October 21, 2021


documenting the nigerian story…

Arbeit Macht Frei

By Huzaifa Jega
Starting from 2001, I knew a lady who cooked and sold local food by the roadside in GRA, Bauchi. We called her Daso. She would be ready for business by the time the dawn prayers are over at about 5:30 and would be around until 8 pm. Daso would be on her toes from the time she left her house to start cooking at 4 am and especially alert from 4 – 6pm when we played football adjacent to her stall lest our ball or one of us stray to her pots, containers and the little table from where she also sold household sundries. She was out every day and worked throughout until she closed except on Fridays and Sundays when she attended mosque and Islamiyya for 2 or 3 hours.

Even though she could be harsh, Daso was very kind and went the extra mile to accommodate our exuberant childhoods. Her attention was not always towards protecting her stall though, she also cheered for us as we played and sometimes dished out prizes whenever we won a match against a rival neighbourhood. My family moved away from Bauchi sometime in 2003 and I never saw her again.

In 2019, I was in Bauchi for work and decided to visit the neighbourhood of my bygone childhood. Not much had changed since then even though I was able to track down only one of my friends with whom I spent the next day going around the neighbourhood and reliving the glorious past when we ran wildly into the days before and after us, free like the wind, free like the dreams of Diogenes. On visiting the nostalgic filin-bishiya, where the past rested in peace, I enquired about Daso and was sad to hear that she passed away in 2016 from diabetes. Apparently, her suffering was excruciating because she could not afford the required medical care.

I remember back then that whenever any of us complained about our chores, our aunt, who was the sergeant of the brood would remind us of Daso and her little son who was at least five years younger than any of us but worked donkey hours with no complaint. It was her trump card and she won every argument about work by invoking the name of Daso.

Daso lived and died with nothing to show for her hard labour just like the countless million Nigerians living in a world that promises liberty and implicit prosperity out of diligent labour but delivers none.

The three frightful words, Arbeit Macht Frei, which hung over the gates of the Nazi labour camps that sent millions of Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents and others to their graves during the Second World War are starting to sound like what we hear every time someone talks about the virtues of hard work and discipline. Arbeit Macht Frei, meaning “work sets you free”, must have rang hollow in the ears of all those Hitleric victims as they worked in misery and despair in a headlong march towards death by exhaustion by gassing, or in the labs of the infamous angel of death – that is becoming the fetid echo most of us hear these days whenever they talk. As the tragedy of Daso epitomises, the country has become one giant Nazi labour camp!

There is hardly any clear incentive or motivation left for hard work, besides a lucky break, that is. It can be very disillusioning to realise this fact – and only a miracle can prevent someone from letting it define their material worldview and work ethic beyond this curve.

There are a billion and one Dasos in Nigeria and until this narrative is changed, Nigerian youths and for good reason too, would remain what the president described them as. No one should be blamed for failing to muster the morale to – for the lack of a better term – work their ass off under these circumstances. Hence, the liberalisation of the get-rich-quick phenomenon as exemplified by the frenetic industrialisation of kidnap-for-ransom, banditry, yahoo-yahoo and other criminal enterprises.

But this is a culture that had already taken firm root albeit under a different manifestation – everyone wants to become a politician but not to lead (in the fashion Gandhi defined leadership as). Ninety-nine per cent of those joining the game today ONLY want access to free and easy money and the chance to appropriate same to private use.

Arbeit Macht Frei, together with the putrid messaging and imaging of false promise it conveys, has all but become a metaphor for reality in Nigeria and that is indeed scary. Those concerned are yet again on notice – redeem this bad check now before it is too late.

As I wrote this, my wife asked what I was writing about today and I told her the sad tale of Daso. In the end, she exclaimed in a tame voice, “Allahu akbar… jin dadinta na lahira” – the remunerations for her hard labour are in the next life. Amen to this prayer!


Jega, a Management Consultant, lives in Abuja