Cliché is cheap, Nigeria’s electricity is not epileptic, by ‘Tope Fasua

Wole SoyinkaI’ve caught even literary scholars, linguists and very ‘intelligent’ people making this error. The fact is that within a Nigerian context, saying that electricity is ‘epileptic’ is sooo clichéd. But most Nigerians don’t even understand why cliche is bad. Cliche, is described as a ‘stereotype’; ‘a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays lack of original thought’. It’s what happens when we start our ‘Yorubas are cowards’, ‘Igbos love money’, ‘Hausas are illiterates’ business. Dear reader, run away from cliches. Think your own thoughts. Cliches are like dogma; somebody else’s thoughts that you make your own and can swear by.

One clever person once said ‘electricity in Nigeria is epileptic’. And since then, until tomorrow, our failures in that sector is so described. Just as I was editing this article, I saw inside a government document that I was working with, the phrase ‘epileptic power supply’. Why have we not found other more fitting words to use? Is epilepsy the best word to describe what is going on? I will give the answers below but first let me say that the critical ingredient that is required to think one’s own thoughts, to be imaginative and clear about one’s own opinion, is to be objective. To form your own objective opinion, you have to be ready to hang your prejudices and approach an issue with an open mind. It will be nice to see more Nigerians become open-minded, truthful to themselves, and objective. These are rare commodities in our environment.

Anyway, we were in Form 2. It was 1982. I had been playing with this friend of mine all day and it was really sunny. Those were in the days when public schools were still proper schools. We were in Army Comprehensive High School, Akure. I was pretty young and playful, and all I did with my notebooks was to draw cartoons on them with friends. Then we went back to class and one tall young teacher was handling the class as we all sweltered in the heat. I think it was one Mr. Gbenga. Then bang!

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At the back row was the friend I had been playing with all day. He suddenly fell most violently from his desk. Everybody ran out of the class in great panic. I had never seen anything like that before. The fit had him smashing his head on the granite terrazzo floor repeatedly in fast rhythmic intervals, as if he was being dealt a very harsh punishment, even as he foamed in the mouth. His body twitched and jerked. The teacher tried to take charge but no one went near this boy, not even the tutor. By the time the fit sundued and was over, he had cuts on his head and had bust his lips in a number of places. Blood mixed with saliva and the foam from his mouth. That day, as an impressionable 10 years old, I found out that really bad things sometimes happen to people through no choosing of theirs. I must have discussed with a few friends, some of who were surprised that I didn’t know the boy was epileptic. They said something like his mum having dropped him on his head when he was young.

Others said a lizard might have bitten the boy. Most believed that it was contagious if you touched such a person while he was in the fit. It was generally a spiritual problem, it was averred. I know that I stopped playing with the boy from then on, and would sometimes watch him from afar, thinking that the thing could grip him anywhere anytime. Don’t blame me, I was just a kid. I wondered what sort of family he was from and what they did to deserve such a fate.

Now, the reason why Nigerians choose to describe what goes on with electricity in Nigeria as ‘epileptic’ is borne out of the traditional horror we harbour for that disease, and the fact that we would rather associate it with something we believe is most despicable. Most cultures in Nigeria have totally misdiagnosed the disease and see it as perhaps the worst thing that could happen to anyone. The white man, being more scientific doesn’t feel that way. That is why I prefer to go with science. Epilepsy is actually electric by the way, but in a different way from our NEPA/PHCN experience. It is the triggering of an abnormal electric activity in the brain which can sometimes lead to unconsciousness or convulsions. Some people get it after suffering brain damage. Some,  after accidents.  Some, for no  explicable reason. Some inherit it.

If electricity in Nigeria would be described as epileptic, that may entail the sending of violent charges through our electricity circuits. This happens, but is not our main issue these days. What we are faced with is simple non-availability of electricity. Many rural areas no longer know what electricity is like. For up to seven years they have not had light. The urban areas are better, though availability is also a problem.

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My advocacy today is for sufferers. We shouldn’t see them as being infected by the devil. Julius Caesar had it in his time (according to history) and they actually thought the gods had placed a curse on him. But since then, science has moved on. Indeed today, it can be fairly well managed with drugs and in time, with continuous research, I’m sure a cure will be available, which will be able to reverse whatever condition it is that leads to seizures and whatnots. Research says 65 million people live with this disease worldwide. Africans are more susceptible to it. Poorer people are more susceptible. Logically, therefore, wrong treatment of underlying diseases as a result of poverty and the interference of culture, as described above, may actually result in more people developing the disorder. People over 55 years are also more susceptible, because the disorder can come as a result of stroke, alzheimer’s disease or brain tumour. Men suffer more than women (I don’t know why, but men are known never to speak up early if something is wrong with them, unlike women who are more careful). When it happens to someone near you, please ensure they don’t bang their heads or harm themselves. Find a cushion, pad their fall or impact. When it’s over, let them sleep.

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I think Nigerians should show respect to sufferers of this disease. Leave them alone and stop using your NEPA/PHCN failures to remind them every second of what they are passing through. Also, get some education on this and other thorny subjects. Think your own thoughts. Do your own research. Google is your friend. Show some love. Secondly, it is important to view this from the point of the sheer complexity of the human body. As clever as the white man is, it is arguable whether he has been able to create a machine as complex as the human body. Electricity, mechanical, and other systems function inside us that we take for granted. The heart beats in our chests every second, until the day we die. What machine has ever been built that can withstand time and maintain its integrity like this? Yet Nigerians leave the awesomeness of God and greedily go asking for earthly stuff that will only enhance their egos.

I’ve been meaning to write this a long time, because it is simply an overkill to use that word loosely, and it is insensitive. I hope someone finds another way of describing the scenario whereby electricity goes off for days and flashes briefly only once in a while. Thats definitely not ‘epileptic’. Nigerians must develop new ways of choosing and using words.

‘Tope Fasua, an Economist, author, blogger and entrepreneur, can be reached through

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