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Cockroach Elegy

5 January 2007 (early morning, my flat in Ugbowo)

It is finally morning. It is very cool now, almost cold. Harmattan has really settled in. According to one of my neighbors, it was late in coming. It normally comes in October, but they still had rain then. She says the seasons have been off for the past few years now. (I think: global warming, as seen from this side of the Atlantic.)

I didn’t sleep last night…again. The sound of cockroaches keeps me awake, and no matter how much I meditate, or tell myself how small these little creatures are (especially compared to how big I am) my skin crawls at the thought of them. Now, these are not your average cockroaches, of the kind we see in the U.S. These suckers are monstrous…and they can fly! The scritch-scratch sounds they make on the linoleum are almost unbearable, and the feel of one on the skin is unmentionable. I don’t sleep through the night anymore, and now I am starting to appreciate the student culture here, of staying up all night to study. That is all one can do, really; try to keep the mind occupied to avoid thinking about the critters scampering about at night.

I only hear them when there is no electricity. I now rush to finish all my cooking, cleaning, and bathing before dark so that when they take the light, I won’t have to fumble around with the kerosene lantern in near darkness. When there is light all is well, but I still find myself on edge, wondering when they will take it away again, or I wonder when I will start hearing the scritch-scratch sounds. Let me just say this: I will never think of candle-lit dinners with the same kind of romance again.

Come to think of it, I never really did fall in love with candle-lit romance. Growing up in 1980s Nigeria, when the military took over the country, we had long stretches without electricity. NEPA (the National Electric Power Authority), the partly government-owned, centralized ministry in charge of electricity was being plundered, as with all other government-owned ministries in charge of infrastructure. NEPA was enemy number one in our daily lives growing up. Whenever the darkness and silence suddenly descended upon us, someone would inevitably hail/curse NEPA: “NEPA whuo whuo!” We could never count on electricity. Chunks of hours here and there, sometimes entire days or several days at a stretch of no power. Our refrigerators and freezers were useless. Running water in cities became a problem. We had to “trek” to pump water at community pumps…from the poorest of the poor to the relatively affluent middle class. Increasingly, people went out and got generators. Now, they are ubiquitous. In 2007, Nigeria still has a big problem with electricity. The sound of humming machines sing throughout the night, spewing out all kinds of fumes into the already petrol infused air.

When they bring back the light, a huge wave of relief washes over me; I am not the only one. The relief is felt throughout the neighborhood, as children shout with glee and adults praise God. The music comes back on and people resume activity. When there is no light, the quiet is very tangible, almost loud. Last night, in the midst of that silence, a dog whined and howled for what seemed a good hour, inconsolable. It added to the ominous atmosphere. I really could not sleep.

Our suck-away pit...

Our suck-away pits…

They say it is not normal to have so many cockroaches here in the compound, that it is because the suck-away pit is full and they have nowhere else to go but out through the vent. Suck-away pits handle sewage here. They are big concrete cisterns, usually located in the back of one’s premises and serve to store all the household waste running through the pipes. They are sealed over with cement, with vents at the top (where the cockroaches enter and exit). When it is time to clean them out (about once a year…or a year and a half), the cleaners break it open, scoop it all out, and re-seal it with cement. I imagine you’d have to pay dearly to compel someone to do this kind of job! I asked who does the cleaning, and how much they got paid.  The answer: they are usually deaf or mute people with little hope of getting any other kind of job in this economy. They get paid very poorly, but they say these men do a better job than a sucking machine. The logic disturbs me.

Efe, the default superintendent of this compound, has already called the Lawyer—the real person who is supposedly in charge of managing this place (he doesn’t live here)—to find out when he planned on maintaining the suck-away. Most students are away now for holidays, so it is an ideal time to do it. Apparently, the stench is so overwhelming that it is impossible to stay on the premises when the suck-away is being cleaned; and the stench lasts for days. Efe made that phone call almost two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, when Efe called to tell him that we were fixing the water tank in the compound (most of which I paid for), the Lawyer responded instantly.

This morning, I asked Efe to call the Lawyer again. His phone is switched off. I threatened to speak with him myself if it would make any difference. Efe tells me that would be out of the question; it would only exacerbate the problem. He would delay further out of spite at our audacity. We will have to wait until he has the time, and perhaps even the money to come and take care of the suck-away (mind you, we’ve paid our rent!). I am supremely frustrated.

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Neighborhood side street

As I stepped outside this morning, wrapped in my sleeping cloth, I surveyed the compound. Plastic water satchels, black plastic bags, and other debris litter it. There are even filled wastebaskets which have sat there for the past two weeks, left by tenants who left for the holidays but couldn’t be bothered to dispense of their trash. Adamu usually sweeps the compound each morning. We’ve been away for over a week, and he too has decided to take a holiday. I heard a rumor of rats in the bottom corner flat, and as I look round, I am not surprised. I asked Efe if it was possible to call a community meeting to discuss these hygiene issues. He just laughed at me. He and a couple of other tenants tried to address these issues a while back. They didn’t get very far. In fact, he suspects it is the reason the Speaker’s mind went askew. The mentality here, in this little compound is: if it bothers you so much, then take care of it yourself. My neighbors are unwilling to put in the effort or the little money necessary to improve their environment. Looking down Nova road – unpaved, pot-holed, and littered with all sorts of mess – I can’t help but wonder if it is this kind of mentality, writ large, that lies at the root of the decay I see all around. I will have to get another can of Baygon spray to fight another cockroach battle tonight.

A recent, passionate blog post on NEPA (it still riles up all kinds of emotion!)…

…and a NEPA joke (there are many), culled from nigeriaonline.com:

United States President George Bush came for an official visit to Nigeria. He asked OBJ why everywhere is in darkness and Obasanjo who felt disgraced kept mum on the issue. A few month later OBJ visited Bush in his country and was looking for a way to nail him back. He requested for a drive round the states and he was busy looking for a house without electricity, On sighting one, he was happy and he asked, smiling, “Bush why is that house in darkness? ” Bush said, “Oh, Sorry I did not tell you, that is the Nigerian embassy.”

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One thought on “Cockroach Elegy

  1. Oh my! This is so crazy! I would not have survived it! The joke was hilarious by the way. I’m enjoying your accounts of your experiences. Please keep sharing!!

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