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Martina Svobodova – AFRICA´S LAUGHTER AND TEARS

NIGERIA Under the Surface of Civilization

Four kilometres – another beam dragged across the road. Representatives of the Cross River State (including self-appointed ones, whom we were not able to tell apart) were starting to get on our nerves. They carried it too far this time: “Hello, how are you, I have papers for you that you have to own to be allowed to travel on our road: Agreement with government.” The five hundred note I offered angered the guy – he demanded the equivalent of 170 dollars! That angered us in turn. We were more or less screaming at each other a moment later. The atmosphere eventually got so dense that we swiftly rolled up the windows and locked ourselves inside the car. Instantly, the slimy stooges drove the nails dead beside the wheels. And rolled another beam to the rear wheels. A mousetrap. They sat in the shade of a tree and the tense game of patience began. We felt quite sick in the car. It was clear to see who the master of the road was. Forget the road: master of all Nigeria. Of the entire universe! I cannot recall ever feeling so defenceless in my life: being at the mercy of an atrocious swine. We managed to call the embassy after a few vain attempts. The ambassador asked solicitously, “Are they destroying your car?” That question literally returned life to our veins. Learning they were not, he was only relieved partly. “For the time being,” he muttered a continued, “You need to get out of there as quick as possible. I suggest you offer them 500 naira once more.” But the greedy head of the bandits would not lose his face in front of a growing crowd of onlookers and refused. “Let me speak to him,” the ambassador demanded. The guy was quite saucy on the phone, but when we got the ambassador back on the ear, we found he was no wimp either: “I told him he’s a fucking bastard and if he doesn’t release you instantly, I’ll call the federals and send in helicopters.” Suddenly, the guy was content with a thousand naira. The beam was gone, the crew was gone: most in the bush, some in the white Toyota. Did we win? No way. Our enemies’ car was ahead of us again. They were slowing us down deliberately, so ten kilometres farther down, they managed to throw another beam under our wheels. We realised the hopelessness of the situation. They would not let us go until they got the money out of us. But should we pay them 170 dollars? What if another gang turned up a few miles later?! Would we give them 300 dollars if they asked for them!?! We did not even have that money. Fear gave way to annoyance arising from the tiredness and psychic strain; we had done 60 kilometres since that morning, and it was nearly noon. We were moving along an endless road in the middle of a stinking country called Nigeria. Any random oik with a bit of barbed wire made the rules here. Where were you, European bureaucracy?! As soon as his face came close to the window – a youngster, almost a boy, whom we had not seen before – I leant out of the window and let out all my frustration in its harshest form: “Look, you bastard – peep, peep, peep – these two gentlemen (indicating Drahoš and Jarda) are really cross now! Now you stick that log up your arse and let us pass. I’m counting to five!” Jarda supported my words with his bit of English and carefully pronounced federals. The youngster crapped out and before the guys from the Toyota arrived, we were rolling again. How many trifling kilometres had we won? Another check point appeared speedily. It was the green uniforms this time. The Army! Hooray! They gesticulated for us to go through, but we stopped. Those guys over there had just thrown nails in front of our car and demanded money, we

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Martina Svobodova – AFRICA´S LAUGHTER AND TEARS informed them frantically. The soldiers smiled. We understood: they knew, but they could not care less. They would not burn their fingers for our cause. They remarked something polite in the sense that it was a nasty and wrong thing to do. The soldiers were growing tired of us, as if we had been infected with Nigerian tenacity. We managed to coax an escort out of them! We gladly made room on the front seat for the charged soldier – a well-built one with a machine gun. He would take us to the nearest town for a thousand naira; it was about thirty kilometres to go. From then onward, we would have to cope by ourselves, but now we knew how!

A more modern mass than you ever hoped for It is a cheap paradox that it was in Nigeria that we experienced a spiritual realisation. Almost. Visiting a Catholic church there, we understood how huge a dimension of human existence we – atheists – had been ignoring. How we would never be able to understand Africa, because Africa is all faith, religion and gods. It was Sunday and the sun was shining but easily blocked by a cloud of Harmattan haze. The population – its Christian part – headed for Abuja’s churches. We hoped we would not draw attention, but that hope failed: they were enthused to see us. By the steel doors of a giant unfinished building that had yawning holes instead of windows and was about as snug as a gym, we were handed some envelopes marked “My today’s contribution”. “They are so happy because they think we’re going to give them lots of money,” Maruška, our loyal guide, whispered cynically. It soon turned out that the envelopes were the most important part of the mass. In the beginning, we only stood by the entrance coyly, listening to the unintelligible muttering of the priest at the pulpit, aired via a sound system. When we finished, latecomers like us were let inside. We resisted, but they succeeded in driving us into the front rows. “It is an honour for them, they want us to be seen,” Maruška explained. As soon as we sat down, everyone rose, and so did we. And then something started that I had only known from American movies and always wanted to experience: they started singing. The tune was called from above and the whole church followed it. Someone struck an electronic organ. People sang I believe melodically and swayed to the rhythm. The tune was simple and we began catching on soon. After all, it was less awkward than not singing at all. It started to feel good. African women dressed up in a splash of merry colours and patterns, wearing tone-in-tone shoes, dresses and scarves, promoted what’s beautiful about Africa. They clapped their hands ardently, as if they were consolidating in their faith in the good with every meeting of the palms. Men in white shirts and black trousers clapped their hand a little less, representing the solid composure against which their wives’ emotional wave clashed. And when I looked around more widely, I noticed how irregularly the human mass breathed: that was the children, bored, loitering, asleep. I ranked somewhere in between the feminine ecstasy and the masculine inwardness: the burden of the whole journey fell upon me, squeezed in the single moment. I realised I was in Africa, in Nigeria, in a church; that I was standing amid people who were united by something, who felt festive, and I was so lucky to have arrived in that corner of the planet and share a bit of their festive happiness with them. An incommunicable experience of the universe.

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extract from Nigeria