A cry of despair
If after looking at the title of this piece you observe the name of its author and the name of his employer, you may think that the piece is somehow going to be about the ‘ASUU’ strike. But no. It is about a matter of entirely personal suffering – although, as an elderly white man in Nigeria – and one not usually seeking to be reminded of his whiteness – I may not be the only sufferer.
All my life I have been anxious to obey the law. When, a long time ago, I began to be warned by my service provider, MTN, that I must obtain a National Identity Number (NIN), I was ready to comply. But I am also a congenital procrastinator; and the day came, towards the end of 2021, when MTN informed me that they had blocked my phone number because of my non-compliance. Then at last I acted. I went to the local NIN office, duly filled in a form online, and placed the four fingers of my left hand facedown on the square glass of the machine that was to ‘capture’ them. (How we have come to love the metaphorical meaning of this word, used so often thus in various circumstances of modern life.)
But, to my astonishment and dismay, I was told that the machine could not read my fingers. They were tried one by one. The fingers of the right hand were tried, collectively and separately. I think the thumbs were tried. All was in vain. The lady in charge advised that at home I should try rubbing my fingers regularly with the hard white rind of water-melon and come back again. I was grateful for her sympathy, but the advice sounded a bit like witchcraft.
Two weeks later I went back to the office, having in the interval sometimes – not regularly – done the watermelon treatment. But the result was the same. And it was the same when I went several times to a different office in town for the same purpose. In growing despair, I consulted my departmental colleagues. One of them said that probably my fingers had expired. At some point the kind and sympathetic lady said that many white people – around the country, I suppose – were having the same problem. I said that I would sue the machines for racial discrimination.
The story remained the same all through 2022. Then sadly, on a recent abortive visit to the office, I lost my temper. I heard myself shouting angrily at one of the officials, and the rest of them, and their clients, all much younger than myself, looked up in surprise. Almost at once I felt ashamed of myself. I think I cherish the ideal of equanimity, of calm restraint, of patience in adversity, qualities I have constantly met in Nigeria over the years among old and young, men and women alike.
Moreover, losing one’s temper in public shows disrespect to others and represents a loss of dignity. It emphatically does not comport with the Yoruba idea of the omoluabi or the Hausa idea of the dattijo. In contemporary British culture, where all ancient mores are being turned upside down, the free expression of feelings it represents may be considered a virtue; but it did not feature in the behaviour of the traditional English gentleman.
This is surely not to say that in Nigeria a temper cannot suddenly be lost. The late Professor Bashir Ikara told the story of how, in Northern Nigeria in the 1950s, when Nigerians were beginning to assume senior administrative positions, a British official once had a serious quarrel with a Hausa man who was presumably to take over from him. The British man resisted the Hausa man’s arguments firmly and calmly, but the Hausa man got more and more angry, and finally exploded with ‘You will eat your father!’ – a translation of the Hausa ‘Za ka ci ubanka!’, a great insult. ‘But that is not possible,’ the British man coolly replied, and the humour of the situation is all the greater if he did not in fact understand Hausa.
Oh, Nigeria, I have loved thee! Thy fingerprinting machines seem to have defeated me. But perhaps thy watermelons may still come to my aid.
Professor Jowitt, FNAL, is a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Jos.