Monday, 29 February 2016

Padding the Budget

I seen this happen once before… maybe even more than once – and I’m remarkably irritated. Actually, I’m a bit angry – it’s just hard to know whom to direct the anger at and have it be productive.

I seen this happen before… once, a couple of years ago – Ok, must be closing in on 3 or 4 years by now, considering that America’s President Barack Obama is winding out his second term as the world’s leading man.

Hard to believe; never before seen – the United States, the world’s leading poster boy in almost everything, has got maybe a couple of dozen state-of-the-art websites across its numerous agencies and departments: the State Department, the CIA, NSA, FBI, Homeland Security, Defense Department, Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, Education… there must be dozens of them; and all of these have at least one website up and running for them – several of them even more than one. Functional. Not for one year or two, but for decades by now. So imagine how stunned I had to be when the Obamacare website came on and crashed out the precise same day that it was published!

Yep, you must have heard of it too –, health insurance exchange website operated by the United States Federal Government for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) promulgated by President Obama for inauguration back in October of 2013.

For a little bit of background, insurance is one of the 5 holy grails of the American economy – no matter how bad things get, they are sacred cows that nobody ever touches, regardless of who you are. The other 4 are Big Tobacco, Alcohol, Guns, and Pharmacy. Yep, these guys are so paid up with all the right people in all the right places that if you ever dared shining a little light on them, someone might shoot your head off, or you could be buried in so much legality and paperwork that your grandchildren would still be chewing through it long after you’re gun. It certainly explains why despite the number of people who die every year from alcohol related complications, there’s never been any serious legislation against it; and even though crazy people walk into schools and gun down little toddlers every other month in the United States, the system still refuses to do anything about gun control.

That ought to shed a little light on the situation with Obama wanting to reform the insurance system in the United States so that big corporations people could pay more into the system while little people who were unable to get the most basic medical attention could get more coverage. But the big corporations couldn’t have that now, could they? That’s where their money comes from – 300-some million people paying peanuts into the system annually that eventually run into billions, a small portion of which is used to line the pockets of select lawmakers and senators to ensure that that system never changes. You don’t touch insurance – nobody does… except someone who is not a part of that system.

We seen how far the Republican Party went in order to make Obama look bad; simultaneously shutting down the entire government with no care for what it would do to the little people. But we been down that road before...

So yeah, I’m a little impressed that our guys back here at home have actually grown so sophisticated that they could steal and pad the national budget just to discredit the president… make him look bad. Yes, I’m a little impressed, but also very irritated. For crying out loud, precisely how far would people go in order to keep their own pockets lined at the expense of the people that they are supposed to be serving, for starters? And more interestingly, couldn't they have opted to come up with ways to help? Think about it. If you are known for helping the president - and the country - out at a rough time like this, even though you are technically part of the opposition, who do you think they'd vote for the next election around? I mean, everybody wants to vote for Fasola right now, don't they? Buhari got voted in also because of the price he's paid for the past 30-some years. And I know I'd vote for a Donald Duke any day - what that brother done with Calabar/Cross Rivers is stunning, and if he can pull that off on a national level, just how much better could the country be in 8 years!
I kind of like me the simplicity of the president’s response to the allegations of incompetence: “I have been a military governor, petroleum minister, military head of state and headed the Petroleum Trust Fund. Never had I heard the words ‘budget padding.’”

It baffles me too, truly. I mean, haven’t the people suffered enough? Just how bad do they need the country to be? What is their motivation? More money? More power? More influence? For crying out loud, they already run the show! Can’t they just back off for a bit – give the country an actual opportunity to grow?

I was flying into the country once from neighboring Ghana, when this little kid – couldn’t have been more than 6 years of age – muttered as we walked into the Murtala Muhammad International Airport terminal that “Mummy, this place is so ugly!” Couldn’t blame the child, and that’s the joy about them – they tell it like it is. It was a sharp contrast to Kotoka International Airport in Accra where we were coming from. Kotoka is so much smaller and simpler, but it is highly maintained and orderly. By comparison, our Lagos Airport is a total mess – and I say this with terrible pain in my heart.

I have never been beyond this continent before, but I have seen movies and I have a clue what gives in some of the airports that other countries have to offer. The Qatari International Airport in Doha, Dulles, Heathrow, La Guardia… We have our country’s officials flying in and out of these countries practically all year round. They see what these other places look like, but they don’t care enough to try and make their own country better. I mean, how does one think like that!

So we have Buhari in his anti-graft drive, having people arrested left, right, and center; doing everything he can to recover stolen funds and fix a badly damaged system so that generations that come after can actually have something a little proud to call home and be a part of; and then we have these nefarious persons whose identities are almost impossible to tell for certain trying everything in their power to cripple the system. It’s irritating… and annoying; as though we couldn’t think for ourselves.

Yep, that last part was directed at the press who are always in a hurry to print something sensational. I seen this a gazillion times before, in print media – all kinds of headlines that make it looks as though the world is coming to an end. I know they want to sell papers, but this is more than that – this is just plain irresponsible reporting from some of our most trusted dailies. It’s like – like is commonly said colloquially amongst us Nigerian folks – another thing don dey there! Like something else is driving these people, making them print anarchy for the minds of the unsuspecting public to digest. In the same vein, there is precious little in the news regarding the situation with our venerable President of the Senate, or the incarcerated former National Security Adviser…

It’s food for thought, folks. And it is time for people who actually do have a mind to begin putting that mind to good use. What say you, Nigeria?

Saturday, 30 January 2016

A Doubt... and a Benefit

The Expression of a Doubt

I am no student of politics - never have been; have no intention to. There is just something about getting those votes "whatever it takes" that puts me off in a not-very-pleasant way. It's not that it is hard to put my finger on it, it is just that the choice of putting it into words is a whole different ball game. Perhaps it's the part where you get to tell the people anything that they need to hear except "the whole truth and nothing but the truth" in order to get their votes.

Promises and Politics
Yes. Perhaps that's it - never being able to tell the whole truth because people might see it wrongly. That's the first thing that gets me about politics. The other part of it is the mudslinging and constant scrutiny of every little detail of an individual's life. Don't get me wrong; I believe that "the people deserve to know." But what exactly do they "deserve" to know? And doesn't the subject in question deserve a measure of privacy?

I could go off on that tangent for ages and get nowhere. And that's the unpleasant thing about politics - nobody is wrong and nobody is right; everything is just grey areas and whatever kind of spin you can put on it. "Perception management", as some may call it; "smart PR", according to others. "Lies", according to me. It's what drives me away from politics. Everybody has a skeleton in their closet, and if you dig hard enough you will find it. It's the bane of leadership; the scourge of public life. No, not the skeletons in the closet, nor the finding it, but actually what people choose to do with those skeletons ones they are found. More often than not they throw that news in the papers and publicize it, potentially destroying the public figure in question. The alternative is no better, which typically involves taking the ill-news to it's subject and threatening them with exposure unless they step down out of the race for the public office they are after, or resign from the office they hold, or bend to do the will of the person who holds such terrible information over their heads.

Africa and Political Violence

Blackmail - that's what it is. I don't know what other word there is for what I just described even though I am sure there are several. It's blackmail.

So, people who hold public office tend to be open to blackmail one way or another... because everybody has skeletons in their closets, and someday someone will find it; and on that day it will not matter if whatever they did was motivated by malice or good intentions, or just good ol' plain error, once the deed is brought to light, it could be the doom of such a leader. As such, many people going into politics do so prepared to protect their "good name" at just about any cost - the "good name" in inverted commas because the name isn't necessarily good to begin with. So these folks fight tooth and nail and often kill one another in order to be able to hold public office...

Again I could go on, but this is not about the politicians. Oh, not at all! This is about the people who allow - no, empower - such to happen. Yes, it's all about the people. They are the ones who really apply the pressure on the person in office to make whatever choices that they do make. Isn't that obvious?

See, that's politics right there. I get into office because people believe I am capable of doing something that favors them while I'm in there so they voted for me. Now I want those votes in order to extend my stay in that office so the people must never know that I farted in my bedroom; that I had an altercation with my wife; that I once got upset and slapped a lady who kicked me in the gonads; or that once upon a time I left my husband and married another. So because I think they will treat me different if they know... Well, we know the rest of that sordid line of thought.

It's because the people are so fickle, so easy to manipulate with figments of the truth and all kinds of lies in bundles; it is because the people always forget all too easily and too often leave their thinking for the pages of the dailies to do for them. So, someone writes in the papers today that I once laid off half a dozen employees to save my company and they can spin me into a money grabbing bigot. Or someone gets wind that I had sex with two different women back when I was in the university and I can be painted as a lifelong cheat who cares nothing for the people I am leading.
I am not saying that any of these things are right - they are not. To make matters worse, these are jokes compared to things a lot of politicians do which never get into the limelight - things like having political rivals assassinated; killing innocent people to make more money (o so common in Nigeria at the very least); bribing, threatening, or blackmailing the press; destroying whole companies in order to make some serious money; money laundering to hide ill-gotten gains; and God alone knows what else. What's the big news in Nigeria right now - billions of dollars usurped by holders of public offices at the highest levels in the past administration? Totally unacceptable, that's what it is. All of it, totally unacceptable.

That's what politics is. So, no. I do not endorse what politicians do to keep their secrets secret. However I have more of a problem with the press that spins a simple story into a web of lies..., sensationalizing a story for headlines because they don't have anything else to say. I have a problem with mudslinging a public officer simply because we don't like one thing or the other about them. Most of all, I have a problem with nitpicking a man's actions while he's in office instead of giving him all the support he needs to get the job done!

Why do politicians do this, one might ask. I have born witness to some of the worst of it. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was compelled to perjure himself when the Monica Lewinsky thing came up, almost got impeached despite being the best president the United States has had this side of the Cold War, and that's saying something when you throw in names like George Bush, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama - the results totally speak for themselves.
Bill Clinton
Monica Lewinsky

Only recently - 2014 to be precise - the American government system was practically shut down by a Republican House because they didn't want to back a bill by the President - the merit or otherwise of the bill was never brought into question; it's value to the people never considered - they just didn't want the president to achieve anything! Then, we had the Obamacare website literally crashing on the day that it opens. How in the world does that happen to a website of the United States Government? The FBI, CIA, NASA, NSA, Justice Department, Department of State, Homeland Security... Literally everyone has websites up and running, serving the 350+ million people in the country, but all of a sudden the system is so incompetent that its website crashes on the day it is opened? Seriously, somebody did not want that initiative to fly!

Why, o why in the world do politicians do this?!

I will be the first to admit that I do not have enough information because I really know next to nothing about politics. But I do care about my people, my country. Nigeria.

Right now we have people being arrested right, left, and center across the nation for all kinds of graft related offences, and that's kind of fine; but I read this bit in the news just last night - someone asking what the government is doing with all the recovered money, and how or why the recovered money should be involved in slowing down the economy to what it has been like the past year or so. I almost blew a fuse.

Perhaps some people have not noticed it but the world is in the middle of another recession: isn't that obvious? Oil prices plunging globally to all time lows, from $150 per barrel to under $28 in less than a year; countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia getting worried about keeping up their economy; Greece bankrupt; the EU on the verge of collapsing; Chinese economic growth slowing to a crippled halt and on the verge of collapsing itself...? How did all of that turn around to become Retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari's fault?

What about EVERY. OTHER. SECTOR. of the Nigerian economy that have been allowed to become defunct over the past 30 years? Mining. Agriculture. Education. Exports. Production... Even Assembly. Did the president do this? Is it possible for anyone, let alone this one man, to turn all that damage around in less than one year?

This mess stinks like the Obama situation in the United States. Clinton left the Oval Office with the greatest budget surplus the country has ever know; over 8 years George W. plunders it into the country's worst deficit ever; and then the people expected poor ol' Barack to fix the damage overnight! One question: How?

The Gift of a Benefit
See, this is the thing I have issues with in politics - shutting down a man before giving him a chance; scrutinizing his every move even before he starts doing it; expecting miracles to solve problems overnight that took half a century to develop; and quite simply second-guessing every choice made, every action taken, like pulling a seed out of the ground every five minutes to see if it has started sprouting roots! For crying out loud...!

One question: Babangida. Sonekan. Abacha. Abdulsalami. Obasanjo. Yar'Adua. Jonathan. Buhari. Did I miss anything? The past 30 years of Nigerian presidency. Has anyone ever gone this far when it comes to anti-graft initiatives? Why don't you tell me what you think, because I frankly don't know. I simply do not know enough about politics to be able to say one way or another. I do know that I am irritated by headlines in the news - both online and off - saying things like "Buhari Anti-Graft Move: Sincere, or Political Witch-hunting?" I mean, how can they say that?

I'm not saying the man has gotten everything right - why, I have my issues with him too, and a bunch of things I would have done differently. But having achieved more in his stated objectives in less than one year than some achieved in 6 years at Aso Rock, I think the man deserves a little benefit of the doubt, wouldn't you say? Just a little?

You see? That's what I hate about politics: a man with that kind of reputation should get a benefit of the doubt... At least a little.

I'm giving it to him. Are you?

Friday, 4 December 2015

Country on the Brink...

Who do we believe; what do we say?

Do we like what our country has become? Do we desire for it to remain this way? Or do we crave the only kind of change that can make our great nation great indeed?

Nigeria, my home. Africa's most populous nation and 7th on the planet - a 180+ million strong force of human potential; leading economy on the continent; 20th leading economy in the world; 8th largest (or strongest) exporter of petroleum in the world (depending on how you state it)... and disturbingly one of the most impoverished.

Nigerians the world over are achievers - it's hard to deny. Yet back home, so many people live in abject conditions that are hard to forgive. Yes, I use the word 'forgive', because Nigeria's condition is an attrition, brought about undoubtedly by terrible leadership which has plagued the nation for the greater part of it's nearly 60 years of Independence from British rule. I would love to spend hour after hour, line after line trying to prove my last statements, but I feel as though that would be redundant - is there anybody that does not know it?

Perhaps the most troubling thing, however, about this 'would-be' great nation is the fact that so many of us have gotten so used to living in these terrible conditions that we simply accept it as the status quo and go about our daily lives as though nothing matters. A second portion of the populace does agree that Nigeria is a faint shadow of what she really should be, but their response is to seek 'asylum' of sorts in other nations - the UK, the US, Canada, Australia... even Ghana. Many of these brothers and sisters of ours take off and return only when they are ready to retire, the unfortunate truth being that while they may have bettered themselves and lived in comfort and/or affluence in other parts of the world, while they have contributed to the growth and GDP of these other nations, they have done little or nothing to improve their own country - the one that they decried and ran away from, only to return to because those other countries... no matter how long we stay there and adopt their ways... they aren't really home, are they?

And so we have all this news and developments now, since the inauguration of the new administration, led by retired general and reformed dictator Muhamadu Buhari, a severe man in almost every sense, and all of a sudden a lot of hidden information(s) - if I'm allowed to use the term - begin to come to light. We hear of raids on senator's homes and farms, many of them unconfirmed; we hear of former ministers and governors being arrested, detained, and questioned; we hear of billions in dollars and trillions in naira having been carted away and only a trickle of them being recovered... I don't do news too much myself, but I once heard someone say that Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom once said that if such sums of money were taken out of the UK economy, it would completely crash!

It certainly says something about how strong the Nigerian economy and capacity really is, if these 'mind-boggling' amounts really were taken out of the system and the system did not crash. It certainly says something about the Nigerian spirit if this much oppression has rocked the people for so long and we are still here. Empires have been toppled for less; revolutions have taken down kings and lords through the ages: the French Revolution; the Russian Revolution at the turn of the last century; the English wars that birthed the Magna Carta; and even the Independence of the United States of America some 200+ years ago - or am I mistaken?

My point is, we have been through much. Yet what irks me the most is folks talking and acting as though this was new... as though we never knew that the country was being robbed blind... that she was being financially and economically raped silly! How can we take such a stance? How could we ever? I once had an uncle who has lived in the United States for close to 20 years attempt to relocate back into the country. After settling in VGC - that's Victoria Garden City, for the uninitiated - for a couple of years and bringing his boy over to start schooling in Nigeria, he went right back to the US declaring that it is impossible to live in such conditions without being a thief! He was referring to the monies he had to pay for school, for rent, and just even for breathing air; he was talking about how no honest earner or business man could keep up with such rates in a normal system.

That's the point isn't it? Nigeria isn't a normal system - it hasn't been for years... decades. It's hard to name names, but there is hardly any need to. Is there a single politician or businessman in the country who's hands aren't dirty some ways or another? As a businessman myself - even as a common citizen - I have found it extremely difficult since I graduated university to get by honestly without having to bribe someone for something. We say that's just the way it is and we keep on living on - everybody is a part of the system: pastors, preachers, imams, and not least of all the very leaders who are meant to preserve AND IMPROVE our way of life.

We laud them these days, don't we? We praise their achievements when they build new houses and buy new cars, when they run us off the road with their motorcades and throw wads of cash around at insanely expensive parties that we are not invited to. 'He's the next big boy', we say; or 'She has arrived'! We NEVER stop to ask where all that money is coming from, how it is virtually impossible to climb that fast up the financial and social ladder without dirtying your hands also. We know it, but we don't want to ask the questions for fear of what we will find when we get the answers; we don't want to ask because we want the same things ourselves - we want to be that guy in the big brand new car that even Americans may not get until the next year; we want to be the ones living in the brand new area with the most expensive houses for rent... and we are willing to do anything for it... Almost.

That is why it isn't everyone who loves the new president for doing things the way he is doing it. We applaud him in public but we go right back and complain about how slow and methodical he is, how impossible and impractical to attempt ridding the country of the decadence that has plagued it for so long. We want the country to get better, but we don't want to pay the price for it... at least not before we have gotten our own share of the national cake. Like a belligerent wife who wants a brand new car even though her husband has just mortgaged everything he has on the house he is trying to build...

That's how we are, Nigeria; and it is what we need to grow up from being: a county on the brink.

We need to climb out of the mess we all have built for ourselves - yes, we built it ourselves, because these past leaders, THEY ARE US; they are a reflection of the people they represented. They got into power because we voted them in or we allowed them to stay; they stayed because nobody wanted to pay the personal sacrifice required to turn the nation around!

Today we have a man on the seat who has paid that price - 30-some years of it. Our own personal Mandela who wants to turn the nation around. While we praise him in public we condemn him in private (or is it the other way round), and we are so in a hurry to have things change that we seem unwilling to give him the time of day. But do we have to be told that if that family wants a baby they need to allow the woman to stay pregnant for 9 months and go through the travails of labour? Do we need to be taught that yam needs to take a year to grow and mature before we can harvest and eat it regardless of how much in a hurry we are?

Good things take time, and nearly 60 years of indiscriminate rape will take time to heal. We need to quit the whining and jump on the bandwagon of helping to heal the nation. We need to clean our dirtied hands and then get down and dirty to plant the seeds today that will become trees in 20 years. The benefits will come, but today, with our country on the brink, we need to pay the price that will help her heal - for ourselves. For our children. For posterity.

Nigeria will heal, but it is a long trek and we need to gear up for it.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

I Took A Trek... Pt 2

The pain in my back did not come back soon; over the years since then I have only felt it occasionally, in a manner similar to how it had plagued me back in school. I am not ignorant enough to think that the osteophytes that had grown on my L4 and L5 lumbar vertebrae had simply evaporated, but I was determined that they were not going to lower my quality of life or stop me from doing everything I still wanted to achieve in this life.

That's why I decided I was still going to take the long 97-mile trek from Ilorin to Ile-Ife, Nigeria. For starters, it would be another notch on my lapel - and I had quite a few of those already; second, it would help me lose weight in a way that I badly needed to after months of inactivity; third, it would help get me back in shape; and fourthly, I was looking forward to silencing the naysayers, of which there were many.

They thought I was insane; they thought it was impossible; they believed I was exposing myself to untold dangers... but I felt a bit different. I did a lot of thinking, but I could not for the life of me come of up an animal dangerous enough to attack me on the highways. My mind wandered to potential thieves and robbers I might run into on the trek, and I simply found it difficult to imagine. I mean, if they saw a lonely dude on the road, walking with a backpack, what were the odds that they'd think there was anything on me worth robbing?

Then comes the conceited part where most everybody will disagree with me. I did mention in my previous post that I am not a small man. I was gaining weight at the time, but most of my 230 pounds was still hard muscle. I mean, I imagined anyone who ran into me on the road was not likely to think forst of attacking me considering my bulk. Besides, I held a 3-degree black belt in Shito-Ryu Karate - that had to count for something. I can defend myself!

That's one the 'challenges' (I guess) that come with being a martial artist: you kinda lose your fear for stuff. After some interesting experiences in my past, and throwing in my prowess on the tatami, there really weren't a whole lot of stuff that I was afraid of. There was one thing that bothered me a lot, though. It was my concern about well-meaning people. I was not worried about animals wild otherwise from the bushes, and I was not worried about thieves or robbers that could attack me. What bothered me was people who could mistake me for either and then "shoot first, shoot later, and when everybody is dead try to ask a few questions."

Yeah, I love that line by Judi Dench's M, spoken to James Bond 007 in Goldeneye, I believe.

In any case, if there was something that could really harm me on the road, it was something that would do so accidentally. This I would have to be wary of.

I had learnt some things from the previous attempt - the failed one I detailed in "I Took A Trek..." Part 1: I needed to be in better shape if I was going to be walking on the highways for three days! Plus, I seriously could use the company of friends and other dudes who knew about fitness and engaging the wild outback.

I'll keep the real names out, but 'Stilt' was the first person whom I trusted both could and would join me on such a venture. While I coached Karate back in University, he was the school's boxing coach and a regular training partner. he was the reason why - even though I still think karate is superior to boxing - I now know well that boxers are never to be underestimated. Stilt had been out of training for closing on 6 years at the time, a lot longer than me. However, he was not as weight prone as I was so he still looked in excellent shape, and I knew he would love any opportunity to catch up on old times with me over a couple of six-packs of Heineken.

Next, there was this young kid I'll 'Yo' for the purpose of this write up. He wasn't that much younger - maybe just under five years - but this kid looks up to me and had been trying to follow in my footsteps for years, even though he could not cut it in the karate dojo. I had trained with the young fellow several times in the past and he almost always quit before it was over, but he always came. I was looking at this long walk as an opportunity to show him what real commitment and dedication was. Yo was excited about it too.

And then there was 'Tee', an even younger dude whom I had only just encouraged into grading for his first-dan black belt in karate. Tee was all enthusiasm and starry eyes; and when he heard that I was going to take such a trek, he really wanted to be a part of making modern history. He signed up as well.

The strategy was different this time. This time we were going to get prepared by training many weeks up to the event. I dug up an old Navy SEALs training program I had employed back in the day when I was preparing for my first dan black belt grading. That, remarkably, was nearly ten years ago, I realized. How time flew!

I laid out the program for everyone at the respective location via email, and I set out myself to do the training. There were warnings on the chart about pushing too hard or exceeding certain limits that the body could endure all at once, but I was Blanka, karate-ka extraordinaire and ex-coach. I ran nearly 30 miles every week, did 100 push-ups without breaking sweat, squatted 150 times right before frog-jumping nearly 50 meters every morning. I mean, I was Blanka, the dude who could run 20km at one stretch and do it in under two hours. It was no Olympic record, but there weren't too many regular athlethes who could pull that off two days in a row. I had done it repeatedly for a whole week. I was Blanka, undefeated on the tatami and capable of doing as many as 300 sit-ups each morning before breakfast. Now I'm not talking about those funny things Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera did to keep their abs looking desirable; I'm talking the real thing, crunches and all. There simply was no sense to being too cautious on a Navy SEALs beginner program that I had overcome nearly ten years ago... or was there?

Pull-out Method
Seems like there was. I started the training intense-like September 2010, but by October, Stilt called to say he hadn't had the chance to train like he should have been doing. Could we postpone by a month or two?

I carried the others along and they agreed. By November, Stilt hadn't been able to train still, and Yo was having trouble making money - he almost always is; so he needed to couple more weeks to make some change before getting with the program. Tee was still game, but he was beginning to complain for time. He had lost an older sister, he told me. And now he was saddled with taking care of her kids and his own sick father. That did not leave him with a lot of time to work out. Not to mention, he was having baby mama issues, I learnt much later on.

By December, the pain in my leg started. Somewhere on my shin - right leg - it began to bother and then to grow, until it was such a big deal that running became an excrutiating experience. Now this was a problem I had not forseen. I remembered now the warnings on the SEAL training manual about how jogging too hard or too much could result in stress fractures... but, I mean, this was me; and many times throughout all those years, I had overcome challenges like this simply by pushing through the pain.

So I tried to push through the pain, but it only got worse. As the end of the year drew close, I came to a devastating realization: I could not keep this up. I had arrested the weight gain by then, but I hadn't lost a single ounce for all the training. Pain is not something I'm unaccustomed to, but when it persisted, getting only worse, I had no clue what I was meant to do about it. And to make matters worse, none of my willing compatriots seemed any closer to being ready for the trek.

I could not keep this up for much longer.

The second part of the realization was this: if I was going to go on this trek, I was probably going to have to go on my own since none of the others were ready or even getting there.

I was having some baby mama issues of my own too. My wife was suddenly pregnant with our first baby two and a half years into our wedding. She was all of a sudden quite ill a lot of the time, and she was having trouble keeping up with... stuff. I neither had nor encouraged family staying around with me, so I didn't have anyone who was going to be with her for the duration of the trek. But the trek I had to do.

What to do? How to handle the situation? I didn't know; but I knew I was going to handle it.

I was alone now, I knew it; and now the idea to still embark on a three-day walk through a 'dangerous' countryside ALONE was becoming increasingly loco. But I was still intent on doing it. The biggest challenge wasn't the aloneness, though - it was the pregnant wife I would have to leave alone at home. Now that was no longer funny.

I left her, after I was certain that she had everything she could possibly need - sans myself - and knew that she was going to be alright. I had to leave in the middle of the night because even though she had finally agree to let me go, she wanted me to set out at 0500 hours, which in my book was way too late if I was going to beat time and distance. So, I woke up by 0200 hours and was out of the house by 0230.

The Trek

Day 1: Folks ask me how I did it, and the only thing Ican say about it is that I just did. Setting out at the time that I did was worse than insane for most people - it was irresponsibl. But these people weren't seeing the same things I was seeing: they didn't share my vision, they didn't have my training or experience on the road - they didn't know anything about anything, only that they were afraid of something that could happen, even though the odds were that it would not happen.

The trek, which I commenced on 14th February 2011, was pretty much a reenactment of the first experience I had had with it the previous year, only this time I was more prepared. I had water in my back-pack and I stopped to eat at one of the small towns I encountered on the road. When I found myself tired with the rising of the sun, I walked off of the road into the shade of a tree and allowed myself to sleep. Then I got up and kept walking, right after calling the woman I love to tell her I love her and Happy Valentine's, and reaching out to my parents with the love as well.

No, my family essentially had no clue what was going on - they would have gone totally beserk. My mum in particular would have relocated to camp in my home and ensure that I ditched my craziness before I did damage to myself. No, I did not tell them.

I moved faster this time, but thanks to the rests that I allowed myself, I took about the same 7 hours to get to Omupo. By 1300 hours, however, I was finally in Offa. It had taken all of 11 hours!

I had been careful to carry very little cash due to the mild concern about potential robbers on the way, so I stopped at an ATM to withdraw some funds, and then I took a bike to a hotel close to the outskirts of town so that I could leave inconspicuously before dawn.

By the time my back touched the bed, I was aching through every bone and muscle in my body, and the sweat came off of me in droves. I was no longer sure that I wanted to go on ahead with the walk, but I was still resolved - I had to.

Lessons I had learnt that first day were mainly two:
a) Don't walk in the sun. Walking in the sun was a disaster that quickly drained my energy and and willpower and left me nearly giving up only halfway to the objective.
b) Food is overrated. Yep, I found that when I ate I was heavier or slept more. I found that drinking water consistently kept me hydrated and strong enough to take the next step without making me heavier. That I could live with - I would eat only when I called it quits for the day.

Well, at least, that was the plan.

Day 2: The second day, I set out at 0300 hours. I had almost overslept, but the Valentine's Day party in the hotel lobby kept me drifting in and out of wakefulness. As soon as I was conscious of the time, I got up, threw on my clothes, and took off immediately. If I thought my bones and muscles had been aching the day before, that was a joke compared to what I felt now after that stiffness had gotten into my limbs. It was several long minutes of walking before I started to feel the blood flow through them again, but this Day 2 was completely different than Day 1.

I was quickly out of Offa and into the next town already, but visibility was depressingly poor. In addition, the closer I got to the state border, which was only about two hours' trek from my start up point for the day, the marshier the ground became. It was supposed to be a major road, but this one was anything but for all the attention it was getting from the authorities.

I trudged on, but I could hardly see more than a few feet in front of me most of the time. Many times I even found it difficult to see my feet at all - it was so dark. But I kept on. I was no longer certain that I had not taken a wrong turn and would end up someplace else entirely. It was either sheer madness or foolheadedness that made me keep on, but keep on I did.

Presently, I stepped over a railway line and I knew that I was either on or about to cross the state line into Osun State from Kwara. It was still pitch black and visibility was even worse. Now there were no longer occasional lighted buildings that dotted the landscape, it was just darkness on all sides with tall grass standing some of them twice as high as my head.

This was the one time I was most concerned for my safety. Like I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn't fear of some animal in the wild, nor was it even the that robbers could attack me lonely as I was; it was that someone - while trying to be a good citizen - could shoot me from the dark, or something, thinking I was a thief. I was suddenly a lot more cautious.

Like Day 1, I again encountered the police well before daylight broke. I had walked past a police vehicle - a Toyota Hilux - parked on the side of the road at Amoyo, 10 minutes worth of walking outside of Ilorin proper on the first day. Shortly after I walked past them, say 15-30 minutes, they drove past me heading in my direction, and again 30 minutes later they drove past me heading in the other direction. Some kind of sentry activity I figured, and just ignored them. It was about 0500-0530 hours Day 1 when this happens. This time it was about 0430 going on 0500 hours when I encountered a lone dude standing and leaning against the hood of a Toyota Hilux. Visibility was too poor for me to make out any features - not even the clothes he wore. I believe he was shocked to see me, and I also believe he was downright frightened, but neither one of us spoke to the other. I can't even be certain if he responded to my nod of  acknowledgment in his direction with a not of his own - there wasn't that much light.

I walked quickly through several small towns and settlements after this - Ijabe... I can't remember all their names. I remember walking through a small town with some serious college-student activity like a party going on. it was as though the party was ending and the drunk kids were trying to figure out how to get home. I recall walking through the little town in which my small cousin/nephew was schooling, and giving the young man a call. I don't remember him picking up, but I do remember that he did not come out to the main road to say hi like I had hoped. Well, it wasn't that lat anymore - the time was pushing 0600 by now and I was beginning to totally love myself for the effort.

At first light, I came through a town whose name I recognized - that was exciting for me. I can't right not recall th town's name, but I recall immediately placing a call to a young lady-friend of mine whom I knew hailed from that part of the world. She had been one of the few who knew I was going to take the trek before I did, and even though she was unable to stop me, she still warned me not to go because it was both dangerous and crazy.

I called her now, and she was excited to learn that I was in her home town now. One hour later, say 0700, I was in the next small town where I finally bought me a bottle of Calypso in the bid to strenghten my resolve and keep the hunger at bay. It worked, I think, but I don't remember much besides the fact that I didn't completely empty the small half-bottle of liquor before I touched base that evening.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. By 0930 hours going on 10, I finally made it to Ikirun. The sun had been slow coming up, but it was out in all it's glory. Remembering my lessons from yesterday, I knew I could not afford to put myself through the torture of walking in the sun on this critical second day of my lone trip. I had someone take me to a hotel, bought a very small amount of bread, showered, ate, and promptly fell asleep.

I made a mistake in the afternoon.

Earlier, I had called a friend of mine staying in Osogbo to let him know that I was coming and I would want to spend the night with him at his place. He said I was welcome and asked after my wife. When I told him she was fine back at home and that I was traveling alone, it piqued his interest and he wonderd how long it would take before I would be in town. Being on a trek, it was impossible to tell so I told him I was trekking and that I would call him when I made it into his city.

But overenthusiastic to continue with my trip now that I was rested, I restlessly set out about one hour too soon. I ran into the sun in a nasty way, and the lord of the skies refused to take any prisoners on this day. It was the most excited moment of the entire trek for me when I crested a hill and saw Osogbo splayed out in front of me like a virgin waiting to be loved.

I screamed at the top of my lungs and immediately placed cell phone calls to as many as would listen.

"Don't let anybody ever tell you it can't be done,"I remember saying clearly. "I did it!" "I'm doing it!" No one could silence me, except the trees that still lingered on either side of the road as we approached to the city. It was relatively short-lived, my excitement, especially since it still took me over one hour to get into the city proper. Finally I called another bike to take me to my friend's location where he had been waiting for me, and we were reunited after nearly two years of not seeing each other.

Silly dude, when he heard about my exploits, he wanted in on it too. That wasn't a bother because I knew he didn't have it in him; it was that he wanted us to walk now to his place because he wanted to feel like he was a part of my escapade. Except that my feet were dead by now and I just needed to be able to put them up!

It took almost one hour to get to my friend's home and I had to wonder how I would get back to the main road when I needed to continue, my friend. He made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that dogs in the region and they would never let me pass by them at my proposed time of 0300 hours. I let him sleep,  but I was up and outdoors by 0315 hours. I braved the dogs - every kind: small or larger. And I was back on the right track out of Ilorin with a whole day's trek yet ahead of me.

Day 3
This time I did not think there was much else left to it, so I took of my shoes and ran barefooted on the tarmac as long as I could manage it. It was still further than I imagined that it was, but this time I was determined not to stop until I had finished the walk - sorta.

Day 3 could easily be the best day of them all, and I was soo looking forward to finishing the trek. I remember the lessons I had gotten on the first day but I wanted to hit town by midday... Fortunately, having been walking from someplace closer to the north and now being nearly all the way south of the country, the vegetational cover was a lot more. When the sun came up today, the cloud cover was significant enough to keep it hidden for a while; and at instances when the rays broke through, the trees protected me.

Long story short, I walked into Ile-Ife at precisely 1200 noon that day, walking into an incredulous reception from another friend.

I got weary quicker than I expected; but I was determined. As daylight approached, I knew I could not remain shoe-less and run the risk of someone thinking me crazy - there's been a lot of that in my story, hasn't there? People thinking me crazy. Told you that from the start, didn't I? There are a lot of people who thought I was crazy for taking the walk, but not only that - they thought I was crazy too for the way I took the walk. I section of the journey that I expected to take three hours lasted almost five; and another section put me in more pain than I had anticipated. Fortunately, I had Michael Jackson, although that only came after I had seen my sister.

Haaa, I forgot to mention I called my sister the night before. She's the youngest of my three sisters, the sixth of seven siblings all by my Mum and Dad. She's a lawyer; I'm #2. She was going to be on her way with a couple of friends and colleagues to Osogbo from Ile-Ife in the morning, and when I told her I was on the trek, she freaked, got excited, and purposed to meet me on the highway on her way out.

By the time they caught up to me, it was pushing 0900 hours and I had just had breakfast at Sekona. I was pushing toward a small village where my dad had started a church some ten-fifteen years back. She got out the car, exclaimed at my protruding tummy - which I attempted to explain away by the hefty breakfast I just had - and gave me a sweet and lovely hug. We planned to meet back in Ife when she got back, and then she got back in the car and shared the inspiring story with her colleagues. Me? I continued to walk... and that was where Mike came in helpful.

I was tired, I knew it; but, well, I was not going to quit at this time. So what I did was plug my phone in my ears and dance-walk to the sounds of "They don't really care about us." Did I say folks on the road thought I was crazy before? You should have seen the looks I got this time. A little over one hour later I walked into the last major... er, settlement before Ile-Ife - Dunno what it's called, Edun-Abon, Ipetu, or Moro. well, my brain wasn't working right anymore. I was creamed now, I certainly wasn't thinking straight and I knew it.
The sun was up now and in the 30 minutes to 1 hour it took to walk from one end to the other, every last ounce of energy in me had been drained. I drank a lot of water, but this time the energy was not coming back. I called a friend in advance to let him know I would be in Ife by midday, but even after the call getting back on my feet was a tall order.

Needless to say, of course I got back on my feet, and of course I pushed forward, faint every step of the way. Grabbed a bottle of soda here and a sachet of water there... I couldn't eat any more - couldn't afford to risk getting even heavier than I was already. My feet were like lead, there were shafts of pain in my calves, and I believe I once mentioned the stress fracture in my shin. By the end of the first day, it was painkillers recommended by my doctor brother all the way in Australia that kept me going, but even those didn't seem to working any longer. I was done. I knew it. But I wasn't going to quit. I was going to finish this.

It was the dot of midday when I crossed the first landmark into Ile-Ife - I had made it, but I was not going to put myself through any more of it. I was still a long ways from where I'd have hoped to reach - the Obafemi Awolowo University gates. That would have taken at least one more hour, but I didn't think I still had that left in me. Not any more.

It was ten full minutes afterward before I came across the first commercial motorbike that did not already have a passenger on the back. I took it. I was at the gates in less than five minutes. I had had one friend meet me there just to say "Yo, crazy dude, you did it!" and a second friend come tell me "Yo, crazy dude, you did it!" and take me home to my parents'.

It was finally over, but the overarching message in the experience rings true with me all the way to this day: Don't let anybody ever tell you that it can't be done!

Monday, 17 December 2012

I Took A Trek...

Most people thought I was just plain crazy.

It was nearly two years ago, on 14th February 2011, when I finally took off on a 97-mile trek between two major cities across the landscape of one of the most dangerous countries in the world - Nigeria.


Yes, without a doubt. No, folks do not just come at you threatening your life every blessed day, but step out of line and you may live only to tell a very sordid tale of unpleasant experiences. And sometimes, you could be within what you thought to be the safe confines of your own home when they could come for you, knocking down your door and knocking down your life as you know it. After all, it is Nigeria, a country considered to be one of the most dangerous and corrupt in the world.

Naaa, I do not necessarily agree with this point of view. Hey, I stay in this country. Here you are reading my post - you've got to admit that I totally cannot be that ignorant, no? But folks have their opinions, and sometimes, in order to be able to teach them, you got to give them a chance to air those opinions first.

But there are dangers in my home country, make no doubts about it - just like there are dangers in practically every other country of the world! The worst part of these dangers is that many people believe in them and have come to accep them as norm. This - this... state of mind, is the very thing that makes Africa's most populous nation even more dangerous than it really is, because folks tend to react to stuff that may or may not be there, simply because they fear that it may be there.

You then can imagine how insane folks must have thought I was if I told them what I was about to do. The really interesting thing about it was that it did not seem that insane when I concocted the idea. There was going to be three or four of us on the expedition - myself, ex-karate-ka trying to get back in shape after an deblitating and potentially degenerative injury; a fellow martial artist, former boxing coach and fitness extraodinaire; a young protege of mine who had recently made black belt; and a fourth fellow, a young man who had looked up to me for years and was trying to follow in my footsteps... without actually practicing karate. Four men, back-packs hanging from our shoulders, heads covered in face-caps, feet clad in hiking shoes, braving the dangers, overcoming the odds, trudging through the outback - the great outdoors - daring nature and staring exhaustion in the face; sharing drinks at night around a warm fire that kept the creatures away...! It was the stuff that dreams were made of.

Then one by one, every one started to back out. First it was my former training partner who could not make it at the time stipulated, so we had to postpone. Then something else; then another something; and before I knew it, we had been postponing the trek for nearly five months! This was not going to do. Something had to be done. So I made the decision - I would go alone.

Almost a year before then, my back had finally given way after nearly 15 years of a mysterious injury I knew nothing about. I felt the pain for sure: sitting or standing for long periods was always painful; but the 12-some years I had spent studying the martial arts had taught me programs and exercises I could do to manage the pain and discomfort. I still had occasional crises that near-incapacitated me, but all in all I was doing fine.

But by January of 2010, I had not trained with a proper dojo for five years, had been married for two, and I had gained nearly 50 pounds. I trained for and graded into 3rd dan black belt by May of the same year, but I believe the additional stress from training and the added weight were the elements that worked together to become my undoing.

I was lying down on the floor in my living room weeks after the successful grading, when I turned and I felt something shift in my lower back. It was the last time I would lie still and painless for the next five months. Excrutiating is a word I do not use all too often, but it is a term I got familiar with between May and August of 2010. I could not stand for long, I could not sit for long, I could not... I could not do anything for anything longer than a few minutes.

Walking - too painful. Running - impossible after the first couple of steps. Making love - are you kidding me?!

The weight came quickly. I had been able to put it off for years with extreme workouts and exercises, but now I had no defense against it. I have always had heavy bones, and even from the day I signed on with my dojo I knew I was never going to fight in the middleweight category - I was at least light-heavy. The x-rays didn't help; nor did the doctors. I could not afford the MRI at the time, but they did not need them to identify the osteophytes on my lower lumbar vertebrae. Everybody got something like it at some point in their lives, but usually when they are over 60 - I was just going to clock 32 in October of that year.

The worst part is, short of very invasive surgery, there was no curing the situation - even palliative options had their limitations; it could only get worse. Besides no doctor was ever going to perform that kind of surgery and risk leaving me incapacitated with a severed spinal cord or (literally) frayed nerves for life. The best suggestion any of the doctors had was that I should consider putting on a waist belt and keeping it on forever.

I was devastated... but I wasn't going to let the sad news run my life. Of course, I was not going to put on a waist belt, not even if I was still alive at 70. So I did the only other thing I could do - I prayed. It was August now, four months after the pains started. I was desperate, and I had to put some works behind the faith that led me to pray. So I took the first walk.

It was meant to be just a few hours. The drive from Ilorin to Offa took the greater part of one hour, and I reckoned I could trek it in four or five. How wrong could I be?

I set out at about 0400hrs - can't remember the date. I reckoned I could do more than - or at leat up to - half the distance before it was daylight. When daylight struck two hours later, I was still in Ilorin only just approaching the outskirts. I was still upbeat, but was seriously beginning to recaliberate my expectations.

It wasn't just the sweat, and exhaustion is certainly something I can handle after more than 12 years doing karate and with three - yep, that's THREE - black belt gradings under my belt. It was first the frustration of realizing how much further I still had to go when my feet had already begun to blister.

I had started the trek at a run, hoping to cover plenty distance before I got too tired to keep it up. I could only go so fast, no thanks to the pain just above my butt. But after running one hour, I could keep it up no more, so I went back to walking. By the time I got to Ganmo at the outskirts of the city of Ilorin, I had been at it for nearly three hours. Knowing that as much as five times that distance was still left ahead of me, I suddenly realized I might have bitten off a bit - A LOT - more than I could chew. ...but I kept on. hey, quitting is not something I do all too easily either.

Of course I didn't finish it - not that day; not when my expectations had been so high above the reality of the situation. It wasn't that I didn't have the energy to push on, but I was beginning to imagine how much damage I would have done to my body had I completed the trek to Offa that day. I had gorssly underestimated the distances and over estimated my threshold of pain. The blisters on my feet weren't even the worst of them; it was the blisters and bruises on the inside of my thighs that really got me. I should have won tights to keep my thighs from brushing against each other; I should have won lighter shoes, as the heavy trainers I had on were... er, so heavy now that I could barely lift them; I should have won clothes of lighter fabric, because the ones I had on now were drenched and heavy with sweat, doubling the amount of effort required to take the very next step.

There were a lot of things I could and should have done different, and I knew this by the time I finally made to Omupo, 7 hours into the walk. Drained, exhausted, and just looking for some respite. Omupo, in real terms, was only about half the distance; but I had my excuses for quitting at that time, things I still tell myself to date to help me sleep at night: I had a meetin back in Ilorin by 1400hrs. There was simply no way I could get to Offa on time and still make it back to Ilorin (even by bus) in time for the meeting. I had to head back now so that I would have enough time to rest, bathe, and dress up for the appointment.

I sat down by a kiosk on the side of the road at Omupo. I ordered a large bottle of Fanta and a small loaf of bread, and I gulped it down in short minutes. When the next taxi passed heading back toward Ilorin, I was on it. I was told it was only a 20 minute drive. TWENTY MINUTES? I had been walking for 7 hours!!!

I didn't have a lot of time to process it right then because I was asleep in the cab before I knew it. With the added weight I had gained and considering how exhausted I was, I am sure I snored badly. No one woke me, though. I slept all the way through until we were back in town when the gentle rocking of the automobile ceased long enough to send signals to my brain that the taxi was stopping.  could barely walk, but I am - well, was - made of tougher stuff. My feet hurting with blisters and my thighs bleeding from bruises, I found a bike that could take me home from the bus stop, and I was asleep in my own bed 10 minutes later.

Sorry. I forgot to mention the back pain. Yep, that's because it was no longer there! By the time I was done jogging in the morning, say about hour hours into the trek, the pain in my back was completely gone, replaced by the aches and boredom that were soon to define the rest of my day.
I was elated, even though I had failed to do what I set out to do. What I had learnt were the things I had done wrong, which I was not going to do wrong again. I was going to take the trek, and this time, I was not going to stop at Offa, but go all the way to Ile-Ife, three hours drive from Ilorin. Judging from how Omupo, which was only about half the distance to Offa from Ilorin, had taken me about 7 hours to walk, I knew now that Offa was going to be a whole day's trek and there had to be another stop on the way before I finally made it to Ife. That stop was going to be Osogbo, which was another 1 hour's drive from Offa.

Next time, I wasn't going to walk alone either - I would have companions to walk and talk with, share experiences, encourage and help each other, tease, and all what not. It was going to be th stuff that dreams and legends were made of. We were goign to be completely outfitted in the right clothes and the right gear, and we were going to help each other all the way to the end. And this time, I was - we were - all going to train well in preparation for the walk - there would be no breaking down or quitting - we would get to the end.

That was the plan. Too bad life always has a way of kicking you in the face!