Friday, April 13, 2012

No Story

by

Obododimma Oha

The road is the shared space that stretches or leads to somewhere. As a metaphor too, it is access or means of getting a goal accomplished. A wife in a local African setting should know the meaning of the metaphor of "road" when she is told that "The road to a man's heart is his stomach." So the road is already an important signifier in public discourses. Apart from being a signifier, the road emerges as an important setting that presents a multiplicity of interacting systems of signification. Is it the traffic code which, in its peculiar semiology, invites road users to acquire and use a measure of competence in iconic and sometimes symbolic messaging? Is it the register of the road worker, for instance the road transport workers, which not only typifies their field of human activity just like other fields, sometimes contextually redefined as one finds in a rough and poorly organized transport system where impolite expressions are freely exchanged by road users? In addition to this, someone like me who is endlessly in pursuit of signs should not miss the verbal and visual texts that are placed on the bodies of vehicles that operate on roads in a place like Nigeria. These "traveling texts" join in telling the epic story of the road in Nigeria, combining in their own way to form a sub-system of road transport semiotics.

The traveling texts on the bodies of vehicles on Nigerian roads, which are sometimes in the form of stickers, could be any of the following:

(a) Identifications of the owners or operators of the vehicles (in terms of personal, organizational, or other other types of naming);
(b) a rhetorical system advertising groups (such as religious organizations, political associations, products, etc);
(c) a rhetorical text that suggests the values and personality of the owner or user of the vehicle;
(d) an address, for instance a warning, to other road users about the owner or operator of the vehicle;
(e) an aesthetic device intended to add beauty and appeal to the vehicle; and 
(f) a casual text meant to cover a blemish on the vehicle, for instance a dent, or some cracks on the windshield.

In all enumerated above, the traveling text speaks eloquently to road users, sometimes conveying ironic messages. For instance, a vehicle with a sticker that says "SPEED KILLS; DRIVE WITH CARE" or "MANY HAVE GONE; BEWARE!" might be speeding and careering dangerously. Does the operator of the vehicle still remember what is written on the vehicle? As a slogan, "SPEED KILLS" might as well be a deceptive advertisement of the carefulness of the operator of the vehicle, which would make people want to associate with or patronize the transporter. The user of the sticker benefits from the client's desire for safety, indeed an attempt at benefitting from what Abraham Maslow in his Hierarchy of Human Needs identifies as Safety or Security Needs that individuals naturally have. Sometimes this type of irony occurs in a most painful way, as in a situation where a vehicle the owner has labelled "God's Case No Appeal" gets involved in a ghastly accident. Does one take it that the label on the vehicle presents a self-fulfilling and fatalistic prophecy? 

Perhaps it is for this that the popular Igbo saying, "Hapu ihe e dere na mmoto banye mmoto" (Ignore what is written on a vehicle and go ahead to board it) literally sounds instructive. The sign tells us clearly not to be deceived by advertised messages on the bodies of commercial vehicles, in other words, drawing our attention to the misleading rhetoric in the names and other signifiers on the bodies of the vehicles. But is that not frightening? How can one believe that one is traveling safely in a society where signs on the bodies of vehicles being used do not actually mean what they say? 

Of course, it is not in all cases that signs on the bodies of vehicles in Nigeria do not mean what they say. Signs announcing some vehicles as belonging to the university where I teach in Nigeria mean what they say, namely that they belong to that higher institution, even though I know that criminals can get a vehicle, inscribe the identity of the university or other organization on it and use it to commit a crime. Even vehicles signified as belonging to government might be special operational vehicles of criminal gangs like drug dealers, armed robbery squads, 419ers, etc, which is why the so-called official vehicles constitute a big challenge for security agents on the stop-and-search assignments in Nigeria. Those who use official government vehicles in Nigeria often do not have the humility and patience of subjecting themselves to checks on the Nigerian road. They believe they are above the law, or that the law of stop-and-search does not apply to those in government or their agents/relatives, even when it is known that government appointees have been deeply involved in criminal activities and use their vehicles to facilitate the commission of crimes. 

Some of those who operate commercial transport vehicles in Nigeria, however, could be speaking the language that means what it says especially when it comes to warning other road users not to dent their vehicles in the very frightening impatient driving one notices on Nigerian roads these days. One ubiquitous sticker one finds on some cabs in the Lagos-Ibadan area says it clearly: "NO STORY." This text, which is sometimes written directly on the body of the vehicle, is one interesting way of "doing things with words with people" (as the discourse analyst, Willis Edmondson would beautifully redesign the Austinian idea) on the rough Nigerian road. In the "NO STORY" text, the addresser is actually doing the following:

(a) performing the speech act of warning the other road users that story-telling tactics of seeking forgiveness would not be entertained if, in the process of driving recklessly, such drivers dent the addresser's vehicle;
(b) Alerting the addressee about the no-nonsense posture of the owner or operator of the vehicle carrying the sign;
(c) asserting the posture of revenge or insistence on appropriate punishment for the offender and compensation for the owner or operator of the damaged vehicle.

"NO STORY," in its textual brevity, just like many texts on vehicles which engage the fact that their readers have limited time to read them on the road, is memorable and final as a note of warning. Anyone that eventually dents the vehicle in question would not start telling the very story that is not wanted, or another story about not having seen or read the text, or another about not being literate enough to comprehend the meaning of "NO STORY." To tell more stories is to add fuel to the flame. Stories would not fix the damaged vehicle, or the hurt on the mind of the owner of the damaged vehicle. In an organized system, such story-telling is not even for the owner of the damaged vehicle to listen to; it should be for the police or the road transport officers appointed by government to listen to and probably consider while writing their reports about the accident. Perhaps if the case gets to court, the jury would be there to do some listening, which is why they are there to "hear" cases!

Telling someone whose vehicle one has dented a story is a narrative rhetoric designed to:

(a) clear one of blame, or at least do something to the perception of one as being blameworthy;
(b) appeal to pathos;
(c) (indirectly) support a plea for forgiveness;
(d) suggest someone else, for instance the person whose vehicle is dented, as sharing in the blame.

Generally, it is a strategy intended to disarm the offended party, which may however fail, or provoke a violent reaction. "NO STORY" is proactive, not curative. It invites us to adopt the posture of avoidance as the best way to manage conflict on the road. 

As a matter of fact, in some real incidents of vehicle collision on Nigerian roads in which fatalities are not recorded, one sometimes hears a bystander humorously appropriating the call-response story-telling formula that is familiar to many Nigerian: "Story! Story! Story!" A way of making light an unfortunate road mishap, this invocation of traditional story lore reveals how almost familiar and seemingly entertaining having a road accident has become in an African country struggling to develop. In such "entertaining" road frictions, one could easily hear someone shouting at the other and threateningly saying: "Do you know me? Do you know who I am? I will show you! I will deal with you! Wait, you will see! I will call the IG now" And he reaches for his cellphone, maybe some old Ericcson, and starts shouting his call: "Hallo, hallo! Is that the IG? Is that Sunny? Am I speaking to Sunday Ehindero the IG? Yes, yes, it's me your younger brother Monday. Yes, Egbo mi, bawo ni? There is this idiot here, this useless, stupid, alakori who bashed my car! I am ...." And on and on he goes, and the other fellow, if he is sufficiently scared now, begins to prostrate and wash his hands without water, like a housefly.And a third party would be making efforts to calm down the raging "relative" of the IG, saying: "Bros takeam easy now. Make we settle for una."

"NO STORY" as a sign should work well with some stickers I have seen lately, which say: "WHAT ARE LAWYERS FOR?" and "MY SON IS A LAWYER." The presuppositions in these texts evoke the sense of fear in a society where the mention of "court case" and "lawyer," especially among the low income population means endlessly spending, frustration, and sometimes jail term. "WHAT ARE LAWYERS FOR?" is a rhetorical question that hides a preceding statement that denting the other car and telling stories are not a problem for the person who owns the damaged vehicle, but rather for the story-teller. The owner of the vehicle carrying the sticker may also be a lawyer (sometimes the same vehicle carries the sticker of the Nigerian Bar Association). Anyone who sees the complementary NBA sign can therefore easily make a decision to give the vehicle and its owner or user a comfortable distance. Similarly, "MY SON IS A LAWYER" indirectly warns about a legal battle instead of being just a piece of information, and we know that when children (sons) defend their parents in a court case, they do so with every zeal, at least to demonstrate to their parents both the love they have for them, as well as their excellence as trained ambassadors of the family. Many in Nigeria still have great interest in having a member of the family become a lawyer or a doctor. A lawyer is essential because it is imagined that this legal practitioner would serve as a deterrence to those in the community that would want to mess with the family. Thus "Papa Lawyer" or "Mama Lawyer" is a kind of big masquerade which other members of the community must either make an ally or forever keep their distance. 

The traveling texts on the Nigerian road tell stories, even when they alert us about lack of interest in any story-telling. As one makes one's journey even in an online environment, where once in a while one gets brushed, one remembers "NO STORY" and wishes that one had a son or daughter who is a lawyer! Surely, there are many reckless drivers even on online highways, as one finds on many listservs populated densely by fellow noisy compatriots from Nigeria. Is it on USAAfricaDialogue where many drive dangerously, hurling insults at other "road" users now and then? Is it Krazitivity in which some members seem to make sure that the sound of "crazy" in the unique nomenclature of that Yahoo Group is semiotically actualized through unnecessary verbal duels? 

One keeps studying the signs and signifying practices on Nigerian roads online and offline. One may be getting used to the violent language in these environments. What if one eventually gets lost in the Nigerian semiosphere of offensive posturing and arrogance, accepting what is not normal as being normal?