Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The height of civilisation

I was on the bus to school a couple of days ago. As the bus approached a stop, I spotted two old ladies waiting, looking expectantly toward the bus as it chugged toward them. That, apparently, was the bus they were waiting to catch. As is the norm here, they patiently waited for those alighting from the bus to do so before attempting to get on. (Anybody familiar with the scene of crowds rushing to enter a still-moving yellow-and-black striped minibus, while half of the passengers inside struggle to get off amidst the mayhem?) Anyway, the ladies must not have been familiar with the route, because they paused to clarify their direction with the driver. It turned out they had the wrong bus, and in a brief exchange that lasted less than sixty seconds, a hundred and one things came into focus for me.

I was sitting somewhere in the middle of the long bus, so I couldn't quite catch every word of the conversation up front. However, I didn't need to hear it to know that it was a pleasant one indeed. A very polite one. The driver patiently, in a normal tone of voice, explained to the ladies that this was not their bus, and gave them detailed directions to where they would catch the correct bus. The ladies obviously appreciated the time and effort he took to help them out, and they were literally smiling their thanks to him. As they got off the bus and went on their way, they turned back to wave more thanks to the driver. Overall, the whole episode made a very positive impression on me.

Instantly I recollected my experiences with danfoe drivers (those with the yellow-and-black striped minibuses) in Lagos, Nigeria. Being an experienced danfoe passenger, I have witnessed all sorts. Shouting matches between driver and passenger; insult-hurling between driver and conductor; fits of argument between conductor and passenger; heated brawling between passenger and passenger; the works. Sitting there on the bus 17 to Nottingham City, my mind reconstructed the incident I had just witnessed between a danfoe driver and any two people looking for the bus to Shangisha under the sweltering Lagos sun. Sweating profusely beneath the merciless heat and tired from wandering aimlessly round the bus park, they would eventually sum up the courage to ask the nearest danfoe driver/conductor for directions - not very politely, I might add. Of course, the reaction from the driver/conductor will vary from person to person, depending on a range of factors. For the purpose of illustration I'm just going to paint pictures of the possible best case and worst case scenarios.

Best case: The driver sizes up the two wanderers, his face void of all expression. Then, deciding that he can spare them some of his precious time and breath, he lazily points the way to them. The two manage a 'thank you' between them; at least they got off relatively easy. Worst case: The conductor reluctantly breaks off the noisy conversation he's been having with the conductor of the next bus to listen to the wanderers' tale. It's not quite clear if he's really paying attention to what they're asking, or if he just wants to dismiss them as quickly as possible so he can carry on his idle conversation. He flippantly, somewhat rudely, tells the wanderers he has no idea where the bus going to Shangisha might be 'loading', and promptly turns away to continue with his very important conversation. The wanderers take the hint and walk off, wondering if asking the groundnut seller hawking her wares between buses might yield better results. Of course, saying thank you to the conductor is not even an option in this case.

My heart has often bled at the way we treat ourselves in Nigeria, our motherlan'. The general unspoken rule seems to be that you don't have to treat with respect people you don't know. I see this rule played out almost everywhere I go: on the danfoe bus; in the cornershop across the road from my house; in the banking hall of 'customer-friendly' banks; everywhere. In my opinion, most of us have little or no regard for the 'human-ness' of others. Respect doesn't start and stop at calling your next-door neighbour 'Aunty Caro' or 'Uncle Joe', just because they're a couple of years older than you are. After all, what's the point in making a statement like, 'Aunty Caro, your head no correct'? You get my point.

Respect transcends age barriers, class, status, job description, family ties, relationships. Respect at its highest level reckons with everybody it comes across, just because people are who they are. When you can treat an absolute stranger with the same level of dignity you accord your best friend, then you have respect. When citizens of a country can break past all barriers to reckon with one another and treat each other politely and respectfully, that country is on the road to deliverance. Naturally, the country I have in mind as I speak is none other than Nigeria.

My submission is this: the sign of a country's civilisation is not in her wealth, her fame, her military might or even the degree of technological advancement she can boast of. In my observation, the true sign of a country's civilisation is the politeness, or mutual respect, shown by one citizen to another. That is what gives meaning and dignity to our fragile human existence. It is the antidote to the apathy that preys on our national consciousness and strips us of our collective identity. It is the ultimate sign of any country's coming of age, the very height of any people's civilisation. It is spelt R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Getting into the habit of writing

Wow! It feels so good to write again. So what prompted me this time? Well, I attended a half-day training at the Nottingham University Graduate School yesterday titled "Getting into the habit of writing". I'm sorry, I've neglected to mention on this blog that I have since relocated from Nigeria to England, to pursue yet another degree :). Ever since I got here in September, I've been passively looking for something exciting to write about, something worthy of record. But like I said to my sweetheart, life here tends to be uninteresting and drab, compared to life in a place like Nigeria. Too much predictability eventually makes a thing boring, and that is what I think has happened with this society. A lady missionary to Tanzania in my church cell group was asked what she's had the most trouble re-adjusting to, now that she's back in the UK. She said she missed the excitement that comes with working in Africa: having to fix a fault in her sturdy Land Rover when stranded on a lonely pot-holed road between villages because there's no AA team to come to the rescue; praying every time she embarked on a journey with her team because, given the road conditions, there was no guarantee they would arrive, etc. I see her point.

Well, to my own point. "Getting into the habit of writing" was organised to instruct postgraduate research students in writing tips and techniques that will ultimately assist them in churning out top-notch PhD theses. One of such tips is the concept of 'freewriting'. Tested and proven by several literary experts, freewriting is a tool that has been recommended for anyone writing anything. This means that the technique is not limited to academic writing. Freewriting, as the term suggests, simply means writing freely. It means that whether or not you think you have something to write, go ahead and write. Just write; start by writing anything off the top of your head. What you write initially may not even have anything to do with what you really want to write about, but at least it gets you writing. Freewriting really is writing without thinking. If you've ever written anything you'll agree with me that thinking is a very important part of writing. In fact, thinking is the first step to writing. But if you can't think anything, how can you write anything? How do you transfer a blank mind to paper? I believe this is what is popularly referred to as 'writer's block', and it is indeed the greatest stumbling block to writing.

Freewriting advocates that you write when you know you should be writing, even when you don't think you have anything to write. Whatever writing project you may be faced with, be it an office report, a school essay or a blog post, you can get started by freewriting. It's much like splashing cold water on someone's face to get them out of the grogginess of sleep: freewriting jolts your brain out of the lethargic state it might be in, slowly at first, and then with increasing pace until your mind finally catches up with your pen (or your fingers, as the case may be).

Right there in the training session, I decided to put this theory to the test. Admittedly, I haven't yet tried it with my lab reports (I'll start with those on Monday), but I figured I might make a start with my critically neglected blog. I realise now that though life is pretty much monotonous here, the problem may be as much mine as it is the system's. Perhaps if I took time to observe events more closely amidst the daily, seemingly repetitive grind of life, perhaps I'd be able to spot a thing or two that might be of interest. Even on a seemingly regular day, perhaps if I took to my computer and just punched out the details of the talkative old lady that sat beside me on the bus to school, or of how I struggled to change a light bulb today for the first time in my life because there's no one here to do it for me, perhaps a story could emerge somewhere in between the lines. Perhaps.