If you want to gauge how badly Nigerians have been animalized, then pay attention to how, and where, many of them defecate. Just recently, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that 33 million Nigerians have no access to decent toilets. As a consequence, said the report, these citizens of Africa’s most populous nation answer the call of nature in the open.
Is it really only 33 million Nigerians? One is afraid that here’s one occasion when statisticians have pegged the figure too low. Nigeria – as I wrote three years ago – may be described as one vast toilet. Anybody who has traveled from Lagos to Onitsha by road knows that there isn’t one single rest area with toilet facilities along the route. At stops in Ore or Benin City, pressed passengers must hurry off into the brushes, gingerly skating around others’ feces, in order to relieve themselves.
In Ndibe’s eyes the “habit of doing in public what ought to be done in private” points to a deep cultural crisis.
Long habituated to inhuman conditions, many Nigerians have ceased noticing those peeing or defecating in the open. Or, when we notice, too many of us have lost our sense of outrage at the oddity. Public acts of pissing and defecation have become – more or less – normal, part and parcel of our social experience and landscape.
The associated health risks of Nigeria’s insanitary conditions have made Ndibe feel uneasy about shaking hands.
For me, it’s often a dilemma. I know how scandalous it would be to refuse to offer one’s hand. Yet, I can’t help wondering where the hands I shake have been, and whether they’ve been washed.
Ndibe retells an revealing anecdote about local government staff who staunchly opposed a plan to build staff toilets. They told the local government administrator to “just give them a share of the public funds – and to leave it up to them to decide on toilet matters”.
Read the full column published posted on Okey Ndibe’s web site on 4 July 2011.