How Nigerians Practice Alchemy- Chidi Ugbe
Alchemy is an antique tradition whose practitioners claimed to be the precursor to profound powers. The goal of Alchemy was to achieve perfection. For metals it was gold, for man, longevity, and then immortality. History in its benevolence lacks verifiable records of base metals turned into gold or humans who achieved immortality through the art, and as such, these goals have remained an un-reached Eldorado. Such possibilities exist only in the province of myth. However, the myths surrounding Alchemy have been dispelled with the advancement of science , leading to an evolution through which practitioners of the art have adopted a more realistic approach – the transformation of otherwise invaluable, lesser materials into valuable forms. It is this form of Alchemy that is being practised today in medicine, chemistry, physics and other related fields.
But there is another form of Alchemy, one which is peculiar to the Nigerian. The Nigerian is an Alchemist of the most prodigious proportions. Bludgeoned and stamped into poverty and hunger by his government, the Nigerian has developed a dogged resilience, reinforced with brilliant resourcefulness. Denied of even the most basic needs of human existence, the Nigerian soldiers on, procuring for himself whatever he needs from what is available. He complains only a little, and his complaints are often met with empty promises. If he decides to stage a protest, red-eyed soldiers are unleashed on him and he is driven back, beaten, wounded, but unbowed. Yes, the Nigerian loves his life, that’s his only weakness, but he is also resilient and extremely resourceful. If the road on his street is bad, he turns sanitation day into road-rehabilitation day. He cuts the grasses by the road side, digs up the sand from the gutters, gathers the broken bricks around and fills up the potholes. If he is an Okada man, he turns his Okada into a keke Marua and forges ahead, because he does not have the money to buy one and Fashola just told him to go and die of hunger. The Nigerian, he is the graduate who takes his frustration and turns it into a ministry, in that incomplete building in your neighbourhood, because after 10 years of leaving the university he is yet to get a job. He now encourages others, and believes that somehow, someday, he’d build a 100,000 seater auditorium for the lord. He is the man that knocks on your gate to ask if you have empty bottles or old clothes for sale. He is slouched and carries a big bag on his back, broken, but unbowed. She is the widow, who wakes up early in the morning to make Kunu, and walks the length and breath of Lagos to sell them so her children can eat. The Nigerian is an Alchemist!
Mahmoud is from Kastina state. He lives in Lagos, in a shack by the canal at Agoo and works as a labourer for an Oga who like him, came to lagos in search of a better life. He does not even have primary education and it is with difficulty that we converse. His pidgeon comes out in broken, spattered sentences but his spirit is exuberant, unbroken. He shared his story.
Mahmoud resumes very early in the morning around 1am and joins his friend Ahmed who also lives in a shack by the canal. The both get into the canoe and row , following the canal to Badagry, a journey of about two hours. At Badagry, they fill up the boat with sharp sand gotten from the bottom of the canal. Young men like Mahmoud and Ahmed go into the black water to dig up the sand at the bottom. They tie their nose with leather bags to prevent the dirty water from entering their nostrils. They have their own canoe too, albeit its about three times larger than Mahmoud’s. A team on board the canoe, takes the bags of sand from the team in the water and empties them into their canoe while another transfers the sand to Mahmoud’s canoe using shovels. There are other canoes too, like theirs who have also come to buy sand. Mahmoud’s canoe contains three trips of sand and he pays 15,000 for a full canoe. It takes about two hours for five men to fill up the canoe after which they begin the arduous journey home.
On getting to Agoo, Mahmoud and Ahmed tie the canoe to a stub at the bank, where the water is shallow and get to work immediately. Ahmed stays back at the
canoe while Mahmoud fetches two baskets, akin to those used in transporting tomatoes from the north. Ahmed fills up the baskets and Mahmoud carries them through the water, to dry ground. He does not worry that the canal is a congregation of all the waste water in lagos. He dips himself chest deep into it, carrying the basket of sand on his head with the waste water dripping all over his face. At mid-day, Mahmoud and Ahmed switch places and continue to do so until they job is done. After the offloading, which normally takes the whole day, they usually have three trips of sand. A trip is sold for 13,000 Naira but Mahmoud and Ahmed do not take the money. They take it to their Oga who pays them five thousand Naira for a canoe offloaded. They always divide the money equally before leaving for their shacks.
Mahmoud hopes to be like his Oga someday. He is saving up to buy a canoe which costs about Seventy Thousand Naira. He’d purchase a licence from the co-operative so that he can carry on his business without interference. He’d employ other young men like him who would migrate to lagos from their villages because farming is no longer lucrative and education under trees is in the least, attractive. If fortune smiles on him, he’d go back to his village in Kastina state someday, marry and build a house.
Mahmoud is just one, of millions of Nigerians who have mastered the art of Alchemy, who toil daily to scratch a mere existence in the 8th largest oil producing nation of the world, who make the best of what they’ve been given and forge ahead regardless of their difficulties in a country riddled by corruption and bad leadership.
Chidi Ugbe, publisher of The Emerge Review recently observed that Nigerians are the ultimate alchemists; not the scientists of old who tried to convert ordinary materials into gold but scientists of their lives who seek to restore the quality of their living to a better state than the country and those in power have left it.
He cited the example of Mahmoud a laborer who came to Lagos in search of a better life. In this piece we will be meet two University students who decided to make ‘gold’ out of the on going strike.
Vershima Adaguusu is a Law student whose art evolved from dilettante secondary school comic strips he sold for N10 to professional sketches, he publishes his works on his blog; ridicsketches.blogspot.com and uses @D_Dictator as his twitter handle.
I have been drawing since 2005 in secondary school (Christ the King College, Gwagalada) where I established my name selling the comic strips I drew; my work was more imaginative then. Of course cartoons inspired me, my comics had storylines and everything. Then when I realized I could make money out of it, I decided to really go commercial. I have contracts for pay at the moment; I don’t really have a sophisticated studio. I sketch student portraits but also family pictures and the like. Its not too hard balancing business and school, I do more work when I’m on vacation, like now (laughs). At school I work during the weekends then some nights during weekdays.
My parents are okay with my doing it at home, but they are not so cool with doing it in school, they fear it may affect my academics. But I try to prove to them that it won’t, so they support me. My mom even brought supplies for me recently. I work black and white, unless a sketch really needs color. I adapt to whats in vogue and keep searching for the kind of tools that will make my work better. I did not take art lessons, I’m a law student. I just started doing it, with the belief that anything could be drawn. I learnt by nature I guess.
Evelyn Avese Ker is currently a final year student of Benue State University and C.E.O of Evea Stitchez. She has been designing for five years and is currently working on her collection of bow ties which vary from Ankara to brocade.
I started with sketches which I did for fun, then I started wondering what they would look like in real life.
My Mom sews during her free time and I had already learnt from her when I was growing up, when I realized that I wanted to take fashion seriously, I just developed my skills from there. Finance has been a major challenge because you have to purchase materials and the more you grow as a designer, the more exotic your taste in material becomes. Some cheap embellishment by the roadside simply wont do. Last year was the highlight of my career (smiles) I got to showcase my dresses at a fashion show at my school (Benue State University).
Apart from the monetary benefits, I get to do something I have passion for; clothing my society is a way I get to actively participate in it, not just behind some office desk.
I like silk material, it has this elegance about it. When working with colors I prefer the brighter ones. Brighter colors empower women especially.
For her ties, you can call 07034471388 or mail email@example.com.
Maybe your life has really been hard and circumstances have seemed insurmountable, but what have you made out of it?
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