Cover Story

Send Me a Signal: Indifference, Conscience and Memory

All of life is one large signal with a thousand hands pointing to different directions. Which one you choose to travel on dictates your life’s fortunes. It is all in you, not in your stars, nor in the pointing fingers themselves. They are there for all to make their choices as they may

I see life’s signals as akin to biological interactions of competence and response. As Lewis Thomas would tell us, ‘It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life’ . You start out as a single cell derived from the coupling of a sperm and an egg; this divides into two, then four, then eight and so on, and at a certain stage the emerging cells start moving and rearranging themselves into new po-sitions; some remain on the outside while others move inwards. During this process, which we call gastrulation, a series of interactions begin between cells lying close to one another. As a result, there emerges a single cell lying on the outside which has as all its progeny the human brain. The mere existence of such a cell should be one of the great astonishments of life on earth. In gastrulation certain cells on the outside, the ectoderm, are the only ones that are competent to respond to signals, messages, from other cells that have moved inside. This is the principal event in development to form the central nervous system.

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The problem of response to messages controls all of life. Consider the above example of the sperm coupling the egg, which waits for the sperm and will be waiting for a week or even less. You could write a poem on the insidious behaviour of the sperm to keep the egg waiting. But must the sperm appear simply because the egg is waiting? No. The antecedents determine the tenets of morality. The sperm will go to the egg in a voluntary sexual intercourse between married couples. You will tell me that this moral code operated in those days; that, if the boy feels like it and the girl feels like it, they can get together and let the sperm satisfy the urges of the egg and not leave the latter just waiting. Of course, I shall not get into this quagmire set up to annihilate my reasons, one by one. What is important here is the whole question of competence and response: the egg is competent to receive the message from the sperm and will respond, in time, with a full-grown child. The boy seeing the girl finds her irresistible and nothing would stop him from consummating his sexual urges in one girl or another. He is not thinking about the cellular outcome of the ominous signals he sends to the girl. All he cares about is that message is well received and responded to. Much of human behaviour can be understood and explained by this simple example which has monumental effects we all know. Again, you will say those were the old days. Now with birth control pills and abortion on demand the biological rule of competence and response has been exuberantly modified. All is fair game.

Is it all fair game, what about HIV, what about COV-ID-19 infections, and other infections, are these fair games too? Is malaria fair game? Of course not, we die from these malicious infections. Malaria infects only the red cell, the erythrocyte and kills them. HIV, Human Immunodeficiency Virus has the nerve to attack the very cells that keep us protected against infections. Our protective cells destroyed immunity is compromised and we cannot deal with the continued infection. In time we die. The corona virus causing the overarching pandemic attaches to receptors in our respiratory tract, finds its way to the lungs and deals a deadly blow of se-vere pneumonia amongst other ailments. We lose our capacity to breathe and may die.

Of all the billions of cells in the body HIV virus infects only the immune cells. Of all the cells in the body the malaria sporozoite from the biting mosquito dashes quickly for surrounding blood cells. Now we are con-fronted with a most disastrous pathogen COVD-19 that we transmit one to another all without intending to hurt anyone and without even knowing what we are doing! This seems the worst kind infection we cannot readily get rid of. Yet, all these infections enter into our body because we have waiting receptors to accept them. We are fully competent to receive the message, the signal, the virus itself or the mosquito sporozoite as the case may be. Whether we like it or not our body is waiting to receive these signals. So far, we have treatment for malaria and we can escape death especially as we grow older and build up our immune defences. We can escape the HIV virus completely by the behaviour choices we make. COVID-19 is, as they say, a different kettle of fish! We have no viable treatment for the disease and our behaviour patterns leave us vulnerable to infection in a variety of circumstances.

Our competence to respond to infections, however, is not the most disheartening factor in human life. As Hunter Patch Adams tells it in a 1998 movie eponymously titled ‘Patch Adams’ ‘What’s wrong with death, sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain degree of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, may be even humour. Death is not the enemy gentlemen. If we are going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, Indifference.’

And the Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel would espouse at The Clinton White House in 1999, Indifference – etymologically the word means ‘no difference’. A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.

We seem to be indifferent to our rotting conscience. It does not matter. Is this how we are? In the movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche du Bois, played by Vivien Leigh, tells us: ‘Whoever you are I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’. That was how we lived as fellow Nigerians when I was growing up in Aba in present-day Abia State. If you travelled anywhere and you had nowhere to stay, all you had to do was to ask for the home of so and so whose address was such or such from your hometown and you would be directed there by one kind person or another When you arrived at his home, you would tell them who you were, and that you had nowhere to spend the night. Invariably you would be accommodated for the next two nights at the least. We were all our brothers’ keeper. Have we completely lost our kindness, our sense of belonging, or have we become our own worst enemies? There is armed robbery, there is kidnapping, there is crass terrorism. Have we lost it all? Lord, I pray not.

Signals: In 2009 before we departed for our village, Obetiti, my dear wife Helen and I wanted to visit our son Uzoma. We lost our way and were headed back to Lagos where we were sure we would find accommodation for the night. Soon, however, we happened upon ‘Signals’, a sign outside an Army Quarters, somewhere after the infamous Mile 2 debacle. There, standing outside the big sign was one man, and I asked him if he would please take us to Alaba Bus stop. He hopped into our car and got off at Alaba bus stop. We could then find our way to where our son lived. The Army and its signals reach one another by their signals and get to work in unity and defeat the enemy. Here we had a stranger helping strangers. You could say we were lucky; we could have been abducted or face some such evil. I ask myself with all its sophisticated signals has the army defeated Boko Haram?

I wrote my last novel I Am Kagara as a civilian uprising bringing to battle one terrorist organisation in the Niger delta against another in North-Eastern Nigeria. The worst in life is not death, it is indifference. Now the Niger Delta has come up for viewing for the amount of money that has ended up in people’s pockets, who have no business really with the Delta. Where does our indifference lie? Corruption seems to sleep with us on our beds. Boko Haram crawls all over us and we scratch and scratch and the itch seems more and more itchy. We are deadly indifferent. We must stand up and fight to be humans with a conscience. We must wake up, get out of bed, have a bath and stop scratching. The signals send us their messages and surround us with acrimony: unforgivably, we show we are incompetent to respond.

Prof. Mark Nwagwu is a renowned lecturer of Zoology from the University of Ibadan

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