Monday, April 6, 2020 10:30 am
By Lasisi Olagunju
Everyone, worldwide, is scared and helpless. An American comedian tweeted two weeks ago that “a lot of people are fleeing to (their) childhood mansions.” Christian kids and their parents are not talking about Easter – which is one week away. Conversations in Muslim circles are not about congregation prayers or Ramadan or Umrah or Hajj. They are about how to stay safe by staying at home. Flowing river that forgets its source will die. Suddenly we now realize we have hometowns and that there is no place like home. My Lagos friends viewed the hinterland with condescending snobbery. Nothing would ever take them out of the rich existence of Lagos, they vowed. The one who left the village a year ago saw himself no longer an ara oke; he had become a Lagosian, clean and polished unlike the yokel at home who lacks the poise of finesse. The raging coughs and virulent sneezes of coronavirus and a crippling lockdown have changed all that. At least for now, Lagos has lost its allure – even London has lost its appeal. My scared friends are back home, counting the days, waiting for the plague to self-limit and disappear.
Home, in reality and in metaphor, connotes source, comfort and security. Oyekan Owomoyela, late professor of African Literatures at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of ‘A ki i: Yoruba Proscriptive and Prescriptive Proverbs’, says the flowing river must always connect with its source, “however far it might flow, otherwise it dies.” T.S. Eliot says home is “where one starts from.” Williams Bennett defines it as “a shelter from storms – all sorts of storms.” Everyone, including the homeless, now remembers there is a home to roost, and escape to, from the ravages of COVID-19 which has redefined everybody’s concept of living. The disruptive storm of the plague has upended global and personal stability: Farmers are scared of their farms; wayfarers are wary of ways. Bankers work without banking; cashiers are afraid of touching cash. Food markets stink of rotten potatoes; spoilt tomatoes and unbought onions litter abandoned stalls. Schools are closed; courts are shut; parliaments adjourn sine die; presidents change office; ministers avoid ministries; everyone works from home — for security of their lives.
From one end of Nigeria to another, everyone sits still at home. For the rich and the poor, there are no wedding ceremonies, no child christening parties, no funerals. First time in 21 years, all the 36 governors are at home, foreign investors they woo every year abroad are no longer available; they are also staying safe, in their homes. Even our president is at home because coronavirus has suspended all summits, conferences, meetings and personal appointments. In the final analysis, we now realize that nothing really matters but life. And in protection of that life, everyone, including home haters, is told that the safest place to stay and play is home. If a man knows where he would spend his eternity, he would definitely make the place a paradise.
About 18 years ago, I interviewed Prince Tunde Ponnle of MicCom fame and asked him why he was sinking millions into building a hotel with a golf course in Ada, his hometown. “Do you sincerely think this will be profitable?” I asked him. He responded that his son had asked him same question. But, he said, if you have the resources to develop your home and you refuse to go there and do it, when you die, your corpse will be taken to that bush for burial. That was my takeaway from that interview; and I refuse to forget it, and I won’t, forever. Politicians, civilian and military, whimsically ran down the health of Nigeria. Their sword wantonly ate into its sheath and wouldn’t agree that what it was destroying was its home. Healthcare facilities here were left to rot because the elite thought they were for the poor and the dispossessed. And the hospitals truly slid into a coma; even the clinic in the Villa lacked paracetamol. The elite went to London to treat ear infections, change their eyeglasses and brush their teeth. They never thought a day would come when an ordinary virus would block their escape flights to Heathrow and John F. Kennedy and Boston Logan airports and to India. Today, the sick Nigerian elite is stranded. The jets are not flying, the planes are not landing- everywhere is dead; everyone is on ground zero. Those outside are back home, eating the stale pounded yam prepared by the COVID-19 war.
The Yoruba say the ‘outside’ has a way of chasing a child back home. Some thirty years ago during my youth service in Sokoto, I met an Ondo man who wondered why anyone would ask him to go back home. He said everything he lacked at home, including a wife, the outside had given him. Months later, his disappearance from my radar led me to know that he suffered an acid attack on his private parts and had gone back to Ondo, his hometown. When all else fails, one’s home is the fortress to run into. Ask the Americans, the French and the British why they scrambled to be evacuated home from a Nigeria that is not recording COVID-19 deaths like their countries. I have a friend who won’t go home before 10pm every day. “What will I be doing there at dusk?” He would insist he must play his squash and chill with friends, then go home to sleep. Now, for him and his ilk, the cities are no longer safe; recreation clubs and golf courses are shut. They have to close doors and shutter windows so that the ‘omnipotent’ coronavirus would not destroy their mirth and joy with its shaft of death. Night crawlers, including my friend, now know there is a lot to do at home.
The current huge displacements all over the world must have taught all of us a lesson in how to build a home and not be lost to the fleeting glitter of the world outside. We must have known now that he is poor and lost who has abandoned his home. Karin Barber, in her ‘I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oríkì in a Yoruba Town,’ speaks to this with a Yoruba saying: “Mo l’ówó, mo l’énìyàn, kí ló tún kù tí mi ò tíì ní? (I have money, I have people, what else is there that I have not got?).” Money and fame are what you gain outside but they are never enough to get a man sheltered. People and a home are armour-plates of life. That is why in this season of viral deaths, everyone appears to agree with the World Health Organization (WHO) that ‘home’ is the place of return and rest and safety. This COVID-19 disaster will soon go with the winds and we will have our lives back. The lesson in this must not be lost to the joy of impending victory over this invisible enemy. If you have a village, a town, a city and a country that sired you, do not wait for the next war before working to make them work. They are your bunker against the next war.