By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
‘Ashewo’ originally a Yoruba word, is our local street word for a prostitute. Of course, it connotes debauchery, sex for money, loose character, a woman of easy virtue. In modern parlance, we call them ‘runs girls’, or ‘commercial sex workers. Other local terms for them include ‘Opio’, ‘Kpons’, ‘Olosho’, Igberaja’, ‘One Chance’, Asharamuta’, ‘Eboi’, ‘Okpo’, ‘Ashe otse’ (collective wife in Eggon), ‘Igbiaja’, ‘Ayamgba’, ‘Okpoto’; ‘Akpara’, ‘Obrosho’, ‘Oturukpo’, ‘Nobi’, ‘Pay as You go’, ‘Ogbongidi’, ‘Karuwa’, ‘Akwuna’, Okpomiliki’! Whatever name we call them, a runs girl is an ashewo! Period.
No decent lady wants to be called ashewo, except the ones who reside in brothels. Those ones in cheap red light districts hotels, or the ones who line up Allen Avenue in Ikeja or around Law School, both in Lagos! I was shocked once when one of those ladies greeted me ‘Good evening, Sir’ near my hotel in Osubi. She thought I was one of their patrons! Holy Moses! Of course, I have said a permanent goodbye to the once decent and affordable hotel!
I first encountered use of the word in St. Augustine’s popular highlife tune of the 1970s titled ‘Ashewo no be Work! Ironically, that track was very popular in the brothels and hotels that dotted the murky districts of Sapele where I grew up! I always wondered how those ladies felt when that song ruled the airwaves – ‘Ashewo no be work o/ Na management o! Was it a stop gap business for them? Were they proud of that dirty business? Were there good Ashewos?
In literature, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw had explored the theme of prostitution in his play Mrs. Warren’s Profession in which he contended that if labour paid starvation wages, if there were men willing to pay there would always be prostitutes. Iconoclastic and Marxist dramatist Bertolt Brecht also interrogated the ashewo idea in The Good Woman of Setzuan in which when the gods came visiting, the only good person willing to offer them accommodation was a prostitute! Any by the way, do we know the story of Rahab the Harlot in the Old Testament, the woman who housed the spies sent from Israel, and who received commendation from the erudite Apostle Paul in the Book of Hebrews?
Lest you begin to wonder whether I was a patron of that dark business, Cemetery Road by Ogodo Road Junction was my regular route to my primary and secondary schools in the 1970s. And those familiar with Sapele (Safa City) would understand that reference! Apart from moral revulsion instilled by the narrow path of church and family, I was too young to contemplate such debased behaviour! Cavorting with Ashewos? That would be the day!
Ashewo politics and the future of Nigeria! What a title! I am sure my readers don’t for one moment believe that I have set out to pour one thousand words on Ladies of the Night. This quaint title came to my mind as I contemplated events which preceded and dominated the last PDP and APC conventions in Abuja. The use of money to induce people against their wish or the use of money to make delegates vote for their anointed men and women! Or the rain of dollars in a Nigerian event meant to usher in a patriotic government.
Indeed, when I requested for some local names for Ashewo, one of the most intriguing and relevant was ‘Delegate -Money for hand, back for Ground! Hahahaha! How creative can our people be in coinages! Very soon, ‘Delegate’ will be another name for Ashewo in Nigeria! We are reliably informed that ‘Ashewos’ collect money from any man who can pay and render due service. No man big or small, handsome, or ugly, fat, or thin, healthy, or unhealthy gets a no from a prostitute. She is everybody and nobody. Can any man lay claim to an ashewo?
The delegates’ system is a corrupted adoption of the American system. But there they vote according to their conscience, their convictions. Their votes are not dictated by local leaders and party stalwarts. In the Nigerian version, the delegates are herded into hotels. Before D Day, they met at designated spots like ladies of the night and aspirants came calling with different sums of money to make them malleable. If these are the men and women to whom we have entrusted electing our leaders, what is the future of politics in Nigeria? In some cases, they had been permanently bought, paid for by the Governor of the State. He managed to service them for four or eight years. Some delegates collected money and did not perform as expected. In this regard, they were worse than the Ashewos at Ayilara Street in Surulere!
To rewind a little, the two main political parties APC and PDP are Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). They are designed to serve all, anytime and anywhere, just like the Pay As You Go girls at Allen Avenue Ikeja Lagos. For this reason, a former member of PDP became Chairman of APC just before the elections. Senators and governors crossed from one party to another without batting an eyelid. APC today, PDP tomorrow. PDP today, APC tomorrow. That is, they are designed to open their arm and legs to all comers like the Akwuna Akwuna of Ayilara. So, the delegates who received payments in form of inducement were in distinguished company like their Ogas in the mainstream of the Party. For them it was now or never. Some have bought cars. Land. Married a new wife. Upgraded certain aspects of their material life. The delegates are serviced once in a season unlike the bigwigs who are serviced every day and night by the oily machinery of the government in power.
If I have appropriated the metaphor of ravishers and Ashewo to depict the party men in our country, it is because Nigeria is like a succulent woman whose flesh has been serially abused by the people entrusted with power. Here I pay homage to South African poet, Dennis Brutus in A Simple Lust! Nigeria, our beloved home, is for sale. The conscience of the leaders is for sale. Pay more get more services.
On one hand are politicians. Gun totting herdsmen stand on the other side ready to destroy lives, cause disunity and throw the country into an abyss of doom. How long more can this body take the bashing? Our elders say that when a prostitute becomes old, her clientele also shrinks. When the Body of Nigeria can no longer take the savage pummeling actions of political nymphomaniacs what shall become of the children of the land?
Prof Hope O. Eghagha teaches at the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, Akoka Lagos
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