Sunday, April 9, 2017

Askew

Walking through a village in southwest Nigeria (c) 2016 

God, you made us so strong
Intricate and complex 
Us, your work of art 
Brightest jewels in your crown
Till we started etching long lines on your face

God, you are not wrong
I am telling you what you already know
Us, your work of art
Sharpest thorns in your crown
Rulers of a sooty subspace 

God, you made us so strong 
Intricate and complex
Us, your work of art
Loudest assholes at your barbecue

We are what you made us - askew 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

no mouth, little money and lots of concealed madness



“Stop moving,” I said.

My own voice sounded strange to me. Although I meant it as a gentle whisper - a quiet plea to the man to save himself from further suffering - the wind carried it differently. It was almost like hearing an angry demagogue through a spectral speaker in a panopticon.



He winced. And then spit in my face.


30 minutes earlier


A middle-aged man in a whitewashed gray t-shirt strolled into the terminal. When he pulled out the little ticket machine, I knew he was the ticketer.


So I took two long strides toward him and dispensed a back-handed slap on his left cheek.


He swiveled twice on his right heel, the ticket machine clattering to the ground and his head swayed like it lost its life force. After a few seconds, he crumpled to the ground.


Almost to the ground, to be more accurate. Before he hit the ground, some animation returned to him and he grabbed one of the railings you’ll find all the BRT bus stops and held himself. His face is inches from the floor.


The breeze was still that morning. It was 6:40 and the traffic along Ikorodu Road had started building. A school girl in the back of an SUV looked with mouth ajar. A grown man in skin jeans and faded tee-shirt doing a slap-induced pirouette on a Monday. She’s probably only ever seen things like this in the movies.


I too. The one who had slapped the poor man was surprised. I guess I didn’t know my own strength. The hope was that this heavyset man would take it on the chin and maybe try to retaliate. Having my slap knock his senses out was the last thing I expected.


“Arrgh,” my victim grunted.


I looked at him as though he should be ashamed of himself for having such miserable sense of balance. He had ruined the purpose of this whole show.


The point was that the slap would refresh his senses - rewire his brain to understand his responsibilities and take them seriously. But right then, he was just on the floor looking at me like I just left a giant turd on his front porch.


There is a look of death in his eyes now.


And what are you going to do, I thought.


He was up on his feet in a beat and was making his arm into an arc - he was going to return the favor. I smiled then. This big hapless bag of meat was going to slap me. I must have got the hapless part wrong.


Bad idea.  


I met his arching right hand with my back of my left arm, twisted and grabbed him just under his elbow while turning the inner side of his elbow towards my right palm.


“Arrgh!” He was in pain. Wuss, I thought.

I was doing all these methodically like you would at karate training for beginners. My hope was that he’d come to his senses and stop the aggression. His chi must have marked him for very specific sufferings that morning, because he brought in his left hand into the fray.


I saw that from miles away and with the edge of my right palm, I chopped at the bicep of the charging left arm. It went limp to his side.


By now, the little crowd at the BRT stop had grown into a little human mass. A man in a navy blue suit pulled out his phone to capture this moment. His big eyes twitching behind his low-budget 5-inch Tecno phone.


Most of them seemed to have forgotten it was a weekday and that I was beating up the man who was to sell them tickets. The tickets they needed to get to work.


Even though they didn’t say it, they agreed the ticketer deserved every punch to his face. They had always hoped in their collective hearts that this day would come. Someone mad enough would confront this madness and give the system or its representative their just desserts.


He struggled to free himself and I pressed harder on his elbow. I made to smash it in from under with the bottom of my right palm - a move that would break that arm cleanly.


It would be the end of aggression from him. But what purpose would that serve? I thought. He wouldn’t sell tickets again and I would have beaten a poor man for nothing. Why teach a man a lesson without giving him a chance to apply it?


“Stop moving,” I said.


My own voice sounded strange to me to me. Although I meant it as a gentle whisper - a quiet plea to the man to save himself from further suffering - the wind carried it differently. It was almost like hearing an angry demagogue through a spectral speaker in a panopticon.


He winced. And then spit in my face.


That certainly earned him a broken arm. I drew my right palm to deliver the joint-breaking smack.  


My prefrontal cortex must have been in an overdrive. Because then I began to wonder …


What about his family? I thought. He doesn’t look like he can afford a surgery by himself. A mother would have to pay for his stupidity. It would probably mean some of his sibling staying out of school for a session.


I won’t have that misfortune on me.


I twisted his arm back and pulled his face toward me while bringing my knee forward. His nose got a good rendezvous with my right knee and his head snapped back. I made sure it wasn’t too hard. Bleeding nose meant he won’t be able to sell tickets - also bad.


I pulled him closer and patted him on the cheek - the way some doctors do in movies to check if a victim is responsive.

He was responsive.


“Sell the tickets,” I whispered into his left ear.


This time, the wind didn’t carry my voice. This time, he was more amenable, too. He nodded and picked the ticketing machine. He looked like he was in a great hurry. Who knew big fat stroppy men could hurry so much?


The good book says a fool does tomorrow, what a wise man does today.  (Or was it John Ploughman who said that?)


If only the poor man left his house two hours earlier. He would not have kept people - including a mercurial runaway martial artist - waiting at his bus stop for one hour.


I pulled out my phone and hailed a Uber. The app tells me my Uber Select was four minutes away. I waited.


New passengers stepped onto the BRT tarmac and the big blue BRT buses swallowed them in batches while they threw side glances of suppressed appreciation my way. The poor man kept glancing furtively around hoping to not attract another whopping from a glass-faced psycho.


I wouldn’t be on the BRT again that day. Too many stupid people that might awaken the beast in you.


“Resist the devil and it will flee from you.” Yes. I’m sure that’s the good book this time.

I was resisting my demons. They won’t flee. At least they’d know to relax and wait till the next time they are willfully summoned.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Don't blame the Nigerian man




The diminutive white banker next to the Nigerian man is sweating. Big, ripe lumps of liquefied anxiety. His matted hair glistens and his leather jacket lays limp on his shoulder. 

He’s from New York, he had told the Nigerian man back in the lounge. This trip to Lagos is his last before he returns home. 

After a 2 hour delay, the airbridge too had stopped working, and two FAAN officials in oversized suits had directed everyone to the foot of the aircraft. 

This was how we got here. 

Everyone looks up at the open entrance as though willing themselves to levitate to its mouth. 

It is 11 am in January and the sun maniacally lets lose its celestial heat. Against the tarred tarmac, the heat multiplied by many notches.

As an airstair made its way down the foot of the plane, towards where the Nigerian man stands - the little white banker still beside him - a scene begins to play out not unlike the ones at Oshodi bus stations on a Monday morning. 

Nigerians - men and women in native dresses now packed up so as to be unencumbered - run up the stairs. 

At the foot of the airstair, jostling arms flew every which way and truculent tongues traded curses. 

If one happened upon this scene without a context, one might be tempted to assume it’s a free plane ride to an exotic unknown place.

It would appear that everyone was not checked in, counted and assigned uncompromisable seat numbers before they got to the foot of the plane. 

The white banker invokes a wry smile and pulls out his iPhone 5. He will preserve this patent absurdity for his friends back in New York who will throw their heads back in self-righteous laughter when they see it. Like they just didn’t elect a racist wank-bucket into their White House. Like they don’t cheat on their wives and watch porn movies when they are alone in the den.
__

I’d like to tell you the Nigerian man didn’t jostle. He did. 

But don’t blame the Nigerian man. The one who has endured years of having to fight for the very air he breathes, and hearing often that the person who sucked the last air out of the room did so because she knew someone in Aso Rock. 

Don’t blame the Nigerian man. For if it weren’t for the interminable betrayal constantly visited on him by his nation, he might be less inclined to scramble. 
__

When his little white banker finally made it into the cabin, everyone including the Nigerian man yelled: “what took you so long?”




On being practical : A letter to my new atheist friend

A stilt house around Third Mainland Bridge. (c) Gbenga Onalaja, 2017. 

Hey, 

Hope you've been well? I'll get right to it. 

First. Being a Christian is not a burden. It's a perk. 

I would have been humble and kind to my neighbours anyway. It's simply more functional to cop the shine of a sovereign God while at it. (Call it brownie points if you like). 

You don't believe God exists. Indulge me, though, as I touch on this brownie point idea. 

It's bullcrap. 

God has mercies on those he will, and for those he doesn't, he doesn't. So yeah, my brownie points count for shit. 

His love and protection and all the unseeable little things he does are not based on anything I bring to the table. 

And I feel compelled to mention at this point that I am not a great Christian. Church isn't on my weekly laundry list. And I am one of the most creative dissemblers you'll meet. (And, of course, those are only the misdemeanors I can admit publicly.)

And on the long run, this Christianity might only be an opium - a numinous analgesic to relieve our existential pain. 

Maybe, like you said, we are a product of a random collocation of atoms. No heaven above or hell below.

But here's the rub: when we die, peek behind the curtain and find God isn't the force behind all the action, we would have lost nothing. I would have lost nothing.

Me you both will subsist in this new reality. None of us the better or worse off. 

But what if God really was there and planned to make good on all His promises from, say, the Bible? I don't have the answers to all your big question, but riddle me that.  

What if God exists and he is who says he is? 


Yours,

'Gbenga

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On humans and illusions of control


I am listening to a pretentious suit pontificate on how to make it in life.
"The secret to success is .... " I stop listening now.
I am thinking:
This speaker has no idea what he's talking about it - like most of us.


He's just the one brave enough to make a fool of himself. And perhaps sometimes it's all that it takes.
See, someone is paying him for this performance. He earns influence, cash or something else. There is no free cheese.
"So what's your purpose?"

"Where do you see yourself in five years?"

"What are your short and long term goals? (Meh)"
All these are questions we ask, and answer to deceive ourselves into an illusion of control. You are thinking right now about your answer, I imagine.
Newsflash: whatever you are thinking about is wrong. And you won't know that until five years from now. It's why it's all so sad.
Reality crawls up behind you like a beady-eyed uncle on a night mum and dad are absent and goes: "BOO!."
Your five-year plan makes you feel like you have your life absolutely, 100% together.
Bah.
You don't.
No one knows what they are doing. All we have is the task we got. We should be kicking ass at them and then see where they lead us.
___

90% of the jobs we now have didn't exist few years ago. So you didn't have this all planned out.
We are all led along a path willy-nilly. The universe is a passive-aggressive dictator who is repressive and liberal at the same time.


The good (or evil) we get are results of unmerited cosmic odds. To make the best of what life places on our laps is the only real choice. And that's what will make all the difference. That’s why hard work makes sense even in a plane of existence where the universe cannot the defied nor coerced.

__

Only stupid fools and dead people don't change their minds. So perhaps in five years I'll have a different view. But right now, don't ask me about my five-year plan.
I have a plan for right now. Right now, I want to publish this and go eat oatmeal.
You are in control of right now. Your actions and inactions. But not the future.
You are tired of your job. Move.
You are tired of your job but you know leaving will send your family to the streets and leave you in the throes of hunger. Give yourself brain and stick around.
Let's stop pretending like we can figure this shit out. Let's stop pretending that we have. We haven't and we won't.
You have no job controlling the future. Give God his job back.
___
Ps. You have the right to disagree with me here and I'd like you to. This brain dropping came from a long-running skepticism I carry for people who like to portray the fantasy of control. I am learning that our dreams and missions are a product of the social canvas on which our reality is painted. And that continues to expand.  When that canvas expands, our understanding of the world and the idea of what we can accomplish do the same. So every time we meet someone new, we set off a reaction that expands our social canvas and updates our dreams.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

6 years that were far worse than 2016 and why you didn’t hear about this Ebola vaccine

2016 was god-awful. 
We had: 
  • the shit show that was the US election
  • the rise of neo-nationalism
  • the death of liberalism as we know it
  • BREXIT
  • the many celebrity deaths
  • Aleppo
  • batman vs. superman
On the local front (Nigeria): 
  • your cost of living doubled while your salary remained the same (cue recession and fuel money).
So, yeah it was awful. But it really wasn’t as bad as our near-sighted social media denizens and CNN would have us believe. The year threw up some pleasant surprises, too. 
Good news doesn't appeal to their business model. So, they rammed only the gory tales of carnage and police brutality down our throats. 
2016 was the year we discovered the most effective Ebola vaccine since this lethal pathogen wreaked pure havoc in West Africa in 2013 and 2014. 
If you haven’t heard about that breakthrough, it’s not only because CNN didn’t make a splash screen out of it. It’s also probably because good news is boring. 
Our brains which have been hard-wired to look out for danger are most excited about “dangerous” stories. We pay attention and remember selectively. So, though violence has decreased continuously in the last decade, the social media has a fresh story of police brutality waiting for our primordial brains to gorge and dwell on. 
By any objective measure, 2016 was pretty awful. It isn’t the worst year yet, though. 
In fact, here are six years that are actually worse than 2016. Let’s cue in those bullet points again: 
  • 1969, Nigeria: Thousands of southern Nigerians were dying of hunger and raids at the peak of Nigeria’s 3-year civil war. More than a million Nigerians had died at the end of that war. 
  • The 1100s: The Chinese invented firearms - enabling genocidal levels of violence for centuries. Thanks, 1100s* 
  • 1918: in addition to the killing field of WWI, the influenza pandemic of September, October, and November of 1918 killed more people than AIDS has done since forever. 
  • 1945: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 1993: The Rwandan genocide. 
  • And if we are being air-headed with this worst year doohickey, how about 2013? The year of the Selfie, Selfie Stick and the Twerk. The worst. 
Was 2016 awful? Yup. Is it the worst year yet? You need to close your Twitter, get out of your echo chamber and stop watching the news. 
Happy new year.
*For this quote, thanks to Baratunde Thurston, CEO and co-founder, Cultivated Wit; author, How to Be Black

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Do it like a man

  • Or: unpopular thoughts about feminism from a cisgendered Nigerian male
I have a sister, two nieces and was raised by a strong independent mother. But when a conductor shoves me out the back door of a bus at 20mph, I am reminded that this patriarchy isn’t all rosy for the patriarchs either.
___
The bus conductor was shoving me out the back door with a gentle push. “Se bi okunrin {do it like a man},” he bellowed again, increasing the force of his palm against my back.
His driver was slowing down, but he wanted me to get off fast. That way his driver wouldn’t have to stop at the bus station. Although it didn’t make sense for him to hurry along, Lagos BRT buses have inherited this infernal predisposition from the Danfos - their black-stripes-bearing yellow-coloured commuter cousins.
I stood rooted to my spot watching buildings sweep past. 
Jumping off wasn’t a problem for me. I have perfected the art over these many years in Lagos; hang out the door with your side parallel to it, lean back like you wanted to sit on the road, then drop quickly while pulling your weight to the rear of the vehicle. The forward motion of the vehicle levels with your counter backward motion such that you don’t end up head-first into the ground. It’s a tricky rendition of Newton’s third law of motion, I think.
Back to the back door. 
I stood rooted to my spot. Not because I was afraid to jump down a BRT bus moving at 20mph, but because this conductor - with his toxic armpits and dirty boxers - was questioning my masculinity. Because I wasn’t as eager to jump off a bus as fast as he’d like, I was somehow less than a man. 
I wondered for a few foolish seconds if I should ask if he understood the sexist implications of his comment and action (of course, don’t forget he was shoving me off a bus.)
But because the feminism/patriarchy/gender roles topic is not one in which I’m well versed, I stayed quiet.
Moreover, a bus conductor listening to a righteous rant about his sexist comments - directed at a cisgendered Nigerian male - would have taken an enormous cake. It was not going to happen. And I was left nursing my stupefied silence.
On the one hand, his comment says “You are a man, do this already,” and on the other, it says implicitly; “Women can’t do this. They are fragile.” 
A good friend and employee of the month, David, wrote recently about how gender roles spill carelessly into our conversations. In his piece, “Na woman dey drive,” he sent light aspersions towards “men” (I imagine) who chalk up bad driving from women to the fact that “they are female.” Not because they had bad instructors. Not because they are good citizens trying to keep the traffic laws. But simply because “they are women.” 
David is right, gender roles (what he calls patriarchy) are systemic, and women often get the short end of the stick. And that sucks. 
What we don’t often mention, though, is what expectations this patriarchy make of men.  In a system where women are considered weak, but also to be cared for, while also chanting impassioned feminist calls-to-arms, what does patriarchy expect of the men?
I have a few from my few short years of being a man. 
You see, the system wants me to put the needs of the lady before mine. It tells me “be a gentleman” when I try to look out for myself. “Ladies first,” it adds for effect. 
The system would frown at me if I wanted to go dutch on a first date. It tells me with the now-familiar righteous indignation, “be a gentleman, pay the doggone bill.” 
The system expects me to give up my seat for the lady on the BRT and shoots me dirty looks when I don’t.
The system wants me to get the door for the woman. Pull out her seat and pay for the meal.
The system wants me to come around the back to get the car door for the lady. (While she sits smug and comfy in the passenger seat)
I don’t oft hear women carp about these perks of “just being a woman.”
We don’t oft talk about how the system segments men into categories. Aggressive. Dangerous. Brash. Harsh. What Chimamanda “incredible hair” Adichie might call “the single story of men.”
The police will stop my three other friends and me (all boys) if we drove past a check point. They consider us a threat so they stop and search. 
The system doesn’t want my friend to talk about how an Aunt molested him at age 12. It doesn’t fit the narrative of the weak, helpless female. 
The system tells me to “be a man” when a loved one dies, and I couldn’t hold back the water works.
The system doesn’t believe my friend when he tells it he was raped at 16. It tells him it’s impossible. 
The system holds its purses closer when I walk into a room. 
The system wants me to work weekend because, well, I am a man. 
Yes, at the root of all this is a system that thinks women are weak. Too weak to rob or wreck havoc on a neighborhood. Too weak to be overworked. And that’s twisted. 
I don’t discount all that women have been through to achieve the level of equality we now take for granted. I have a sister, two nieces and was raised by a strong independent mother. But when a conductor shoves me out the back door of a bus at 20mph, I am reminded that this patriarchy isn’t all rosy for the patriarchs either.
__
In a follow-up rant-ticle, I will write about “my brand of feminism.”

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Crush Reckoning


I had forgotten she was once a crush till I saw her that Christmas evening. 
Old crushes were meant to look like a bad dream having snapped out of your obsession for so long. It was different with her.
She was as beautiful as that first day I saw her in Sunday school. I'm not sure. It must have been Sunday school where her mom taught us bible stories. She attended the private school where richer families sent their kids.
She had a simple scarf on, tied loosely.
Flashes of memory flooded my consciousness like water through a broken dam. Few seconds before, I didn’t even remember she was on that notorious list of girls I kissed in my fantasies. Now there I was, recalling the day mother needed a volunteer to take festival meat to the Johnsons.
I had volunteered. A little eager now, I remember. They lived on the other end town. I remember walking into their house and forgetting I was there to deliver a festival meat. She must have known I was in love. For she also stopped in her tracks. I’m unsure if we knew what love was. But she knew I felt something our young minds couldn’t give a name. Something beautiful and bright fluttered in our stomachs. But we didn’t know they were butterflies.
She stood across the hall in her onesie, fresh out of the bath. She was the most beautiful girl to walk the face of the earth right then. Later in the day, she would wear the special festival dress all mothers made for their boys and girls.
It was hard to say “good morning.” I was stuck. And my saliva was drying in my mouth. Her dad - who played the big wooden piano for the church - finally stepped out from a side room. He saw the tray on my outstretched hands and got the signal.
“Mummy told you to bring this to us?” he asked. He collected the tray without waiting for an answer and removed the raw meat. “Tell her 'thank you' for me,” he said stuffing some money into my hand along with the now empty tray.
I wasn’t sure what happened next. Perhaps I went across the hall, stood closer and asked her to be my wife. I wasn’t sure how that would have gone down. Of course, I was too weak at the knees to find out. I’m surprised I remember these. He went back to his little electric piano, I think, and fingered the opening chords of a hymn.
Old crushes were meant to look like a bad dream having snapped out of the fantasy for so long. It was different with her. 
---