For quite a while I have been searching for some information on an estranged African custom. Unfortunately, I’m gradually arriving at the fact that the age-old practice might have been long lost to history.

Circa 1999, I saw on Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) a documentary of an African traditional practice where neighbors, friends, and families join forces in building houses and working farms for each other. Somewhere on the continent a people, living at a peak of what one can rightly call human communalism, make it a tradition to gather a workforce of acquaintances in providing humanity’s most basic needs: food and housing.

There are no monetary incentives or rewards for the acquaintance cum workers. What comes in the place of such is: while at work, the friends get to feed, enjoy good music by local musicians, and be guests of the beneficiary for the time period the work lasts. The custom is revelry of love, selflessness, hard work and togetherness.

How it works: the beneficiary today owes the same gesture to someone else in the community tomorrow, who would like to work his farm or build a house. And this way life goes on, with the efficacy of the practice never found wanting.

This utopian-like practice, in time, however — like every other thing under the spell of the ruthless capitalism sweeping through the fabrics of the African space — has since been morphed to an entirely different affair strictly dictated by capital; governed by greed and selfishness and opportunism and exploitation, losing its very essence — which is to enliven the human souls to work and live in harmony with one another.

In Lagos, Nigeria, a truck congested with humans and machine is caught in traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge. It is a common sight. And although the people behind the truck strike a posture of the age-old people previously talked about, these ones are a people of different generations, cultures, and languages coming together for just one purpose: to etch a living in an ever-hardening society. They are a people barely hanging on to their souls; a community in labor; a community of very cheap labor. Their despicable outlooks are evidence of the hardship in the land. They are a microcosm of the larger number of the downtrodden of the society, living in entrenched poverty.

Together with the machine, behind the truck, they are heading to a construction site. On the site, they will embark on building a house from foundation to lintel. In place of music will be the noise from the concrete mixer. The women will fetch water, sand, and granite; the men will scoop the mix from the machine in a head pan; the young ones will hop the mix up the makeshift ladder; the semi-skilled laborers will lay the bricks, and the supervisor will spur everyone on with the harshest of words. They wouldn’t be building for a friend or neighbor. They will be building to be paid so little a wage it cannot take any one of them back home, just to survive the day.

In no time a structure would stand, fresh from the wetness of the cement holding its bricks together. The job is done. Although the communal spirit in carrying out the task would have drastically degenerated between the workers, they most likely would interact with one another like families, friends and neighbors. They would make jokes and sometimes sing songs over the sound of the machine. But, in the end, there would be no doubt the communal spirit has long left them, yanked off their being and replaced with ravenous desperation to live.

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