Reflections of a COVID-19 Detainee

ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta
ENGAGEMENTS with Chidi Amuta, e-mail:

The detention order came suddenly with a casual informality. It was unsigned. Just a routine announcement from the anonymity of officialdom delivered through all available channels: social media. radio, television, word of mouth especially through the legendary ‘network service’ of the national rumour industry. It was shortly followed by a reluctant presidential proclamation in a national broadcast. It was however long expected, going by what was happening elsewhere in the world.

The injunction was simple in nature but universal in application. But no one in these parts could imagine the extent of its impact. Not even the authorities knew how long it would last. The message was simple: Return to your homes and stay there for the next fortnight in the first instance. Leave uncompleted projects, ongoing work, daily routines and just retire to wherever you call home for as long as it had a door to hold you indoors for as long as necessary. There was a more serious and even sinister undertone: leave your amputated dreams behind in the office, in the plane or wherever the epidemic of fear caught up with you. Of all the disruptions of the corona emergency, none is more lethal than the sudden disruption of dreams. A dream once amputated is hard to reassemble. It soon evaporates.

In times past, one had met sudden disruptions with the consolation that when one door closes, you can carve a door out of a concrete wall and thus open a new corridor of opportunities. In times of past national self inflicted crises, when Nigeria narrows the gate of opportunity, shuts itself down or shuts you out, you go somewhere else to take advantage of freer climes. There is always that stubborn hope that worthy dreams will thrive on fertile grounds no matter how far away.

This time is different. You are locked down, locked in and locked up. Call it polite house arrest or home detention. Even the most gilded palace becomes a prison once you cannot freely go through that front door. This is worse. You cannot call your travel agent for the usual quick flight booking to hop out to London, Atlanta, Dubai or New York. Worse still, I cannot fly to Owerri or Port Harcourt and from there journey to the wellspring of my beginnings to commune with ancestors long gone by or reconnect with my birth cord buried at the foot of the undying kola nut tree at the back of mother’s old fire place.

The airports are closed. All flights in and out are off, including domestic ones are off. The most elementary symbol of modern man’s freedom, the open road, is closed as federal and state authorities scramble over the right to limit intra and inter state movement. The prison gate is shut! I can hear the mental clang of the invisible iron gate. Even over thirty five years of sometimes subversive journalism has not earned me a night without freedom. But here we are, locked down according to a new idiom of humanity’s new helplessness.
The only space left for your restless soul is the many walls of my home. The only human contact allowed is the warmth of family, looking more like fellow inmates of a prison without a signpost.

Beyond the familiar voices of family and the chatter on social media, solace comes in the silent cacophony of voices howling at you from the library. The limitless acquisition of books on an array of subjects has become for me over the years a sort of therapy. A multitude of books yet unread is the readiest reassurance that there are still many rivers to cross.

The book as the repository of human knowledge and our collective memory is one of the greatest inventions in human history and the industrial age. I retreat to my study to find books that most appropriately address a this moment. I search for my lone copy of Femi Osofisan’s Kolera Kolej. It is lost, stolen or just took a walk! Quickly, I reach for the works of my friend John O’Donohue, the late Irish priest and poet. Eternal Echoes is a book for this moment: “To be human is to belong…Belonging is the heart and warmth of intimacy.” From there, I add Wole Soyinka’s collection of prison poems, A Shuttle in the Crypt : ‘Tears are rainfall in the house of death”. I tone it down by re-reading Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments: “Each thing that goes away returns and nothing in the end is lost”. I feel reassured. Renewed to face indefinite detention!

The conditions of this detention are clear. If you are a global detainee, you learn to pick lessons from far and wide. Regular prisoners are at least entitled to group airing. Not a Covid-19 detainee! Most of the things that define our humanity are now routinely abridged. Even worse, the things that made us global citizens were the first to go. Forget the restaurant. Forget the football stadium. Forget also the cinema. You are allowed to go outdoors, preferably if you are alone like a ghostly solitary sleep walker, a free floating miserable piece of humanity chopped away from the warmth and embrace of society and sequestered from community. Discouraged from the sacred ritual of a handshake, the reassuring hug and embrace of loved ones and that vital proximity that reassures us all that in the end, we are not alone.

I settle back into detention. Even unusual moments have their dividends. When you are constrained in your physical space, the mind usurps the freedom which defines your essence. It roams all the places where you have been and even venture to the places you still wish to visit before you die. The absences we feel when we are alone are peopled by the presences that brought us this far. Friends living and dead. Parents gone or still hanging in there. Relations. Associates…People without faces. Sad and lost creatures washed aside by unkind fortune.

Sometimes a lockdown like this could compel you to rediscover the beauty around and inside you. But in all of the last half century and more, nothing like this had ever happened. Even in the last war, there was no lockdown. Only the fear of instant death restrained the mobile and restless. This one is different. There is an enemy out there all right but he is invisible and with no physical guns and yet it kills many people unexpectedly

The things you discover in a lockdown at home are limitless and priceless. It is the solidarity of family, the power of love long taken for granted. There is above all the endless reservoir of your inner self. It is time to take stock, to re evaluate the worth of love left on the shelf and friendship left to gather mould. The family dinner becomes a communion of saints long separated by the tyranny of schedule, the fierce urgency of deadlines and the disruptive phone calls of bank and business. This is the moment everyone in the house had long wished for but never found. A powerful divider of society through ‘social distance’, Covid-19 is also a uniter of family indoors.

But an ancient wisdom has returned with a new message. Wash your hands before eating, forks, spoons, knives or not. You are reminded of the mystery of hnd washing: Pontius Pilate earned his popularity by publicly washing his hands off Christ’s unjust conviction!

Glory be to the miracle of the new technologies. The information age and the internet of everything, delivered via the magic of the smart phone and the computer device. Add to them the social media. Together, these advances have the ability to populate our silences with endless chatter and replace our loneliness in times like this with voices from far and near. It comes in a stream of jokes, wisecracks, forgotten wisdoms and aphorisms that would have been lost if not so widely shared. When your computer or smart phone prompts you to ‘share’, it is reaffirming our sociality and reconnecting us to the human community which curiously the technologies of market individualism and loneliness have undermined. We are nothing if we cannot share our experiences, blessings and tribulations.

In moments of desperate isolation, you scroll through your phone and your lonely voice reaches out through the vacant space left by our isolated selves and the open void left by our collective longing for each other. You call a friend who, in any case, is also a castaway in his own cage. The voice from the other end is the only assurance you have that society is still alive. Your friend can no longer visit you, neither can you return the favour. An invisible bridge of fear has been erected by this virus. We now live in the age of fear. The fear of things unseen is a mark of wisdom.

The genesis of my detention was made in the East (China), fermented in the West (US, Italy, Spain, France and the UK) and now delivered to the South -Africa. The beginning was almost somewhat biblical in nature. The Chinese were gathering from all over the world for the annual Chinese New Year.

It was their own ‘gathering of the tribes’ , a homecoming for the global Chinese diaspora from far flung corners of the globe to come home. They have this ancient tradition of naming every year after some strange but familiar animal. This year was the ‘Year of the Rat’! Yes, the rat. The famed shredder of domestic valuables, roving messenger and thermometer of dirt, squalor and poverty and disease. That carrier of legendary contagion in times past and present. The Bubonic plague. Black death. Lassa fever… No sooner had the gatherings begun to assemble than all hell was let loose.

News of the outbreak of a strange virus swept through China and the world. The strange virus claimed many lives ever before humanity gave it a name. Assemblies of happy New Year travellers turned into silent crowds of retreating mourners. That was in December, 2019.

Fast forward to today, Easter 2020. After sixteen unthinkable days indoors, I revolt and make a dash for the doorway. My security guards are startled by my abrupt reappearance. They are luckier. By their profession, they are exempted from the lockdown. They come in from the other side of town. The other domestic staff are gone to observe the lockdown with their families. Through the security men, I learn of the real world outside. Since there are no more visitors and no entries and exits through the front gate, my security guards are now more of jail keepers than anything. But most importantly, they are information bearers about the state of the nation outside my detention home, on the other side of town.

They carry a mixed tale of anguish and trouble. Soldiers and policemen sent to enforce the lockdown are beating up innocent people. Some of the people being harassed have committed no crimes except that they cannot understand English. No one explained to them that ‘social distance’ is not some strange animal but a separation from others to avoid infection. It does not make sense to them that a family of eight that spent the night in one room should come outside to stay far from each other just to impress government agents! They cannot understand that the woman who roasts corns at the street corner for a living is flouting the lockdown if her hungry patrons exceed more than one or two at a time. No one understands why unemployed bored youngsters in the neighbourhood should not spend the idle days playing soccer on the deserted street.
People cannot understand the foolishness of government wisdom. But government in its wisdom has unleashed wild policemen and combat troops in full battle gear with real guns to save these ‘idle civilians’ from themselves.

Soldiers and police men are beating the hell out of the innocent. Anger has flared up somewhere in the land and a soldier has killed an innocent young man. In reprisal, the ‘Boys’ of the Area have taken down a soldier. Anger is mounting. Hungry people are getting angry too. Township is tense. And now dangerous!

I ask them of the money that government is raining down the streets and poor neighbourhoods. Government talkatives have been shouting themselves hoarse, announcing that indigent Nigerians are being paid between N10,000 and N20,000 as palliative against Covid-19. I ask my guards if they have collected theirs. No sir! Does any of them know somebody who has collected? No sir! Ok. Does any of them know somebody who knows somebody who has gotten this helicopter cash transfer. No sir !!

I call up my relations in the village where I know some of the poorest Nigerians live with the same question. No one has heard, seen or knows someone who has seen or heard about anyone who has received this government money!

Today is Easter, the climax of the season of passion. Last week, the Pope preached to the faithful from behind a cubicle of plexiglass after mouthing incantations along a deserted street in Rome.

It is the third week of my detention. No one knows when this will end. But I can smell the aroma of freedom. One of these days, some vaccine, some therapy and some procedure will be found abroad (yes. Always abroad!) and aped at home. Then, Covid-19 will be confined to where it belongs-in the same dungeon as SARS, Ebola, Zika etc. Human history will resume shortly and I hope to take away my detention experience from it all. I will also go and get some take away Chinese food from the restaurant at Ikeja GRA!