I wonder what Chinua Achebe would say if he were alive to see the holocaust at Nnewi last Christmas season. Not much of a poet, Achebe mused on the bitter paradox of tragedy at Christmas in his poem, Christmas in Biafra.
Bedevilled by adjectives, Achebe’s poem made its point in irony. God and disaster. Solemnity and profanity. Festivity and fragility. Tears to the dearest. That was Biafra in which a child pruned to bare bones could not find the strength to hail Mary. No one could extract native joy from bombs.
Fast forward, December 2015. A different kind of unkindness. Chicason, a company whose services routinely warmed the homes and bellies of its customers, met tragedy. The victims might have visualised many scenarios at Christmas: cookouts, parties, family reunions, laughter, jokes, music, dances, frothy moments of alcohol, swagger. Especially in the Southeast where the Christmas season lights up every village and hamlet into a carnival.
Yet, many marked their Christmas season like the woman who had sent a housemaid to get some gas. The maid was recruited only three months earlier. The boss was not sure where she was. She only knew she had lost the poor girl and wondered what she was going to tell her parents. At the Christmas party, she would not be there. Her seat vacant, staring and ominous. It would be the story for all those who either died or were hospitalised. Their seats were empty, their presences only imagined. It was inevitably an absurd moment. It calls to mind the absurd play titled ‘The Chairs’ by Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco. An old couple receive invisible guests at their homes, and they all are seated in chairs expecting an orator to address them. The audience does not see them. Only the hosts. That is how the relatives will mark both Christmas season and New Year.
The problem, as Ionesco’s play shows, is that imagination will not bring the guests alive. No one could wish them on their seat in flesh, fork in hand, plates of rice and chicken in front of them. We cannot see the victims of the Nnewi disaster. They have retreated into memory. All kinds of stories were invented to fill the void, just as in Ionesco’s play. For what we cannot see or explain, we invent fillers. Some said the Chicason group had fallen victim of its sacrilegious prosperity. It had expanded into the province of the goddess of the Mimili Ele River. The goddess in its fury had slithered into the gas plant and fiddled it into a leak. A spark ensued. Death, disaster. This was a big agony. But the Chenobyl disaster in the 1980’s where a nuclear plant leak obliterated whole Soviet communities warns us that gas can be man’s great enemy. If you read Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize-winning journalist’s account of that incident in her book, Voices From Chenobyl, we should never take care for granted.
Others said a prayer session had happened earlier and a pastor had forewarned of a disaster. So, are the gods to blame, a la Ola Rotimi? We give prophesies flesh after the facts. When they don’t happen, we give ourselves credit. The prophets do no wrong.
No one was able to say what Chicason did to offend the gods or the Lord of Christmas. It offended neither law nor man, but fire came in its fury. No one wondered why a big commercial hub like Nnewi could thrive without a major fire station.
Few could tell us how, in the whole of Anambra State, only one major fire station thrives. Few have lamented that fire is a special corollary of development. Not a place like Nnewi should be allowed a second without the full gear to fight one of humanity’s major foes. Nnewi has a variety of businesses from cars to electronics to food to pharmaceutical. It is seen as an epicentre of the Igbo inventiveness. Many turn profits out of bonfires, whether it is the Chicason company, or the cell phone makers, or car battery firms. A fire begins with a spark. The spark in this case comes from neglect, the failure to provide the infrastructure of safety. As Robert Herrick notes, “A spark neglected makes a mighty fire.”
The reports had it that the fire department came all the way from Awka, Anambra State capital. It took about two hours to arrive at the scene of the holocaust. Too late. The pictures are scary. Fumes darken the air. In brilliant omens, fire burns structures while human bones pop and flesh singes. Many scurry away in fright. Bodies fall and the bush, as in the war that lasted 30 months in the 1960’s, become refuge.
Is this tragedy a story of complacency? As one of the city dwellers said, if the disaster happens today, Anambra State is still not ready. It is like the apocalypse. Earth residents know it is coming. They cannot prepare. They cannot pray. They cannot run away. They can only develop stoic reserves and hedge themselves with fatalistic resolves. The day comes and disaster will happen. As Thomas Hardy wrote in his novel, Tess of the Durbervilles, ”The people down in those retreats will not stop saying in their fatalistic way: It was to be. There lay the pity of it all.” That is what Nnewi, Anambra, is subjected to. That tragically is the story of Nigeria.
They can learn from Lagos, where every local government hums with state-of-the-art fire equipment. In spite of the plethora of fire incidents in Nigeria’s largest city, fire hoses spout water and the men respond in good time. That does not mean tragedies cannot happen. Fire does not wait for anyone. Like water, it is a good servant. But to quote a line from the Aesop Fables, it’s a “bad master.” Corporate firms are now asking the Lagos State government to help them in establishing fire-fighting systems.
When fire of this sort happens, individual companies anywhere have inadequate facility to fight it. That is why anywhere in the world, fire stations are nearby. In the United States, every county has one. When it is a mega fire like the Nnewi case, they get help from other counties. That can happen in Lagos. But in a place like Anambra State, where one station can only limp, the situation calls for urgent attention.