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|The Nigerian Artisan - Killing Nigeria softly.|
|Written by Toyin Oke on Saturday, 17 October 2009 09:38|
PRAY, not to be at the mercy of the Nigerian artisan. We often blame the leadership but the followership also contributes to the unmaking of Nigeria especially the unconscionable conduct of the Nigerian artisan; the so-called masses; the other half that we so readily pity. It is often said that Nigeria is largely an artisanal society: a land of blue-collar workers and daily wage earners who toil with their hands to provide service.
Artisans have been of great value. The emergence of a knowledge society has however not robbed off on the artisan. But the Nigerian artisan, with his/her habits, choices and omissions, is killing Nigeria softly. He is to be held responsible in part, for the cynicism that the phrase Nigerian instantly evokes… his indispensability, and perhaps our dependence on his supposed skills. You want to repair a damaged piece in your car. You’d need a mechanic. A leaking pipe in the bathroom and the house may be flooded. You need a plumber. A painter for the paint on the walls that is fading and peeling. The generator is making some strange noise. Or some bulbs in the house are giving problems, while the deep freezer is croaking like it’s about to pack up. You know what to do: call an electrician. Or you are building a house - then of course, you find yourself requiring the services of bricklayers, welders, stone-pitchers, carpenters and so on.
Everyday, something in the course of the business of living brings us in contact with artisans. We are at their mercy. In Nigeria, the big-man syndrome stands in the way of a do-it-yourself option. But then, the division of labour and specialization has created a situation in which certain ‘skilled’ persons are best suited for particular assignments. Unfortunately, not too many people have good stories about their experiences with artisans.
I dare say that this special class of Nigerians is responsible for many of the problems in our society: road accidents, collapsed buildings....Take the poor condition of the vehicles on our roads. Nigerian mechanics are notorious. Car owners have now acquired the habit of staying for hours to supervise even minor repair works on their cars. You have to be there to be sure that the engine oil that you want changed is actually changed, and that the damaged plugs are replaced with the new ones you have paid for. If you make the mistake of going away for a few minutes, your spare tyre could be replaced with a bad one; the fuel in your tank could be siphoned.
Maybe you are the liberal type who does not want to be seen treating the mechanic as if he is a thief (there's not much difference), and you ask him to take the car away and return it later. You stand the risk of having your car back in worse condition. Nigerian mechanics are helped in their trade of deceit by the decadent nature of our environment.
Every vehicle spare part in the Nigerian market can be subdivided into three; the fake which you would use for only a week, the genuine parts which are usually very expensive; and the fairly used or refurbished. Almost always, your mechanic would advise you to buy the fairly used part. This is something I cannot understand. But there is no point arguing with the mechanic. He will collect money for the purchase of an original but he'd buy either a fake or fairly used. I adopted the strategy of following my mechanic to the spare parts market. It was no use. The mechanic and the spare parts dealers have devised a secret code of non- verbal communication. Your presence would actually drive up cost and the mechanic would return later and collect his share of the rip-off. The fact that you have known the particular mechanic for 10 years, speak the same language, attend the same church, live in the same neighbourhood or that he is a beneficiary of your many acts of generosity, means nothing.
The mechanic, the auto electrician, the vulcaniser or the panel beater are all the same. It is not just their greed that is the problem, their lack of education as well. The result is that there are now so many speculators, and trial and error experts pretending to be artisans. So, how about the electrician? I once called in an electrician to change a fluorescent bulb. The thing packed up within a week. Another electrician came and announced that I had been swindled. He replaced the bulb with a better one, but I discovered that he added N2,000 to the actual cost. And to think that I gave the idiot a generous tip in addition to charge! Or do you want to try the plumber? A friend once followed a plumber to Orile to buy a new set of bathroom fittings. He nearly ran mad when he discovered that he had brought home used fittings instead of new ones. He called in the police, but the police advising him to "go and settle" with the plumber.
Bricklayers or masons are worse. The art of masonry is perhaps one of the noblest professions known to man. The Pyramids, the Temple of King Solomon, the Great Walls of China, etc advertise the place of masonry in the progress of human civilization. But it is a much abused profession. Where are the masons of old who wielded the plumb, the square, the level and compasses with a free heart, and with faith in the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of a Supreme Being? Those who aspire to own houses these days must first take a crash course in the art of endurance. The other weekend, I ran into a friend, he was standing in front of an almost completed bungalow.
"Is this place yours?” I had asked
"Yes, Oga mi. It is a small place for the boys."
"Congratulations. Looks good to me. How many rooms?"
"Four, Oga mi"
"Very nice. Very good. Well done."
"But, ah, Oga..." he started gesticulating, turning his hand into a knife-like piece and was gesturing towards his throat. “They nearly killed me. It's not easy, I saw pepper." He told a bitter story about the artisans that had worked so far on the building and how they had cheated him all the way. "One day", he added, "I came here and I met the bricklayers they said they needed more bags of cement. By then I had bought about 300 bags of cement. I was uncomfortable; 300 bags to plaster a four-bedroom bungalow? But they insisted I should buy 50 more bags. I agreed. But as I was leaving I found 15 bags of cement hidden underneath a trip of sharp sand." But he was not done yet. "But Oga mi, I thank God. My neighbour; the owner of that house over there. He can't complete the house. They took N1.5 million from him to do the wood frame for his roof. Then he paid N2 million for the roof covering itself - aluminum long span. But what is he building? He went and got an Engineer to supervise the house for him. Two weeks ago, his Engineer bought a Toyota Jeep while he, the aspiring landlord, is almost having hypertension."
These stories are told in different contexts. Most Nigerians deal with the problem by direct supervision to reduce the extent to which they are swindled. Others buy whatever they need for the artisan whose services they require. Some engage the services of across the border artisans. It is a tragedy that our country has lost its moral compass: our artisans cannot repair vehicles successfully; build houses that won't collapse, sew clothes without stealing a few yards, and cannot render service without cheating. If you have ever been a victim of these trial and error experts you are in a better position to tell your own story.