Photographs by Jeff Corey
Photographs by Jeff Corey
There but for the Grace of God go I…
I don’t know how many times I heard that phrase from my Mum as a kid growing up in Western Australia during the 1970’s, but it was a lot. It is different to Schadenfreud, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. As a child, I assumed the phrase meant I should never be smug about my personal achievements, attributes or circumstances because all it took was a twist of fate (or the cold hand of God) to take it all away.
If fate had taken a different turn, I could have been the girl who turned up to school every day in dirty clothes with nothing for lunch. Or the boy born with paralysed legs who had to walk with crutches, dragging his feet through the sand in the playground so he could hang out with his friends. Another chum, Emilio, died tragically of a brain tumour at the age of 10. We had an assembly for his Italian immigrant parents where we sang ABBA songs- he was a huge ABBA fan. I remember being upset by his horrible death and grateful I was still alive and healthy.
Western societies seem to have lost this sense of the vagaries of fate, which means sometimes we are not as kind to each other was we should be. It is almost as though we blame others for their misfortune and resent tax money paying for others’ medical care, unemployment benefits, subsidised housing or whatever.
My young cleaner here in Lagos is under no illusions about the capricious nature of fate. Last week Angie mentioned she was saving to buy herself a bed. I assumed she didn’t have a bed, which concerned me as she has some health issues that require her to at least have a decent mattress. Therefore, I showed her the spare bed we keep in our BQ (servant’s quarters) and said she could have it. Western style beds and mattresses are expensive in Nigeria and she greeted my offer with a nod and stunned silence. My husband agreed and arranged to have someone from his work move the bed to her apartment later that week.
Meanwhile, the poor girl seemed enormously stressed. Her English is not great and she struggles with my Australian accent so I didn’t know the cause of her anxiety (something about the bed) and couldn’t reassure her much. Eventually, I realised she was certain something would happen to prevent her taking ownership of the bed. Perhaps the security people at the gate wouldn’t let it leave the compound. Maybe the contractors would refuse to move the bed for her- a lowly cleaner. Or she had misunderstood us and we didn’t mean for her to have the bed at all. In fact, even when the contractors turned up to move the bed and take it to her apartment, she was still waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. I realised she simply couldn’t believe her luck and was certain something would go wrong. She has the bed now and is delighted.
On reflection, I realised Angie is no different to most Lagosians I have met during the last 2 years. Even middle class Nigerian friends live with the uncertainty that only those raised in a politically unstable, poor nation can understand. Security is an illusion that can be destroyed by an unpopular election result, the rise of a terror group or economic downturn. Callous fate rather than personal endeavour, plays a greater role in the lives of citizens in developing nations than it does for those of us born in more stable places. A personal misfortune such as injury, illness or bereavement can completely shatter any chance of a decent life, given the lack of social services. My hope for Nigeria as we head into the elections is that Nigeria’s fate will turn in a more positive direction than it has over the past year.
The news that ebola virus disease (EVD) had arrived in Nigeria made me despair for the future of this country.
The previous few months were awful. In April 200 schoolgirls from the Chibok Government Secondary School were kidnapped and two bombs killed 88 people and injured over 200 at the Nyonya Motor park bus station near Abuja. An explosion in the Apapa area of Lagos was rumoured to be the work of a suicide bomber. Trips to the shopping mall now involved having the car checked for incendiary devices- a routine we’d previously undergone only when visiting the premier hotels.
Bad as they seemed, these were innocent days for Lagosians.
On July 20, Liberian/American national Patrick Sawyer flew into Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. He was suffering from ebola virus disease (EVD). Sawyer later died in the First Consultants Medical Centre in Obalende, Lagos.
Sawyer told the medical team on duty he had malaria but hospital staff became suspicious he had EVD when 2 tests for malaria proved negative. When told he may have EVD, Sawyer became agitated and attempted to leave the hospital. Several hospital staff were infected after treating Sawyer and restraining him. A fifty year old nurse died days after treating Sawyer and more were to follow, Including senior endocrinologist Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh.
We braced ourselves for the worst, knowing that if EVD reached the general population the chances of containing the disease was remote. Thankfully, the worst didn’t eventuate.
At present the total number of deaths from EVD in Nigeria is 7 (5 in Lagos, 2 in Port Harcourt). 12 people have survived the infection and 350 contacts under medical surveillance have been discharged. 16 people will remain under surveillance until the 21day incubation period has passed. The Federal government has approved the re-opening of schools for the 22 September although this is being resisted by the Lagos state educational authorities. As of today, no active cases of EVD are being treated in Nigeria. We feel relieved but remain vigilant.
Jeff and I have had some adventures resulting from the presence of EVD in Lagos. On July 31 we flew out of Lagos for Namibia to go on Safari. We would also be visiting Botswana and Zambia. We boarded our flight to Johannesburg with no issues and spent a pleasant day in the city shopping at a mall in the east of the city. Given that we live in Lagos, we were mildly amused at the constant reassurances we would be “safe” in the hotel and with our driver.
The next day we boarded our flight to Namibia and sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour while the airline staff quizzed a young Namibian man about his recent travels through several African nations. None of the nations were affected by EVD. Eventually the passenger was discovered to have swelling and a rash on his arms. He explained he had an allergy to iodine and had unwittingly eaten fish. This explanation wasn’t accepted and he was re-located to an empty row behind me and Jeff and made to wear a face mask. The pilot announced a passenger was being “isolated” because he had “flu virus”. No one was fooled.
Jeff and I heard the exchange between the passenger and the flight attendant so were confident he didn’t have EVD. He had no other symptoms and his red rash, which we could see, was nothing like the haemorrhages caused by the disease. We were held on the tarmac in Namibia for 4 hours while a special infectious diseases unit was assembled.
The atmosphere on the plane where we were sitting turned hostile and one passenger was threatened with prosecution after taking photographs of the young man in “isolation”. He handled the situation with dignity and resisted frothing at the mouth and coughing on people (Jeff assured me this is what he would have done! I believe him).
The doctors arrived in full hazmat suits (I’d have been disappointed if they hadn’t) and quickly determined the young man didn’t have EVD. In fact, the only people they were excited about were me and Jeff because we’d come from Lagos. After some persuasion, they let us disembark.
Over the next 2 weeks of our holiday the situation in Lagos became alarming as more people succumbed to EVD. Jeff and I weren’t concerned about catching the disease. More worrying was the news Cameroon had closed its borders with Nigeria and suspended all flights. If we returned to Nigeria and other nations followed Cameroon’s example, we may not be able to leave Nigeria for an indeterminate period of time. We had to make a decision about whether to return and risk being stranded if things got worse.
In the end, we didn’t hesitate more than a few minutes. Nigeria is our adopted home. Jeff has work commitments and sometimes we have to accept the expatriate life isn’t without risk.
Shortly after returning to Lagos, we discovered some of the countries we visited on safari had suspended flights from Nigeria, which would’ve meant no holiday for us.
We’ve become accustomed to having our temperature tested multiple times a day, depending on where we go. Dettol wipes accompany us everywhere but we haven’t changed our lifestyle as a result of EVD.
Although it’s early days, Nigerians have proven they can work together and rise to meet a crisis. Perhaps we can feel some optimism for the future of Nigeria.
How do you feel about the success of global efforts to fight ebola virus disease?
Angie wistfully refers to any wealthy country outside Africa as “the other side”. I want to go to the other side, so I can see what it is like, she says to me as she irons while watching Bondi Vet. I love this expression and the manner in which it captures her sense of wonder about other nations and their inhabitants. I feel the same way about Nigeria. To me, Nigeria is also the other side, a country so different to my native Australia I can never hope to understand it.
I don’t really live in Lagos, Nigeria. Living in a secure apartment complex on Ikoyi is a different experience to that lived by the other 20 million inhabitants of this bewildering city. We can’t visit the mainland without a police escort so our experience of Lagos is limited to torturous trips to the airport past shanty towns built on the lagoons, vertical markets piled with goods and decaying hotels. And people. People everywhere. I have never seen anything like the mass of humanity thronging the streets in Lagos.
To learn more about this complex country I skim Nigerian newspapers. My preferred read is Punch, written in the quirky Nigerian style where one word can’t be used if the writer knows another 20. My favourite Nigerian-ism which I intend to drop frequently into conversation this week is, Many questions continue to poke the mouth… It’s gloriously reminiscent of my younger sister who when trying not to blurt out an inconvenient question, would contort her mouth with the effort of suppression.
The Nigeria news app on my ipad includes 46 national newspapers with up to date coverage of the major stories. Much of the reporting is unintentionally amusing. Punch describes the antics of a gang of robbers, who before robbing an apartment complex sent letters to all the residents advising them of the impending robbery so they would be sure to have cash ready. Understandably, the residents were upset by the cheekiness of the robbers and the lack of police concern.
Changing social customs are also discussed. An article by a female columnist deals with the issue, Polygamy – is it really wrong? and invites reader input. The situation described by the columnist was that recognised by women everywhere- a wife discovering a younger “other woman” and not “polygamy” as it was once commonly practised throughout the country. Like a lot of readers, I thought it was a bit rich excusing everyday adultery as “polygamy”. Polygamy is still a feature of social life in Nigeria but Christianity and the acceptance of romantic love as the basis for marriage is changing its acceptability.
The most disturbing article concerned that of the “home help”- Home help- necessary evil or evil necessity? I read this article with interest as we employ a “home help” who comes two mornings a week to shame me into doing some housework.
My concept of “home help” is, it appears, completely wrong. In Nigeria a home help is a young, impoverished girl or boy taken into a home as a servant. It was unclear from the article if these young people work for their keep, or if they are paid. This issue was in the news as a result of recent court cases where home helps had reacted to abuse by killing their employer.
Most commentators condemned the system of servitude endured by home helps who “should be in school”. Many male commentators asserted that home helps would not be necessary if husbands helped their wives with housework and childcare. In the absence of a social security system young, poor and uneducated Nigerians have few options besides hoping for kindness in a family of strangers.
My morning read would not be complete without an incongruous breaking news alert. Today it was Justin Bieber facing assault and dangerous driving charges, listed below the ebola update. Why do Nigerians care about the Beeb’s rush to ignominy? Don’t Nigerians have enough to worry about?
It is indeed a question that pokes the mouth….
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