Friday, 8 February 2013

The Slow and Painful Death of Nigerian Etiquette

The brutal sunshine baked me incessantly, as it turned my ice-cold bottle of water, tepid. I spat out the contents of my mouth in disgust and in that single moment, broke my cardinal rule of etiquette. I hissed as I continued to pound the dusty path to Iya Amala’s buka, wondering why a short walk I had assumed would take five minutes max, was now turning to twenty plus. I could hear the driver’s words echoing all around me.

“Sir, this traffic would soon clear. This is usually a free road; you don’t have to walk at all!”

Clearly, he was right and I wasn't, but as I glimpsed the gate to the Police College complex, none of that really mattered. Ironically, a fresh, dry breeze belatedly came over me confirming we were actually in the middle of the harmattan was like a late stitch that couldn't save nine and so typical of most things Nigerian. In any case, I finally found myself in front of the culinary Holy Grail, exhaling heavily with relief and wiping the sweat and dust off my face. 

There goes my first handkerchief of the day....

The buka was encouragingly more comfortable than most (not that the ambience would ever deter me from indulging anyway) and there appeared to be a system in place. Get your silver metal bowl and head to the queue for the lady doling out the amala, once done, you walk back to the end of the queue for the stew and all manner of animal by-products. This queue was served by Iya Amala herself. How did I know that? Well, let’s just say she was larger than life.

So, why am I telling you about my trip to a buka, as if it were a rare thing in Nigeria? Well, I am going to blame that on the subsequent events.

Bowl in hand, I joined the amala queue, keeping one eye on a group appetising snails that cuddled each other affectionately in the boiling pot of fragrant stew. I was number 3 in line and I was now starting to dab my mouth with my second handkerchief, as salivation began to overtake me.  Coming face to face with the amala lady, I stretched my bowl forward and something strange happened.....there a loud clang which to me sounded like a coming together of bowls. I shook myself to reality and saw the guy behind had somehow exhausted his patience and was now determined to not wait his turn. I know it’s only food, but I was furious!

“Are you blind?!” I screamed. The deadly combination of hunger and anger had taken over me.

He seemed shaken and unsure of how to answer. In the same vein, the equally ignorant amala lady was prepared to also ignore the queue and just serve whichever bowl made its way to her. I let fly!

“Do you people think I am here to sell groundnut? Why can’t you wait your turn? And you, why are serving people who are jumping the queue?!”

I had ranted and raved for about thirty seconds before I realised no one else felt my revulsion or sense of injustice. If anything, they wanted me to fall aside and allow their organised chaos to continue. Seeing my protests were increasingly impotent, I collected my amala and with the look of a frazzled bear and proceeded to the stew queue.

As I began to calm down, I started to accept this was not an aberration or an exception to the rules. It appeared Nigeria, like in every facet of its social life, had slid horribly into etiquette anarchy.

From our roads to our sidewalks to our banks and other service outlets, it appears we have somehow connived to fade who we are and turn our country into an uncivil society of mannerless individuals, who blame a lack of civility on the fact they have little to time to observe simple rules of social order. We are not the only country going through economic hardship or social chaos, and it should be noted that some of the world's most civil people are not actually blessed with abundant resources.

Had the amala incident been an isolated incident, perhaps I would never have deemed it necessary to share, but a particularly nasty episode a few years ago still rankles with me.

So, there I was finishing off a meeting with some reasonably well-heeled potential clients in a popular hotel in Victoria Island. Being mostly non-Nigerian, but West African, these were people, who had a genuine healthy inquisitiveness in the ‘giant of Africa,’ so you can imagine my deep disappointment when on attempting to exit the hotel, we found ourselves in a ‘confrontation at High Noon’ scenario.

The band of brothers facing us down was all suited and booted genteel-looking individuals. As one would expect, we had allowed the female members of our company to gain access to the exit, whilst we stood aside. Unfortunately though, the ‘big-boys’ saw things differently, as they refused to give ground to the ladies. It was even more shocking for me when I was later informed they were bankers from a neighbouring bank and regular clients of the hotel.

The hotel manager summed it up succinctly.

“I am aware that their behaviour was unacceptable, but they spend a lot of money here and you guys will be gone in a week. Personally, I think they are pigs, but unfortunately, their money is more important than their manners.”

A few weeks later and many more unpleasant occurrences of ill-mannered people to deal with, I reluctantly accepted the slide was here to stay. Even worse still, we were now at a far more advanced stage, where people were now so used to the situation, they justified it with aplomb. Oh well, maybe it’s an issue that only worries those of us with a sensitive nature and as such bore no significance to the majority who had clearly honed a more robust constitution in response to the civil descent. As my friend would repeatedly say to me with that special patronising brand of disdain;

“That is in the UK, here in Nigeria, things are totally different and this is how we do it here!”

My initial protestations explaining my opinions had not been formed from living abroad (I lived in Nigeria from age 5 to 22!), but a consequence of comparing notes from then with the realities of today, appeared to fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, I was never contending that the UK itself was not a paragon of protocol (public displays of drunkenness and foul habits like spitting have increasingly become the norm over the last 20 years).

I just happen to believe this was a malaise we Nigerians did not need in addition to our other overwhelming issues. Incredibly, my friend moved the conversation on to talking about Whizkid’s latest single. I took it as my cue to accept agreement on this contentious issue, was not a viable option on this particular occasion.

Funny enough, a few days after, on a London-bound Virgin Atlantic flight, an air hostess was doing her best to attend to a new mum who was clearly struggling with securing her baby in the provided harness. The hostess to the delight of most in the cabin was exceedingly helpful and patient. That was except for a deranged man who decided it was also the perfect moment for the hostess to help him with his online media equipment. The air hostess to her credit, attended to him.

“Sir, I will be with you once I have finished with this lady. You can see I am trying to assist someone here. Thank you!”

To most of us who still believe in good manners, we know that ‘thank you’ is actually the point when we realise our faux pas and consequently retreat. Not this guy. He proceeded to poke the poor hostess and inevitably left himself open to tirades from fellow passengers, who I must confirm were 99.9% Nigerian. My friend who had torn me apart a few weeks ago was one of that number and her criticism of the errant man was....let’s just say vociferous.

I smiled in satisfaction. I always knew it. Bad manners might pervade our society, but Nigerians are not inherently discourteous or accepting of insolence. Like corruption, it is just another albatross that hangs from around our proverbial neck....suffocating our national psyche, but one that will be shed some day.

All that is requisite of us is to say to each other; "Nigerians, we have a problem." It’s the first rule in solving any ill.

Something did intrigue me though from the incident on the plane, but I manged to hold the nagging thought until we landed. I turned round to my friend and asked why she was so hard on the rude guy, but had slammed me for criticising similar behaviour in Lagos.

“That was in Nigeria! Once the plane is in the air, you have to comport yourself and adjust accordingly. The guy was disgracing Nigeria and we can’t have that!”

The one abiding memory from that whole event, was the straight face she had on when she delivered her response. I waited in vain for her to crack up in laughter.....but she was dead serious.

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