By Ogbeni La

The location of the electrical transfer switch box in a Nigerian building can be used to measure the economic status of the house owner or inhabitant. Let me explain. If it is situated at the entrance of the building, it could be an embarrassing afterthought. If it is carefully placed in the kitchen especially if it is the small box like mine, it is the identification of the typical Nigerian lower middle class hustler. Those that always have theirs somewhere on the corridor within the house don’t have two heads.

So few days ago around past nine in the evening I was on a long foreign call with some lady I’m trying to make my better half. I was seated directly under my small switchover box in the kitchen. A video call would have been more fulfilling but it was raining heavily and aside poor network that comes with such outpour, there was understandably no power supply. The kitchen was poorly lit. Suddenly a loud thunder struck. Praaaaah! Then came a spark from the switchover box. I ran out of the kitchen with so much violence, the lady asked if I was okay.

“No I wasn’t… But I’m now collecting myself” , I humbly admitted.

“What happened” , she queried.

When I told her of the thunder strike, she sounded bemused. I quickly added that it came with a spark from the transfer switch box.

“Babe, that’s conductor. It is normal…”

Poor girl. She’s in Southampton and I’m in Ondo. She doesn’t get it. In fact it took some moment of reflection later that night for me to get it too. I’m educated. I know what a thunder is and even though I am not a science student, I know what a conductor is too. But my reality as a Nigerian living in Nigeria differs from hers and it informed my reaction. My realities came together in a twinkle of an eye to alarm me of a potential danger. How will she understand when in her modest Southampton apartment, she’s got a fire alarm. How can she relate when she lives in a building with fire extinguisher. How can she get it when in case of an emergency fire outbreak, it’d take the Fire Service minutes to get to her where she resides? And if for any reason valuables couldn’t be salvaged before fire service arrival, how can she relate when these lost items are most likely insured?

But seated in that kitchen, I have no single insurance. My landlord, a gentleman by outlook, would likely drag me into paying for damages incase of a fire outbreak I do not even have a clue how it began. My landlord a typical Nigerian barely furnished the apartment we both shared before embarking on another right behind us. I can’t even bring myself to be irked by the absence of a fire alarm or fire extinguisher in my flat. Where I stay probably has over a thousand houses scattered around in a typically unplanned Nigerian residential area. I’d wager not up to fifty houses have either a fire alarm or extinguisher. And as for Fire Service, let’s just say all the houses in my area would make an excellent hell fire furnace in case of a fire outbreak because the roads are nearly inaccessible as a result of erosion. And that’s me just fantasising with the probability of the Fire Service having water in their tank. This is the Nigerian reality and they all came together in a split second to jolt the son of man into a well deserved panic.

I am forced to recall this experience in the wake of Onitsha fire that engulfed Ochanja market on Wednesday. The news is disheartening. The pictures are gory. Testimonies of first hand witness will break even the strongest heart. A tanker carrying premium motor spirit crashed into a house and everywhere caught fire. Fire service was called but no help came until everything in sight was consumed by the fury of the raging beast. Lives were lost. Shops were razed down. Hopes dashed. Billions of naira went up in flames beause we are unfortunate to live in a country where the government has no plan for her citizens. How can one be so helpless in such a situation watching all they’ve laboured for in life burnt into ashes right in front of them? What is the worth of a Nigerian life? Is the Nigerian dream valid in the face of such hopelessness.

We can only hope for some kind of solace for the bereaved and victims of this disaster. But when will our government be proactive rather than reactionary? I wept when I found out the second biggest river in the continent is just three kilometres away from the incident. And yet Fire Service couldn’t bring water! To live in Nigeria is to be endangered.