Kanchana Ugbabe received an Artist at Risk residency in 2018-2019 from Westbeth Artist Housing via the Artistic Freedom Initiative, an organization which is committed to freedom of expression, and works to protect and promote at-risk artists and their work.
by Kanchana Ugbabe
Harvard Review Online
September 24, 2020
Jummai was just waking up when I called in mid-April to find out how she was doing. The phone rang insistently before she answered it. Did she and her sisters have enough supplies? Were they safe and well? “Happy lockdown!” she greeted me, as I advised her about washing hands and staying indoors. It reminded me of an earlier greeting in Jos, during the ethno-religious war: “Happy survival!”
The Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust of March 13 says in a small column, “Coronavirus: Federal Government warns against handshake and hugging.” The rest of the newspaper is taken up with the fate of the deposed emir and other political party matters. By the end of March, when the virus seemed like it was here to stay, we had two options. My husband and I could isolate ourselves in the house, though the younger and the more reckless members of the extended family would have move to the rooms at the back of the compound, which is fully fenced with barbed wire festooning the top of the concrete wall, a relic from an earlier emergency. The second option was to go to the village home in Asa, eight hours away, and try to isolate ourselves amidst constant visitors and busybodies. There is little room for discussion. My husband decides we are staying in Jos in our compound with the extended family. There is no need to panic, he says.
Schools are shut indefinitely. In order to reduce numbers, we put one of the nieces on the bus to the village to shelter with her mum. Another young man has permission to work from home. The third is persuaded to engage in her sewing and baking without venturing out. The fourth is a very social being; keeping her in the compound without social interaction is a challenge for all.
My husband prepares the household for lockdown. He buys groceries in bulk for the house and gives out to all in need. We stock up on powdered milk, sugar, rice, cooking oil, semolina, and cleaning supplies. There is enough coffee to last several months. The children call and make sure we are amply supplied.
I go to the pharmacy and buy chloroquine and azithromycin tablets. We are not sure how we are going to use them or when. My sister-in-law says people die of so many causes, coronavirus is just one of them. There is nothing to worry. She does not believe in isolation or social distancing. So far there are only thirty-six cases in Nigeria, she says, and only one death. (Who is counting? Who is keeping tabs on the testing?) The other sister-in-law is fatalistic—death can come at any time, she says, why am I afraid?
We clean door handles with bleach. We wipe down grocery items with soap water and dry them. My husband purchases face masks and latex gloves for us all. We boil up a concoction of neem leaves, guava leaves, lemon grass, and mango leaves and drink the vile liquid. This is our homemade prophylaxis against virus attacks. The federal minister for health says when the going gets tough, Nigeria may surpass China and Italy. Grim news in a country that has not grasped the meaning of social distancing. The pastor of our church says social distancing might be an immediate answer, but what of a lasting solution? Does he mean eternity? The country has fewer than 300 ventilators, the minister for health says. Most of them may be metal sculptures on display in unused sections of hospitals.
Each day brings statistics that shock and figures that suggest the spread of the virus. It is April, the cruellest month. The federal government is concerned about the president’s chief of staff, who has tested positive for coronavirus. Not only did the gentleman attend meetings in Germany, he returned to Lagos, travelled to Abuja, attended a wedding, commiserated over the loss of a governor’s mother, shook hands with people at social gatherings, and attended executive committee meetings. The government is preoccupied with the possibility of several Big Men being infected from contact with this one individual. The rest of us are forgotten for now.
Myths are on the increase and remedies abound. Some suggest garlic remedies, turmeric in warm water, silver, minerals, hydroxychloroquine, mulligatawny soup with cumin and fennel seeds to improve the immune system. Rubbing shea butter inside the nose might help. Hot and humid weather keeps the virus at bay, it is maintained. Turn the hair dryer on and blow hot air up your nose and throat. The press’s information on the virus is labelled by the church a “noisome pestilence.”
The war against the virus has taken over from ethno-religious wars. The virus does not differentiate between Berom and Hausa, between Christian and Muslim. We hope that Boko Haram will flee to the forest seeking refuge from the virus. The Fulani cattle herders have always distanced themselves socially, accompanying their cattle through hostile territories in recent times. They live in the open fields in makeshift homes. Are nomadic tribes susceptible to the virus? Bandits and kidnappers have suspended their nefarious activities, we hope, and seek to protect themselves from the virus. The joke goes that if armed robbers arrive at your door, start coughing madly to discourage their entry. Poverty may kill us before the virus does, say day laborers in Lagos and others who have been deprived of a livelihood. In the far north of Nigeria, children are puzzled that they have been sent home from school for an extended period of time. What are the holidays for? No one has heard of the coronavirus there.
What happens when food runs out in a country that imports everything, when oil prices fall, when the supply chain is disrupted? People are afraid they will die of preexisting ailments if there are no drugs coming in from outside. The pharmacies will exhaust their stock of antibiotics and antiviral drugs. There is fear and panic amidst uncertainty in every action. Will the desperate start raiding homes and shops for whatever they can get? Are there more nightmares ahead? Kidnapping and other criminal activities flourish in the country and in our state, which is awash in weapons procured during the ethnic and religious wars. This is a new form of curfew wherein we wash our hands and sanitize our environment in addition to not being seen. Isolation is recommended for all. Isolation, solitude, loneliness—do they all mean the same thing?
Prince Charles has tested positive for coronavirus.
We live in a society where it is customary for men to shake hands and women to embrace each other. It will take much practice to abstain from tactile, social interaction, to stay a broom handle’s length apart.
We call the household together and inform them of the seriousness of the situation. Our home is ready for total lockdown. We are going to stay within the compound and not venture out for the next few weeks. We decide to take our own safety measures if the government drags its feet and is unsure of safety protocols. For young people in the household with limited access to wifi, this seems like punishment. But they have to be creative and find things to do. They can make masks and sell them to the neighbourhood. We are privileged to have a yard to walk in. Unlike many young people in town, our dependents don’t have to walk miles to fetch water from communal wells. We have our own borehole. We also have electricity from time to time. We give thanks to God for mercies which cannot be taken for granted.
The president is literally hauled to the microphone to address the nation. For weeks the country has speculated that the president has tested positive for coronavirus, been flown out of the country perhaps. Hashtags #WhereisthePresident? flood social media. Is he too unwell to speak? Who is in charge? ask the newspapers. “Fellow Nigerians,” says the president finally, making a much-awaited speech. This is a national emergency, he says. COVID-19 is real. The most efficient way to avoid infection is through social distancing and practices to maintain hygiene. Interstate and intercity travel are restricted to prevent the spread of the virus to other states; the most populated states in Nigeria would be put on total lockdown for fourteen days. These are indeed wartimes, he concludes, echoing other presidents in other parts of the world.
Newspaper cartoons draw attention to the fact that coronavirus is a levelling factor. The rich and corrupt politicians do not go untouched by the virus. There is no escape to hospitals in Germany and Switzerland, as every country has closed its borders. The wealthy sit nervously with their money bags, wondering if they might test positive. The politician gasping for breath is hauled to a hut (the hospital) that is badly staffed and has no equipment in working condition.
My passport spills out of the travel case when I open it to get some batteries. Will one need a passport ever again, when borders are closed, aircraft grounded, and travel across the world has become a thing of the past? What an accomplishment it was to get a new passport a few months back! It was a proof of one’s existence, nationality, and permanent address. My passport is valid for ten years. The idea of a travel document or its validity seems completely pointless. My friends joke about waiting in the departure lounge, boarding pass in hand. Our final departure from this world may be the only announcement we are waiting for.
There are others who have departed this earth without hearing of the virus. The funeral of the novelist Chukwuemeka Ike in his home village in Anambra State in Eastern Nigeria is postponed. The novelist was a chief, a Royal Father. His funeral would have been appropriately grand, lasting three days. It would have been a celebration of his life on earth, his work, his writing, his contribution to humanity, and the legacy he has left behind. But the coronavirus has stripped all weddings and funerals of their grandeur and significance. Nothing is more deadly than gathering in groups.
Our town, Jos, is used to curfews and quarantines. Ethnic and religious riots broke out here in 2001 and continued sporadically for over a decade. The government imposed a curfew to keep the groups apart. There was fear and uncertainty. When push came to shove, we couldn’t rely on the government to protect us. We worked out strategies as a family, as a household, as a neighbourhood. The men formed vigilante groups. The women shared household supplies. There were roadblocks set up within communities; tanks rolled down our streets. It was a different kind of quarantine, a curfew that brought small groups of people together to protect one another. The menace came from outside in the form of ethnic chauvinism and religious intolerance.
The virus is on the increase in the country. We in Jos are settling down to an extended period of isolation from the real world. Is there a real world as we knew it? In the western hemisphere, people have birthday parties and office meetings on Zoom. The world is divided into countries with “high technology,” “low technology,” and “no technology.”
My husband has found a spot in the yard to watch birds. He has improved the design of the water trough and the birdseed dispenser. He packs his bag with binoculars, phones, and a bird book, and sits in the yard under the mango tree. He watches the birds for hours. I retire to the study, where I have set up my shrine consisting of favourite books, pens, hand sanitizer, calendar, laptop, and prayer book. Those who live in the compound retire to their own spaces and occupations. I hear birds twittering on the frangipani tree just outside my study window. If I rise from my seat, I see the birdbath and the little red and blue finches frolicking in the water on a hot summer’s day.
The light changes in the course of the day. We draw the curtains aside to let in the morning light. We close them when the day gets too hot. Birds whistle, others chirp in the trees, they flit endlessly from tree to tree. They splash about in the water trough. The electricity supply is erratic. When night falls we sit in darkness with a lamp and our phones. There is the smell of rain in the air. Thunder and lightning follow, but the rain falls somewhere else. This is the Chinese Year of the Rat, my friend tells me. So, expect to be confined, each to his rathole for the rest of the year.
I clean imaginary dust from real surfaces. I sweep the jacaranda flowers that form a carpet under the trees. My husband does yard work, burning dry grass, fixing the solar water heater, servicing the borehole pump, cleaning the water tank, running the engine on the car. There is nowhere to go.
Nigeria’s coronavirus cases have risen to 234. In India, Prime Minister Modi asks everyone to turn off their electric lights at nine p.m., light the diya, and recite the Sanskrit prayers for nine minutes. India, in reverent silence, obeys as lights go off in millions of homes and the country comes together in unity. People want to be led during times of crises. If the leader asks them to clap, they clap. If he asks them to pray, they pray. The leader should know better. Maybe something good will come out of it.
The governor of our state sends messages that there will be a fumigation exercise for a week. We are not sure what the fumigation is meant to achieve or what chemicals will be used. Will there be aerial spraying of chemicals like on crops in the US? Is the virus airborne? Will it die off with the fumigation? Is this a strategy to keep people out of churches and away from social activities over Easter? There is ample evidence of the “cluster effect” multiplying the virus. When the fumigation does take place, it is in the centre of town for a hundred yards. A red carpet is rolled out. The governor emerges from a tractor, clad in PPE and assisted by several men holding a plastic fumigation device. The video cameras capture the event. The exercise is over.
My husband has had enough of isolation in the compound. Bird-watching is driving him nuts. The cracks are beginning to appear in his resolve that we should quarantine ourselves absolutely. I am told sternly that there is a difference between fear and caution, implying that I was being unnecessarily fearful. Is his restlessness a form of mental illness, a by-product of coronavirus times? What is wrong with driving around and sitting in the office, he asks. Unpredictable behaviour is another sign of corona madness. If our lockdown disintegrates, I will be the only one quarantined because I have no income, no means of getting anywhere, no freedom, and no job. I am locked in. I am daunted by the high fence surrounding the compound and the barbed wire on the top. Heavy padlocks dangle on the metal awnings and the gates. It is my turn to protest. I will not be crushed underfoot. I fling the study windows open. I breathe in the fresh air and the fragrance of the frangipani blossoms. I am free, I say to myself, free to read and write and think. This is my corona mantra.
Is there anything to improve one’s self-esteem in these uncertain times? You are putting on weight, my husband says. I am trying to exercise, I say, but it doesn’t seem to work. Eat less, he says. My blouse is not ironed, but who cares? I have a coronavirus hair style which is streaked with grey and not trimmed. I look ten years older, but does it matter? He says it is a good time to acquire a “new look” and stay with it. Cousin Nimmi consoles me that the barber shops and beauty salons in India are also shut. The women look dreadful, wan and tired, without the skin toning, hair styling, and shaping of eyebrows. The men look worse, she says, without a haircut.
My Russian friend Olga gives me an earful of conspiracy theories. There is no coronavirus, she says, only what has been fabricated and spread around the world. People are dying of natural causes as they have always done. It is not a pandemic because five percent of the population in the US or Italy hasn’t died yet. Put PPE on doctors and masks on nurses and the whole thing acquires a sinister aura. The stories are plenty but they are remote, she says. Statistics, charts, an exponential rise in figures, these are the material of fiction. The 5G technology comes under attack in her corona-bashing. Are researchers seeking a vaccine or are they going to implant a chip in every human being so that we can be manipulated? It is not COVID-19, it is COVID-419 (advance-fee fraud), she says.
The Chinese city of Shenzhen has banned the consumption of dogs and cats, as dogs become reclassified as “pets” rather than “livestock.” Our daughter, the dog lover, screams “Yaaay!” What about bats and pangolins? How do we, in our own society, classify the grass-cutter, the monitor lizard, the cane rat—all valued as bushmeat? Insects have been rehabilitated as edible.
There is no wine in the house to have the occasional drink. But peanuts come in wine bottles and we have an ample stock of peanuts to snack on. Santa Digna Rose, Glenfiddich Scotch Whisky, Gordon’s Dry Gin, Macallan Scotch Whisky—these are the bottles on the pantry shelf housing roasted peanuts. It is a world of make-believe.
The number of COVID-19 infections in Nigeria has risen to 400. But more are dying of police brutality (in the course of effecting the lockdown) than of the virus. The governor of our state is very pleased with the measures he has taken so far. He gives us three days to rush out and stock up on food and go to church in batches of fifty. Then there is a four-day lockdown, making a total of fourteen days, which he says is a decent quarantine period. The town heaves a sigh of relief. There is movement, people talking and laughing down the street, cars rushing off to God knows where.
If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, there is a typhoon in China. How interconnected we are as a world! How fragile our economies and institutions! How utterly without control we are as human beings. How limited our knowledge!
The president’s chief of staff is dead. The virus has claimed him. Though none of the other people who died in Nigeria were named, the naming of the chief of staff sends waves of panic through the country. If a privileged individual can die of the virus, what hope is there for the rest of us? Olga says heaven would be a better place if only one could be sure of going there. One way or another we will come through this, she says. David, a colleague, is writing a book on phonics, which keeps him more absorbed than the coronavirus. He has two lodgers in his home. I hope Fidelis and Samuel have washed their hands, he says. He is satisfied that his house, set among the rocks at the end of a winding road, is made for social distancing. We wash our vegetables in salt water before putting them away.
The numbers have risen to 700 in Nigeria.
The governor appears before the microphone clad in personal protective equipment. Is he a frontline worker? He makes another speech: this time we have community spread of the virus, he says. It sounds like we are all equal at last. We are advised to wear face masks. The lockdown will be extended after a three-day reprieve. Are we nearing the end of the world? We are told the numbers have risen to 1,273. The president addresses the nation again.
The first four months of the year are gone. It is May 1, spring in some places, summer in others. For us, the rains have come. It lashes against the window panes, it strips the flowers off trees and shrubs. Hailstones litter the yard. The earth awakens, fresh, cool, moist, beautiful. Birds chirp endlessly on the trees. We are being compensated for freedoms lost, choices that lead nowhere. The prognosis is that we are in for the long haul. No one seems to understand the virus; remedies abound, but there is no cure. Men, women, and children, smokers and nonsmokers, white and black and brown—the virus gets to everyone who is exposed to it. We hear of “herd immunity,” of being tested for antibodies; nothing brings hope or cheer. The vaccine is still a long way away.
My husband resumes bird-watching and the lockdown. After two weeks, he takes up bird photography. With much patience he sits behind the camera, which is perched on a tripod, all day. With great delight we watch the hitherto invisible birds appear on the computer screen. The world out there is teeming with lovely creatures untouched by the virus or by fears concerning health, the economy, or travel. The numbers for Nigeria have gone well past 1,500. In our state we have been eased to partial lockdown: four days on, three days off.
It is the season of fruitfulness. Clouds gather in the east all morning, and the rain pours in the afternoon. Birds chase each other from tree to tree, others sit hidden by the blossoms, twittering all day. The birdbath and the bird feeder are visited continually as the finches and sunbirds crowd alongside the doves and the weaver birds. They take turns, sometimes pushing and shoving to get ahead of each other.
The National Centre for Disease Control tells us the number of coronavirus infections in the country has risen to 3000. My husband plants an avocado tree in the compound. We put geraniums in flower pots. There is hope when things grow.
I experience post-lockdown anxiety when we drive to the local market to purchase vegetables. We wear face masks and roll up the car windows. The heat and the noise seem like something I am not accustomed to. Am I losing the art of being in company, of socialising? There is anxiety in being “exposed” after weeks and months of life in a safe shelter. The numbers have reached 4200.
What are numbers? Even five-year-old Kenza can say her numbers. Can numbers make you afraid? When there is an earthquake, a flood, or tsunami, are we not given numbers to gauge the scale of the disaster? Are numbers associated with disasters? I read so many numbers these days it is hard to keep track, or to know which number belongs to which category, to which country. The number of infected people in New York, the number of dead, the number of people who die in care homes in the UK, the number of deaths among the elderly in Spain, real numbers, fake numbers. Why are the numbers low in Russia? What am I supposed to feel when our own numbers go up by 1000 every few days? You become benumbed as numbers determine where you are and what your life may turn out to be. I memorize the capitals of African countries instead. I lie in bed and recount the landmarks from Linnaean Street to Harvard Square—the Sheraton Commander, arts@29 Garden, Appian Way, Christ Church. Another world. Another life.
Restaurants in Virginia use dummies to effect social distancing. Mannequins dressed up in suits and evening dresses sit at tables with glasses of wine in front of them. In Ohio, shower curtains screen off one table from the next. Train carriages in Toronto have plexiglass dividers separating the seats. In Panama, men are permitted out one day, women the next. On Sundays they all stay home together. Is it going to be a make-believe world when reality takes us out of lockdown?
The image of the pandemic that features most prominently in our conversation is that of a tunnel. We are trapped in a tunnel—when will we see light so that we can move towards it? Right now, we are groping without even a flashlight. Time stands still. I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and live vicariously in the time of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. “What a life!” my husband sighs. He records bird songs in the early mornings. He discovers more and more birds in the compound and photographs them. The kite and the hawk are his favourites, their majestic bearing, their wingspan, their strong, vicious claws, their regal soaring.
In neighbouring states in northern Nigeria, the virus has gone berserk. People are dying in large numbers of a “mysterious illness.” Kano is the city that resisted the polio vaccine and ended up with a multitude of disabled children. Kano is not convinced of coronavirus. Its people gather in mosques, at weddings and funerals, and watch young people play football. They have even established a Coronavirus Football Cup. In Jos the lockdown is being eased, with social distancing recommended and face masks made mandatory. It all sounds like someone is in control, whether God or the government. The pandemic has evolved from a “wave” to “wildfire.” Not sure if changing the analogy makes a difference. The only sure thing is that it consumes, it devours.
We hear of armed robbery and kidnapping in another neighbourhood. We write down emergency phone numbers provided by the police and fix them in strategic locations in the home. The coronavirus numbers have reached 7200.
Published on September 24, 2020