Dambudzo Marechera, the Zimbabwean writer whom the Bard of Isara referenced as being “bohemian in temperament”, is long dead and buried. But his House of Hunger, tempting and arresting in its poetic quality and representation of squalor and utter chaos, is, as a character said in the English poet T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, “not worth forgetting.” Marechera, the rascal from Zimbabwe whose waywardness easily outclassed anything Nigeria’s Ayinla Omowura, the late apala maestro could ever dare to come up with—Marechera hauled plates at people during an award ceremony– does not call up images of Nigeria’s current “mad man singer” (by self-description), Habeeb Okikiola, alias Portable, the Zazu exponent. Marechera was an actual genius; he was insanely talented and his art was world class. He is the writer that comes to mind this week as I ponder the poverty, squalor and degradation in which vast populations of Nigerians remain trapped.
Nigeria under President Muhammadu Buhari is the global capital of poverty, a verdict that is not surprising given that Nigeria is also one of the three most terrorized countries of the world, the global capital of open defecation and out-of-school- children, and the country with the world’s worst electricity access. Surely no indictment can be more severe. Nigeria has become a house of hunger in very literal terms and I wonder why 2023 should be an invitation to greater hunger.
Hunger—and I mean the raw flesh of hunger—stalks the land with greater ferocity than the “murderers’ hand lurking in the shadows” which in Oswald Mtshalli’s Nightfall in Soweto “strikes down the helpless victim.” With only 16 out of Nigeria’s 36 state governments paying the N30,000 minimum wage signed into law in 2019, it’s a no-brainer that millions of households are in the firm grip of despair. When hunger enters the stomach, say the Yoruba, no other matter finds its way in, which is why the people pray that we may have a hand to take to the mouth. In Ikorodu, Lagos State where this writer is from, it is customary to pray for people to be able to “find money in the middle of money” (m’owo naarin owo),but we all know that it is only people like the politicians in agbada, killer herders fed to bursting by terrified families, the religious charlatans called G.Os, ritual killers and the irredeemably corrupt oil (wo)men pick currency notes amidst currency notes and purchase jewellery with sums that can conveniently feed entire clans. Indeed it seems that to actually “m’owo naarin owo,” you have to be involved in fraud of some kind, like the Nollywood whore who claims to have bought two Range Rovers in one month by selling amala in Lekki when those who have been selling amala before her mother was born and are better known across the length and breadth of town can hardly afford the 1999 Toyota Camry.
In its report titled 2022 Nigeria Poverty Assessment, the World Bank said in March that the number of poor Nigerians is projected to hit 95.1 million this year. Indeed, appalled by the trouble in the land, the Edo State chapter of the Coalition of Registered Political Parties (CRPP) recently raised the alarm over the plight of the masses toiling under excruciating economic conditions. Per its chairman, Dr. Samson Isibor: “The unemployment market is over 70 million. Insecurity is becoming a daily occurrence, killer herdsmen are everywhere in our forests and we cannot travel anyhow, anywhere because the fear of herdsmen and kidnappers is the beginning of wisdom. Our farmers cannot assess their farm, which is leading to high cost of food.” Isibor asked the state governor to sign the anti-grazing bill into law and ban the various unions inflating the cost of food and services.
In my area of residence, I am told, street girls in agro (desperation) can be had for just N500. These days if there are 20 people by an ATM, only about five may be collecting anything beyond N5,000. Educated people in suits are surviving office hours on roast corn, and as a matter of fact somebody I know recently had to park his car somewhere on the way home on account of exhausted fuel. Across the land, millions of girls have been reduced to a morsel of bread, opening themselves up to a festival of diseases for a pittance, and merely scratching the surface of existence. Young men embrace crime with gusto. Shopping malls where previously we only picked up electronics or basics like toothpaste have become brothels in broad daylight. The prostitution bed is the bare floor behind the cars parked by owners still selecting their needs.
Just how does a man feel when to eat he takes out a loan from shylock banks because his wages have been on holiday for five months? The town is hard. And let’s not pretend that the deprivation in the land has not reached columnists, one of whom recently, for the first time in many years of married life, learnt that the customary 12kg gas cylinder could be half-filled. Amidst the chaos of struggle, an individual sent a picture of herself detained in a hospital bed for failing to pay a N9,000 balance following appendicitis surgery, and saying that a former intern had suggested contact. As there was N8,000 left in some account, this writer forwarded it hoping that she would be allowed to go home and praying for the quickest of recoveries. Alas, it was all scam: the picture sent was actually that of a Nigerian girl trafficked to Russia for prostitution and rescued by an NGO. You can look up the story on naijagists.com. This incident actually closed a chapter opened many decades ago of giving audience to total strangers. Writers own no mint.
And now to the point of this intervention: there’s terrible hunger now, but worse is in the offing if this land is not restructured and returned to its First Republic ways. As per 2023, there’s a real prospect of eating lemon grass unless Nigerians choose wisely. The politicians are sounding very philosophical now, just like Dwight D. Eisenhower sounded when he spoke about humanity’s misplaced priorities: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” But it’s all artifice. The contenders intend to win elections by distributing huge sums to traditional rulers, opinion moulders and other big people. The money will be enough to see these lucky ones through the next eight years of torture. As for the masses, they will only get N5,000-N10,000, and then they will eat grass.
“I couldn’t have stayed in the House of Hunger where every morsel of sanity was snatched from you the way some kinds of birds snatch food from the very mouths of babes,” the protagonist in House of Hunger says. Why should Nigerians?
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