By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Indeed, life at Fela's Kalakuta Republic was a safe-sex educator's nightmare. The air was hazy with marijuana smoke, and hot-Nigerian street gin-flowed freely. Fela's oldest son, Femi, remembers that "the whole compound was dirty," and not one of the area boys who took shelter there "was doing anything constructive."
Femi, who like his dad plays the sax and has a successful band of his own, Positive Force, swore off pot because, he explains, "I can't do what my father did. I have to work more than play." That work ethic, not to mention the notion of no more pot, has made him unpopular with the city toughs. And, Femi comes as close as a son can to blaming his father for colluding in the collective tragedy of the area boys: "They want me to act like my father to support the way they are ruining their lives."
Fela did support the behaviors that help to spread HIV. But perhaps more damaging, he sanctioned an attitude that makes it extremely difficult to change those ways.
Dominating Ojuelegbao Lane in the Surulere district of Lagos is a cement apartment block, laundry hanging off the balconies, several windows broken. Below it cluster small cement shacks with corrugated iron roofs. Stagnant water sits in the open sewers, and chickens peck among the garbage, squawking and fluttering to avoid the running, all-but-naked children. Lounging shirtless in an alley, area boy Thomas "Boy-O-Boy" Edem, who used to live in Fela's commune, insists he doesn't steal. "That's why I deal in this," he says, holding up a plastic bag bulging with marijuana. His other revenue stream comes from the nearby bus stop. During the evening rush hour Boy-O-Boy darts through the chaos, collecting his dash,slang for a payoff. Like mafia protection money, the payment keeps the area boys from attacking the busses.
No one is exempt from such extortion, certainly not AIDS workers, who are perceived as being rich because they are funded by international donor agencies. Onemtein Amadi of the Nigerian Youth AIDS Programme (NYAP) recalls a soccer league, organized by her agency, in which the requirement for participation was taking an AIDS course and competing in halftime AIDS quizzes. Sixteen teams totaling more than 400 players signed up, but NYAP hadn't settled with the area boys. "They would move onto the field and disrupt the match," she recalls. "They'd say, 'If you don't give us money and gin, the match won't go on.' " NYAP ended up hiring the area boys as security guards, a job they relished.
This is the simplest form of what Amadi calls "the money syndrome," a corrosive blend of cynicism and mistrust that comes from a culture where corruption is king and poverty forces hard deals. Elvira Obike, program officer for the Lagos chapter of The Society of Women against AIDS in Africa, estimates that "more than 70 percent of female university students engage in sex for money to pay school fees," almost always with older sugar daddies. In a culture where so many are prostituting themselves, and where leaders steal millions and sometimes billions of dollars, everyone has an angle. And Fela stoked this cynicism.
While it was always clear what he was against, no one could say precisely what Fela was for. He was pure dissident. His brother Olikoye brought primary care to Nigeria's poor, but Fela criticized him for serving in a military government. Fela's rejection of virtually everything white-including Western medicine-was fundamentally reactionary, a wholesale backlash against white rule. It may have been fatal, but in urban Africa, it is a common response. In fact, it is one of colonialism's legacies.
Fela did espouse notions of freedom and equality and African unity, but they were nebulous, little more than slogans. Meanwhile, he ruled his commune like a king, meting out harsh beatings to errant area boys and indulging his legendary appetite for marijuana and sex. Fela made it seem that all it took to be a revolutionary was to pursue one's own gratification and blame the powers that be.
Such cynicism undermines AIDS education. As NYAP's Edem Effiong explains, "people might not believe accurate information about AIDS, because they might not trust the source." Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a source more credible than Olikoye, one of the very few government ministers who has retained a good reputation. It doesn't matter. Marlboro is only one of many who thinks Olikoye was lying about the cause of Fela's death. Asked why Olikoye would claim his own brother died of AIDS when he hadn't, Marlboro replies, "Nigerians will do anything because of money, even sell our mother and father." Olikoye was paid off, people say, by the World Bank or the Americans.
It's also common to hear blanket dismissals of Western medicine. A bus conductor, who loved Fela's music and went to his funeral, is sure Feladidn't die of AIDS "because the man took care of himself. He used traditional, tribal ways." Does he believe AIDS is real? "I'm hearing this, but I don't believe it." A teenager, dressed in his school uniform, interjects to say he's read a pamphlet saying that AIDS was invented by the Americans because they want to dominate the world.