Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Patching Things Up

Fixing Potholes.
Credit: City of Ekurhuleni

When I moved to my current neighborhood, one of the things that convinced me to take the house was the road. Oh! The road was bad but I saw that the potholes were being filled up with sand so I assumed the roads would be repaired in time.

I should never have assumed that.

You see, as the days went by and nothing more was done to fix the roads, I knew I had roped myself into something terrible.

Then the rains came. The air became fresher and cleaner, and I was glad to be surrounded by my favorite scent: petrichor. But all of that didn't matter when I stepped out of my house after the rains had abated and found that the top layer of the soil had been completely washed away. The revealed roads were an eyesore, with tributaries where the water tried to follow the path of least resistance and potholes that began to widen even further as more rains came.

Walking on these roads became tasking; driving, an extreme sport. Cars groaned under the pressure, but there was an even bigger problem for road users. As the holes became bigger, the traffic situation around my neighborhood began to increase. Rush hour became hellish as people spent more time getting out of our neighborhood than they did on the express going into whatever part of town they wanted to go to. Flared tempers became commonplace and when someone acted a fool by refusing to stay on the line, things became even worse.

One night when I was returning home from work, I saw the holes were being filled and guffawed in excitement. My elation was so great that as soon as I got to the front of my house, I quickly sent out a Tweet to celebrate the government for trying to solve this particular problem. People who lived in my neighborhood told me to tame my excitement. I thought they were being a wet blanket. I assumed - yet again - that the potholes being filled meant the roads were on their way to being repaired. In a way, it wasn't a far fetched assumption because some roads were being worked on. I imagined my neighborhood becoming one with such good roads that commute became much easier and quicker. So I continued to celebrate the government for what I perceived was the start of something new.

I would soon come crashing from my excitement because, when the holes were filled, the repairers disappeared. Turns out that was all the work they were pegged to do. Again, in spite of how many times the government had disappointed me, I still held some hope for the repair of the road. 

Full rainy season came and as expected, the water washed away the filling. Then the repairers returned. After the potholes had been filled, they were gone again. I watched this cycle happen at least five more times in less than a year before I stopped being optimistic and saw the scam for what it was. The government took us fi idiats and I was the biggest clown of the lot. 

A bigger problem was emerging though. Each time the potholes went through this cycle, they became bigger...or more appropriately, wider. It took me back to a conversation I had with my colleague.

'Do you have masking tape so I can cover these spots that are opening up?' I asked as I walked into his office with my Macbook and iPhone chargers. 

The iPhone charger was already wrapped with masking tape but I noticed I needed more. The MacBook charger had just opened up that day.

'I can give you the masking tape to wrap it up but in my experience, it is the wrong thing to do. Wrapping your charger in the hopes of preventing further openings works to achieve that exact thing you are running away from. What happens is that, the spot around the masking tape weakens, breaking the protective covering around the wire and exposing even more of it. And because you will be tempted to wrap the newly exposed parts, you perpetuate the continued destruction of the charger. I will suggest you use it like that until you can get a new charger.' 

This was exactly what was happening with our roads. The quick fixes were not the solutions the government thought they were. If anything, patching things up made the situation much worse than it used to be. This is not to say that when done right, patching cannot be effective. In fact, patching (in the real sense of the word) is fixing the problem. But in Nigeria, this is not how we translate things; unfortunately. We don’t take the time to analyze the faults or even send construction teams to the site. If these are done, the government would at least be given expert opinions on what needs to be done. No. What they do is get a couple of unemployed youth in the neighborhood to fill these potholes with sand, clay or debris from construction sites – with all the dangers those pose. (It is why I have picked up nails a couples of times when driving.) And when citizens try to help, they are sometimes set upon by agents of the government who either insist it is the government’s job to fix things or ask that citizens pretend the repairs were done by the government. In all, just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, they continued to.  

I wondered when this would sink into the mind of the local government chairperson who is tasked with these repairs until I realized the deliberateness of this very response. The idea that citizens deserve the best from the government is not something that occurs to many people in power. This attitude can be seen in many other aspects of governance. It is then not surprising that there is a gradual erosion of the social contract between of government and its citizens because of this attitude. As a result – and like the bad roads in my neighborhood – Nigeria's problems only seem to be worsening. 

The government needs to reassess its response to the many problems we are currently faced with. I am a big proponent of outrightly fixing things. While this may cause some discomfort in the now, in the long run, the probability of improving things is higher. I understand that we do not have the resources to fix most of our problems…no matter how much we lie that we do. So…what other options do we have? What other options can be explored? How can citizen participation facilitate the changes we want to see? 

These are the questions running through my mind as I prepare to drive past the bad roads again. 

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