By Reuben Abati
It is that time of the year again in the month of February, when there is so much talk and excitement about romance and love, all in preparation for that special day dedicated to love, romance and dalliance, this very day, Valentine’s Day. The romantic propaganda can be really oppressive. In the past few days for example, GSM service providers have insisted that the only ring tone that fits this season is the one that forces you to think of romance, just in case you may have forgotten. I didn’t solicit for the ringtone, but I got it all the same and I have had to listen to it, on other people’s lines, and I guess it doesn’t come free.
The GSM companies are making money selling Valentine messages. And that is the point: the frenzy over Valentine’s Day is commercial, capitalistic, and it is of course, global. In the United States, even the White House is not left out, with the First Lady composing a poem for President Barack Obama on this special occasion. It is all mushy, lovey-dovey stuff. The eventual beneficiaries are the business outfits that produce printing cards, shirts, chocolates, cakes, the restaurants that will probably remain open till Feb. 15, not to talk of the companies that will benefit from the many phone calls, e-mails and text messages.
Sometimes, I find Valentine’s Day a bit suffocating, feminist, and discriminatory. This year’s celebration falls on a Sunday, otherwise it would also have been observed in schools including nursery and kindergarten schools. On a school day, all the pupils would have been instructed to dress up in red colour and to bring gifts for their friends. The children are innocent but their teachers, especially in the private schools, initiate them into this annual ritual. Last year, there was so much red colour blinding the eyes on the streets. I also saw old men and women, even widows, joining the celebration, refusing to be left out of their share of the love in the air. And later in the day of course, the restaurants usually take over and the ultimate show of chivalry is for a man to be seen taking his Valentine for candle-lit dinner, or to go on his knees and pop the question, or to exchange wedding vows on this special day.
It is as if this is the only day meant for love, and the flow of affection is generally understood around here to be from man to woman. The emphasis is not even on pure, unadulterated love; but physical romance. In everything there is a suggestion among the younger generation that a Valentine’s Day expression of love is the truest form of affection, which it is not. The overwhelming focus on purchasing power as a measure of love and affection makes it worse. This has resulted in some commentators lamenting that given the economic austerity in the land, Valentine’s Day this year may not be as exciting, because as the common saying goes, “there can be no romance without finance!”. In the past, a poem or a letter or a bouquet of flowers would do, but I hear, not anymore. Our new age Nigerian ladies no longer read love letters, nor are they interested in poetry- those forced rhymes and sweet nothings meant to make the heart flutter don’t seem to work anymore.
These days, I have heard such comments as: “we have not received salary, how man go take do Valentine?” and I have seen a cartoon in which a husband tells his wife that they will be better off spending the whole day in church! It is perhaps more advisable to celebrate Agape, church love than to dig a hole in the pocket and tell stories that touch the heart later.
I am not against anyone celebrating love, but the desperation, the heartache and the sheer anxiety that now attends Valentine’s Day is a bit over the top. People should not have to borrow or rob a bank to prove that they love a woman. And this whole thing about romantic love is curious. In any relationship at all, physical love is not enough. It takes a lot more to build relationships.
It should be possible to spend Valentine’s Day with family members, friends, and other members of the community. And you shouldn’t have to wear red as if you are going to a Sango shrine, or appear like a masquerade, before anyone knows that you want to celebrate love. How about a visit to the motherless babies’ home, or the prisons, hospitals, or a visit to the cemetery to remember your departed loved ones. Or quality time spent at home with the children or phone calls to old time friends to wish them well. Love should not be measured in loud decibels of a one-day excitement; it should be a value, extended in all kinds of relationships.
This is one lesson the excitable young crowd, that is going to troop out to the clubs and restaurants today, must learn, and which they will learn. They should ask the older generation. I doubt if there are many married men and women out there who are still having butterflies in their stomachs as they did many years ago, over a certain unknown St. Valentine. Real life teaches hard lessons. The older generation would have learnt that love grows, and it fades, and it is better as a life-long experience, while romantic love is just one of many other kinds of love, including self-love, and this thing called love is not necessarily in real life, exactly as the Holy Book says it should be.
It is only in the Bible that love exists in such fantasy form as described in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease, where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” In real life, love is proud, boastful, easily angered, expensive, self-seeking, vengeful…imagine the kind of atrocities that have been committed in the name of love!
As we mark this year’s Valentine’s Day, I think of the quality of love in our community, and it is sad that there is a damning scarcity of it. Those who will observe the Valentine ritual, and may forget the subject of love by tomorrow morning, are in the majority: they claim to be good men and women, but they are not their brother’s keepers. They include young girls who will never be allowed to marry young men from other ethnic groups because of the deep-seated suspicions that have divided Nigerian communities into primordial camps of hate. We have parents, teachers, leaders and priests, who promote division rather than unity. We are a community of broken dreams and shattered hopes. Hypocrisy has become a virtue. Some of the young people change their partners every Valentine season, collecting Valentine gifts like they are striving to build a museum of romantic encounters. Many of those who will profess love today do not even know what it means.
And yet we are a religious society and all the religions teach love as an important virtue and value. But I doubt if anyone listens. Even the religious leaders are guilty. One so-called 50-year old Pastor Amakiri has just been accused of raping a 12-year old child. He saw a vision that he needed a “holy massage” to be administered by a young girl between the ages of 12-15, on his “badly aching waist.” He has children at home between the ages of 6 and 14, and he could have sought medical help. Only God knows how many other lives this particular Pastor has damaged with false visions and cruel opportunism. Our schools should teach love, but was it not in a Nigerian school that a student once slaughtered a teacher in broad daylight?
And was it not from a school that innocent young girls were carted away and abducted? Parents should help teach love too, but many parents are too busy monitoring that bank alert that will make them breathe easier. Marriage should nurture love, but was it not in Ibadan the other day that a young, married lady, drove a knife into her husband’s neck wounding him mortally because he had a child outside wedlock. And elsewhere in this same country, another married woman reportedly butchered her husband’s manhood, into two, because he was caught with another woman.
Yes, it is Valentine’s Day but it is the Devil that rules the heart of many. Pastor Amakiri has been quoted saying “Don’t blame the Devil, I did it.” Of course, you did it, and are we supposed to clap for you? The Devil has never been convicted in any court of law for committing a crime. Think also of the usual stories about the shenanigans of governance and the oddities of public life. The list is endless, providing a sobering backdrop to all the ebb and flow of Valentine spirit. People are taught the idea of love by the ritual of Valentine’s Day, but that is never enough for building relationships and a strong community of citizens. We need a society built on much deeper friendships and values.
This is perhaps partly why there have been anti-Valentine’s Day protests in India and Pakistan, where its celebration is said to be “against religious and cultural norms.” I don’t think a day will ever come when the Nigerian authorities will ban anyone from having a day of fun, even licentious fun, for those who are so predisposed. But if you must indulge in ribaldry, remember it is nonetheless a day for loving not dying, and that promoting love, friendship, good citizenship, and unity as shared communal values is important. And if you are pro-Valentine and nobody remembers to send you a cake, a message, or a card, since there is this general expectation that everyone should celebrate Valentine, don’t despair, it is better to be loved everyday, than once. As for me, I’ll spend the day with family and friends.