|Babs Ajayi||Tuesday, March 1, 2005|
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
ANNOUNCE THIS ARTICLE TO YOUR FRIENDS
A STRANGE AND FACINATING NATION:
MY EARLY YEARS IN NIGERIA (IV)
agos is never in short supply of images, acts, sudden but strange dramas, and action packed events. It may be a street fight, an insult/abuse-throwing competition, street thuggery, a theft that overwhelmed and shocked everyone, a failed burglary where the city woke up to find the robbers with brooms in hand sweeping endlessly! Music is blared from speakers placed in front of record stores. "Sunny Alade ti de", comes the popular song from the African Beat great, King Sunny Ade, "Inter Reformers, Inter Reformers, Inter Reformers a tun de" by Ebenezer Fabiyi Obey or Kayode Fasola and the Music Maker's "Ranti omo eni ti won se". At the Mushin Bus Stop, it is always Ayinla Omowura, Epo Akara or Aruna Ishola. Tinubu presents a mixture of tunes. "She go say a be lady" from Fela Anikulapo Kuti, "Aruna Ishola gbere titun de, eyin somori onifaji", I. K. dairo's "Mo sori re o, eledami modupe o", Obey's "Atun gboro agba de o, e teti egbo", "If you see Mammy water o" by Victor Uwaifo, "Oni dodo, oni moin moin, "Yellow fever nko, e de", "If marry taxi driver", and Tunde Nightingale's "Awa la nita Kose.
Music was central to Lagos life and as such many musicians busted into the scene in Lagos. Odion Iruoje discovered many more and brought them to lime light. Ayinde Bakare, Bobby Benson, I. K. Dairo, Tunde Nightingale, Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago, Kayode Fashola and the Music Makers and a few others were in the forefront and front runners of Juju Music. The Oriental Brothers, Jim Rex Lawson, Eddy Okonta, Osita Osadele were also legends and old greats Then came Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade, Dele Abiodun, Prince Adekunle, the Apola King, Idowu Animashaun, and many others. Radio Nigeria and RN2 in particular brought so much joy. Benson Idonije, Jacob Akinyemi Johnson (JOJ) and many of the deejays and duty continuity announcers at the stations made so many contributions to life and culture in Lagos than they ever get credit for. Martin Street Special and Gandle Street were very popular with the young and old, and many aspiring artists cut their teeth at RN2.
The muslim fasting period is a special month of fun, fasting and foodfest. The fun driven to feverish frenzy by the various Ajiwere groups with the small drums which was later to become quite popular and the star instrument of Fuji music, the new height Were achieved with time. Sikiru Ayinde Barrister started as an Ajiwere. The Ajiwere rouses everyone up to prepare for the day's fasting. In the early hours of the morning the streets are busy with food vendors and the kitchens are bubbling with women, wives and sisters making food; pounding yam and getting the fasting feast ready. It was always heavy eating and endless drinking, always a feast before the fast. The fasting season is when you know people in Lagos eat a lot and feed well. Once the feasts are over people return to their frontages to be entertained by the Ajiwere, bating on that popular fuji tap drum. The crowds are ever present to enjoy the music and will continue to do so until the day breaks. The Were music had since gone a step further to become Fuji music with Ayinde Barrister and Alhaji Kollington Ayinla and a few front runners pushing into national reckoning and consciousness.
Growing up in Lagos, you are free and safe. You fear nothing and only think about where to go to get your fun and to play, you let your parents think about the rest, including where your next meal will come from. Sometimes we walk from the Police field at the Obalende Police Barrack to the football field on Princess Street. Campus Square was not my favourite destination because of the good number of hoodlums, rough guys and the awful smell of igbo, Indian hemp. Growing up in Lagos you quickly know and recognize the smell of Indian hemp in your early teens. Good parenting and the regular drumming of the phrase-song, "Ranti omo eni ti iwo se" (remember the son of whom you are) helped me in defining my purpose, choosing my crowd and friends, and where I go. I have limits - and they were well spelt out - and never overstep my bounds, at least not much.
I was a meat pie freak and would walk quite often to the Old Kingsway Stores (my favourite) or Leventis Stores those days to buy meat pie or just to window shop and play. Both departmental stores were very attractive. The escalators at Kingsway Stores and Leventis Stores provided great side attraction. Both stores also used to host the best Father Xmas shows and parties for children those days. Your Christmas is not complete until you've visited the Father Xmas at either Kingsway Stores or Leventis Stores. After a visit to the Father Xmas, then you want to visit the Bar Beach to relax and to play, swim and get wet and dirty. Always packed full around festivities, the Bar Beach used to be very clean and wonderful. Seats and tables are well arranged and there were no area boys to disturb you or steal from you. Only the white garment churches and their members make the beach their own and suffocate everyone around. Of course, the ocean and the beach fronts were then still good friends and the one never eat the other or chip away so badly at it. Today, the beach is thinning away and millions of naira and dollars is being stolen in the corrupt quest to push the ocean back. Only bank accounts are stuffed while remedy is far away from the beach as the ocean surge moves closer to the road, wiping out the beach front.
The Federal Palace Hotel (FPH) was truly prestigious then with its special Christmas festivities and surge of the middle class to its special programmes. Several children's parties, dances and shows are what make the Federal Palace Hotel thick and inviting for children and young folks. The family friendly strategy of the FPH kept us all coming and our parents spending. This was before the middle class was successfully wiped out by the mad and illiterate soldiers who stole the nation and kept her middle class and intelligentsia bound, her elite chained and her media gagged. Men in uniform who have not seen the inside of senior high school were going to run a nation! The degeneration kicked in in the mid seventies.
My first job was at the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing. I obtained my letter of appointment from the Glover Street Office in Ikoyi, Lagos and reported to the Stores Department, which was then located at LEGECO on Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island. It was at LEGECO I first saw corruption in the civil service first hand. I remember what I used to hear my father say about avoiding bribery and corruption but never experienced it until joined the Stores Section at the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing. Because of my good school certificate result, I was placed on placed on level 4 or was it 5. I did not know what was going on being a greenhorn. I did not even realize I was being watched and studied by the inner clique at the section. Fresh from high school and still weight down by the untimely death of my father during my school certificate examination, I was withdrawn and melancholy. But with time I started to see things that really scare me. Inventories are never what they are said to be. What is written down in the books never matches what is on ground in the stores! When contractors come to deliver products to the stores, the quality and quantity of the items never jell. I made sure I never took any delivery and kept my distance from such duties. I have had previous contacts with the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing in Ibadan at the well laid-out Government Reservation Area in Iyaganku. The staff of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing used to come regularly to our quarters with the intent of replacing our fridge, cooker or something, but always meets stiff opposition from my father.
"Good afternoon sir"
"Good afternoon dear. Any new development?"
"We are here to replace your cooker sir"
"Why do you want to replace the cooker? It was only replaced about 18 months ago!"
"That is why we want to replace it sir. We have just taken delivery of new cookers"
"Young man we are still adjusting to this new cooker and you cannot take it. Tell Mr. O that I said we do not want the new fridge"
"But sir, the instruction was to bring the old one back and install the new one", the young man already getting agitated.
"Go back to the store and tell them that I said no. How many times do you want to change cookers in 2 years? Please leave right now", my father is already getting impatient with the men. With great reluctance the men walked out of our house and drove off in their lorry.
Later Mr. O called our house and fruitlessly tried to convince my father to allow the men to bring the fridge. Mr. O only succeeded in infuriating him. My father's feeling of disgust and irritation grew. At every such point of irritation there will be lecture for us, the older children. He told us what those people are doing is wasting and stealing government's money by awarding needless contracts and using it to steal from government's coffers.
It was these prior experiences that made me very sensitive to corruption in government. I have heard and seen so much at the GRA in Iyagabku, Ibadan. When stock is taken at my then LEGECO office, it is with surreal grim. The store officer will avoid being involved. I think this is for three reasons: he already knew the quantity and quality of the product being counted, he makes the inventory fall on a Friday when he has a ready excuse of being away for Jumat Service, and finally, because he loves to drop the monkey and push the blame on others. Every stock taking exercise is a process of grand deception. Everyone in the store knew where 2,000 bags of cement is in the book only about 400 will be visible. For 25,000 building blocks in the book there is only some 6,000 blocks arranged broadly on the ground to make them look more than they really are! I used to make very crooked jokes and laugh loudly sometimes among my peers about the deception the office was soaked in. When we go for lunch most of the staff members who earn far less than I earn spend four, five times more on meal than I do while those who earn a little more and are on grade levels six, seven or eight ordered goat meat, cow tail, fish, cow tongue, bush meat, and some beer to wash their meals down. On a meal at a time when the average salary in the civil service was about N300 for a junior officer, these men would spend between 50 and 80 naira.
Some mornings our superintendent will arrive LEGECO without his car. I used to think maybe he took public transport but from the long caftan he liked so much and his matching cap, I often wonder if indeed he takes public transport. One day, however, I saw Oga parking a Mercedes Benz car at the Texaco Petrol Station about a mile and half away from the house, close to the Institute of Oceanography. On another day, I overheard the messenger telling the cleaner that he is going to bring something from Oga's car at the petrol station. The cleaner, an old lady in her late fifties asked the bald-headed cleaner, which of the cars Oga brought. The cleaner responded that the boss told him he brought Toyota Crown! The gossips around the office were also rife with stories of the great wealth of the grade level 9 superintendent and of his several houses in Lagos and in his village.
I quickly got tired of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing within months and was anxious to move on with my life, far away from the corruption and deceit at the stores section of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing. When I secured admission and told the men that I was leaving, they were all surprised.
"Why are you going to school?" the store officer asked me.
I was taken aback by his strange question and I wonder to myself why else people go to school.
"I want to earn a degree", I finally replied.
"And then what?" he asked.
"What else? Get a job?" I thundered.
"You see what I mean!" he responded triumphantly, adding, "after school, then you need a job and you'll want to come back here!"
"I have no plans to return to the store department"
"Shio! O le la, ole rowo he! (Meaning, you can't make it and you can't find money on the ground). You don't know what you are saying, young boy" his voice rising.
I was not bothered by what they all said and so left for the advanced level programme. I return to Lagos to spend my vacation and to do some vacation job. Vacation jobs were still available, but you have to know the right people and have the right connections.
To be continued