AIDS Doesn't Show Its Face: Inequality, Morality, and Social Change in Nigeria

AIDS Doesn't Show Its Face: Inequality, Morality, and Social Change in Nigeria

by Daniel Jordan Smith

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AIDS Doesn't Show Its Face: Inequality, Morality, and Social Change in Nigeria by Daniel Jordan Smith

AIDS and Africa are indelibly linked in popular consciousness, but despite widespread awareness of the epidemic, much of the story remains hidden beneath a superficial focus on condoms, sex workers, and antiretrovirals. Africa gets lost in this equation, Daniel Jordan Smith argues, transformed into a mere vehicle to explain AIDS, and in AIDS Doesn’t Show Its Face, he offers a powerful reversal, using AIDS as a lens through which to view Africa.

Drawing on twenty years of fieldwork in Nigeria, Smith tells a story of dramatic social changes, ones implicated in the same inequalities that also factor into local perceptions about AIDS—inequalities of gender, generation, and social class. Nigerians, he shows, view both social inequality and the presence of AIDS in moral terms, as kinds of ethical failure. Mixing ethnographies that describe everyday life with pointed analyses of public health interventions, he demonstrates just how powerful these paired anxieties—medical and social—are, and how the world might better alleviate them through a more sensitive understanding of their relationship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226108971
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/28/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Daniel Jordan Smith is associate professor in the anthropology department at Brown University. He is the author of A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria and coauthor of The Secret: Love, Marriage, and HIV

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AIDS Doesn't Show Its Face

Inequality, Morality, and Social Change in Nigeria



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-10883-4


Okada Men, Money, and the Moral Hazards of Urban Inequality

July 21, 2004. As the day broke and the city came to life, dozens of men on motorcycles gathered at the gate of Imo State University, as they did every morning at scores of other locations around town. Each student who approached—perhaps on his or her way to the market, an Internet café, or a distant part of campus—was met with a chorus of "I na ga?" (Igbo for "Are you going?"). It was a call so common that throughout southeastern Nigeria the phrase itself was one of the popular monikers for these once ubiquitous motorcycle taxis. At the dawn of the new millennium in Owerri, the bustling capital of Imo State, perhaps the two most striking features of the city's human landscape were the tens of thousands of students attending five fast-growing local universities and the many hundreds of motorcycle taxis——also known as okada. Eventually, for reasons I will explain below, okada were banned from the cities of southeastern Nigeria, but in their heyday they were a vital part of the expanding urban landscape.

Owerri's university students represent a growing group of young Nigerians whose aspirations for employment, urban amenities, and middle-class lifestyles are brought closer to reality by admission into a tertiary institution. Okada drivers were comparatively uneducated, most never having completed secondary school. Driving a motorcycle taxi for a living was considered a rough job. The men——okada drivers were all male——who ferried Owerri's residents to and from work, school, church, the market, and every other conceivable destination endured blazing hot sun, torrential rains, horrendous traffic, inconsiderate drivers of much larger vehicles, choking pollution, police extortion, and an occasionally abusive clientele. University students and the men who drive okada for a living represent divergent trajectories in Nigeria's economic future, examples of rising levels of inequality in Africa's most populous country.

Yet in the midst of Nigeria's AIDS epidemic, in which Owerri is believed to be a hub of HIV infection, stories connecting okada men and university girls were legion. These narratives emphasized the moral hazards of the intersections among growing and frustrated economic aspirations, the perceived societal preoccupation with money, liberalizing sexual mores, and AIDS. Over the last 20 years, as Owerri's university student population has grown from just a few thousand to well over 100,000, the city has developed a reputation as a sexual marketplace. Scores of hotels have been built in the past decade, and most of their business comes from letting rooms to men (many, if not most, of them married) who rendezvous with female lovers, believed by most Owerri residents to be university women. The popular presumption is that these students reserve their sexual favors for men of relative means. So I was at first surprised, and even incredulous, when I was told in 2004——and many times since——that okada men quite regularly succeeded in having sex with the university girls who were frequently their passengers.

When I asked why university students, who are widely perceived to be concerned with improving their social status, would deign to have sexual intercourse with okada drivers, who are symbolic of the struggle to survive in urban Nigeria, the ubiquitous answer was "cash." A friend who worked for the Imo State government in a midlevel position as a civil servant and who, like most of Owerri's residents, had come to depend on okada for everyday transportation, put it this way: "Those guys have cash, physical cash. Many of them make 2,000 naira [about 20 dollars at the time] a day. When they approach a girl, they offer them cash, straight up. It's not like the rich guy in a Mercedes-Benz, who may pick a girl up, take her for dinner, buy her drinks, and even stay in a five-star hotel, but in the end will give her no cash. It's about money, here and now. Money solves problems."

Although university girls having sex both with okada drivers and with wealthy older men may provoke labels such as "prostitution" or "transactional sex," the intertwining of intimacy and material exchange in Nigeria, as in much of Africa (Cole and Thomas 2009), is such that the commonly espoused Western opposition between love and money (i.e., "money can't buy love") does not hold. Of course, one might argue that even in Western societies the dichotomy is more imagined than real (Zelizer 2005). Nonetheless, Nigerians seem quite comfortable with the idea that economic support is a crucial way to demonstrate affection. Still, in most sexual relationships in Nigeria, the monetary dimension of the relationship is embedded, euphemized, and carefully negotiated. While economic support is considered part and parcel of a man's responsibility in a sexual relationship (whether it is short-term sex, a romance, or a marriage), usually only in relationships that are most obviously brief and transactional would a woman negotiate compensation as a specific amount of cash. Most Nigerians would identify a university student having sex with an okada driver for 2,000 naira as transactional sex of the starkest kind, tantamount to prostitution.

Rather than accepting as fact the rumored cash-driven sexual access of okada drivers to university girls, I tried to find out to what extent this was true or whether it was a kind of urban legend. Further, regardless of their truth, why did such stories have great purchase in contemporary Nigeria? I asked a lot of people about the phenomenon, including at least a dozen young women who attended Imo State University or Alvin Ikoku College of Education, two of the tertiary institutions in Owerri. As I explained in the introduction, I have talked with scores of young people in southeastern Nigeria in recent years about intimate issues such as romantic love, sexuality, and AIDS. But despite my best efforts to build trust and rapport, I do not believe that young women attending university in Owerri would actually tell me if they had had sex with an okada driver for cash. Indeed, not a single woman I asked said she had done so. The most common response was "Tofiokwa!" which is usually translated as "God forbid such an abomination!"

But interestingly, although no one owned up to engaging in such behavior, many young women said that other female students did so. The university girls' explanations were the same as those I'd heard from others——it was about cash. The women were as judgmental as the rest of Owerri society about the moral stigma of such behavior. Someone who would have sex with an okada man for cash was seen as cheap, dirty, and immoral. Particular young women who I knew were involved with married men and receiving money and gifts as an expected part of the relationship were as quick as anyone else to condemn the notion of sex for money with an okada driver. Tellingly, the risk of contracting HIV was frequently voiced as part of the moral branding. As one third-year student at Imo State University put it: "Such girls don't respect themselves. For the sake of money a person will go and carry AIDS," meaning that a woman having sex with an okada driver for cash ran the risk of HIV infection.

In this context——as is so commonly the case in Nigeria——AIDS was understood as a consequence of immorality and employed in discourse to assert moral claims about people, society, and the consequences of the pursuit of money unmoored from traditional values. Although it is impossible to know how frequently university girls in Owerri had sex with okada men for cash, my sense is that it was more urban legend than fact. But even as myth it is a revealing example of the way that AIDS is bound up with Nigerians' aspirations for economic advancement, their apprehensions about the monetization of desire, and the moral anxieties associated with these transformations. To understand why stories that circulated about okada men's sexual access to university girls were so resonant, it is necessary to know more about these men and their highly marked profession. In what follows I try to make clear how okada men occupied an economic, political, and cultural position that made them an emblem of social inequalities, urban insecurity, and the moral hazards associated with the struggle to survive in contemporary Nigeria.

Okada men were totemic figures whose experiences encapsulated many of the realities of a changing Nigeria. They sought to better their lives by making more money, yet they were competing for their income in an occupation associated with patterns of behavior viewed as inimical to widely shared ideas about sociality. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that contemporary forms of inequality generate so much critical moral discourse in Nigeria is that people perceive these new disparities to be impersonal, monetary, and unchecked by norms of reciprocity. Social inequality is by no means unique to modern times, but the common view among Nigerians I know is that as money and consumption become the measures of success, social disparities have become starker and the possibility of mitigating the worst human effects of inequality through social relationships such as kinship and patron-clientism has eroded. Nigerians consider driving okada as a job that someone would do only because of a desperate need for money, which itself suggests the breakdown of kin-based support and the failures of one's wealthier relatives to provide financial safety nets that might otherwise have permitted okada drivers to pursue more palatable vocations.

In conversations with me, many okada men expressed a sense that the problems of contemporary Nigeria were inscribed on their bodies through the work they did. Although many other occupations in urban Nigeria could justifiably be described as similarly difficult, or even worse, okada drivers were constantly the focus of popular discourse. With the exception of the elite, everyone in urban Nigeria used okada, and everyone talked about them. They were the vehicles with which Nigerians literally traversed stressful urban arteries, but they were also a central symbolic means by which ordinary citizens imagined, debated, criticized, and made sense of the challenges of new economic realities, the aspirations and hardships associated with urban life, and the perception that in today's Nigeria people will (and maybe even must) do anything possible in order to get money. The idea that university girls would engage in fleeting sex-for-pay encounters with such low-class citizens only further encapsulated the very same moral anxieties about the greed and materialism associated with frustrated economic aspirations.

The Rise of Okada

When I first lived in Owerri, while working as the expatriate advisor for a US-based NGO from 1989 to 1992, okada did not exist there or anywhere else in southeastern Nigeria. Owerri had less than half of its current population and probably only a tenth of the present number of university students. The streets were far less congested. The city's public transportation consisted of jam-packed minibuses (known in Nigeria as danfo) that ferried people along established routes, particularly from the central market areas to the outskirts of town, where most residents lived. These buses were cheap, but they only stopped on main roads and passengers frequently had to walk considerable distances to and from the regular stops.

Owerri also had a large number of automobile taxis, typically very old vehicles that had been imported into Nigeria in various states of disrepair. These used automobiles (and, indeed, any product imported from overseas that was already well used) are known in Nigeria as tukunbo. Tukunbo taxis in Owerri generally ran prescribed routes and carried multiple passengers at one time. They functioned more like buses than what would be conventionally understood as taxis in the United States or Europe, though one could arrange to use the taxi all for oneself or to be dropped at a specific location. This arrangement, known as a "drop," was three or four times as expensive as simply joining a taxi along its regular route (and taxis——even shared along their prescribed routes——were roughly 50 percent more expensive, and more comfortable, than the danfo minibuses). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, transportation in Owerri was a struggle for the common person. The buses and taxis never seemed to be plentiful enough, and people often waited half an hour or more to catch a ride.

By 1995, when I returned to Nigeria for dissertation research, okada motorcycle taxis had emerged as the main form of transportation in the urban centers of southeastern Nigeria. They became popular in rural areas, too, where they would cluster in places where buses dropped passengers returning from town, providing transportation all the way to their passengers' village houses. Okada (also known as achaba in Hausa-speaking northern Nigeria) became the most common form of public transportation in just about every city in Nigeria, with the exceptions of the capital, Abuja, where things are so far apart that motorcycle travel is impractical, and Lagos, the commercial capital, where there are so many fast-moving buses and cars that ordinary Nigerians found motorcycle taxis to be too dangerous. But even in Abuja and Lagos, okada were adopted for shorter journeys, functioning much as they do in rural areas, ferrying customers between bus stops and their residences.

The origin of the name okada is itself perhaps the first tip that these motorcycle taxis were not only practical solutions to the transportation problems in Nigeria's ever-growing cities but also significant symbols that Nigerians would find appealing to "think with." A few years before okada motorcycles arrived on the scene, Nigeria's domestic airlines experienced significant growth, with the emergence of a number of private airlines serving many of the country's biggest cities. Okada Air was the largest of these new fleets during this time and was owned by a wealthy businessman from Benin City named Chief B. O. Igbinedion. Behind each of Nigeria's newly founded airlines was a single rich man. Igbinedion and his rivals flaunted their private airlines as symbols of their extreme wealth. Passengers on these commercial flights were also a rarefied (albeit quickly multiplying) elite, as flying from Port Harcourt in the Southeast to Lagos in the Southwest, for example, was more than 10 times costlier (but also literally 10 times faster) than taking a bus. I don't know how long it took before someone humorously attached the name okada to the new motorcycle taxis, but by the time I returned for fieldwork in 1995, the name was ubiquitous in the Southeast and common throughout much of the country.

Calling motorcycle taxis okada was a playful means of recognizing and criticizing inequality. While Nigeria's super-elite were busy buying fleets of jets to set up private airlines, ordinary citizens were condemned to ride on the backs of motorcycles to get where they had to go in order to survive. "The elite have their okada; we have ours," one friend told me when I first asked why motorcycle taxis shared the same name as the country's biggest private airline.

Although most Nigerians recognized and appreciated the irony inherent in calling motorcycle taxis okada, these motorcycles taxis were much more than the nickname that became attached to them. As a sector of Nigeria's urban economy, as an arena of political ferment, and as an object of constant popular discourse, okada offer a revealing window onto the aspirations and discontents associated with urbanization, a more monetized economy, and new patterns of social inequality that accompanied these changes. In other words, okada became emblematic of people's anxieties about the nature and future of social reproduction. Like the AIDS epidemic, popular understandings of okada reflect Nigerians' sense of social and moral crisis. Like other trappings of modernity, okada were both a welcomed innovation and a symbol of decline.

The Economics of Okada

The first okada driver I knew was Nwabuko Osundu. Nwabuko worked as a night watchman at the compound in Owerri where I lived when I worked for the NGO. In those years, as I mentioned, there was no such thing as a motorcycle taxi in Owerri. But Nwabuko owned a motorcycle that he used for personal transportation. Nwabuko did not earn much as a night watchman——I knew that in order to survive, he and his wife also had a small business in the local market, where he spent much of the day before arriving for his night job. Nwabuko had 11 children and was barely making ends meet.


Excerpted from AIDS Doesn't Show Its Face by DANIEL JORDAN SMITH. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One. Okada Men, Money, and the Moral Hazards of Urban Inequality

Chapter Two. Gender Inequality, Sexual Morality, and AIDS

Chapter Three. “Come and Receive Your Miracle”: Pentecostal Christianity and AIDS

Chapter Four. “Feeding Fat on AIDS”: NGOs, Inequality, and Corruption

Chapter Five. Returning Home to Die: Migration and Kinship in the Era of AIDS

Chapter S. Living with HIV: The Ethical Dilemmas of Building a Normal Life






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