God is Gilt
Saturday 6th April
Muhammed (an old friend and founder of of the Detchi Trust, under whose auspices I am here), Mukhtar (surgeon and a new friend) and I were talking over breakfast this morning about the will to power in politics. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a country as overtly political as Nigeria (sorry France, you’ve got nothing on this amazing place). Every roadside board and sign and shop has some kind of electioneering poster pinned to it or papered over it, most with the cant phrases of the political kind. Variations on ‘strong and stable’ and ‘we’ll not fuck up this time’. But some are funny, like a man called Able, whose tag line is Able is Able. Try saying that fast while laughing.
The statement that both Mukhtar and Muhammed used was “speaking truth to power”. The parrhesian concept seemed very important to them both and in many ways the medical aspect of their work is constructed by them as a tool to innovate social justice. It made me realise that mine is as well – which should have been obvious to me given my standard quote about why I got into midwifery. “Because I thought it was the last great battle of feminism, but it turns out it’s the first and we are still fighting it”. Perhaps I knew it was my mission and then I forgot. The details of birth weaving my thoughts into a delicate sampler rather than the younger anarchistic graffiti on a bridge. I feel like I am stepping back and looking again at least.
We have driven a lot today to various meetings and errands, through weaving traffic and Keke Napeps (yellow chassis mounted on mopeds as taxis) appearing impossibly in the gaps between cars and trucks like harbingers of a head injury. Aso rock, the axis of the movement round Abuja, always just in my peripheral vision. I like cities built in the cleavages of hills like Sheffield and Mexico City, but I also like those built around rocks, like Bologna and Rio. It always seems that the god of the place is watching when there is a massive rock peering daily into the lives of those who scurry round it’s foundations.
Mostly, what the roadside billboards are advertising is god – though The God, not one of the old rock gods of a gentler plurality. These advertisements are for what is anthropologically and locally known as ‘prosperity’ Christianity. The selling of a certainty that a true belief will lead you to power and riches in this life, slightly obfuscating the normal promise of a spiritual wealth in the next. “Who has first given to him that it might be paid back to him again?” (Romans, 11) taken literally. I find this fascinating, essentially the Capitalisation of faith itself. There has been a Christian presence in Nigeria for a long time, particularly the Igbo’s adoption of Catholicism, but preaching prosperity, evangelising luxury, is relatively new.
We also went to see a mental health in-patient facility that my friend was involved in setting up, Called Ataraxia (‘tranquillity’). Generally speaking, mental health is the most neglected branch of medicine, in any country. So, it was inspirational to see such a dedicated team and unit. There is no way I can make this bit funny and not then be a total jerk.
There is a storm outside, I’ve just run to the balcony to rescue my bikini and the trees are bent double, the opaque air full of dust and rain. The weather is taking itself seriously again. I’d better post this before we lose power again.