Monday, July 21, 2008

Urban Legends: Fooling the Rest of Us

My phone rang.

Often, I am infuriated when someone calls me when I get to that threshold of being awake and drifting to sleep. It takes a considerable amount of mental effort to cruise back to this subconscious state.

Trying to conceal my indignation, I picked the phone.

“Hello Toun (not her real name), how’re you doing?” I grunted attempting to sound pleasant at the same time.

“’You got the SMS or did anyone tell you?” she alarmed.

“About what?” I inquired, curiously.

“There’s this news going around that XYZ (a GSM service provider) is asking everyone to switch off their phones due to an electrical vibration that might harm its mobile phone users during the night.” She poured out.

I laughed with gusto, as I lied in bed kicking my legs wild in the air.

“I know you won’t believe this. In any case, just switch off. It won’t cost you anything. I pray your rationalisation won’t put you in trouble, one of these days.” She sounded annoyed.

“Listen Toun,” I interjected. “This can’t be true. I’m sure you won’t get anyone to confirm receiving such a message from XYZ. Someone’s just being mischievous. It is an urban legend at work!”

“What’s an urban legend?” she queried.

WordWeb describes an urban legend as “a story that appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in various forms and is usually false. It contains elements of humour or horror and is popularly believed to be true.”

According to Tom Harris, urban legends are often false, but not always. A few turn out to be largely true, and a lot of them were inspired by an actual event but evolved into something different in their passage from person to person. More often than not, it is not possible to trace an urban legend back to its original source – they seem to come from nowhere.

He elucidates:

“The most remarkable thing about urban legends is that so many people believe them and pass them on. What is it about these stories that makes people want to spread the word? A lot of it has to do with the particular elements of the story. Many urban legends are about particularly heinous crimes, contaminated foods or any number of occurrences that could affect a lot of people if they were true. If you hear such a story, and you believe it, you feel compelled to warn your friends and family. A person might pass on (non-)cautionary information simply because it is funny or interesting. When you first hear the story, you are completely amazed that such a thing has occurred. When told correctly, a good urban legend will have you on the edge of your seat. It is human nature to want to spread this feeling to others, and be the one who's got everyone waiting to hear how the story turns out. Even if you hear it as a made-up joke, you might be tempted to personalize the tale by claiming it happened to a friend. Basically, people love to tell a good story.”

In addition, urban legends gain credibility when names of probably known people, locations, dates and times are mentioned. Besides, we also tend to believe close friends, relatives or colleagues when they narrate an incident to us, moreover when it is an admonitory one. In any case, why should we doubt their love and concern for us? Howbeit, urban legends defy simple reasoning and rational thinking. They appeal to our curious, inquisitive senses. Hence, we tend to believe and go to any extent to justify the most irrational, improbable and incredulous events, even when we are not witnesses of the same.

A very popular urban legend that went round in the early 90’s in Nigeria circulated rumour of a killer bean that caused mysterious deaths of its consumers. Households had to painfully get rid of this foodstuff (and anything that bore its semblance) from their already lean menu. It was tough for some folks like us that hold an undying affinity and affection for beans. Having to do without relishing a well-cooked meal of beans (seasoned and softened in red palm oil, which occasionally may be graced with the sumptuousness of fried plantain and other accompanying accessories) for a long while, was nothing short of atrocious, unpalatable denial. Interestingly, intriguing as the event was there were no documented or confirmed incidents of any victim – someone was always told by somebody that knew another that died eating the killer beans.

In addition to the aforementioned urban legend in my discussion with Toun, employment of the GSM communication did not but have its own fair share of these faux tales of horror which are typically cunningly devised to raise public temperature and blood pressure. It was reported a couple of years ago that a number of individuals dropped dead (some versions entailed the victims actually vomited blood before their demise) after receiving calls from “strange” phone numbers. Unsurprisingly, the ever-keen newsmongers could not confirm witnessing the incidents or having direct, personal contact or relationship with the victims. As usual, the news had been passed on not without various editions and captivating remix.

In recent times, our mail boxes are inundated one time or the other with tons of urban legend messages that heed us to watch out for rat faeces-infested coke cans, poisonous spiders in airport conveniences or HIV-infected pins at cinema hall seats. Many of us can identify with stories warning us about suffering a loss of our mail box if we fail to forward the same mails, because the service provider wants to shut down or encouraging us to participate in Bill Gates’ free cash giveaway spree. We get offline messages from a caring colleague or family member warning us not to accept any form of communication from a disguised virus-carrier. How about the mantra mails? – “Send this to ten people now, close your eyes, make a wish, take a deep breath and your wish will come true. Mine just did!”

Our mobile phones are not spared. Often, we receive text messages informing us to forward the same messages to a number of people in order to win some cash amount or automatic recharge from the service providers. Some even claim to have received such rewards!

Urban legends are completely different from spam or advance fee fraud correspondences as swindlers only scheme to defraud greedy, unsuspecting and gullible individuals. Their goal is to enrich their pockets with undeserving, financial reward. What do urban legend masterminds stand to gain? Nothing more than sheer fun and mischief poked at public intelligence as they fool the rest of us. They sit back to relish the extent to which their tomfoolery has traveled within the society while enjoying the enormity of humour or horror played out on their naïve, zealous newsmongers.

More about Urban Legends here: Urban Legends: Lies We Love to Tell , How Urban Legend Works and The Face in the Mirror

Comments are welcome.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Birthday Boy

It is the fourth time I’d be sneaking out of bed to check my well ironed “cut-and-sew” cotton waistcoat and black silk shirt hung in the wardrobe, alongside my meticulously polished shoes which were acquired the previous Christmas.

It seems as if morning will never come. I’ve been rambling from one corner of the bed to the other, expecting the much awaited knock (more often than not a bang) on the door by Mom, signifying wake-up time to start preparing for school. A wry smile hits my face when I remember just some years ago I had not the imperial privilege of sleeping on a mattress bed. All that was due to me was a beautifully painted raffia mat (with a pillow and a cover cloth) which had to be changed often due to my incessant bed-wetting (a doctor friend of mine calls it enuresis – whatever that means).

Incidentally, today is my 9th birthday anniversary and you can’t fathom how I’ve looked forward to this day. With my arms folded and supporting the back of my head, I gaze into the invisible ceiling in the unlit room. I try to imagine how I’d be the centre of attraction today in class and (if kismet will smile on me) most probably, the whole school – the applause I’ll receive as I mount the pedestal our head teacher stays on when he invites up birthday celebrants of the day to join him during the morning assembly……

“Wake up! It’s time for school.” Mom shouts as she profusely bangs on the door.

I subconsciously ruffle under the cover cloth disinclined to get out of bed. Suddenly, I remember it’s my birthday - a day I’ve counted down to! I jump out of bed with an exigency of a king’s messenger. I know Mom and my siblings will wonder at the unusual manner I completed my house chores this morning without the customary suasion to perform these tasks consequent of being caught snoozing in one niche of the house.

I feel on top of the world. Let me paint the picture.

Here I am on my 9th birthday anniversary. No school uniform today. I’m well-dressed in my Sunday best and Christmas shoes, to go with new underwear I’ve never put on hitherto and actually saved for today. The excitement won’t let me eat breakfast. My appetite seems to understand there is a sensation inside me which is more compelling than hunger (at least for the moment). I single-handedly convey the drinks and snacks for my birthday party into the trunk of Mom’s car. It’s a pity all my prior cries and sulks couldn’t get a birthday cake out of the tight family’s budget for today’s event. Never mind, cake or no cake it’s still my birthday.

I impatiently hope Mom and my sisters will soon be ready so we’d hit the road. I can’t wait for them to round-off the birthday songs, wishes and other compliments as I look forward to getting to school as soon as these ladies will permit me to begin my day. It’s showtime and I’m all set to start basking in the euphoria of a birthday boy!

We get to school with no hitches during which my mind is most of the travel time on despatch. I can’t concentrate on the tittle-tattles that ensue. Our arrival does create the desired effects as I peep to observe twinkles of surprises on the faces of fellow pupils (or am I just disillusioned?) admiring me in my poised outfit.

Now it’s morning assembly time – an opportunity to officially inaugurate the show-off. During the morning devotion, the head teacher invites the celebrants up. A couple of other individuals are fortunate to share today with me. We elegantly walk through the aisle created by fellow pupils. Beaming with smiles, I look across the assembly of students as they chorus various birthday songs. I couldn’t have been happier!

The morning classes trail overly long for my predilection. All I can see are Mr. Mensah’s (our class teacher) moving lips and his gesticulating hands as this mind of mine still refuses to concentrate on his lectures. I earnestly look forward to proceeding on lunch break. This usually serves as the climax of any birthday celebration. This is how we usually do it:

During the lunch timeout, the celebrant sits in front of the class on an ad-hoc high table to where he/she invites his/her best male and female pals. Almost every class member warms up to the celebrant in an unusually gracious manner so as to be considered for sharing the ephemeral exulted seats with the birthday boy/girl. In addition, the “special guests” also enjoy the rare privilege of having a full bottle of soft drink each to themselves along with the celebrant while other class members parsimoniously share theirs.

Today, I notice Bella my tyrannical bully row mate (who is almost twice my size) has been exceptionally nice to me. She (yes! she) even offers me one of her spare pencils when I couldn’t locate mine on time! Deke out of the blue decides to lend me the Nintendo game he has denied me unrelentingly many a time, while Sola says with a dimple-smile that I’d no longer bother about her Enid Blyton’s I misplaced. How I wish birthday anniversaries could be an everyday event.

Mr. Mensah jump-starts the occasion, after the usual birthday chorus rendered recitatively by the class as he showers innumerable encomiums on me. I almost forget the compliments are meant for me as I find it difficult to believe my ears: Is this not the same well-behaved birthday boy he flogged unapologetically the previous week? I think whoever it was that invented/suggested birthday anniversaries should be celebrated, such a person should be immortalised and canonised. This is one of the few events in an individual’s life when one’s hitherto and/or prejudged “foes” strive to be at peace with him and rare privileges are also accorded him.

Now comes the supposedly easy part but realistically a tough one: Choosing my guests of honour. Without reconsideration, I know who my best male friend-invitee would be: Deolu, our class head of course! Not because he’s the class chief but we do share a couple of things in common. We both are objects of intimidation from our class yobbos as we tend to shy away from any form of confrontation with these troublemakers. Moreover, Deolu possesses many attributes I desire. He has an impressively exquisite handwriting for a young boy of his age – one, Microsoft Word application will be glad to put on its fonts menu and probably patent Deolu Cursive. Regardless of his occasional apprehension, Deolu has an aura of self-confidence and kindliness. He’s ever nattily dressed, keen to help and gracious with a handsome visage and a brilliant mind to complement. He strikes one as a lady’s man. In fact, he’s my exemplar. Hence, Deolu joins me on the high table.

My childhood fantasy remains the bane of my female guest choice. My heart pendulums between opting for the quiet, more familiar but not so exquisite Yemi and the energetic, classy, exotic and much talked-about Michelle.

Yemi has been my schoolgirl fantasy right from the previous class. In between ourselves, though tacit, we are both conscious of this “feeling, inside.” She has been remarkably friendly providing a masked affection, at any opportunity she gets. I remember now how she helped search for my lost pairs of stockings, last school term.

Michelle is the new chic on the block – the hottest sensation! She’s a perfect fuse of white and rich chocolate melanin all in one cast. A European-African descent, her tinge of skin colour is of a rare blend – a spotless tinge, Ethiopian in nature – commonly known as a half-caste. Her arrival on the school landscape last session is akin to breaking news. She is the talk of the whole school. Everybody wants her attention and friendship – so do I. However, a number of students complain about her high-handedness, arrogance and bad manners, but I think they are just envious of this beauty queen. I have been searching for an opportunity to secure Michelle’s attention and probably her affection. This might be it!

The time taken to announce my female guest seems like ages. Adrenalin gushes through my body and my facial nerves twitch as blood rushes through them similarly. My limbs become cold and numb. I can see immense anticipation expressed differently across the over 20 pairs of eyes that seem to await the declaration of a verdict that will impact their lives. The silence that pervades the classroom is almost tangible. Did I see Sola’s eye twinkle with her usual accompanied captivating dimple-smile? I grimace seeing the I-will-whip-you-silly-if-you-don’t-pick-me look on Bella’s face. I dare the consequences of my choice deciding to deal with the fiend, afterwards.

With my heart in my mouth, I declare “I choose Michelle to join me.”

I can almost hear the silent moan exclaimed by the whole class simultaneously. Taken aback likewise, Michelle catwalks with some feel of haughtiness in her steps, to join us at the table.

A quick glance towards Yemi’s direction assures me I’ve made a most ill decision. She drops her head as soon as our eyes make contact. My heart sinks and wallows in abject shame, disappointment and betrayal. Nonetheless, I reassure myself with the company of the most desired celebrity in school. Besides, I owe no one any form of commitment or affection. Do I? Why should I be down with guilt? But deep within me, I know something, somewhere, somehow is not right.

My mind is absolutely absent from the remaining happenings and activities of the day. After the lunch break, I can’t bring myself to steal another glance at Yemi. Howbeit, I delight myself with security of the newly established association and prospects with Michelle. At any rate, I have won the attention of the renowned Michelle! I can’t wait for the end of school…..

As the bell rings signifying the close of day, I hurriedly pack my books. I make a mental analysis of how to accost Michelle. My major concern is how to penetrate her barrier of friends that flock around her like aides. I run after their convoy as they descend the stairs.

“Mi...Mi…Michelle.” I stutter. “Excuse me; I’d like to speak with you Michelle.”

She stops dead in her track, turns and walks back to meet me. My heart beats and leaps for excitement. I can’t believe this angel is all mine. The whole world seems to come to a standstill awaiting my beck and call. However, the look on her face suggests otherwise.

“Listen, Wale or whatever you’re called.” Michelle bellows.

“Never you, involve me in any of your low class so-called birthday parties again. I just didn’t want to embarrass you this afternoon. That was why I honoured your invitation.” She continues.

“I can’t imagine how someone could celebrate a birthday without a cake.”

She hisses and walks away with her fleet close at her heels, giggling and making faces at me.

There and then, I know without equivocation, I did make an erroneous choice during the lunch break. My head aches, my belly rumbles and my legs shake all in unison. I pray I’d be swallowed up by the ground beneath me. Shame in its full intensity envelopes me. From the staircase landing where I stand stuck, I glance up seeing Yemi. Obviously, she must have witnessed this show of embarrassment. With tears in her eyes, she runs down the stairs, avoiding me as she attempts to suppress her sobs......

“Excuse me sir.” The young lady tries to get my attention. She taps me, hence disrupting my daydreaming.

“This is your account balance.” She announces, slipping a piece of paper towards me. She turns away to attend to other businesses.

“Thank you.” I murmur.

I leave the bank hall walking out absentmindedly, oblivious of my surrounding and forgetting the reason I came there for, ab initio.

18 years after betraying a childhood love, here I am struck by the sudden appearance of my bank’s Client Relation Officer who bears every resemblance of Yemi – my heartbroken first love. Coincidentally, as fate will have it, today is my 27th birthday anniversary. Could this really be a coincidence?

In the absence of even the minutest of all doubt, I’m persuaded the lady at the desk is Yemi, but her seemingly expressionless face and business-like gesture confuse me. Moreover, the unknown name plaque on her table beclouds my conviction while the wedding band on her finger discourages me from embarking on further enquiries.

Should I go back in there to find out?
The End

The characters in this story are fictitious. However, some parts of the event may not be untrue ;-)

Comments are welcome

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Death of Human Capital

The developed nations of the world both in historic and present times never thrived or achieved feats as a result of the natural resources imbedded in their geographic cores. It has been proven without equivocation that frontier breakthroughs have been anchored only on self-awareness, human development and capacity building. Or of what use are natural resources without the required human ingenuity to transform and add value to these forms of capital? However, human inventiveness though might be intrinsic, does not come to bear on its own without proper enlightenment achieved through appropriate tutelage, grooming and training.

A country that denies itself the opportunity to develop its manpower or frustrates mechanisms/avenues to grow its human resources only does so at its own peril. The lowest level of human development stems from the basic form of education which is essential for the existence of other rungs, up the education ladder. Therefore, it follows that all apparatuses (be it human, social and technical) that support the establishment and sustainability of this primary structure, should be considered vital. Incidentally within this structure, the human factor also distinguishes itself as very high-ranking. Sadly, the Nigerian government either seems to be oblivious of this significance or deliberately neglects such.

Recently Nigerian teachers in government-owned schools laid down tools as they embarked on a nationwide industrial action. Their grievances? Non-implementation of the new salary scheme by the federal and state government, as agreed by all stakeholders. This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth if the larger corollary of this quagmire is considered. We have come through this path before and I cease not to wonder why and for how long we would continue not to get our priorities sorted out?

In branching through any tree of development, the position of teachers can never be over-looked or over-emphasised. Teachers are strategic to national development as they (being human themselves) are equipped with the capabilities to establish and expand capacity for human development on which any other form of development rests. These special people pass across knowledge; while instilling life values and morals that are necessary to take an individual through life. Hence, the least any right-thinking government should do is to create a working environment and provide appropriate incentives for its teachers. Nevertheless, Nigerian teachers are presently at logger-heads over payment of wages based on a recent jointly agreed salary structure. Scrutinising the controversial salary structure shows all the teachers’ union is demanding is a far cry from any form of luxury as this can still barely make the teachers comfortable.

It is this form of prolonged abandonment that has totally dispirited and dampened the morale of a lot of teachers at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, nationwide. It must be stated here that this neglect is not characteristic of the education sector alone. The disregard sleaze runs through all facets of our polity. It is sad to imagine that years down the line, pupils under the guidance of our teachers have a greater assurance of enjoying a more comfortable living standard than their teachers. The obvious life of lack, dejection and penury that our teachers live make their wards never consider teaching as a profession that guarantees a secure livelihood. The only consolation teachers seem to enjoy is seeing how successful their former students turn out to be. Nonetheless, this feeling no matter how invaluable would not put food on their tables or pay their bills.

A candidate during the last presidential elections once campaigned for teachers to be the most highly-paid workers in the country. This might seem like a big joke for any dimwit that is ignorant of the indispensability of teachers. It must be reiterated that until we get the teachers’ project right, any attempt at national development will only be futile. Government should increase investment in the education sector, if not for the sake of the teachers themselves but at least for the continuance existence and development of human capital.

The Yar’Adua government should be conscious of the fact that the realisation of its seven-point agenda and ambitious Vision 20:20:20 programme can only be successful when driven by requisite manpower. Unfortunately, manpower does not fall from the sky. It is developed through the smith workshop of mass education and human empowerment. Education is the only guarantee and pointer to journeying to the Promised Land.

A continual dwindling investment in our education sector (which entails provision of essential welfare for its actors; creation of enabling and conducive working environment; and upgrading of necessary facilities) will not only create an army of disgruntled teachers, seasonal deadlocks and/or idle students but the eventual death of fundamental human capital.

Comments are welcome.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

What a Waste!

I was going through my lecture notes acquired during my MSc programme in Delft. I stumbled on these bizarre water facts. Incidentally, I’m presently working on an article which seeks to examine how we can manage the impending energy crisis and at large, avoid a looming world ecosystem crash. This is true whether you are a ‘green’ person or not. I promise to post the article on these pages as soon as I’m done. Meanwhile, enjoy (or better still, endure) these shocking realities - they are not exaggerations:

 Less than 1% of the total water available on the earth can be used for human consumption.
 99.9% of fresh water is contained in the polar ice caps.
 50 litres of water are needed to grow a kilo of spinach.
 50 kilos of water are required to produce a litre of whisky.
 4.5 to 35 litres of water are required to produce 1 litre of beer (Siebel, M.A.).
 250 litres of water are needed to produce a kilo of wheat.
 250 kilos of water are needed to produce a kilo of steel.
 18,000 litres of water are required to refine a ton of petroleum.
 25,000 litres of water are needed to produce a kilo of meat.
 200,000 litres of water are required to smelt a ton of pig iron.
 500,000 litres of water are required to smelt a ton of copper.
 3,000,000 litres of water are required to grow a hectare of corn.
 More than 3,000,000 litres of water are required every minute in a 1-million kW atomic power station.
 4,000,000 litres of water are needed to produce a ton of synthetic fibre.
 8,000,000 litres of water are needed to grow a hectare of cabbage.
 12,000,000 to 20,000,000 litres of water are needed to grow a hectare of rice.

R.J. Sinka, Indira Ghandi Centre for Human Ecology, Environmental and Population Studies, India.
Comments are welcome.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

My Eyes

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced some discomfort in my eyes. Nonetheless, the pains were short-lived hence, I dismissed the issue. This morning with my chin placed in the hollow provided by my palms, I read my mails and other correspondences that needed attention (not without peeping to know what the dailies and friends’ blogs read). Suddenly, I felt a stream of cold substance trickling down my right cheek straight into my palms. I had to pay a quick glance up towards the ceiling to check for any leakage through the roof. Alas! the ‘leakage’ came from my very eye. With a swipe, I cleaned off the stream of tears from my glands. I was utterly shocked by the fact that I could be ‘crying’ without my knowing. I rushed to the convenience to have a look at my eyes in the mirror. More shockingly, I discovered my right eye was sore-red. This finding seemed to aggravate the pain as I began to experience excruciating pain on the right side of my forehead.

Being an individual that’d rather prefer not to bother others with his predicaments, the only thing that got me worried is how to prevent work mates from seeing the abnormal eye and more particularly inquiring about it. The pains remained unabated, rather they aggravated to severe headache and acute body discomfort. I knew immediately I won’t be able to do much at work today. God! Not today when I had to visit a number of sites for inspection, update my overly due report, send some correspondences and complete other chores.

This agonizing experience brought to the fore once more, a critical lesson – how seemingly little things usually overlooked can affect the larger picture. The surface area of the eyes to that of the body can be considered to be infinitesimal. However, any form of distress experienced in this diminutive body organ could slow or even probably shut down the whole body system.

I remember how abstract words have destroyed physical properties due to the anger they spark in their circumstantial victims. I have also observed how very ordinary smiles have melted stone-cold hearts. In addition, I have experienced how ostensibly common compliments and commendations have spurred individuals to stretch themselves to the limits so as to achieve organisational goals in a self-less manner. Coincidentally, as I left the convenience for the switchyard I watched how an artisan put together some pieces of furniture using nails. Truly, the most important things in life are almost insignificant.

I decided to get some pain killers to relieve me of this assortment of distresses. More importantly, I think it is time I got a screen shield for my laptop before I have on a permanent pair of shields (also christened “spectacles”) supported by my ears and nose.

Comments are welcome.