By Chris Anyokwu
I’m just writing this on the spur of the moment after walking all the way from the Second Gate of the University of Lagos campus to my office in the Faculty of Arts Block. As I strolled leisurely towards the International School, UNILAG, through the Medical Centre to Moremi Hall enroute Faculty of Arts, I witnessed what we would like to propose as a carnival of colours as old and young people, boys and girls were doing some physical exercise. To be sure, this motley crowd of aerobic buffs represented various social classes and economic strata in Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos. They have all trooped out to the campus this early Saturday morning to engage in some forms of constitutional or, walk-out, as it is more fashionably called. It’s not as though this was the first time I was seeing people of various shapes and sizes doing some exercise on weekends or even during week-days, sometimes under the sweltering sun or in the rain.
I have, like most, always been indulgent and amused by this universal show of trying to be “fit”. But today, there was a hubbub as hoary-haired grandmas and fuddy-duddy grandees trundled and lumbered along the road, trying their level best to be keep fit. School-aged children in the company of their parents were also seen trotting after their older companions. But the largest chunk of these folk out exercising this morning was a young/ish demographic bloc imbricating those in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Mostly clad in form-hugging skimps and track-suits complete with matching boots and canvas shoes, all of them engaged in either jogging or a brisk walk; a trot.
You could from a distance tell that some of these folk were very serious about the whole business of keeping fit. In this category were the older and ageing ones, evidently slowed-down and unhurried by age. You could divine they were out in the open on expert medical advice, namely their doctors’ prescription. You also have the executive types: lawyers, doctors, engineers, university professors, etc. owing largely to their sedentary lifestyles they needed to exercise their joints and muscles every weekend. Business executives and the merchant class under this category as well. Some often come out to exercise because they are battling obesity and its ancillary infirmities. You would see children referred to in street lingo as “butter” sweating it out flanked by their well-heeled parents.
Perhaps the sub-group which mostly catches the eye is made up of girls and ladies who fancy themselves “hot”, that is to say, they are strikingly good-looking and well-endowed, with an hour-glass shape or figure eight, if you prefer. Blessed with such remarkable dorsal protuberance and frontal undulations, they work tirelessly even in adverse weather conditions to maintain their drop-dead physiognomy, which, all things duly considered, clearly constitutes their Unique Selling Point (USP). And why not? Our Negritudist over-emphasis on ample propositions, overabundance of flesh and rich sensuality is the ruling passion in these parts. Whilst the West tends to place high premium on the rigorous efficiency of the scientific telos, of rational pragmatism, the progeny of Cush – the sable race – over-valorise and, indeed, prioritise desire, passion and its resultant joie de vivre. For us, everything must be sexualised and eroticised to produce orgasmic nirvana: the lips, eyes, nose, nails, eye-lashes, and, of course, the form or physique itself, all contribute their lot to the sexualised ensemble. The voice, the voice itself, these days, is an entire empire (or emporium) of erotic titillation and hypnotic captivation. Oh, beware of the sonorous songs of the Sirens!
Thus you are liable to be left wondering what the real and actual purpose of the constitutional is. Is it solely and mainly for self-advertisement or for anatomical self-exhibitionism? Is it meant to provoke base and animal desire in the opposite sex? Just to be lusted after and be admired by ogling onlookers? Or is it – as it should be – for burning extra fat in the body; to tone up and firm up the slackening muscles; to fight age-related infirmities such as rheumatism and arthritis? To be sportive, that is, healthy in body and mind? To be “forever young” (apologies to Jay-Z). Furthermore, as earlier hinted, there are several reasons people leave the comfort of their home to drive or go to a safe open space to exercise. We have already said that some do so for medical reasons, especially the elderly. Some also exercise as a way to recreate, to rest and relax and reflect – far from the madding crowd. For some couples or some who are seeking to jump the broom, exercising together is one sure way to bond; to plan for the future.
Speaking of which lots of aerobic bootcamps and walk-out clubs involving both sexes are veritable breeding grounds or watering-holes for romance and dalliances. People have had their prayers answered regarding life-partners during push-ups and weight-lifting sessions suffused with raunchy music at these bootcamps. The rest, as they say, is history. That explains the restlessness of some, who, sick to the stomach for being marooned to a cloister, either in their own gymnasium or a boot camp, decide to strike out – come up for air in the open teeming with lustful oglers from which eligible candidates for wedding emerge. Fortune works in mysterious ways…!
What’s more, athletes cannot but engage in physical exercise requiring road-walk, morning drills and the like. Curiously, however, for most people, early morning physical exercise is fundamentally for show; it is the in-thing. It is trending-everybody-is-doing-it! They would go to a sport shop, here or abroad to purchase complete gear for this purpose and then put it on and start strutting their stuff on the road for all to see and drool with desire! However, it is important to consider the flipside: life or living is hectic and dreadfully enervating in urban centres, especially in Lagos metropolis.
Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State once said that living in Lagos was synonymous with living in hell! And hell has no fury like a workaholic people who hate to unwind via exercise. Accordingly, for Lagosians pre-dawn walk-out is a form of recreation; a get-away needed to clear their clogged minds and recharge their batteries. For those given to café-crawling where they gorge themselves to bursting, those guilty of gluttony even at home and others who lead unhealthy lifestyles, physical exercise is a necessity. Have you stopped to ponder why some of these exercise freaks are seen sun-up to sun-down, jogging, slack-mouthed with exhaustion and completely drenched in sweat, but when at home would wolf down helpings of food rich in carbohydrates and chunks of red meat? Is it that they are not aware red meat and some food items are a no-no for their types? How about the partyish freaks? With their jeun ko ku (stuff yourself to death) mind-set, mere physical exercise is a waste of time. The most important aspect of exercise, it must be stressed, is abstemiousness, asceticism, periodic fasting regimes and moderation in food and drink consumption. As the saying goes, self-control is the mark of maturity. Also, what kills a person is their appetite. After all, life is more than the momentary tremors of the senses.
Unlike Africans, Westerners understand the true meaning and the importance of physical exercise. They routinely engage in cycling, trotting, jogging and running on sidewalks and in parks. In Europe, for instance, aerobics or physical exercise is a major part of the culture. Retirees and pensioners, aged 60 and above, attend neighbourhood gymnasiums, go on vacation, visit seaside resorts and enjoy bus/boat-rides for sightseeing purposes. They know a healthy and happy mind makes a healthy and happy body and vice versa. We don’t! A third of every city in Europe is made up of parks! London, probably over ten times the size of Lagos, is dotted with parks where people go to exercise their bodies and minds. For us, the more space developers and estate agents claim for building projects the better. Who cares about space? Issues of congestion, overcrowding, industrial and environmental pollution mean absolutely nothing to the authorities. In Nigeria, you would find government intent upon pursuing the narrow class interests of the sybaritic elite. It cannot see or appreciate the life-and-death nature of space needed for human exhalation and exhilaration. Both rulers and ruled are locked in a deadly pursuit of Mammon.
Little wonder, a former First Lady of Nigeria died overseas where she had gone to do artificial surgery – “tummy tuck”. Government needs to see that tragedy in recent memory as a wake-up call to rescue the perishing and care for the dying. Nigerians of all ages are dying, gradually, some unknowingly, because of lack of exercise and unhealthy lifestyles. Like it obtains abroad, where our ruling elite love to escape to, for a breath of fresh air, we need to establish recreational parks all across the country, especially in towns and cities. People must recognise physical exercise as necessary and important and not see it as a form of self-indulgence, an avenue for seduction and self-preening. A healthy people make a healthy and prosperous nation.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.