This is not a time to soar. But then it is. That is what everyone thinks these days. I remember the song of childhood about flight. “If I had a wing like a dove/ I would fly, fly away, fly away /and be at rest…” We are airborne in our spirit but grounded in reality.
At the moment, we all seem to be at rest, from work, from play, sometimes from the law, from bear hugs and public excitations, from travel, from faith, from fiestas. But everyone wants out of the egg, to break out like the baby dove or squab, flutter the wings and zip into the air. Something happened that seemed to have caught our fancy recently. It was not the arrival of an aircraft from outside the country that was arrested and impounded. That was against the law of travel. It was a British airliner. It dropped on our land like fly on a plate of egusi soup. It might have been a bad flea for the feast, except that no feast flares these days.
Not the other incident in Port Harcourt with Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike and Caverton Helicopter. The first was a case of violation of airspace and territorial rights. The second was an issue of federalism, and the rage of a state governor against a perceived central bully.
But one happened without controversy, and it was the sort of flight we seek these days without hope until the flight of Covid-19 takes a rest or flies away forever. It happened with the landing of a local aircraft from the Akwa Ibom State, by aircraft years a relatively new affair. When I saw the picture, with the state Governor Udom Emmanuel on the stairwell, and the plane sitting in its tantalising majesty in the airport, it put the whole Covid-19 burden in perspective. Udom and a pilot were not flying. The machine had no ambition but rest.
We are all here, like the plane on earth. We want to move, but we are a mobile race. The reason we made machines is to move, to get from one place to another. It is what we dreamed from beginning. Gods were in the skies before we got there. It was before the Greeks came up with Icarus, who crashed and Daedalus, who restrained him, and when the Wright brothers defied earth and tested gravity. Before the machines, the Tower of Babel also tumbled. In her novel titled: Flights, the Nobel Prize Novelist Olga Tokarczuk writes, “Barbarians don’t travel.” We are back, at least temporarily, to the age of caverns.
Even in the law, we have grappled with flying. As this essayist argued in a recent piece, the exigency of safety over all else in our federal state has harked us back to the state of nature. We had to suspend everything that appealed to the niceties of law because to be safe was the first condition of citizenship. Even Amotekun, for all its ethnic comforts to regions, took a back seat though it was the only topic boiling in the new year.
Talk about social distance, but not before socializing. What more way to explain a lack of flight than that we cannot have the owambes. How many chickens, goats, cows, ducks have ducked because no parties. Goodbye to big society birthdays, weddings, funerals that might have feasted on animal cruelty. No appetites, no plates clanking, no dances or money sprays, no inebriated chatter. Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola turned 63 in virtual silence. Dele Momodu exploded online on his 60th, but the fellow did not have the opportunity in public to devour his delicacies, like the ones we had together in Ibadan and other places in the Southwest in our reporting days. The mama puts and their intoxicating varieties.
But what of those who cannot work? Talents at rest. The engineer, the artist, the salesman, the pilot, the contractor. Rather than work, they remain at home, brooding what might be done. They want to fly with their creative juices. But they are, in the words of the American writer, the rabbit is at rest. But it is no time to rest. It is the noon of the bees, the time to break the egg and break out, in “one equal temper of heroic hearts,” in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Yet as we say, the roads are not happy. Soyinka always sees the road in his plays as the theatre of human action, whether in the play of that name, or the Jero plays, or Mad Men and Specialists. Because of Covid-19 fears, contractors are not able to take advantage of silence to do road work as they might. Road work may lead to blood work, and positive tests.
Cars are coy. The big and flashy SUV, the bold, brash tyres roll only in the neighborhood. The engines roar in the yard to keep alive. Few people in the buses. Social distancing tame the bonhomie of intracity mobility, the jokes, the fights, feisty repartee, the quotidian theatrics of commuting are gone.
Even the sick are afraid to be sick, not of coronavirus, but of common fever. They don’t want to visit the hospitals because you might contract the dreaded disease. Small ailment may be an entrapment. It is still so because we don’t have records of how many people die of malaria or diarrhea because they don’t want to die of Covid-19. They die because they do not want to die. “Something startles where I thought I was safest,” noted the playwright Walt Whitman.
We noted that it is not a time for the rich to fly to safety, that is, to choice hospitals abroad. They cannot take shelter. A few big names have died of Covid-19, and they will not be flown in from London or Germany. A boon to local medicine. We cannot fly out of ourselves. Whether we are good or bad, great physicians or poor ones, we are stuck with our own competences.
We cannot believe the way we used to. We cannot huddle in the church. Even to sing, and dance, cannot be the same. To sing in a choir is to tempt the Covid-19 beast. Spittle from different lips is airborne together, and faithful folks may form a fellowship of infection. Those who have private jets and want to evangelise will have to do it the humble way: online. Now, Skype, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, et al, have overtaken the tactile power of worship. Daniel had said in the Bible that he read but could not understand, but the Spirit told him, “Go thy way Daniel, many shall be purified and made white, and tried…people shall go to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” To Christians, today the prophecy is in full bloom.
Those who travel, and do businesses across the world, continent after continent, this is a humbling time. Never since the time of colonial expansion into Africa, when the imperialist merchant Cecil Rhodes made virtue of conquests and profit, especially in Southern Africa, has commerce cowered. If Rhodes were alive today he would not pronounce his famous quotes, “I would annex the planets if I could.” The irony though is that within the era of Covid-19 American astronauts shot into space in its first commercial launch. Just like birds or astronauts, commerce worldwide is taking a beating. Money is going away like the Bible line: money mounts wings and flies away.
So, what Akwa Ibom State did was to tease the future with its Bombadier CRJ 900 aircraft, which for effect claims to filter dust as well as “microscopic particles such as bacteria and viruses… removing contaminants and greatly enhancing the quality of air in the cabin.”
As the plane is still on earth, so are all of us, hungry to fly.