Overnight, the world turned hostile to a Nigerian called Uche Olu-Hassan. The week has been quite adventurous for the trader who lives in Suleja (Niger State) but travels regularly to the far north (usually Zamfara, Katsina, Adamawa or Borno states) in search of grains, onions and at times fish which he takes to Lagos and Calabar to sell.
He has never left the shores of Nigeria and is therefore familiar only with the country of his birth. But by the time he returned from his last trip, he had felt estranged from the world he used to know.
Terrorism is not the cause – it has not affected his business much, because he knows places to avoid and when to avoid them. He used to get on well with the people he met; his sociability was perhaps responsible for his ability to speak the three major Nigerian languages fluently and a little of some other “minority” languages.
Everything changed with the official announcement that the Ebola virus disease had penetrated Nigeria. It was a new awakening when he got to Calabar on Sunday, as nobody agreed to stretch out his hands in greeting.
“Hey! Hey! Long time no see!” he shouted to a friend.
Rather than embrace Olu-Hassan as he used to do, the friend looked away — he almost ran away. “You know the new thing in town, Olu,” his friend said. “No shaking.”
That night, as he strolled around drinking joints, the reality dawned on him. No friends or foes in sight. The usual boisterous activities around the joints had disappeared.
“Ranka dede”, a form of greeting that is popular in Hausa culture, had been borrowed by even Calabar residents to ward off contact with other people because it involves gesticulating with the right arm only.
The next morning, he made for the airport to catch a flight to Lagos. He first joined a bus. Inside, a young woman sat, covered in overalls. Nobody sat close to her because she was shivering as if she had a fever. At certain bus-stops, passengers stepped back from the bus on entering and seeing the “feverish” woman.
The airport was not friendlier. Everybody avoided everyone else, even inside aircraft. Once, a young man stepped on an object and fell down. There was near-pandemonium inside the aircraft as many thought he was another Patrick Sawyerr. Calm returned only when the crew members assured them that the young man was not sick. And when the plane touched down in Lagos, about 70 minutes later, everyone walked down very carefully. No pushing. No hurrying to be the first to get out. You would think that the WAI (War Against Indiscipline) had been re-launched.
Disgusted with it all, Olu-Hassan opted to see his doctor in Lagos. There, he had the ultimate nightmare. Spending time in a hospital environment where Ebola patients were most likely to be found constituted a risk. With the reported infection and death of health workers who had been treating Sawyerr, not many nurses and doctors were willing to work. Going to work was enough risk, they believed. In a place filled with patients, who knew what each was suffering from? Complaints of ordinary fever, headache and diarrhoea – common symptoms of malaria or typhoid fever – could be mistaken for Ebola!
In Lagos, mai suya (roasted meat sellers) were going empty-handed because there were no customers. Bush meat and domestic meat were no more delicacies. Wherever Olu-Hassan went – markets, hospitals, schools and drinking bars – there was Ebolaphobia.
Perhaps, the disease has been blown out of proportion. Rumours are flying. Doctors like health minister Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu have stated that Ebola is contracted only after it has manifested in a victim. For many Nigerians, however, it is better to err on the side of caution. No doubt, patients in hospitals are in for harder times. Self-medication may become more rampant soon.
Olu-Hassan has returned to Suleja after passing through another hell during his trip from Lagos to Abuja airport and then to Suleja. He has found that even burying the dead has become herculean: a corpse has been left to rot for three days near his compound because nobody had been willing to touch it.
“What kind of life are we leading?” Olu-Hassan asked himself. “What is happening to our people?”
He soon found the answer: In the race for life, there is no stopping; one doesn’t get tired.
For now, bitter kola in Nigeria and Zmapp in America are presumed to be the “drugs” of choice against this disease – at least until further notice.
Prayers also help, Olu-Hassan has learned. When, therefore, he was woken up shortly after 5am on Friday by a call from his sister who lives in Aba and told to ensure his wife and children drank, and bathed with, salt-water before 6am, he did not argue with her. The original source of the message that swirled around Nigerian landscapes that early morning has yet to be traced. Some said it emanated from a traditional ruler in Kogi State. Some said it was from a salt seller. Others said it was a gimmick by the GSM companies to make money.
But Olu-Hassan was told that a charismatic Catholic priest in Enugu had given the directive because he got a revelation that a strange disease had entered the country. Olu-Hassan remembered a portion in the Bible that says, “When I see the blood, I shall pass over you.” Before he could alert his wife to the “prophecy”, she had received the same message from four other people and had prepared the salt solution and started bathing the kids.
In a way, the week had offered a respite for a people who have for long been traumatised by acts of terror. Ebolaphobia has eclipsed the news about the murderous gang called ISIS and the bandits operating mainly in north-east Nigeria and Cameroon.
Mass hysteria like this could have good uses, however, if the originators were patriotic and ingenious. Imagine what would have happened if the message had been: “Boko Haram terrorists have procured biological and chemical weapons that are capable of wiping out Nigeria within an hour. They have resolved to release the weapons simultaneously at midnight tomorrow in Abuja, Calabar, Kano and Lagos. Every home and every house MUST be searched before daybreak for leads. The suspects must be rounded up before daybreak and lynched, or else no life will be left in Nigeria! Please, pass this message around immediately.”
If such a message were to be “confirmed” by the SSS and the minister of health, I guess the one-day war this column once advocated would take place – a war between the good people and the evil people of this country. And it would certainly end in victory for the former.
All terrorists, armed robbers and kidnappers could be eliminated in one day. Reason: they are known by other people and they constitute an insignificant minority. What am I saying? We either fight collectively or we hang individually.