Nigeria: My Neighbourhood


My family lives in one of those locations in Kaduna where the well-off and the very poor rub shoulders, literally. My household is one of those privileged to share fences with its peers - homes with high fences and gates and security men and a little of this and that to spare or share.

Our streets are neat and relatively secure, at least as secure as any part of Nigeria today can claim to be, which is not saying much. You can count about two hundred households on this side of the city that was made to yield our portion to the new settlers like us who needed to live apart but had no homes or carved out land to build in the old Government Reserved Areas (GRA).

Our island of relative affluence borders a large and ancient slum by comparison, a typical setting habouring massive population, poverty, dirt and disease. We are every inch a part of each other's worlds, although we can shield ourselves with our fences and high walls and generators.

Except for the occasional burglary often blamed on their people, frequent fights involving their gangs of youth and noise, drug peddlers who provide access to our own young addicts, we have lived in relative peace with them. We employ many from them, and we provide a market for some of the food they produce or cook.

Our children do not play together or go to the same schools. We have two mosques and a church which our residents built and attend. They have theirs, although a few of them worship with us. We go to their markets for perishables, and we turn a blind eye to the numerous charging centres and POS services which our securitymen and domestic staff provide for them.

In the last few weeks, we noticed that our stable patterns of relationships were coming under some strain. Our side has had access to global television and developments regarding the coronavirus from its manifestation in China to its journey through many countries and the terrible toll it was taking on its unceasing journey to us.

We knew that our neighbours did not believe in an impending disaster, and had not, therefore, prepared for one. We were also slow to wake up to preventive measures other nations were advocating and adopting. All our homes have boreholes, soap and enough room for social distancing. We knew that with some tolerable inconveniences, we could survive lock downs if they became necessary. We began to lay off some domestic staff from our neighbours and restrict movement of others we felt were compounding our concerns that we could control in our environment. Our poorer neighbours were unhappy.

Tension and anger rose further when government banned the use of motorcycles and Achaba, two major revenue earners for our neighbours. Many young men continued their trades in their immediate communities (which is barely policed), and communities close by, but these could not make up for losses suffered from lack of access to the city centre and further distances with large populations.

Our side understood that the measures were meant to enforce the social distance requirements, but it was neither our responsibility to sell government policies, nor was it an idea good to support developments that were clearly unpopular with our neighbours. We held our nighbourhood meeting a few days into the ban.

The concerns of some residents who now had no access to motorcycles and Achaba to take their children to school was drowned by warnings that we should brace ourselves for further encroachments and crime from neighbours who are now without means of living. The village head attended our meeting and asked if we could intercede with the governor to lift the ban. He did not seem impressed when we told him we had no access or influence over the governor. It was not a happy meeting.

Government followed with further restrictions on operations of markets and large gatherings, including in places of worship. We could tell that there was a noose that was tightening, and, knowing our no-nonsense governor, we knew enough not to discountenance further restrictions. Even within our side of the divide, there were intense arguments over the legality and acceptability of the virtual ban on congregations exceeding a certain number at Muslim prayers and Christian worship.

By Thursday last week, one mosque had closed its doors to congregation prayers, while the other dared the governor to interfere with the Friday congregation prayer which the management committee decided will hold. It was clear that government was either going to tighten the noose, or large sections of the public will ignore it and the virus it was protecting us from, altogether.

Sure enough, the governor's deputy rolled out a total state lockdown and stay-at-home order with an allowance of a few hours, long enough to make sure no one prepared for even the most essential requirements. There was also no mention of a terminal or review date. That night, we could see and hear that our neighbours had ignored the order. Our foray into shops and kiosks to stock up on what they had to sell to us raised both curiosity and concern. A few more domestic staff were told to stay away from the next day. The distance between our localities grew. We had locked up our gates against even our employees who wanted to charge phones and seek for information over the implications of the lockdown.

Our second mosque failed to hold the Friday prayers, even though many of our neighbours had turned up. There was talk of breaking in and conducting the prayer, but some villagers advised against it. Locked up as we were, no one from our side would have dared stop the break-in and the prayer. It was now clear: we are part of the enemy.

Events have moved at an alarming rate since then. Our plans to support our poor neighbours with food and soap had collapsed after the first attempt when a dangerous stampede aborted the effort. Large numbers of locals now knock on fortified gates shouting for food. We are afraid to open, and we are preserving the little we have. Two nights ago, we heard shouts that went on for a long time. It turned out to be young people celebrating the news that the governor had owned up to contacting the virus. Yesterday, there were reports of clashes between members of the governor's party and his supporters and those who jubilated the day before. We hear rumours that our neighbours are waiting for us to die in hundreds from the rich 'people's disease'. We know that no one in the village stays indoors, and it will take the most courageous enforcer to keep thousands of hungry and desperate people indoors. No government relief of any type has reached the village, and their children are beginning to cry to sleep. It is a matter of time before food is snatched from our children's mouths.

We are now prisoners of two fears: We fear a virus which feeds and grows on contact and exposure, so total isolation is a major protection. We are also prisoners of a creeping hostility of poor neighbours who know we have food and water. They think people like us brought the virus from foreign countries, and we can get tested if we think we are infected. We think we are safe behind locked gates and we think we can survive without them. We have things they need, and they can take them if it becomes necessary for their survival. Our entire enclave can be overrun and emptied in 30 minutes by the villagers. We cannot leave our virtual prison, even if we have somewhere else to go. Our neighbourhood is our prison. We will live or die here, rich and poor alike.

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