Nigerians must not succumb to the present vicious vicissitudes of life, counsels Monday Philips Ekpe

When Paul Laurence Dunbar, an American writer who died in 1906, penned a poem titled, “Sympathy”, in his landmark 1899 collection, Lyrics of the Hearthside, he probably didn’t realise the degree of the impact his work would make. Apart from its successes in the realms of the arts, it has for more than a century refused to vacate the consciousness of people and groups concerned with the subject of emancipation. As a testimony to its towering status in the world of the fictive printed word, one of its iconic lines directly inspired the title of the 1969 autobiography of the legendary Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  

The transcendental nature of “Sympathy” manifests in its structural simplicity and thematic depth, devoid of aimless and empty esoterica. No poetic initiation is required to enjoy and identify with its enduring messages. The stanzas here: “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!/When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;/When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,/And the river flows like a stream of glass;/When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,/And the faint perfume from its chalice steals/

“I know what the caged bird feels!/I know why the caged bird beats his wing/Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;/For he must fly back to his perch and cling/When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;/And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars/And they pulse again with a keener sting/I know why he beats his wing!/I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,/When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,/When he beats his bars and he would be free;/It is not a carol of joy or glee,/But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,/But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings/I know why the caged bird sings.”

Dunbar, son of former slaves, wasn’t a stranger to oppression. The society in which he lived had mastered the art of segregation, institutionalising the obnoxious practice with unbowed statutes, and conducting its daily affairs in black and white. All he needed was the image of a bird trapped in a cage but trying frantically to escape and enjoy the freedom that was its true destiny. If Blacks had already escaped slave trade in its raw form at the dusk of the 19th Century, racism was set to prove that it was equally lethal. This poem was a reminder that the outward conditions of the bird, though pathetic and gory, weren’t enough to obliterate its dreams of actualising its innate rights and goals.

What concerns Nigerians with birds? To begin with, Nigerians are flyers in every sense of the word, many of whom aim for the heights. Their quest for knowledge and desire to accomplish strides in various fields have produced undeniable footprints at home and abroad. These are well-established facts. What is perceived as an undue rush for western education is actually largely a manifestation of the hunger, not for cosmetic reasons, to remain relevant and competitive in an ever-challenging world. You just can’t take the urge to explore and conquer the immediate and distant environments from Nigerians. This explains why they can be found in virtually every part of the planet. The bird in them simply cannot be kept under.

Unfortunately, however, these are not the best of times for these resilient, go-getting Africans. More than any other era in the modern history of this country, the citizens have had to grapple with a troubling emptiness, a feeling that goes with being helpless. The purchasing power of most people keeps draining away with the sort of speed that makes drowsiness, if not fainting or death, inevitable. The situation is already that dire. A former governor of the Ugandan Central Bank once dared to tell the country’s ex-dictator, the late Idi Amin Dada, that the currency had so lost its value that it was like toilet paper. One may argue against describing the naira in such a humiliating manner but the current realities show a legal tender on a rapid downward trip into oblivion.         

“Jalopi” is the colloquial name for overused cars in Nigeria, vehicles that have served many owners, survived many mechanics and seen too many years with all the sorry implications. Usually, towards the end of its usefulness, meaning being able to move at all at whatever pace, it becomes a source of worry to its incumbent owner and other road users. It’s at such points one could be at a loss as to who or what to pity: the rider or the poor old machine. Either the people or naira. Most Nigerians have reached that sad juncture where they are to be pitied – a discomfiting dilemma occasioned by an unprecedented despicable time in the misfortunes of their currency.

Ambitions and well-laid plans, the types that motivational speakers recommend as prerequisites for success, are fast giving way to disillusionment, desperation and despair. Legitimate lofty aspirations are being whittled down to an endless preoccupation with visceral needs. Young people who should rally their youthful, creative energies towards achieving noble objectives are now compelled to prioritise matters of the stomach. How many kilometres more do we have to return to the stone, pre-civilisation age when eating and drinking were the prime driving forces of homo sapiens?

Between an emasculated naira and the whirlwind inflationary trends, Nigerians are forced to re-evaluate their scales of preference, that is for those who still have that luxury, and take a harder look at the worth of the life they’re now faced with. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) last month gives an idea of the severity of the ongoing nationwide misery. In January this year, the nation’s headline inflation moved up to 29.90% from 28.92% which was recorded at the end of 2023, an increase of approximately one percent. Compared with what obtained in January last year, the latest figure accounts for 8.08% as the actual rate was 21.82%, quite a significant phenomenon. Within that period, on a year on year basis, the non-alcoholic beverages and food category accounted for the lion share of 15.49%. Understandably so, for, man must whack!

The NBS highlighted upward movements in bread and cereals, potatoes, yam and other tubers, oil and fat, fish, meat, fruit, coffee, tea and cocoa and others. As expected, everything can’t be captured in numbers for the simple reason that ours is not even a country that demonstrates real respect for a functional database as a matter of national policy. Something tells me that that CPI is grossly understated. Take rice, for instance. A 50kg bag sold for less than N55,000 early December last year. It’s now N85,000, barely three months after. No official promise of mitigating or arresting this slide has worked. And hopes of taking the right turn any time soon don’t seem to exist, thereby complicating the lives of many Nigerians. How the present predicaments have affected critical areas live health, education, transportation and the general wellbeing of the citizenry is better imagined. But no data is needed to know that most people are being stretched to the limits. Like Dunbar’s bird, an average Nigerian is clearly on an excruciating trial.

As trust in government continues to wane and the people’s patience is further taken for granted, the citizens do not appear to have viable options aside from looking inwards to draw strength from the kind of grit that reassures a tormented bird that it could still break into liberty away from its many troubles, survive and then thrive.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board  

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