1945 – Celine Aju

“Nkemdilichukwu!  Where is my hand fan? “

Nkem’s mother had just woken up. The house was hot. She hadn’t eaten. It was 12:00 PM, June 30th 1945, nine days since the General Strike began.

Nkem knew that the government was acting like Nigeria’s money was their money, like our resources were theirs. That’s what her mother had told her. She said, “it’s not their country or their resources, it’s ours. Nigeria is for all of us.”

Whenever Nkem’s mother spoke to her friends, they asked: “why won’t they just increase our salaries to what the Unions are negotiating?” Someone clapped her hands and responded, “you know! It’s quite modest compared to the fat cheques they collect…  They pay white men who drink and eat lavishly way more than that to make us work to help produce things for them!”

It took Nkem five minutes to find the fan, all of which her mother spent screaming at her to be quick:

“Nkemdilichukwu!  Don’t let me call you again o, bring my hand fan– if I won’t eat let me not die of heat now!”

Nkem gave the fan to her mother. 

Mr Sule was in his house in Ikeja. He was a short, dark man from Lagos, where the strike had made life for politicians unbearable.  

“Darling, when are we leaving? ” asked Mrs Sule, his wife. She was carrying their daughter, Naomi in her thin arms.

“Tomorrow evening,”  he responded, fanning himself with a piece of carton from a Coasters’ Biscuits box.

“Our daughter is tired of this place.” Mrs Sule put Naomi down.

“We are all tired of this place” he responded,

“But you are the Chairman of Lagos West! You can’t allow these people to make our lives hard like this. Talk to the governor. Isn’t he your friend?” she added.

Mr Sule had already talked to the governor. That was during the first week of the strike. They were in the governor’s office in Ikoyi, the wall behind the governor’s seat was covered in certificates and plaques, many of which were bought, not earned.

“Sule, you’re a good man you know and I’ve always known you’d go far. This little drama the unions are acting out will blow over in a short while. We’ve got many of their leaders on our payroll.” The governor adjusted his glasses then continued, “it might take a while longer cause we want these lazy workers to understand the value of each crumb we allow them enjoy–but we take care of our own, yes, we always do.”

Reaching out under his desk, the governor brought out a small brown envelope, passed it to Mr Sule and proceeded, “Like I said, we take care of our own, that’s three business class tickets to South Africa, there’s a letter inside that will absolve you of any immigration issues you might have there, just ask to see the head of customs when you get there. The remaining documents and information for lodging and other expenses are already in your car.  Do send my love to your wife and daughter. They’ll have to come over for dinner with my family one of these days.” 

Mr Sule tried to explain this to his wife, but she wasn’t having it. With nothing left to do in the three-bedroom duplex, she carried her daughter into her bedroom. The low burning candle in Mrs Sule’s bedroom kept the mosquitoes at bay until the cool night breeze rolled. There were clumps of dust in the corners of the room. Even there, the air was hot and sticky. Naomi’s mother sat in bed, staring into the darkness. The sheets were wet with sweat, the carpets still smelt of the fish stew Naomi had poured earlier in the day.

Lagos was once ‘real civilization’, where hedges and picket fences separated paved roads from large, concrete houses. This strike made the whole state feel like a lump of red clay; dry, dirty, and stale. At least, most the Sule’s house itself was covered in dirt, since the maids hadn’t come to clean it. Mrs Sule couldn’t sleep. Even Naomi couldn’t sleep. The next day could not have come any slower. 

Mrs Sule dragged her child out of bed the next morning. Her husband told her that the water corp had just cut the water supply to the house. He fetched a few buckets of water from the well. The whole family bathed with cold water. They brushed their teeth with sachets of pure water. By evening when the sun began to set, the family walked out of the house into the car. They would finally leave Lagos and all its chaos.

People had blocked the roads. There was no fuel in Lagos. The Sules barely made it anywhere before they were forced to turn back.

Nkem’s father went home after almost seven days, thankfully, with some rice and kerosene. He put the kerosene in the stove, put some of the rice to boil in a pot with some vegetable oil that was left over from before the strike. He complained that his children were starting to look pale. He complained about the noise from the protests. He complained that the house was “smelling of shit,” that the pit hadn’t been cleaned since the strike started. He complained and asked his children to turn on the radio. A deep, hoarse voice said:

“I am simply astounded at the level of cooperation of the 17 trade unions. I must say we have come a long way as a people. We have spoken, and we will be heard.”

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