Patching Things Up

Fixing Potholes.Credit: City of Ekurhuleni When I moved to my current neighborhood, one of the things that convinced me to take the house was the road. Oh! The road was bad but I saw that the potholes were being filled up with sand so I assumed the roads would be repaired in time. I should never have assumed that. You see, as the days went by and nothing more was done to fix the roads, I knew I had roped myself into something terrible. Then the rains came. The air became fresher and cleaner, and I was glad to be surrounded by my favorite scent: petrichor. But all of that didn’t matter when I stepped out of my house after the rains had abated and found that the top layer of the soil had been completely washed away. The revealed roads were an eyesore, with tributaries where the water tried to follow the path of least resistance and potholes that began to widen even further as more rains came. Walking on these roads became tasking; driving, an extreme sport. Cars groaned under the pressure, but there was an even bigger problem for road users. As the holes became bigger, the traffic situation around my neighborhood began to increase. Rush hour became hellish as people spent more time getting out of our neighborhood than they did on the express going into whatever part of town they wanted to go to. Flared tempers became commonplace and when someone acted a fool by refusing to stay on the line, things became even worse. One night when I was returning home from work, I saw the holes were being filled and guffawed in excitement. My elation was so great that as soon as I got to the front of my house, I quickly sent out a Tweet to celebrate the government for trying to solve this particular problem. People who lived in my neighborhood told me to tame my excitement. I thought they were being a wet blanket. I assumed – yet again – that the potholes being filled meant the roads were on their way to being repaired. In a way, it wasn’t a far fetched assumption because some roads were being worked on. I imagined my neighborhood becoming one with such good roads that commute became much easier and quicker. So I continued to celebrate the government for what I perceived was the start of something new. I would soon come crashing from my excitement because, when the holes were filled, the repairers disappeared. Turns out that was all the work they were pegged to do. Again, in spite of how many times the government had disappointed me, I still held some hope for the repair of the road.  Full rainy season came and as expected, the water washed away the filling. Then the repairers returned. After the potholes had been filled, they were gone again. I watched this cycle happen at least five more times in less than a year before I stopped being optimistic and saw the scam for what it was. The government took us fi idiats and I was the biggest clown of the lot.  A bigger problem was emerging though. Each time the potholes went through this cycle, they became bigger…or more appropriately, wider. It took me back to a conversation I had with my colleague. ‘Do you have masking tape so I can cover these spots that are opening up?’ I asked as I walked into his office with my Macbook and iPhone chargers.  The iPhone charger was already wrapped with masking tape but I noticed I needed more. The MacBook charger had just opened up that day. ‘I can give you the masking tape to wrap it up but in my experience, it is the wrong thing to do. Wrapping your charger in the hopes of preventing further openings works to achieve that exact thing you are running away from. What happens is that, the spot around the masking tape weakens, breaking the protective covering around the wire and exposing even more of it. And because you will be tempted to wrap the newly exposed parts, you perpetuate the continued destruction of the charger. I will suggest you use it like that until you can get a new charger.’  This was exactly what was happening with our roads. The quick fixes were not the solutions the government thought they were. If anything, patching things up made the situation much worse than it used to be. This is not to say that when done right, patching cannot be effective. In fact, patching (in the real sense of the word) is fixing the problem. But in Nigeria, this is not how we translate things; unfortunately. We don’t take the time to analyze the faults or even send construction teams to the site. If these are done, the government would at least be given expert opinions on what needs to be done. No. What they do is get a couple of unemployed youth in the neighborhood to fill these potholes with sand, clay or debris from construction sites – with all the dangers those pose. (It is why I have picked up nails a couples of times when driving.) And when citizens try to help, they are sometimes set upon by agents of the government who either insist it is the government’s job to fix things or ask that citizens pretend the repairs were done by the government. In all, just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, they continued to.   I wondered when this would sink into the mind of the local government chairperson who is tasked with these repairs until I realized the deliberateness of this very response. The idea that citizens deserve the best from the government is not something that occurs to many people in power. This attitude can be seen in many other aspects of governance. It is then not surprising that there is a gradual erosion of the social contract between

Poor People Work Harder…for a Whole Lot Less

Men watching from a gate.Image: The Daily Maverick I live in one of the poorer communities in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja. Like most of the communities surrounding it, Jikwoyi is a densely populated area. Because most things – accommodation, food, clothing and transportation – is much cheaper than other areas in the Federal Capital Territory, it is not unexpected that there are more people who live around these areas and places like this. One of the first things you notice about the neighborhood is that it pulses with activity and life; almost like a hive. People are always busy. Activity starts as early as 5am; earlier in fact. People who want to beat the eventual daily traffic jam leave as early as possible. And trust me…you don’t want to be in that traffic situation. So as early as 5am, you begin to see lots of cars heading out to town. Because the number of buses allocated to our part of town isn’t nearly enough to cater to the number of people in the area, many private vehicle owners pick up people as they head out to their ‘8-4’s or ‘9-5’s. It is an opportunity to make an extra N500 or N1,000; depending on the size of the car. Shop owners also begin to open up for the day’s activities. Most notable are people whose businesses are in the food sector. They may not be catering to the early birds – unless they sell things like Akara, puff puff, massa or other such fried foods – but come 9am, most of the rush to head out would have begun to slow down and people who work in the community would need to eat. And when school is in session, students pile the roads on their way to getting an education. They need to be catered to by provision store owners who sell biscuits, drinks, sweets, and other pacifiers children take these days. Or it could be to provide books, pencils and pens, or other necessities for school. Soon after, other businesses open up for the day and Jikwoyi becomes a full hub of activity. It is not hard to tell that the soul of the community is driven by work. What is surprising (to me) is that this work doesn’t seem to let up until late at night when I return home, which is usually between 8 and 9pm. In fact, if anything, it seems to pick up at night. Lights blazing, open grills, loud noises as cars jostle to pass the narrow roads, hawkers and street vendors calling out their ware and people generally conversing in louder tones because of the racket of everything else that is going on is how you would describe Jikwoyi at night. The sounds of chaos and the smells of all sorts of food mixed with putrefying drainages and gutters greet you as soon as you return to the community. Jikwoyi at night is bedlam. But it doesn’t end there. There is an active night market scene in Jikwoyi. You can buy almost anything at the Jikwoyi Market from between 6pm and 9pm when some people begin to close up shop. So if you had a craving for Ogbono soup at 7pm, you wouldn’t have to worry about satisfying your craving because, not only are there a myriad of restaurants that sell the soup, the market will be open if you are the type to want to cook yourself. I learned that many people who owned shops in the market – and the entire stretch of shops that are at the Jikwoyi junction and surrounding areas – are also those leaving the community at 5am to do their day jobs. To make this clearer, many people in this community leave for their offices in the day time and return home to their businesses to make a little extra cash before they go home at around 10pm (or later) so they can wake up again and set out for work at 5am the next day. For these people, the rat race seems a bit unending. In spite of all these, neighborhoods like Jikwoyi are home to some of the poorer people in Abuja. It is a mix of the extremely poor, people just above the red line of poverty and the aspiring middle class hoping for one move away to wealth and knowing that they could also be one move away from poverty. These types of neighborhoods are replicated everywhere in Nigeria and many parts of Africa. But it gets worse. Neighborhoods like mine are only considered ‘poorer’ neighborhoods because they are in the Federal Capital Territory and because they pale in comparison to the suburbs at the city center. In reality, there are many more neighborhoods with people living in extreme poverty than there are neighborhoods like mine. And the people in these neighborhoods have to do even more to survive. It is not hard to see that these are some of the most hardworking people in the community. They have to be up earlier and usually not by choice; they have to deal with some of the worst traffic as they leave for work; they juggle at least two jobs, with very little increase in income; they come back home through even more traffic at the end of the day; then they come home to their businesses in a quest to make even more money. In spite of all the work and time they are putting into their day jobs and night time businesses, many people in these types of neighborhoods will never get out of the poverty that they are mired in. The big question is…why? For one, the economy isn’t helpful. Inflation means that the prices of goods and services is constantly going up. This wouldn’t be so bad if salaries are increasing concurrently. But they aren’t. Which means that you have to spend more out of the steady pay you are getting. Think rent, water, electricity, feeding, healthcare, spousal and

What This Recession Means

President Muhammadu Buhari,Nigeria’s PresidentCredit: Nairametrics There is a recession in Nigeria. I am not even going to pretend that I understand all the dynamics of the current state of Nigeria nor am I going to explain what some of the economic terms I will be using are. In truth, many Nigerians do not care about or understand what all of those words mean. This piece will attempt to explain what this recession means for Nigerians in the middle and lower class demographics. I started walking on this road when this woman, let us call her Mama Success, came to my house. I have known Mama Success for close to ten years now. Mama Success barely has any formal education and is a petty trader. She is married to a mechanic and they have three children. Since I have known her, she has always been in the lower demographic, struggling daily to keep her family. She sells whatever is in season. When there is tomatoes, she sells that. If it is groundnut, that is what she sells. As at the time of this post, she was shuttling between hawking cooked corn and boiled groundnuts. I had not seen her in two, maybe three, years and when she came to my house, we spent time catching up. She had been in my place barely 30 minutes when she started complaining bitterly about the state of the economy. ‘Ramat, you know I eat corn only because it is cheap but now, even that corn is expensive oh!’ That was how she launched into her tirade. She told me that corn that she used to buy for ₦50/tier had gone up to ₦220/tier. She talked about Garri – Nigeria’s ‘food for the poor’ as many people call it – and the price increase was shocking. I listened to her moan about all manner of things and what really broke me was when she spoke of her first son. She obviously couldn’t send him to school on what she earned but somehow, a benefactor took up his education and sent him to one of the Unity Schools. Her joy was short lived when barely two years in, the government proposed an increase of about 300% on school fees, asking that parents pay ₦75,000 from what used to be ₦20,000. The benefactor announced that he could no longer pay Success’s fees and wished them well in their endeavors. Mama Success worries about her children’s education and she worries that they may end up like their father and her; illiterate, poor, unhappy. When she left my house, her complaints stayed with me. I kept thinking about her and her children and other families like them. So I decided to do some recce myself. I went to the market a couple of times to get a sense of the price of things. Here is a list of the price of a couple of things in the market. Vegetables are cheap but that may be because this is rainy reason. The list above is just so we can get a semblance of things. I used small measures and not wholesale measures so you can see how hard things are. People who have steady incomes and even basic salaries are feeling the brunt of this recession. Every additional ₦10 is something someone in the lower class feels deeply. But the thing is, it is not just people in the lower class complaining. Nigerians categorized as ‘middle class’ are unhappy too. They might not feel the bite as much as people in the lower class, but they are feeling it. This brings me to the next point; employment or the lack of it. Millions of Nigerians want to work but there are no viable jobs. Okay, let me be fair. There are jobs but in most cases, they are just not worth it. Companies across board no longer give full employment. Everyone one is toting the magical word: internship. This means that companies can’t afford to pay people commensurate salaries but since they still want their jobs done, they hire people for the barest minimum with promises of full employment after about six months. I have been to a couple of interviews where prospective employers want you to do a ₦200,000 job for nothing more than ₦50,000. And because there aren’t that many plush jobs readily available, people take these slavery internships and hope that things get better for them. I don’t even want to mention clothes and transportation because in the light of other things, they seem trivial. Anyone who has been buying fuel, paying for public transport or buying clothes knows that things are a bit more expensive than they were last year. The news is filled with companies downsizing and even salaries being slashed. This is coupled with the fact that some parastatals and state governments cannot even pay salaries. What does this all mean? This means that even with the hike in the price of things, fewer and fewer people have the purchasing power to get basic necessities. As a result, the markets aren’t as full as they used to be. I spent time talking to market men and women, okada riders and bus drivers, petty traders, hawkers, masons, tailors and small food vendors and the general feeling amongst them is ‘the country is hard.’ That Nigerians are suffering because of the policies of this government, or the lack thereof, is no longer news. What is however surprising is the government’s callous dismissal of the suffering of Nigerians. Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, said that the ‘recession in Nigeria is exaggerated’. Exaggerated? EXAGGERATED?! I want him to tell that to Mama Success as she reduces her daily meals from two to one. I want him to tell that to the okada rider who is worried about school fees for his children. I want him to tell that to the civil servant who is earning minimum wage and

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