(During the first few days of the new 2013, I could not but reflect on the first week of 2012. Stories encode our history. This story is to remind you of what some persons probably experienced that week.)
Nnaemeka laughed with his wife, teen-aged children, and his brother who was driving them to Onitsha from the village, as they recounted tales of the fun things they had done with their relatives during the holidays.
They had left Lagos for the village on the twenty-third of December, 2011, and had paid four thousand naira, instead of the usual three thousand naira. They attributed the price increase to the seasonal inflation that characterized Christmas and New Year holidays. They had even budgeted that the fare would increase to four thousand five hundred naira or even five thousand naira on the return journey to Lagos.
While in their village in Aguata Local Government Area, some miles from Onitsha, they were insulated from everything related to the media and Lagos. They were even unaware of the bomb blasts that rocked some churches in the Northern part of Nigeria on Christmas day, until some of their cousins, who, because of their work, could not travel before the Christmas, arrived at the village on Boxing Day, and notified them of what was making the news waves.
They had felt saddened by the news of the losses, and warned those of their kinspeople who lived in the north not to go back, but to start life a new in the East. They had argued about the merits and the demerits of the government and its officials. But the excitement of the approaching New Year celebrations came and since they were not directly affected by the losses of Christmas Day, they became more preoccupied with preparations for the celebration of another New Year. They had discussions about which of their towns persons’ had made it in the city, and who needed to return to the village to concentrate on farming, as city life was not for them. They talked about weddings to celebrate in the New Year too. There were so much visitation and festivities to be done that they had no time for the television or newspapers. What leisure time they had was spent watching home videos together as a family.
Soon, it was time to return to Lagos. Nnaemeka had to resume work on the 4th of January, hence he had to live the village on the 3rd. The children also had to prepare for school resumption the next week, and his wife had to open her shop. Nnaemeka annually looked forward to this time of the year with mixed feelings. He was usually happy about the time spent with his mother, and his brothers and sisters, who were spread around the nation. There was rarely a time, during the year, when all of them would be together in one place for more than one day. Whenever they met during weddings or burial ceremonies, they were usually in a hurry to return to their places of work, and their vacation periods did not usually coincide. But there was also the aspect of expenses that were made this period. Transporting the whole family to the village usually gulped a large amount of his salary. They also had to buy new and expensive clothes for Christmas and New Year, to keep up with the image that they were very successful in Lagos. They had to buy foodstuffs and plenty of meat so that visitors to the house in the village would not get the impression that they had plenty. There were dues to pay in the village too, and cash gifts to give to their many uncles and aunties. There were his parents-in-law to attend to too, as other sons-in-law would be giving theirs too and he wouldn’t want to appear as the poorest or least caring son-in-law. He usually postponed the payment of his children’s school fees until the end of January, when his salary was paid, as December salary was usually finished on the expenses that came with the Christmas holiday. His friends from other parts of Nigeria usually criticized his Christmas spendings and advised unsolicited that he could do without going to the village some Christmases, and that even if he had to go home, he could spend less on clothes, and give less money to his relatives. He usually disregarded their comments, telling them, “You people do not understand the way we from the South-East live. Home is important to us. Family is important. We are only complaining now because we are still managing,” he would laugh. “When God blesses us with millions, we won’t feel it this way again. That is our prayer, for God to bless us, so that we will do what we are supposed to do without pains.”
On this day, as Nnaemeka and his family went to the park in Onitsha, he chose to forget about his tight purse. He would survive with his family, as they had survived other years. When they got to the park, his wife and children quickly went to pay and reserve seats in the bus, while he and his cousin brought their luggage from the car’s trunk.
“Oginni? Why are all of you coming back? Don’t you know that one person should stay behind and secure our seats?” Nnaemeka asked his wife and children, when he saw that they had come back to the car.
“You are talking about seat. You won’t even ask us why we are back,” his wife countered.
“Can’t one person come back to relay the information? Okay. Why have you come back? Okey and I can carry our load. We don’t need any help.”
“Who came back to carry load? I have never heard the kind of prices I heard now to travel from here to Lagos.”
“ Ego ne? How much? Five thousand? Pay like that. That’s why I gave you extra.”
“If it is five thousand naira, it is good now. Onitsha to Lagos, eight thousand naira. For six of us, that will be how much? Forty eight thousand naira! How much did you give me? Thirty thousand naira.”
“Good eighteen thousand naira difference,” his eldest daughter, Adaku cut in.
“And people are paying?” Uncle Okey asked.
“Eh eh now,” Nnanna, the Obi’s second child answered. “Some are paying. Some are going back. They say it is because of subsidy,” he explained.
“What happened to subsidy?” Nnaemeka and Okey asked in unison.
“I don’t know oh. That is what people are saying. They are saying that the transport fare has increased because of subsidy oh.”
Nnaemeka and his brother Okey moved towards the buses to understand what was happening. They gathered from tidbits of information that the government had removed subsidy on PMS and that consequently, the price of one litre of petrol had increased from sixty-five naira to one hundred and forty naira. They met one of their towns person by the bus and expressed their surprise to him.
“I was not surprised at all,” he said to them. “In fact, when I heard the announcement on Sunday, that New Year’s day, the first thing I said was that fares would increase.”
“So this thing happened since Sunday and we did not hear?” Nnaemeka asked rhetorically. “At least, we would have prepared ourselves. What kind of bad surprise is this this new year?”
“But they are still debating this issue now. They said they would conclude on the matter in April,” Nnaemeka queried.
“How can they do this kind of thing? How do they want us to survive?”
“Okey, survival is not the issue now. My own is how will I travel back to Lagos with my family? All I have on me is forty thousand. I budgeted thirty thousand for our transport to Lagos. We carried food so there is no need for us to buy on the way. From that ten thousand, we planned to charter a taxi that would take us home from the park. Highest we budgeted for that is three thousand naira. Now, I am sure that when we get to Lagos, they will say that it is five thousand naira, or even six thousand naira, since everything na double double.
All I have left in my bank account is twenty thousand naira. That is what we are supposed to manage till month end. Even if my wife makes so many sales at the shop, and you already know how January business is usually slow, she will have to buy things to stock the shop. This one that they’ve increased petrol and transport prices, market people will increase their things too. Where do these people expect me to see money? Couldn’t they have waited till month end?”
They were both silent for a while, amidst the noise around them of people complaining and haggling. The park wasn’t as full as it used to be, as some people were aborting their plans for travelling that day.
“You people will manage it like that now,” Okey broke the silence.
“With which money? Did you not hear me say now that what we have is forty thousand naira? Where will we see the remaining eight thousand naira? What about when we get to Lagos? Are we going to trek home?”
“My brother, all these questions for me? I am not the one that removed the fuel subsidy oh.”
“It is not that I am against this removal of fuel subsidy. I am not an enemy of change, and I know that this thing is inevitable. But they would have waited. Don’t they know how the first week of the year is? I thought that it would be a little later. And I have to resume work tomorrow.”
“What I am thinking now,” Okey suggested, “is that you and two of your children can travel, while your wife and the other two return to the village with me. When you get to Lagos, you can send money for their transport fare to my account, then they can travel on Thursday or Friday. There is enough food to feed all of us back home. Me too, I am travelling back to Aba with my family on Friday. Thank God I have extra fuel in a gallon back at home, or my family will be stranded too.”
Nnaemeka said nothing in response to Okey. The suggestion was okay, but there were also the issue of the money to send back, and there was also the fact that they would spend more in the long run, as instead of taking one cab from the park home, they would take two. He had another idea, but he was too ashamed to share it with his brother. As it was, he had already bared enough of his financial woes to his brother and did not want to further expose himself. He went back to the car and called his wife aside.
“I will have to travel with Adaku and Obinna” Obinna was their third child. “You, Nnanna and Ebere will go back with Okey to the village. You already know how it is. I will call Mama, she will give you the twenty-five thousand naira I gave her. By the end of the month, I will find a way to send it back to her. I am sure that Okey and our in-law, Sam, have given her something, so she will not be stranded. I will give you five thousand naira to add to that money. That is the only option we have oh. Onitsha to Lagos is too far to carry anybody on our lap. And we will have to carry two people if we have to travel today.”
Nnaemeka called his mother on phone to explain his plight to her. “Thank God you gave me that amount of money,” his mother told him. “It would have been very disgraceful is you had to collect from your uncles and aunties. They wouldn’t have understood.”
“I know, Mama,” he answered. “That is why it is you I called. I promise you, I will send you more than that by month’s end.”
“Even if you can’t send up to that, it is okay. I know you have tried. I will always survive. I can always get food from the farm. We don’t starve in the village. It is you people in the city that I fear for.”
Nnaemeka sent half of his family back with pain and anger at the government. His already tight budget had been over stretched without warning, and he wondered how he would cope. He wondered what he would have done, if he had not had twenty-five thousand naira to give his mother.