Jerry Alagbaoso: Dramatist in search of a new socio-political hygiene – Part 1
It is evident from his thirteen plays I have read that he is keen to address Nigeria’s social and political foibles. Some of these social fault-lines may seem commonplace events; the dramatist does not appear to believe that they should be allowed to continue to fester without a thrust being assayed of them. Alagbaoso is not a dramatist of large gestures because I suspect that to him the small gestures add up, and in fact influence everyday life. The political blunders and missteps of the country again may be seen by some of the playwrights’ compatriots as not worthy of pursuit.
I want to believe that Jerry Alagbaoso thinks differently and he has a right to take such a stance. After all the Saints whom Catholics emulate and want to model their life styles on proffered no high-priced gestures while they were alive; they probably did usual chores with an unusual grace and gusto, probably in a way such things had never been done before. Similarly, the concept of political ‘hygiene’, a key word in this essay, was first propagated by Ali Mazrui and recently popularized in the social media by Professor Patrick Lumumba, the Kenyan anti-corruption crusader. Thus whether socio-political or not, hygiene is not an expansive health gesture but a simple daily act which helps to ensure for humans a healthy environment and a sound mind in a sound body, meant to stave off what would have been major ailments.
In his Specks in Our Eyes, first published in 2006 but collectively put together in a volume along with four other plays in 2016, Alagbaoso goes biblical by utilizing the lesson in Matthew 7: 1-5 to drive home his opposition to those community men and women who take on those other residents from other communities who work among them. Lady Ijeoyibo is probably from outside Ama Ihite community in which the Ama Ihite Development Union (ADU) is very active. She is the principal of Ama Ihite Community School. From all clues, she has been doing well as the principal of ACS, but some of the inhabitants are eager to put obstacles on her way for exploitation purposes. Nyem, the Vice-President of ADU is the first Ama Ihite community member who tries his chance with Mrs. Ijeoyibo and fails woefully to extract anything from the no-nonsense female principal. Nyem (‘give me’ in Igbo) in concert with the ADU president, Chief Ikeobodo, Ichie Emecheta, Ubadi, Teacher Mezie and Ezumezu, are massed against Lady Ijeoyibo. There is also the sexist chauvinism in the entire imbroglio as all her accusers are essentially males. At the committee set up by the ADU president meant to establish whether the ‘crimes’ said to have been committed by the principal are well-founded, Lady Ijeoyibo floors her antagonists. The lady principal proves the guilt of all those who are against her, including Nyem. Her enemies are bearing the specks in their eyes, and yet they aspire to remove those said to be in the principal’s own eyes.
In the end, Lady Ijeoyibo takes her traducers apart, including Teacher Mezie, the chairman of the investigative panel whom she accuses of suffering from ‘Cognitive deficiency syndrome’ (p45). Along with some other members of the panel, she asks: “… who bought the cars they are driving today? Ask them too whether they have returned the money, which they borrowed from the school for their new wives’ businesses and the construction of their bungalows? (Collected Plays 1, p. 39).”
From the different revelations, the investigative panel as a body is turned into a laughing stock. After it has been messed up by the lady principal, Magnus describes the panel as “a committed committee of hypocrites” (p. 46). It is Nneoma, accused of being a lesbian, who summarizes what has just happened: “Every member of Ama Ihite community has a particular size of log or speck in his or her eyes. Consequently, this investigation has become the meeting point of the logs in the eyes of the committee members and the community leaders, and the specks in the eyes of the public, the principal and her management team (p. 45).”
Chief Ikeobodo’s assurance that “all the affected members will not only be penalized, they will be made to pay back the monies they extorted from the school management” (p. 55) is doubtful. He and his henchmen had tried to play down on the report of the committee headed by Teacher Mezie who had earlier been accused of entering “our female teachers’ residential quarters some weeks ago as if he was drunk and attempted to harass a teacher sexually” (p. 34). However, the youths arrive with a chorus of ‘nzogbu nzogbu enyi mba enyi!” to the consternation of Eze Okoro, the traditional ruler. The Eze pleads with them not to destroy things but to listen to what the President of ADU would say. The youths seem to have buckled under due to the influence of the drinks the Eze served them. This is probably a critique of the recent youths who easily compromise on social gainstrivings such as political elections once money exchanges hands.
Sorters and Sortees, another of Alagbaoso’s plays, is concerned with examination misconduct now prevalent in most Nigerian schools. But the playwright’s glare is cast at the university. Dr. Clemento Wise who teaches General and Philosophical Studies was initially a strict teacher but later let down his guard when money became so critical in his life. He not only holds on to the teaching job, he also does video coverage and photography, perhaps at a time in the life of universities in Nigeria ‘when one’s take-home pay could not take one home.’ Some teachers not only compromised their positions receiving tips (sorting) from their students (sorters) who rather than work hard prefer to run after their teachers (sortees).
The words ‘sorting’, ‘sorter’ and ‘sortee’ are Nigerianese and may not exist in any known English dictionary. They are the linguistic products out of the rotten Nigerian educational system which has taken a beating for the worse since the ‘expo’ experience of the 1970s. Because of Dr. Wise’s double work schedules, he hands over the graded examination scripts of his students to his children, Jones and Jacklin, to record. Not only do they tamper with the scores, they theorize on “this so-called sorting work” (Collected Plays I p. 73). According to Jones,
Teachers or lecturers, students and even parents can sort marks with gifts, money, love and lobbying. At times even, faith is involved in the form of prayer points. But the most prominent facilitator of sorting is with money, and love – especially for those who don’t like attending lectures, dull students, examination absentees, materialistic teachers and promiscuous characters generally. (p. 73)
However, problems later arise. The children do not stick to the grades on the answer scripts as awarded by their father, Dr. Clemento Wise. At a point, the lecturer screams at some high scores being recorded for some of the students who were not known to be academically productive. Cries Dr. Wise, as he flips through the mark sheets.
Who are these people with these fantastic marks? I never scored that way in my marking. Becky Moore… Philo (Angry). Jones, what do you think you are doing? Do you want to make a caricature of my integrity in this higher institution? (p. 74)
Philo is Jones’ girlfriend and classmate. Becky is a specialist in ‘sorting’. She admits: “I am not a neophyte in sorting affairs” (p. 81). She soon gets down to business and unleashes her devilish ‘wooing’ strategy on Dr. Wise which the latter could not resist. She assures Dr. Wise that “society today is full of sorters and sortees. Other students, male and female, do so and many lecturers are involved. So you cannot be an exception…” (p. 86). Not long after having his way sexually with Becky Moore, the latter takes over the ‘captaincy’ of their relationship: “Please, Dockee, ensure my mark is upgraded higher than anyone else’s… Please sort me higher than everyone else – male or female, whether more brilliant than me or not” (p. 88). Dr. Wise responds: “Can’t you see that I have given you 84%? This is what is going to the computer room. Do you see any other student with such a score?” (p. 89).
The ‘voice’ in the play announces the arrival of the university ombudsman, Prof. Jimmy. Jimmy arrives with security men and catches Dr. Wise and Becky Moore as they were pecking and kissing, seriously indecently engaged with each other. He grabs Dr. Wise’s result sheets and shows them to the security men whom he declares as “witnesses to this result and these suspects’ mode of dressing” (p. 90). Soon after an argument ensues between Prof. Jimmy and the culprits caught red-handed. Although Dr. Wise started by pleading to be retrieved from “this mess”, he later reminds the professor that he “did not kill anyone. I did what I hear some lecturers do.” The question he asks Prof. Jimmy is sans morality and sans intelligence: “If I lose my job, Prof, will the management of this institution pay you my salary? No! They will not (p. 93). This is a question from a guilty one.
Asked why some moments previously he had referred to Becky as his “Sweet Tonic” in their amorous fondling of each other, Dr. Wise’s response is lacking in wisdom. Rather than answer directly, he tells Prof. Jimmy: “But Prof, I have earlier told you that some of my colleagues both males and females also sort. In fact Becky revealed a lot to me and I have records of their names in my memory” (p. 94). Prof. Jimmy is not interested in engaging in a wild goose chase, running after Dr. Pee whose name has just been dropped and the others whose names are not yet known. He assures Dr. Wise: “… the truth is that none of our lecturer colleagues, like Dr. Pee, or students like your sweet Becky, has been caught. Your punishment will serve as a deterrent to other lecturers and students who have taken sorting as ways of their academic and social lives” (p. 96).
Another play simply entitled, Ina-aga, a commercial motorcycle now popular in Nigeria, is described by the playwright as an “agent of pleasure, quick service, detention, amputation, hypertension, fracture, wound and bandage, and it is no respecter of its operators, owners, passengers and gender” (Author’s Note p. 98). The tragedy of the motorcycle taxi is that it is no respecter of other ina-aga taxis. Remarks Chief Ome-aku, “I sent him (Job, one of his servants) after an ina-aga and another ina-aga knocked him down” (p. 104). However, this errand had not been for an altruistic purpose. Chief Ome-aku, a store owner turned ina-aga rider chasing after quick cash, also chases after university students whom he observes on his route. As his store diminishes in quantity of articles for sale, he looks up to the ina-aga business. But just as philandering is responsible for the collapse of his provision store, Chief Ome-aku’s future failure in the commercial motorcycle venture is all too evident. His first university girl-catch he made, Roseline turns down his plea for friendship after he had offered her some “pocket money in addition to the provisions” (p 114).
As Roseline goes away with his gifts (“a little drop of water, a tip of the iceberg”), Acharaugo, Chief Ome-aku’s wife enters the store. We are told that Acharaugo “looks suspiciously at Roseline’s back and sighs, shaking her head” (p. 114), after all she knows what her husband can do where females are concerned. When the ina-aga operator could not see Roseline again he rides to the university gate and runs into Fat Girl, whom he takes to her hostel. Rather than take him inside the hostel, she discharges him at the precincts and assures him any other time he visits their hostel, “I shall rush out to meet you so that we can cruise out” (p. 125). Edna, the fat girl, narrates her experience and describes Chief Ome-aku to her roommates, one of whom, is Roseline. While Edna refers to Ome-aku as a man “putting on one yeye (dirty and tattered) coat and slippers”, Roseline remarks that she had given him “both a fake address and a non-existent mobile phone number, after he had lavished a lot of gifts on me that day” (p. 126). Edna is more uncharitable of the two: “His mouth even smells as he talks and he has greenish teeth. Imagine!” (p. 126).
The day Chief Ome-aku comes to take away Edna, the fat girl, she is nowhere to be seen although she had promised to come out as soon as she sighted the commercial motorcyclist. Meanwhile, Edna is in her room from where she calls him “idiot” and asks, “Is he not old enough to be my father?” (p. 126).
On this day, Jackie 2000, a member of the university monitoring group meant to stem the tide of rising incidents of outsiders invading the female hostels in search of straying female undergraduates who would not mind a sexual escapade outside the university, Chief Ome-aku is one of those caught. The Divisional Police Officer (DPO) describes Ome-aku as “one of those who give ina-aga business a bad name” (p. 137).
Chief Ome-aku’s life is one of falsehood as attested to by his wife, Acharaugo who remarks: “Ome-aku, yesterday when you were putting on coat and tie and rubbing powder, I suspected you and asked a number of questions, but you told me that you were going to lift school principals to the venue of a national convention. But our visit here is a revelation that you usually lift girls and not responsible people like principals. (p. 135)”