A thought for our Neighbours

FADE Weekly Column 0

The recent disaster ravaging Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi has been weighing heavily on my mind for more than a week now since it broke. Described as one of the worst tropical storm to affect Africa, Cyclone Idai has caused catastrophic damage in multiple nations, leaving more than 700 people dead and hundreds more missing. At this time, most of the focus is on the human impact of the storm and the need for Africa to invest in early warning systems for natural disasters. Without a doubt, many lives could have been saved if the people had a little over 24 hours to prepare for the storm by evacuating the area and more.

Soon enough, the environmental impact of Cyclone Idai will start hitting our media waves as scientists debate over the causes; debunking some claims and supporting others. At the moment, the speculation is that warmer than usual sea surface temperature could be behind the intensity of cyclone Idai meaning that climate change has a direct or indirect link to it. For Nigerians who empathize but feel safe in their homes, I will like to remind us that a number of our states are on the coast so we are not immune to this kind of disaster. Remember that the 2004 Tsunami made its way from the Indian Ocean to hit some parts of Africa. As I await the conclusive scientific report, I won’t beat around the bush and just plainly state that Africa in particular is heading for an unprecedented disaster if we don’t urgently attend to our environment. We are not only ill-equipped to handle disasters, we are ill-prepared to eve equip ourselves. This is my note of warning.

My plan for today’s article was to talk about the concept of neighbours and how we are gradually losing that level of community in our urban and even rural areas. I will still do just that by beginning with a story that happened some years back when I was involved with the Lagos Sate Government in the beginning stages of greening the city. At that time, my organization – FADE Africa – was selected to participate I this initiative due to its campaign on tree planting and the numerous benefits that can be derived from it. I was part of the team that planted tree corridors along Clifford Street now known as Murtala Mohammed way in Yaba. After we finished planting the trees, I took it upon myself to go knocking at the houses along the corridor with the intention of involving the people in the care of the trees after all they would be the first beneficiaries of the trees when they are grown. To my surprise, most people I spoke with about the need to water the trees daily and ensure no harm comes to it even when the government officials aren’t around responded with either disinterest or greed. I wonder how those trees are doing now as I haven’t been back there for some time.

As humans, we are quick to forget that our neighbours don’t all look like us with two legs and two arms, the plants that grow around us, the trees and our entire immediate environment serves as our neighbours too. Why would we choose to neglect it? Following last week’s article entitled ‘My father’s Plantation’ which also served to commemorated World Forest day, I have been thinking about the past when being neighbours was more than a geographical definition and how this extended to the way we cared for the environment. I recalled a number of stories that I will like to share when I felt the true definition of what it meant to be neighbours.

Many decades ago, when I was first promoted to Executive Director, I recall that my executive board position came with lots of benefits. The best of the entitlement was that I could now live in the choice area of Ikoyi and Victoria Island at company’s expense.

The company’s property department found me a nice furnished apartment and I couldn’t wait for my wife who was at the hospital preparing to give birth to our first female child at that time to see it.

Within the brief time she was in the hospital, I started moving our belongings from Apapa where we lived then into our new home. As the moving was going on and I was supervising it, a young man walked into the compound towards me and asked if I was the new resident. Upon confirming this, he welcomed me to the area and introduced himself as my neighbor. His name was Bade Ojora. I didn’t know who he was at the time. He took his leave and I thought that was such a nice gesture. Few minutes later, he returned with two pots: one was a pot of stew and the other, efo riro (the Yoruba name for vegetable soup).

According to Bade, his wife was a great cook and with all the moving, I wouldn’t have had time to cook. I was pleasantly surprised and slightly amused by his gesture so I thanked him and hurried in with the intention of turning the content of the pots into my own pots and returning his. On getting out he was gone, so I carried the pots to his house and met Lanre, his wife when I got there. She thanked me for returning her pots, joking that Bade’s love for giving out food has left her with almost no more pots as he would carry an entire pot of food she has just finished cooking to a neighbor or friend and often times, it wasn’t returned. Those two pots of stew would not be the last of Lanre’s cooking that I would have over the years we remained neighbours and I remain a testament to her great culinary skills. From being neighbours, the Ojora’s and my family became very close and till now, our children remain good friends.

Another instance was a story shared to me by a dear friend about the time he and his wife decided to bring his Grandma from the village to live with them in the city. After a few days of her stay, one night they got home in the usual late fashion that working in Lagos demands thanks to the traffic situation to find his grandma waiting up for them. She didn’t understand why they brought her to the city to live alone with the maid since they left very early in the morning and returned very late at night. She wanted to know who their neighbours were at least so she could visit them during the day. My friend informed his grandma that they didn’t know their neighbours. Mama was in shock. She couldn’t understand how it was possible to live in a place and not know ones neighbor.

The next day, after they had left for work, mama went out of the house to knock at the house closest to them. She introduced herself and met another grandma in the same position. A new friend was found. Days later, one evening when my friend returned home from work with his wife, they met grandma with her new friend gisting away. Apparently, it had become the norm for the two women to spend the day gisting from house to house. This particular day only lasted longer than usual. Before the introductions were over, the neighbor came knocking in search of his grandmother and that was how a lasting friendship between the neighbours forged by their grandmothers was founded.

I am not surprised that the grandmother couldn’t fathom not knowing her neighbours and not interacting with them. In the village, this would not have been the case. I remember the time I decided to build my first house in my hometown, a small bungalow that I was setting aside money every month for. I had decided to buy most of the materials from Lagos partly because of the availability and also because I worked in construction so could easily get better deals from contractors I knew in the city. Every month, I would buy a little something be it some bags of cement or sand and place on my property which I had only fenced without gate.

In my absence, a local man came one late evening to steal a bag of cement but was immediately caught by a neighbor who proceeded to take the thief to the village head.  The Village head who was referred to as the Regent then summoned the chiefs who were available and a meeting was conveyed at that time. This was around 8/9 p.m. The thief was found guilty and sentenced to guarding the cements on my property day and night for a certain period of time. During my next visit, I was surprised to see someone camping at the site and inquired as to the reason why. The thief told me the story himself explaining that he had stolen the one bag to use in attending to some repairs in his home. He had been camping on my property for 8 days. After hearing his story, I relieved him of his watch-guard duties and asked him to go.

The following day, the Palace summoned me before the council and I was scolded harshly for not consulting with the Palace before dismissing the man they had sentenced in line with our customs and traditions. For that offence, I was fined one goat and 12 bottles of gin. I wasn’t a chief or even a noble member of the community at that time but the theft was treated with all the seriousness that the law of the land demanded, thanks to a neighbor that was watching out for my meager resources even in my absence.

Our neighbours are not only those that live few meters away from us. As a country; Chad, Benin Republic, Cameroon and more are our neighbours. Do we care? Do we care that some of our neighbouring coastal countries are in pain right now? Do we care that we are part of the problem? Do we care that the way we treat our environment affect not just our immediate neigbours but those farther away?

During the struggle to free the south central and eastern part of Africa from Apartheid we in Nigeria regarded ourselves as a frontline state in the battle, we saw those countries as our neighbours even though they were thousands of miles away. Let’s not forget that.

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