In the last three weeks, the Abuja board for something and onething (forgive me) has been engaged in some moral war against prostitutes; strip clubs have been targeted, and all sorts of tales by moonlight told. Gender activists have also been on parade. One story beats thoughts as cops allegedly slept with ‘suspects’ with sachet water nylon packs. It has been a case of those for and those against.
In the last few months, we have also been in the debate regarding alamajiri, the system, the culture, and the faith, while origins and practice are totally two different things. We are saddled with explaining what prostitution, transactional sex, is and in the same vein justifying whether we need the alamajiri system, given the fact that it is a time bomb the way it currently is.
Let me share an interesting and complex story, from a work I read recently.
When I was a young boy in Kolkata (India), a group of people from Progress Publishers (USSR) came to my school. They set up a table and laid out a variety of books for us to look at and – perhaps – buy. There were children’s books and the works of Karl Marx, as well as a range of novels by Russian authors, certainly, but also writers from Africa and the rest of Asia. For whatever reason, that day – in 1981 – I bought Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899). Later, I would reflect on the fact that the Soviets would publish writers – such as Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev – who held a range of political opinions quite far from socialism. But at that time I dug into Tolstoy’s book, which I had bought for almost nothing.
A Russian aristocrat, Count Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, has an affair with a maid, Katerina Mikhaelovna Maslova, in the home of his aunts. Nekhlyudov, who moves on with his life, is oblivious to Maslova’s fate. Ten years later, he is on a jury, which has before it Maslova, now a sex worker who is charged with murder. Maslova poisoned a client who had beaten her. The Count wants to save her, begging her to marry him. She is not interested. ‘You had your pleasure from me in this world,’ she says of his Christian charity, ‘and now you want to get your salvation through me in the world to come.’
Maslova is sent to Siberia. Nekhlyudov follows her. He hears about the terrors of the prison system. Tolstoy spares no detail. It is difficult reading. The prisons in the novel describe the prisons today. These are nasty places, which take away the humanity of people. Count Nekhlyudov opens a discussion with his brother-in-law, Rogozhinsky, about courts and prisons. Rogozhinsky says that the courts and the prisons are needed for justice. ‘As if justice were the aim of the law,’ says the Count. ‘What then?’ asks his brother-in-law. ‘The upholding of class interests! I think the law is only an instrument for upholding the existing order of things beneficial to our class.’ His verdict is total. But what can he do? Nothing.
Nekhlyudov cannot save Maslova. Nor can he save the line of emaciated prisoners who march out of their frozen prisons and die on the streets. ‘Man owes no humanity to man’, said the Count. Tolstoy could only end the novel with the hope of a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, with quotes from the Bible swirling through the Count’s head.
Tolstoy’s novel could not solve the problem for Maslova. But the novel brought inhumanity to the surface. That is, in broad terms, the purpose of art. Art does not change the world by itself. Reading a novel or looking at a design can draw our attention to problems and can even provide an understanding of them. But it cannot by itself change the world. Art and literature alert us to the contradictions in our world, show us how these contradictions – such as of Maslova’s imprisonment – cannot be overcome by good, liberal feelings. Struggles are needed. Nekhlyudov knows that. The prisons uphold ‘class interests,’ he says, referring to the interests of the class of the aristocracy and the industrialists. The interests of other classes – workers, such as Maslova – were suppressed. Art revealed the suppression. Struggle would take that revelation further.
Change comes at different tempos. Political change – the removal of a government – can be swift. Slower yet is economic change, with systems of production far less easy to pivot than the ejection of a government. Harder to change social systems, institutions such as the family, which have deep roots not only in our consciousness but also in our infrastructure (consider how our housing is built, to facilitate an ideological view of the ‘family’). But the hardest of all to change are the rigidities of culture, the taproots of norms and customs that go deep into the centre of human experience. Prejudices of all kinds – racism and patriarchy – lie far beneath the surface, requiring what Zhou Enlai called ‘ideological remoulding’ to alter them. ‘It cannot be done with haste,’ Zhou Enlai says several times in his speech.
Such cultural work takes time. It has to dig gently into the earth to investigate the taproot, digging deeper to understand its power. Radical change has to confront culture’s blockages. Two kinds of work are necessary: cultural work, to stretch the imagination, and political work, to undermine the power of nasty cultural forms.
So, must Western education be for everyone? Certainly not; but there needs to be a radical change that confronts the way Nigerians as a nation and a people tackle issues like prostitution. Can we have clear legislations? How do you catch the woman and leave the man? How do you leave a child unloved, to mallams, un-vetted, by parents that practically have abandoned them? What role are religious leaders playing, seeking knowledge shouldn’t translate to abandoning kids neither is consenting sex by two adults a crime.
If we refuse to address issues like a state government paying for people to get married, primarily not addressing the problems of a population explosion, arresting prostitutes would be the least of our problems. These days, girls are part of the almajiris and human trafficking has become integral. Our sociologists are quiet. As is the case with Nigeria, we are too lazy to do any form of ‘ideological remoulding’ to alter our current positions. We don’t want to dig gently into the earth to investigate the taproot, digging deeper to understand its power. We are afraid to use radical change to confront culture’s blockages. More so as we remain blinded to our ethno-religious paraposim; like Nekhlyudov, it might be too late, how long do we wait to address Maslova’s palaver or do we wait to face her wrath? Only time will tell.