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Friday, June 21, 2024

Kumuyi, Tortoise and looters of noodles

By Lasisi Olagunju

Wise old Tortoise sat his children down. “My dear ones, two things are essential for your growth and wellbeing in life: Always tell the truth, and never ever take whatever is not yours.” The attentive children nodded; they promised to do as their father counseled. They bowed before their dad and left. Four years down the road, there was a severe famine in the land. Food was as scarce as masquerade’s shit. Husbands bartered their wives for grains; wives traded their husbands for a basket of yam. It was as bad as Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1845 which killed one million out of a population of eight million people.

Upright Tortoise’s household was hit by this mother-of-all-famines. There were casualties in his neighborhood. His own children may soon join the fallen. Tortoise panicked. What was he going to do? He talked to himself. He went out one day and came back home with a solution to hunger in his home. On his head was a big basket containing a variety of food items. Tortoise told his children that he found the foodstuffs abandoned in the forest. “It must have been God at work,” he told his children. His disappointed children exchanged looks. They knew that their father had just lied. He stole the items and they told him so: “Father, but you told us never to take what is not ours, and never to lie.” Embarrassed, Tortoise could only mutter some incoherent words. Then he found his voice: “I did it for you, my children. These are terrible times.”

This last Friday at a place called Dogarawa near Zaria, a truck driver transporting cartons of noodles thought it was time to say his Jumat prayers. He parked his BUA truck and joined the congregation. Like predatory soldier ants swarming a bunch of palm nuts, an army of looters invaded the truck and stripped it of every item it was carrying. “Not a single carton of the noodles the truck was carrying was left by the hoodlums,” an eyewitness told a reporter. The driver was helpless. The people he shared the prayer ground with largely made up the looting party. The invaders left the mosque for the truck. They were contemptuous of the law and disdainful of morality. They had no fear of God to whom they prayed. They chose food over faith. “Ba imani (they have no faith),” a disappointed man who video-recorded the event lamented. Ten of the looters were arrested. I will be shocked if the looters agree that they committed any offence.

“Hunger makes a thief of any man” is a popular quote among famine and poverty scholars. It is originally from Pearl Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth. The book is the first volume of her House of Earth trilogy which largely contributed to her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The novel’s protagonist, poverty-stricken Wang Lung, nurses a starving family. One day, one of his sons brings home stolen meat. Wang Lung sees the stolen item and vows that his sons must not grow up to become thieves. In anger, he throws away the stolen meat. But his wife disagrees – there is a family to feed. She gets up, calmly picks up the meat and cooks it. Wang Lung may deplore that act of thievery and his wife’s disgraceful act of receiving a stolen property, but the hungry must eat. The food is ready; the family eats the forbidden and washes it down with cold water. Fast-forward to years of unremitting poverty and hunger. The same upright Wang Lung later in the story joins a food riot, invades a rich man’s house, takes all the rich man’s money and builds his wealth from the heist.

I am scared because rain does not fall on one roof. In 2024 Lagos, a stampede for rice killed many. Yesterday (Sunday), there were reports of yet another invasion of a government warehouse in Gwagwa, Abuja, by looters of stored food items. Some of the looters probably left Sunday’s church service to partake in the looting. A week before the Zaria truck looting incident, some trailers loaded with foodstuffs in the Suleja area of Niger State suffered the same fate. Bags of rice and other food items in the vehicles were looted by wanton boys and girls. The loot-takers probably thought they were poor because the truck owners were rich. Such a line of thought is dangerous. It is equally dangerous to assume that the hungry are responsible for their own hunger and should, therefore, fix themselves.

Jibia is a border town in Nigeria’s North-West. One Sade Rabiu, a leader of that community, told Qatar-based Aljazeera last week that his people were dying of hunger. “Poverty can lead to theft and murder…anything for survival,” the community leader was quoted as saying. What he said was very unpleasant but may be brutally true. Colonial archives are replete with records of hunger-induced crimes in every corner of Nigeria. Kostadis Papaioannou in 2014 did extensive work on this issue covering the years between 1912 and 1945. He quotes documents and persons; he cites books. He uses “historical newspapers and government reports to explore food shortages, crop-price spikes and outbreaks of violence.” The picture you get after reading his 43-page report tells you that what we saw in Zaria on Friday and in Abuja yesterday were simply a reenactment of the blights of the last century. Nothing new is happening under our heavens. The poor have refused to change in their larcenous reaction to hunger; the society has remained inattentive to implications of mass poverty. In 100 years, we’ve moved without progressing.

There was a very bad famine in Nigeria in 1913 which saw people doing the unthinkable to survive. There are always social consequences for food inadequacies. Colonial official A. C. G. Hastings (1925: 111) recalls that “…the ghost of famine stalked aboard through Kano and every other part. The stricken people…ravenous in their hunger, seized on anything they could steal or plunder.” In a particular province, “the local inhabitants, in need for food, plundered and stole everything in their way.” That was in 1913. Similar experiences dotted the years of lean or no harvest throughout our colonial period. Judicial statistics, police and army documents on that period, according to Papaioannou, showed increased crimes in Ogoja (present Cross River), Ondo and Enugu – all due to increased food prices, decreased income, and generally heightened economic pressures.

People react differently to hunger. Dirty, hungry Tortoise tells the soap hawker at his backyard: “When I have not washed my inside, how can I wash my outside?” Last December, the General Superintendent of the Deeper Life Bible Church, Pastor William Folorunso Kumuyi, asked members of his church to redirect their offerings from the church to the poor and the needy in their communities. He said: “All the offerings are not just for the church. There are poor people around. There are unemployed people around. There are indigent people around. We must build our campground – I understand; we are going to build it. But, while you are building (the church), your neighbours are dying. Those who do not have anything to feed are there. Your brothers, your sisters have nothing to send their children to school. Which one comes first when your house is leaking and your mother is dying? How will you spend it (your money) —mending the leaking room or taking care of your mother?” He said his church would go back to “the good old days” when religion served God by taking care of the poor. And, truly, unlike now, the poor used to have a space in the heart of priests and prophets.

Pastor Kumuyi’s sermon was a breath of fresh air. In that short message, he radically redefined religion’s engagement with the people. The former should subsidise the latter; it should not be the other way round. I am not a member of Kumuyi’s church and, so, I do not know how far he has gone in making real what he said on the pulpit. But he did well and should not be alone. Others, particularly the Imams of northern Nigeria, should extend their mandates beyond leading prayers and mobilising the poor for politics. A Jumat service and a looting spree happened at the same place, same time in Zaria last Friday. How else do we define failure of religion? People are stealing to survive. Pastors are losing their flock to satanic fodders; Imams are losing their followers to grains of haram.

The rich cannot continue to ignore the poor – particularly when the poor are poor due to no fault of theirs. We (the elite) are an unfeeling lot. We relate with hunger only as mere media content. We take it as mere texts read in newspapers and as staid social media posts. We think today’s suffering is unreal, contrived. How do you tell the hungry that his hunger is not hunger; that it is exaggerated, or that his loud protests are sponsored? It is time we dispensed with our disgust for the dirt of the poor. Time is running out. We should stop gawking at the grotesque of want. Can we “stop a moment” and “see the poor” as Rebecca Harding Davis asks the rich to do in her ‘Life in the Iron-Mills’? Can we, like Davis, stop taking heed of our “clean clothes” and plunge “into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia” and save our skins by stopping the hunger in the land? The clock is ticking. Any age that packs what Jacob Riss (1890) calls “ignorant poverty” and “ignorant wealth” into its social space incubates a big bang. New York’s Fifth Avenue is a metaphor for world-class luxury. ‘The Man with the Knife’, Riss warns, stands at the corner of the “Fifth Avenue”. Helping him to drop the knife is helping ourselves.

Nigeria can’t be tired of helping the poor. Forget about the government and its voodoo economics on subsidy. The social consequences of mass hunger are never pleasant. The developed world today has various social safety nets for vulnerable families and individuals in poverty. The society that does this is neither stupid nor is it a spendthrift. It has simply come to accept that people can be poor without being hungry. My people say when hunger is removed from poverty, poverty is dead. Looting of stores and trucks are bad omens. These acts nudge us to wake up and act responsibly. We may not eradicate poverty but every good society, from the earliest times, knows that the way to peace and security is in taking starvation out of people’s poverty.

There was a time Western Europe burnt its fingers trying to de-subsidise the needy and legislate the poor out of existence. It failed. I use England here as an example. In 1834, England introduced what it called the New Poor Law to regulate paupers and their unenviable lives. The rich and powerful welcomed the law; they applauded its provisions which reduced the cost of looking after the poor. The new law created what was called ‘workhouses’ to house and hide the poor. The privileged were happy that the workhouse provision would “take beggars off the streets and encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves.” Critics called the workhouses “prisons for the poor.” Of course, the workhouse concept failed; it suffered riots and the structures were victims of attempted arsons. You are very conversant with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The story draws its plot from this experience of structures without humanity; its message mimics mansions of well-fed masters and hungry, scrawny inmates. If the Poor Law had worked and the workhouse had been a success, Oliver Twist would not have asked for more.

Between 21 and 25 October, 2009, I was in Las Vegas, United States for that year’s Conference of American Black Mayors. One of the leaders who spoke at that event was the then vice president of Malawi, Mrs Joyce Banda. Banda, who spoke on the African woman and resilience in the face of hardship, said “African women don’t cry. They don’t feel pain. Touching fire is nothing.” The African woman was always a hero in very bad times. She would feed her family even from nothing. Banda likened her to Hare who was seen cooking something in a season of hunger. The story teller said all the other starving, helpless animals saw smoke coming out of Hare’s hearth and rushed to her kitchen. “I am not cooking food. I am boiling stones,” she told her guests. Disappointed, the guests hissed, and Hare told them softly not to rebuke her: “At least I am doing something about the situation.” Our government has repeatedly told the hungry to be patient (E lo f’okàn balè). I hope what is cooking in Abuja’s pot is not what Hare was boiling – stones.

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