Conversation with Azu
Everyone has their meal of the day, and mine happens to be dinner. Having dinner, for me, is a ritual, but one that has evolved over the years.
Back in the day, I would not dare have dinner without first taking my bath. My mother said it was “unclean” to eat before brushing your teeth in the morning and taking your bath; or to have dinner before taking your bath, as if you had just been rescued from the pits or planned to eat with all parts of your body.
I didn’t understand it but asking Mama too many questions was not the way we were brought up. You just did what you were told as you were told – or risked Mama beating sense into your head.
As I grew older and became more independent, I found my way around Mama’s maze of inexplicable rules. I just followed my heart. That included discarding the maternal canon of bathing before dinner; but believe me, I still keep short hair because she said long hair – my own long hair – had the tendency to grow into my mouth.
As for my dinner habit, that has evolved. After a long, exhausting day at work, water-splashing can wait until I have grabbed something to eat. It’s a sacred thing; dinner is a moment of conversation between my hand and my mouth, a responsive journey of discovery as my strength is renewed.
At this time, I set aside all distractions – except the self-inflicted one of watching the TV perfunctorily – while everything else waits. That was the moment on Monday when my wife chose to strike when I was most vulnerable.
I ignored her at first, too lost in my sacred ritual to pay attention or even care. But she repeated it: “You’ll have to follow me to the market next time!”
I sent daggers from the corner of my eyes, but they didn’t deter her. Again, she said that I would follow her to the market next time. Why?
She said if the country didn’t erupt in protest over astronomically high food prices in the next few days, then nothing would move the country ever again. Not famine, not pestilence, not bad governance. Nothing.
She was as determined to disrupt my moment of pure culinary ecstasy as I was determined not to be distracted.
“Do you know what is going on with prices out there, I mean in the market?”, she asked again.
“What’s going on?”, I replied absent-mindedly.
Then her stream of questions became a torrent, and the torrent, a dam of JAMB-like question and answer. Mackerel, popularly called Titus fish, that was N800 per kilo only last year is now N2,000; a loaf of bread that was N500 is now N700; a measure of garri has gone from N300 to N500; the price of 50kg bag of rice has risen from N18,000 about two years ago to N30,000; the prices of other grains such as corn, millet and guinea corn have doubled, as have prices of spices and vegetables. One bottle of groundnut has gone from N500 to N700.
She was making digestion a bit difficult for me, but somehow, I managed to continue hearing her without listening.
Then she told me that at the market, after exhausting the money she took from home, she sat down at a shed and began to add up everything she had bought on the suspicion that she may have been swindled.
She added and subtracted and added and subtracted and multiplied but kept getting the same total. Nothing was missing. Her money was spent. If she wanted to buy anything more, she would need to use the ATM or POS or whatever. But that’s it. She was spent – and so was her money.
But knowing she had told me this kind of story over and over in the past and I didn’t pay attention, she made up her mind this time that only a spousal rebellion would get my attention: she is happy to go to the market any day, but I would follow her and pay as she shops!
At this point, she got my attention. Not in form of compliance yet, but by way of explanation. I was getting to the end of my dinner and could now think and see more clearly. I explained that what is happening in the market is not an accident. Inflation doesn’t just happen; it doesn’t come without notice.
Often, it’s the invited guest of poor monetary and fiscal management, among other things. If the money supply is too far ahead of the ability of producers to keep up with the supply of goods and services, inflation sets in, although at different degrees on different price fronts.
But in the market, this English does not substitute the price of fish. Nor will it quell a domestic rebellion. But here is what has happened. An agrarian economy like ours is particularly vulnerable to price inflation. When the farms are hit, everything goes haywire.
In the last couple of years, farming has been a particularly risky venture because of rising insecurity and deadly conflicts between farmers and herders. Only on Monday, for example, the press reported that 50,000 farmers in 13 villages in Nasarawa State had been displaced by herdsmen some of who also complained that Boko Haram had displaced them and rustled their cows.
The International Crisis Group reported that since January 2018 when country-wide violence escalated, 300,000 people have fled their homes. If you add that to the disruption by the COVID-19 pandemic and the radical escalation of violence this year that has left scores dead, then you’ll begin to understand why one finger of bell pepper which sold for N200 last year has nearly doubled.
And, while food prices have risen, wages and salaries have remained stagnant or have been significantly cut down in a number of cases, again following the impact of the pandemic. The remnant of a fragile middle class is now buried under a deluge of desperate text messages for help with assorted account numbers attached.
As my wife raged about prices gone out of control, I wondered what Marie Antionette, the wife of Louis the XVI, infamously maligned for stoking the French revolution would have done if she were alive today and a Nigerian queen.
On the verge of the French Revolution when prices were out of control, Antionette was mischaracterised as telling the French to eat cake, if they couldn’t afford bread. With prices of flour and baking powder beyond reach, Antionette might have advised Nigerians, a very religious lot, to eat prayers.
But it’s not funny. Not a laughing matter at all, except if you work in Aso Rock where the food budget was steady at roughly N150m in 2019 and 2020 and is up by about 30 per cent (N195m) this year or in any of the 36 state government houses where appropriation for food has defied inflation.
The whole point of Monday’s disruptive dinner table conversation was to get me to pay more for food. I had hoped that my clever economics would buy me an escape route, a reprieve. But it didn’t work. Nor did my subsequent attempt to improvise another topic by sweeping the matter under the rug.
I’m not sure I’m prepared to follow anyone to the market yet; not even if they invented #FollowMeToTheMarket. I might as well accept an invitation to my own funeral. Right now, I’m quite busy – watching market forces, keenly aware that in domestic affairs, what goes up stays up.
Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP.