I left the area where Akue had cut my hair for 8 years, it occurred to me that I had not paid heed to the coronavirus angle to Akue’s proposed leave from his shop for an owambe that would surely have more than enough people in attendance. I remembered also that on my way to his shop, I had seen a few canopies and chairs — an indication that parties would go on as planned all over Lagos. Those leaving from Akue’s area alone for Abule Egba, in different vehicles, were already up to 10. All the party needed was just one coronavirus-positive person — and the deed would be done.

A fringe thought strolled through the labyrinth of my mind: But Governor Sanwoolu or any of government representative did not specify owambe as one of the gatherings captured in his directive restraining gathering of more than 50, which was later reduced to 20. I erred, Mr. Governor had actually said Lagosians should “abstain from any large gathering OF ANY KIND, be it an academic gathering, be it a family gathering, be it a professional gathering, be it a political gathering, be it a religious gathering or even a social gathering for that matter. Meaning that gatherings around our various event centres, clubs (both day and night clubs) are also affected by this directive.” This clearly includes all owambes, the Yoruba parties where all the ariya (fun) in the world descends with more than enough to eat and drink. But what authority does the government in Nigeria have to tell citizens where, when and how they should converge. Again, I answered myself: “The authority of government.”

On the Friday night Governor Sanwoolu made the announcement, many church held vigils and attendance would have surpassed 50 in many. The authority of most government at all levels in Nigeria is nothing than that of an armchair critic. All motion, no action. A part of me hopes this would be different. What governments across Nigeria possess is power. With their lack of presence and impact in the lives of Nigerians, they lost their authority very long ago. The average millennial in Nigeria has not felt any active impact of government in their lifetime! The owner of the authority is the individual who has been their own government by literally providing all for which government should have been responsible. If there be any authority, such would be religious organisations who have assumed a government stature in the lives of average citizens. Today, if the governor of a state gives an order and the head of a religious body gives a contradictory one to the same average Nigerian, the directives of the religious leader would stand because that is one authority that has been there for the people when it mattered the most.

To kick coronavirus out, the people must be fully involved and properly carried along. They must be aware. Sensitisation must be topnotch. For instance, many people survive day-by-day on their income from selling on the street daily. If a day passes and they are unable to sell, that day’s meal is gone. These kinds of people must be factored into stakeholder engagement and planning as well.

There is no doubt that the Lagos state government has been a shining light in the creation of awareness and even the provision of facts ahead of fake news. The Lagos state government and the governor specifically, to a large extent, are good examples of how the electorate and elected should relate and can jolly well serve as a good example to the leader at the centre who prefers to keep malice with the people that elected him president. It baffles one that President Buhari, who has consistently failed to empathise with the governed when it mattered the most or provided timely updates on the workings of his administration, never failed to find his voice when it was campaign season. The concern here has nothing to do with eloquence. It is about giving the people a sense that in their difficult time, they are not alone. Or is our president currently under quarantine? I think not! He was recently reported to have been at an event organised by the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.

The other day, I drove through one of the inner bumpy streets of Bariga and I heard a loud conversation between three adults about coronavirus. The level of disinformation baffled me. A man likely in his late-30s said to the others, “Dem say this corona nor dey kill black man — abi you don see any African die from am?” My ears twitched.

“My brother, no mind them jare. Make dem show us the Oyinbo wey carry am come. Na fabu!” I just could not believe my ears.

“Me I no fit get am sef. No be after I don take 3 alomo. I dey here gidigba. Make corona come. Those wey carry am sef get money. Me wey never reach airport before no fit catch am.” I heard a much more educated person make the same assertion a day earlier.

I got a similar vibe when I engaged my fruits woman in a short conversation that Saturday morning. “Mama, you dey go mass tomorrow?”

“Me? Why I no go go? Why na? Even if we be one thousand for there, my God no dey sleep, e no go gree make any yeye sickness do him people.”

“Haaa!” I could not hold back my surprise. “So, those people wey corona don dey catch or kill now no get God?”

“My brother, I know my own God. I no know about them.”

More than all else, religious leaders — who are one of the most influential power blocs in the land — owe Nigeria a responsibility at this juncture to enlighten their people, while they strictly abide by the guidelines issued by government. All other socially influential leaders must also arise to extend awareness about this pandemic to the grassroots. Also, there is no better time for the National Orientation Agency to wake up from its coma.

It is a no-brainer to state that it is time for Nigeria to start actively planning for such disasters. Reading and watching the responses of other countries to this scourge makes one wonder if Nigeria has any government. Imagine the German Finance Minister, Olaf Scholz announcing that government would spend $161 billion “to ensure that the economy works with the current situation, to save as many jobs as possible and ensure social distancing but not in a way that will endanger jobs or businesses.” That sum is about five times Nigeria’s national budget for 2020. No wonder prayers have become the only alibi known to the average Nigerian. After all, God never fails — yes, even when leaders and followers live in denial so much that Governor Makinde of Oyo state to whom many had looked up for leadership, especially at a time like this, organised a political rally amid the spread of coronavirus.

Without meaning to be a sceptic and with no intention of being a prophet of doom, I foresee coronavirus having a lot of impact on our country — it is already, as talks of a recession loom, following the crash of the goose that lays Nigeria’s golden egg. It is however a chance for us to rethink our strategy as a country. We do not need coronavirus before the followership makes government accountable. We do not need coronavirus for individuals in government down to the grassroots to know that the power they hold is in trust for the people and that those same people own the yam and the knife. We do not need coronavirus for Nigerians to enjoy life at the maximum, in a society that gives wings to their dreams and not stab them, in a country that can provide them with the amenities of life, where living well is not a luxury and readiness for disasters would is defined by having only 5 coronavirus testing centres for approximately 200 million people.

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