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*celebrations here and there

By Bisi Lawrence
“Tranquility Base – The Eagles has landed.” Those were the historic words that echoed round the earth forty years ago, when Apollo II, the American spacecraft, touched down on the surface of the moon.

Then followed the first physical contact made by a human being with a celestial body when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon and, with his first step, made that momentous statement: “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for humanity.”

Now, to that first step. It was planned very meticulously, and calculated through several rehearsals, so that the first man on the moon would alight with his left foot first. The rungs of the short ladder that was used were carefully counted.

That was the story making the rounds even in highly scientific circles in those days, and Armstrong did indeed hop down on his left foot. It was a most incongruous footnote mined from the depths of superstition to what was the pinnacle of scientific achievement of mankind up to that period.

“The “Space Race” had all started as carry-over of the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers. the establishment of the supremacy in technology of one party over the other became key to the effort in winning over the “Third World”. It was Capitalism versus Communism or, if you like, Democracy versus Socialism.

The West had amazed and appalled the world by the destructive powers of energy demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when half-a-million souls were turned to dust under a hideous mushroom cloud with the release of the Atomic Bomb.

But Russia had neutralized the awesome threat of that technological superiority by acquiring the scientific details of nuclear power for herself too. Russia had then gone ahead to stun the world with the “Sputnik” earth-orbiting satellites in 1957. And then, four years later, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, completed a one-orbit manned flight around the earth.

These were stupendous achievements that got the United States fuming. They rushed into the “race” in a frenzy that put the Cold War in the closet. President Jack Kennedy rallied his countrymen into the fray. He did not mince words. It was no longer a matter of matching the Russians but surpassing them.

The Americans must put a man on the moon and bring him back to earth, before the end of the decade. That was in 1964. And that indeed they did when “the Eagle landed” five years later. It is a feat that they were to repeat later, though the Russians are yet to match the brave achievements of the astronaut with the exploits of their own cosmonauts.

It is now forty years after, and celebrations are in order. There are spacecraft now shuttling every so often between the earth and space stations with almost commonplace frequency. One has just done that ostensibly as part of the events to mark the achievements of Neil Armstrong and his team.

There has indeed been a rich harvest of technological advancement in the manufacture of several types of machinery, ranging from innovations in the aircraft industry to the production of household appliances, all stemming from the space effort. But of what real benefits has it all been to humanity?

When we talk of humanity here, we are referring to the embodiment of what qualifies a man to be human – the weaknesses of character, but also the sublime attributes of kindness and compassion for others. A humanitarian person or organization is a caring entity.

Can we truly say that human beings have been moved in any way, these past forty years, to care more for one another because of the exploits on the way to the moon and back? Has the world ever been assailed and depleted by so many armed conflicts and hostilities as have been witnessed over any other period of four decades in human history? We cannot comfortably and truly answer those questions in the affirmative.

That was a short step for a man, indeed, but no more than a giant leap for technology. Kindly leave humanity out of it.

Now, where were you on the night of July 20, 1969 when “The Eagle” landed? I can with pleasurable clarity. I was, of places, in Algiers.

I had eaten three dates in the afternoon and stopped at the fourth because a dear American friend cautioned me that the after-effects could be devastating to the bowels. She was right. And so I was kept awake by more than the thrill of watching “Vostok I” (the spacecraft of Neil Armstrong and Co.) landing on the moon.

I remember the wild ecstasy that filled the air around the hotel with the jubilations and incipient euphoria. There seemed to be this feeling that now that the Americans had landed on the moon, everything was achievable – or even already achieved.

I mean, what else was left to overcome, anyway? What scientific conquest was on the path of humanity (pardon me, man) that could not be attained? There was a grin on most faces the next morning. Everyone had a cheerful comment to make. America, on that day, had won the Cold War.

What, you might be wondering was I doing in Algiers? I was part of a trio of broadcasters, Radio and Television, who had been assigned to cover the Festival of African Arts and Culture. Diran Ajijedidun who, up till then, was better known as a news producer and Yoruba Language newsreader on NT A, was handling the TV coverage beautifully.

He was a graduate in French, a language in which he was stunningly proficient, and which was the alternative language to Arabic in Algiers. A cameraman, B.Fashola, ably supported him. I carried my own “midget” recorder and did my bit with the radio reports. I was Head of Features in Radio Nigeria.

The African nations gathered in Algiers with great enthusiasm. It was a grand follow-up to the earlier festival in Dakar and efforts were summoned to make it greater than the previous one. There were categories in various disciplines. In Drama, for instance, there was a category for indigenous presentations and foreign production. The Nigeria representative in the indigenous class was the Ogunmola Theatrical group.

I remember that the play they presented was “The Palm Wine Drinkard”, and it fairly brought down the house. Supporting him was Jimi Solanke in his irrepressible style.

The highlight, however, was in the “Music – Modem” Representing Nigeria was the formidable Victor Uwaifor troupe. It was in the heyday of “Guitar Boy”, and the hit number, “Jolomi”, slew the audience. It had been the practice for each contingent to cheer its representative accompanied by a polite sprinkling of encouragement from the mammoth Algerian audience.

Thus the Ghanaians cheered their performers, the Ivoriens cheered their musicians, the Congolese cheered their dramatists, and so on. But when Victor Uwaifo took the stage, some kind of electricity ran round the hall. Everyone gradually got involved. Members of the audience jumped off their seats to try out their steps along the aisles. Sir Victor pulled out all the stops.

The proceedings became quite rowdy after a while, but the crowd was unrelenting in their wild appreciation. Eventually, to everyone’s surprise however, the prize for the best performer in that category went to the Algerians who were loath to give what was considered the blue-ribbon event away to visitors. They awarded Uwaifo the third place, and the ensuing boos shook the rafters.

That was the verdict of the judges. The judgment of the audience was given immediately after the contest. Victor Uwaifo struck up his band and moved dancing toward his bus, but a mass of humanity (beg your pardon again, enthralled dancers) barred his way.

He continued to play for them, of course, probably thinking that they would soon release him, but after about an hour he decided to abandon the bus and play all the way to the hotel. Nothing could have delighted the crowd more. I am sure it was a sight that the Algerians had never seen before.

There was wild enthusiasm with which they blocked the road, dancing and leaping totally mindless of the exertion needed to cover the distance of more than one mile to the hotel. The gendarmes were disciplined enough not to openly join, but did little to discourage the “carryings-on” until about midnight when we arrived at the hotel. Then they (mercifully) separated Sir Victor and his fascinating guitar from his fans.

The gentleman who, before becoming a musician, was already a graphic artist and athlete of note, has since then been a State Commissioner, a lawyer and an inventor. He has indeed taken giant steps along the path of life, but I am fairly certain he remembers that night in Algiers.

I too cannever forget that, nor those two comrades of mine – Diran Ajijedidun and Billy Fashola, grand gentlemen, both of them, who have since answered the final summon. May God continue to grant them eternal rest.

Algeria is now playing host to Africa again at this time, partly in commemoration of the festival of 1969. But I doubt that Algiers will ever witness the celebration of the human spirit which conquered Algiers on the night that humanity gave it all to Sir Victor.

The Sandinistas too are celebrating thirty years of their revolution. They are the Nicaraguan leftist group which has been in and out of the country’s power structure for that long.

They have collaborated with US government and lost that support now and then, in a bewildering pattern that actually leaves one guessing where it really is now.

The history of that Latin-American country reads like a farcical concoction of the bizarre, in which assassinations have been mixed with the establishment of a family dynasty, and the reaching out for a democratic dream that continues to elude a nation of a population of eighty-percent Roman Catholic once devastated, all the same, by a civil war.

You may find it difficult to see what they celebrate, but yet they do celebrate.

We used to, also; until noble sons of this country began to decline national honours; in a nation where we deny having a war but are declaring an amnesty; and in the face of a conflict in which battle-lines are beginning to be blurred. We used to state that we could, at least, celebrate the fact that we are still together as one nation. What we should say, of course, is that we are still together in one nation. But then, we could indeed simulate all that. But celebrate? No, we CAN’T.

Time out.


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