The Hedges

Do you remember the day it dawned on you that this thing called life would one day end? That all those around you: your father, mother, siblings and friends would one day cease to exist? Expire, never to be held, cried on or played with again. When it occurred to you that unlike Coyote, there was no next episode after that cliff fall. The realization of your impermanence on this earth can be quite a destabilizing experience especially as a child; it tends to leave ripples in your subconscious you feel well into adulthood. It may have been when your favourite grandfather passed away, or when the scruffy girl with the cornrows who always sat at the back of the class unceremoniously stopped coming and your teacher had to keep explaining every day for the rest of the year in cushioned words and a coddling tone that it would never be filled by her again. Even with promises of the afterlife, you can’t quite shake off the fact that you, as you are in this vessel, will one day simply not be. With that realization comes a certain type of awareness, a particular blend of fear, acceptance and caution privy only to those in tune with the ephemeral nature of their existence. Fun times with mortality. How do you accept this finality, complete obliteration from this earth but for memories that, too, will not last the test of time? How do you learn to put this inevitability in the back of your mind and carry on? Mine was a rather rude awakening.

It starts, as most existential realizations of my childhood, in our plant-heavy backyard. There was one particular hedge that ran parallel to the high walls surrounding our compound, lining the inside with its dark green waxy leaves. My siblings and I’s bodies could easily fit between the ledge on the wall and the trees and, on hot afternoons, we could sometimes be found exploring the treacherous terrain of our makeshift jungle. Said hedge was a source of conflicting emotions: it could go from playground to arsenal in split seconds. Our house boy (without our mother’s blessing mind you) would send us down to pick branches from it whenever we misbehaved or caught him watching porn for what seemed to be our semi-regular flogging sessions. There was something remarkably cruel about personally selecting the rod that would become to your body as paint was to canvas. It was the hedge’s hermetic character however that left the deepest wounds: while it was designed to keep people from looking in, it had the unintended consequence of not letting us look out.

It was here that I first tried to kill myself. Very melodramatic considering the circumstances. My mother had once again found her grievous actions towards me fiercely engraved in my seven year old self’s black book, the particulars of which do not matter considering the frequency of such occurrences. While most would threaten to run way, I had the genius idea to off myself in a rather twisted effort to hurt her. I could never quite understand how I came to that conclusion but my money’s on the questionable viewing material courtesy of your standard 0000 DSTV parental code. “See your life” she said as I blasted off threat after threat. I was livid, how could she not take me seriously? I would show her. I stormed to my room and rummaged through my closet for my karate belt. Indignant dead man walking that I was, I made my way to the garden. I would show her I wasn’t to be taken lightly. I don’t think that I truly wanted to die. In retrospect it scares me how far I was willing to go to prove her wrong, how inconsequential and disposable my life suddenly was. The problem wasn’t that I hated my mother, though very much a factor at the time. I simply didn’t understand what it was I wanted to do, the finality of the consequences. Taking my life was on the same level as burning her favourite dress. I knew I was dear to her and at the time it made sense. You take from me, I take from you. Very dangerous child logic. To everyone’s relief – mine especially – my exit from the world of the living was unsuccessful. After tying one end of the belt to my neck and securing the other to a branch I let myself fall from a staggering two feet. The branch snapped as my skinny frame met the ground. My mother made no mention of my outburst at the dinner table.

Death had taken a bite. With blood in the water, it began circling, a predatory spectre looming over me. It would rear its head again during one of my favourite pastimes.

My sister and I had a number of go-to games for those days where the television wasn’t enough to keep us busy and my nose wasn’t buried within the pages of what ever new chapter book I’d discovered that week. Our dolls would always get stranded on desert islands with nothing but their wits and our imaginations to keep them alive. On this fine day they had found some nice plantains and yams they would pound to make foufou. I went to make a round of the hedge trees to find the empty nests birds usually left as my sister readied the pillar and mortar. My search quickly bore fruit and I rushed to her side, put the nest in the mortar and started pounding. One, two, three. I heard the muffled sound of chirping and suddenly, I was frozen. Ever wish you could reject a reality by simply refusing to acknowledge it? For a while I wouldn’t to put words to what was becoming evidently clear: I hadn’t checked the nest. How could I have been so careless? Like a seed taking root, the weight of this death thing began to settle itself in my young mind. I had taken away life for no reason. Every fibre of my body was suddenly consumed in shame. My sister had heard it too. We took the nest from the mortar. A mangled mess of flesh and egg shells. We stared at it. We didn’t know what else to do. We just stared, suspended in time. One of the birds was still alive, a hatchling that had managed to escape the blow of my pillar. We buried the nest under the pine tree in the backyard and tried to find him a new home. He obviously didn’t survive. Left to fend for himself, the tiny bird, no bigger than a finger, didn’t even make it till evening.

That night at the dinner table, I could suddenly hear the pain that had coloured my mother’s voice during our heated exchange on the day of my not so fateful suicide attempt. As a child I had this uncanny ability of replaying conversations surrounding my offences. Her words always stayed the longest, sometimes for weeks, letting me relive the shame, hurt or anger of her scoldings. I passed by the bird tomb many times that week, noting how the birds remained in the ground, the implications of which opened a door of unending questions with such force that till this day I’m not sure I’ve managed to shut.

Taking matters into our own hands

I want to talk about civil engagement today, one of the most powerful tools available to us as tax paying citizens. With the upcoming Nigerian elections, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the role of the citizen in his or her country. So many of the problems affecting the african continent can find their root in governments, be they our own or foreign ones. While I’m setting the frame of this discussion around Nigeria, specifically its youth considering it is most relevant to the readership of this site, the comments and observations I am making are generally applicable across the board within the african context. The youth demographic (for the purpose of this piece I mean individuals from ages 18-35) make up 29.6 % of your entire population but a whopping 56.4 % of your electorate. How are we using that power? Not effectively. In your last electoral period, voter turn out was 28.66% and 53% for parliamentary and presidential elections respectively. We are not even maximizing the efficiency of our current system and we want to complain. You did not help to cook stew and you want to tell me it’s too salty?

We must promote civil engagement, treat civics with the same regard and esteem that we treat “proper” subjects as opposed to upholding that ridiculous dichotomy that puts home economics, TD and civics on one end and math, sciences and business on the other. All subjects have their value; the biggest achievements in human history have been born out of interdisciplinary collaboration. Think on this though, while most people won’t ever have to use calculus again past the secondary school level, all will live under governments where they will have to pay taxes, require roads schools and hospitals, live under a system of governance that will inform everything from their freedom of expression to their access to the means of production. For any such system to work efficiently, we will have to be aware of our rights and responsibilities, know how the system operates and what we are entitled to so we can remind the pubic servants as their name suggests that they work for us. They should be looking out for us and the policies they put into place must be in the interest of that public as opposed to being so closely aligned to those of the elite few.

If these institutions have shown us time and time again that they are not creating leaders looking out for our welfare, leaders we can’t depend on then we must take it into our own hands to create institutions that will produce the kind of leaders we do need. We need to stop being so passive about the way we are being governed. Our leaders are not appointed by some higher power; the system in which they operate were created by men, the leaders placed in power also by men. With the advent of the internet, not only can we spread information faster and further but we can bypass traditional structures when they have failed us. Think crowdsourcing and collective consumption (Netflix is my favourite example). Let’s use it to further educate and organize ourselves to create the change we want to see in our countries.

We are lucky in our continent, our demographic is the largest. We can’t always be blaming our governments. Obviously we know they are inefficient and fundamentally flawed but since they have chosen to claim the label of democracy let us hold them to it. Democracy means the people’s rule or power. This puts the responsibility for our fate squarely in our hands. Our leaders all over the world are taking advantage of our general complacency and low engagement in matters of politics to play with our future as they see fit, neglecting their duty to educate us then turning around and saying politics should be left to politicians. To that I say no more. The country does not just belong to the politicians, it belongs to all of us. They are merely our representative and emissaries to the world. When our currencies lose value, it is not our politicians suffering, it’s Awa who now discovers that the same money she used to buy plantain can only buy half that amount now. We all have a stake in the future of our nations so it stands to reason that we should all participate to a certain degree in building it. The system of governance you use is the foundation for anything that happens in your country. How can we expect to build anything that can stand on such a shaky foundation? I will cut our leaders some slack (not too much though). They are stubbornly clinging to models of governance influenced by and derived from the people who subjugated us, the same models that insure our 3rd world position. We are a different Africa than we were in the 60s, we don’t need to keep conforming to those archaic models, doing the same thing year after year and expecting change. As we grow as a society our systems should evolve to reflect that. I strongly suggest looking to our past to inform our future.

Can you imagine if those who gained us our independence waited until it was convenient for them to do so? Or even worse, if they waited until the colonial powers got some humanity and allowed us to be sovereign nations? When they were benefiting from a system that allowed them to use a whole continent like their own personal supply closet? That kind of power is hard to relinquish. Our forefathers did not like their conditions, said enough is enough and fought to claim what was theirs by right. That was only the first step. We face a similar yet new challenge now. We are dissatisfied with our government but we have as much, if not more power than those who came before us. We are the new culture shapers and the future leaders. Let us exercise our right not just to vote but to vote well, make choices at the ballot boxes influenced not by demagoguery but actual information on who our leaders are, their political stances, and what they actually hope to achieve in office and how. We have the right to stable and continuous governments regardless of what party is in charge. Government activities should not be significantly affected in times were power is being transferred, pausing the political process sets a dangerous precedent. We have the right to the right to full transparency and by default accountability from our leaders. Any candidate from the municipal to the federal level who can provide that for me or at least lay the foundation for such a structure has my vote. It’s a shame that the way we frame our political discourse pits parties against each other, forcing us to chose between 2 sides of the same coin (that’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where your leader actually agrees to relinquish power when the time comes). If you focus too much on Broom vs Umbrella, Blue or red or whatever the case might be for your country, you’ll forget that the real fight is between the rulers and the ruled. We’ve been deceived into this false sense of powerlessness because of our lack of information. Today I just want to remind you that your government exist for you and not the other way around. As africans we need to stop looking outwards for the solution to our problems. If you find it outrageous that a country with a GDP of $594.2 trillion has 60+% of its population living under the poverty line, a GDP per capita of $2800 and 32% of its wealth concentrated within 10% of its population, you cannot keep quiet. It seems age has made our leaders hard of hearing yet good with numbers by the looks of their bank accounts. Well if they wont listen to your voice, at least let your vote be counted.

A small suggested reading list for any interested in youth political organization within the african context:

I Write What I Like: Collection of articles, opinion pieces and speeches and speeches by Steve Biko, South-african anti-apartheid activist and youth political leader.

Wheats of Grain – Fictional account of the Kenyan independence struggle and its repercussions by prominent Kenyan writer and social critic Ngūgī wa Thiong’o.

Originally published on The Naked Convos.

We see poverty as a disease, abundance of currency as synonymous with a rich, fulfilled life. We do everything to escape it, work harder to make more money for what exactly? We are being made to believe that is what leading a life is but I can’t accept that. That need then makes us more susceptible and willing to accept parasitic economic systems imposed on us by our governments instead of creating new ones that allow us to live in a more sustainable manner, less of this overconsumption. I’m not saying luxury is bad, I’m just saying there must be ways to be more considerate as to how we use our limited resources. 

“We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died — in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life”

Sherman Nuland

Religion (not to be confused with spirituality )* seems to be a veneer, a shroud that covers us from a world we don’t understand, assuages fear, gives meaning and purpose because for some reason, we’ve become convinced that nothing is worth anything without meaning. Must the symbol be a symbol, can it not just be, in and of itself, devoid of any intrinsic meaning? Is its existence not enough? Why the “why”? What’s so scary about “just because”?