Besides the festivity of sex, another very engaging content of that spectacular film, Spartacus, is dialogue. Whether couched in the vocabulary of sex, human exploitation or triumph, Spartacan dialogues exude humour and poetic elegance. One particular statement from that triumphant martyr of a character called Crixus, was the summation of the entire longish struggle that was the movie, an instructive message for both the oppressor and the oppressed: “We have shown that a trembling hand can become a fist.”
It is this statement that has found real expression from Egypt through Tunisia to Libya, as the Arab Spring. It is to be found in every struggle for identity and dignity within or between nations. It is that defining moment of self-recollection, when the individual suddenly locates his voice and strength and deploys them to challenge deprivation.
But a trembling hand can also become a fist in much smaller fates, like it happened on Falomo Bridge, Ikoyi, not too long ago. That bridge, notorious for traffic jams, carries the entire weight of an economy run by hawkers and motorists.
As a young entrepreneur cursed to seek out clientele in that part of Lagos, I have played my fair part in sustaining that economy, mainly through the purchase of gala sausages, bottle water, and sweets. On a certain day, a fragile young man about my age – a sweets hawker – stood by the car window and held up his wares neatly placed on a board. I gestured my disinterest but he yet stood there, smiling. The traffic was on a standstill, and the baggage of a very bad day made his intrusive presence very annoying. For close to a minute he was still there, a very silly smile still lounging on his face. Window-glass was wound down and I made my apathy more emphatic, and rolled up the glass again to shut out this commercial stalking. It didn’t work, he remained there. Somehow I found his resilience appealing, then I smiled, and he laughed! His name was Aloy. Transaction. Loyalty. Friendship.
Given that I often maintained my loyalty in any form of transaction unless trust is breached, Aloy became my only source of sweets and chewing gums. Sometimes on that bridge, I would take a different lane from the one he was familiar with, if I didn’t have enough money to spare. But he appeared to have developed a biological alert that gave my presence away. Just when I thought I had escaped him, the rascal would appear like a ghost, smiling up at me. I patronised him even when I had no need for his articles, mainly out of empathy. That empathy was lacking in many motorists, who would set a hawker on a risky race as traffic loosened up, to provide, often-times, insignificant change from transactions.
For most hawkers, it was such a drudgery running after motorists to provide change and collect payment for sold goods, given the encumbrance of wares strapped to the body. The better option was to relieve oneself of the goods and place them by the side of the road. It made the pursuit of fleeing motorists easier, but it had its own threat: the KAI brigade, unleashed by the state government to arrest hawkers. Members of the Kick Against Indiscipline brigade often walked into traffic by stealth, and simply confiscated goods left by the roadside, whose owner may have been caught up in the change race.
The KAI threat exacted endless attention from hawkers, who hurried transactions with glances cast 360 degrees around, to spot the uniformed menace.
My transaction with Alloy one fateful day had taken longer than usual. He had no change for my one-thousand-naira bill. The alternative was for him to accept a slightly mutilated two hundred naira note. But he was hesitant. “If you go bank, pay am to your account naaw. Ok, just take am free, next time I go buy,” I said. He let out a self-deriding laughter. “Na from this kain yeye market na im person go open account? I no get account, Oga. Moni never reach to chop sef. Everything wey I carry here no reach five thousand naira.”
That moment, it dawned on me that a fellow youth had no bank account, a thing most of us had taken for granted. I realised that I was not essentially different from him, that things could have been better for him if he had a different set of parents, or if he had been exposed to a different experience in socialisation. Empathy.
“So what else can you do for a living?”
“I no be ‘sir’, my brother,” came my reply, as I munched over the idea of how I could be of help.
Then suddenly, “Alooooooooy!” A fellow hawker called him. Aloy turned, and saw them – the KAI people, two of them. It was already too late. He could not run fast enough given the burden of his goods. I felt so guilty and sad, knowing that his immersion in our chat weaned him from his usual alertness. They dragged him towards their huge van that must be somewhere under the bridge, to shut him within that mobile prison where ventilation took the form of small rectangular crevices. Through the side mirror I watched him plead for mercy, his feet dragging on reluctantly. His ware-board bearing small packs that separated one family of sweets from the other, was already in the custody of the other booted fellow, whose K-legs seemed like the legs were inserted wrongly in his waist, left for right. It felt sad watching the criminalisation of poverty, the punishing of a young man’s choice of industry over crime. I could not abandon my vehicle to intervene, especially as traffic inched forward. And suddenly, that moment came.
I saw it through the mirror. Aloy converted his plea to rage, and clenched that rage within a malicious fist. His captor seemed to have loosened hold on the poor boy’s waist, and Aloy seized the moment and dispatched a decisive blow, it seemed, onto his eye. That blow, a summary of defiant aggression and indifference to consequence, sent the booted captor sprawling on the ground, a triumphant Aloy alternating a bolting pair of feet, forfeiting his goods in exchange for freedom, choosing dignity over apology. A trembling hand had become a fist! I pulled over ahead when I found a convenient space, and came back to look for him, but he was gone. I was worried: how would he survive? If only we had exchanged contacts…
The fist from a trembling hand operates on a philosophy that despises consequences. In that swift moment, the individual calculates a desperate situation and offers his last shot at piquing the oppressor’s proud reign, no matter the likely cost of such bravery. That is the pride of humanity – the imperative to direct a righteous contempt at power. Aloy’s escape was no cowardice. If anything, it was a shaming epitaph on his humiliation, a reminder to his oppressor that he could successfully employ a defiant fist and get away with it.
The incident happened quite some months ago. Each time I get on that bridge, I look around to see if I could spot him. Aloy has disappeared for good, either into crime or into whatever life offers, perhaps. I grieve the loss of a friend. I grieve how we, members of society, sometimes, create the elements that haunt us. And more curiously, I grieve how the poor, like those KAI people, willingly accept, by elite fiat, to be predators against their own kind.