By Chris Anyokwu
They call him Ben. Others prefer to call him Bernard. Sometimes people who feign and affect chummy familiarity, call him Benedict. Even so, a lot of folk shout Benjamin or Benjy whenever they see him. Yet nobody knows him, nobody knows his name. Not even his close friends, his neighbours or associates and colleagues at work. Everybody only knows the diminutive form “Ben”, and, hence, neighbourhood children love to create an endless variety of songs for him using his name, “Ben”.
Thus as they espy him approaching the yard in their derelict and ghettoized neighbourhood, the mischievous tiny-tots would begin to chant and intone: “Ben low, Ben low, Ben low, Ben low and see what Naija’s done.. Ben low… Ben low… and see what Naija’s done”. Utterly fagged out after the long trek from the bus stop coupled with the toll that the wear-and-tear of the day’s drudgery has taken on him, he is always too dispirited to rouse any ghost of anger at the badgering lot. He would let them have their heart’s content of fun at his expense. His own children, at any rate, have always complained about this unacceptable behaviour by the foul-mouthed kids of the ’hood. But Ben has always counselled them to let it slide, saying “children will always be children”. If anything, he knows deep down he has bigger fish to fry, he has more complex and complicated issues on his plate. So childish freestyling with his name is the least of his concerns, he often muses to himself.
Every day he rises with the first crowing of the cockerels, races through the pre-dawn ritual of Quiet Time with his sleep-inebriated family, has his bath and hurries off to work, just before dawn. On the bus, he with other passengers is parboiled by the heat and humidity in the “mobile coffin”, shuffering and shmiling. He gets to the Secretariat, his workplace, after a three-hour traffic ordeal to begin the day’s work: a potpourri of menial office work consisting mainly of errand-running, conveying of files from one department to the other and re-enacting the collective dirge on the “Problem” called Nigeria. It is a nine-to-five daily ordeal people call “office work” in these parts.
To augment his meagre salary, Ben functions on the sly/side as a kabu-kabu cabbie. Every night between 6 pm and 10 pm, he operates his rickety jalopy within the metropolis, helping in ferrying to their various destinations, commuters stranded at various bus stops owing to unavailable buses. Ben loves to recall his encounter with Mr Smart, a compatriot who had just returned from abroad. Ben had given Mr Smart a ride from the airport and as their journey through town commenced, the usual small-talk between driver and passenger began:
“See una road! Ah-ah! Is there any government in this country?”, Mr Smart lamented, scanning the view through the half-wound-up windows. “Oga, na so we see am o. Nothing works here”, Ben said, wrestling with the steering wheel as the crater-ridden road threw the car hither and thither. “Just look at the city! Can one even call this a city? See, everywhere is in darkness. No electricity!”, the returnee hissed, completely nonplussed. “Oga, dat one na small tin.
Let’s just pray we don’t run into those bad boys.” “Bad boys?”, asked the flustered passenger. “Yes – o.Traffic robbers”, Ben clarified in the resigned tone of the condemned. “Oh, if not for this burial, if not for my late father’s burial, wetin go bring me come this hell?”, Mr Smart revealed, drying his streaming face with a handkerchief. “Ah, Oga, sorry – o.your papa die?”, Ben commiserated.
“Yeah. It’s been nearly six months now. We want to do the final funeral rites. He was a Chief. You know, our people value burials more than they do births”.
“Oga, it’s time – o. I don’t know why”.
“Why not, if you manage to live to full old age; if this cursed country does not shorten your life, why not celebrate it at death?”
“You have a point there, sir”, Ben concurred.
“Let me tell you, Mr …”
“Call me Ben, sir”
“Yeah, Mr Ben. Let me tell you. Have you been to Europe before?”
“Ah, who dash monkey banana? Na here I dey – o, since dem born me.Abroad, ke?”
“No worries, pal. Compared to Nigeria, Europe is Heaven. Let me tell you, you guys are not living at all; you are barely existing. No roads, no water, no light, no recreational facilities, no food, no nothing! And yet when your rulers have a cough, or a common headache – which they f-king deserve – they run off to Europe for treatment. Can you beat that? They know what is good but they will NEVER do it! Listen, Mr Ben, let me tell you something. Are you up to sixty?”
“Ah, sixty ke, noo o! I’m still a young man of fifty-one”.
“Oh, it’s cool. Sixty-year-olds and above don’t do jack abroad. The government pays them weekly stipends. They enjoy everything free of charge, including medical care and transportation. When ill, an ambulance is a phone call away. In minutes! The idea is that, you have given to the country, it is the country’s turn to take care of you until you breathe your last. Even children yet unborn, their future has been taken care of. The social safety net is always in place, man”, Mr Smart said.
While Mr Smart was talking, Ben reflected on his lot in life. He and his family live in what is called “a room-and-parlour self-contained”. Each time he looks at his four children, he wonders how he is going to support them. And to make matters worse, his wife is expectant again. He is, however, forever grateful to his wife for the car. After the burial of his father-in-law, the elders had given Grace, his wife, her late father’s car as her own share of the inheritance. Grace had promptly given the car to her husband, encouraging him to use it as an additional stream of income. She herself is a full-time housewife, holding fort in terms of household chores and the kids’ homework and sundry assignments.
Not long afterwards, Ben was able to purchase a generating set for domestic use. With the money made from the kabu-kabu business, he is able to buy drinking water, i.e., bags of “pure water”, pay the monthly house rent, pay cable TV subscription, among others. Ben’s biggest headache, however, is the ever-rising inflationary trend in the city which impacts negatively on transport fares, the prices of foodstuffs, phone recharge cards, cable-TV subscription fees, electricity bills, kerosene or gas prices, household items such as toothpaste, soaps, body lotions, tea-things and even akara and akamu, etc.
Recently when schools reopened, his children were locked out of their school premises because of their inability to pay school fees. Besides, Ben’s car has been out of order and, hence, abandoned for the time being due to a lack of money to repair it. Also, his salary, which was recently increased, thanks to the New Minimum Wage, cannot cater for the competing needs of the family. For as soon as the news broke that the government had increased the take-home pay of workers, the economy had gone into a tail-spin. Market forces went into overdrive as commodity prices hit the roof, making household items unaffordable for the average salary-earner. You cannot afford even an adana of rice or beans. Garri, Nigeria’s staple food, is now simply out of reach for the poor masses. Poultry and dairy products have always been the preserve of the well-heeled who can afford to go for either the imported products (frozen chicken or turkey, or home-grown alternatives (agric fowls) produced in a matter of days from egg to full maturity. The health implications of consuming these products, either the imported or the local variety are better imagined than experienced.
For Ben, whenever he passes in front of plazas and shops, he simply feeds his famished eyes and salivates wistfully. Not for him the good things of life and life’s little extras: the gleaming plane flying overhead, the slick car cruising around the place, the trendy and chic fashion, wrist-watches and men’s cologne, body lotions and deodorants. He sees fast-food joints such as KFC, Chicken Republic, Sweet Sensation, Tantalisers and Mr Biggs and yet cannot afford a sausage roll or meat-pie. Most painful of all, he cannot even afford to buy his little two-year-old girl, Angel, puff-puff, on his way home from work. Tonight, as Ben trudges homeward after the day’s work, these thoughts weigh heavily on his mind. And, as he gets closer to the vermin-infested hell-hole he calls home, the neighbourhood children roar into song: “Ben low, Ben low, Ben low, Ben low … and see what Naija’s done, Ben low, Ben low …”
*Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.