Writing from her hometown of Benin City in southern Nigeria, model and businesswoman Adesuwa Aighewi urges those in isolation to count their blessings and care for one another.
Recounts experience thus far as he returns back to Nigeria to Spend the quarantine period
I came home to Nigeria in mid-March, the day before the government in its quarantine measure banned entry from 13 countries including the US, UK and China. The Covid-19 pandemic made me ask, “Where is my home? Is it America, where I was born? Thailand, where my mum was born? Nigeria, where my dad is from and where I grew up until the age of 13?”
Home is where you have the most resources — where you feel safest. But I thought I’d be more useful in Nigeria than self-isolating in my apartment in New York.
As part of Legacy Project — an online fair-trade marketplace I’m setting up — I’m using this moment of solitude in my hometown of Benin City to document the stories of our forefathers and ultimately put them into books.
Stories aren’t being passed on from generation to generation as they once were; Yoruba culture doesn’t engage with Igbo culture — we are at risk of losing our history if we don’t take ownership of it. Even great writers such as Chinua Achebe don’t have the place in history they deserve.
Spread by the elite, endured by the poor
Coronavirus is an illness spread by the elite — people who can afford to travel internationally. But if the situation gets worse, the poorest will suffer most.
People in the upper echelons of the Nigerian government, including the president’s chief of staff and a state governor, tested positive for coronavirus in late March, and before that, most cases were travelers who had recently returned from the US and UK.
This disparity is reflected in the geography of Lagos. For anyone who hasn’t been, this megacity of 21 million is spread across four islands, including the wealthy neighbourhoods of Ikoyi and Victoria Island where, right now, the streets are empty and businesses have closed — their inhabitants are self-isolating at home.
Then there’s the densely populated mainland where the majority of Lagosians live. People here are generally poorer and in many cases, multiple generations live together under one roof (if they have one). Contrary to the islands, life continues here as usual — it has to.
Coronavirus is an added danger as people go about their lives, but there are more immediate threats. Lassa Fever has so far proved far more deadly in Nigeria. Already this year, there have been around 800 cases compared to 373 cases of Covid-19; in 2019, fatality rates for Lassa reached 23 per cent, compared to 2 per cent for coronavirus. Still, no one’s talking about it because it‘s not prevalent beyond West Africa.
Quarantine is a privilege
Many of the artisans working on the Legacy Project live on the mainland. One day, as I was driving through the city to meet them, I saw two boys risking their lives, darting between moving traffic to sell bananas. This is not an uncommon sight in Nigeria, but in the current climate?
Quarantining isn’t an option for those boys; it isn’t for many people who live in Nigeria where approximately 90 million people (around half of the country’s population) live in extreme poverty. Quarantine is a privilege.
In fact, the majority of orders echoed by governments around the world in response to coronavirus can only be fulfilled by the privileged. When I go on to Google, the mantra ‘Stay home. Save lives. Help stop coronavirus’ reads below the search bar. But what about the people who can’t afford to stay at home?
Equally upsetting are the articles and posts I’m seeing online. On the first day of lockdown in Nigeria (31 March), Nollywood actress Ada Ameh made a desperate plea to the Federal Government to provide Nigerians with consistent light to boost morale — the electricity grid here frequently breaks down causing blackouts.
Underlying the seemingly positive announcement that the Federal Government had budgeted for 200,000 households to receive food rations was the reality I witnessed — food parcels containing barely enough for one person for three days, let alone a family of five.
Then, in international news, I was horrified to read the suggestions made by two French doctors that a coronavirus vaccine be tested in Africa. Africa is not a testing ground.
Rewriting the world’s narrative
There are so many misconceptions about Nigeria — Africa as a whole. We are not a continent waiting to be helped or rescued. People here work hard; they work to survive. Hopefully, that narrative is shifting. I was interested to read in The New York Times that so many Americans based in Africa are choosing to stay here because coronavirus has been slower to take hold than back home.
Along with my community — musicians Runtown and Seun Kuti, and designer Ugo Mozie among others — I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help improve the situation for those most vulnerable to Covid-19 and Lassa. My instinct was to set up a kitchen to feed people, but of course, that would end up breaking the social-distancing rules — you have to change the way you think. For the time being, the most effective thing to do is donate money to food banks and grassroots organizations.
Coronavirus is indiscriminate; it’s stripping us of any social badges we use to divide people. If there is one positive thing to come out of this situation, let it be to check our privileges and care more about each other.
As told to Liam Freeman
Original Post First Appeared on VOGUE