Early in July I was in Banjul, the capital of the country that dubs itself 'the smiling coast of Africa', for the AU Summit. I was not at the previous Summit in Khartoum therefore it had been more than one year since I last saw many of the political, Media, NGO elites that make these summits the number one political and diplomatic gathering in Africa.
Many of my friends especially those in the AU bureaucracy whom I had branded for donkey years as 'bureaucrats of our Union', 'AUcrats' or 'AUrats' among others were waiting to confirm directly from me a recent job change that happened to me (the official softening of 'Mr Africa' as many see it). I had recently joined the UN Millennium campaign. Many of my friends and even not so friendly people who know me could not believe it.
I have also had to suspend disbelief because it is either there is something wrong with me or with them or both of us. Why the UN of all possible employers! So many people wanted my 'new business card' not because they need to communicate with me or did not know how to if they wish to, but just to keep the souvenir of 'Taju joining the system' or 'Tajudeen selling out'.
The AUcrats had a field day taunting and teasing me as a latter day 'UNOcrat', 'UNORat'. All attempts to convince them that I am still within the CSO community as the campaign is meant to empower citizens of the World to make their political leaders accountable for MDGs were met with career bureaucrats saying "we shall see". One of them even boasted to me that I would be saying ALUTA STOPEE instead of ALUTA CONTINUA soon! Time will definitely tell.
I was barely two months in the campaign but somehow people were looking for evidence that I have mellowed or been bought over. Those who have not been receiving my weekly column now believe that it must be because the UN has stopped them. Many now look for 'evidence' in every article I write for my 'political shifts'.
I had arrived in Banjul with an even bigger change in my personal and public persona which most of my friends doubling up as foes in the Gambia did not immediately notice. After two decades of serious piping I had given up smoking. The obligatory pipe dangling from my mouth was no longer there. The pipe had become so much embedded in me that sometimes I would have it in my mouth and still be frantically looking for it!
It took up to the end of the second day when one of the sisters observed that 'something has changed about you'. Those present chorused: 'He has joined the UN' but she disappointed them by saying that my detour into what many of them regarded as 'behind enemy lines' was not it. Someone also observed that I had lost a few pounds. Thanks for the craze for losing weight these days, it could have been misinterpreted as evidence that 'the man is going' as we euphemistically refer to people suspected of developing AIDS in Uganda. My weight loss was not due to any weight watching but was as a result of a serious bout of Malaria. The sister insisted losing a few pounds was not it either. Everybody now wondered what other bomb shell she had in her armory to demolish 'Mr Big mouth'.
She cherished her triumphalism by giving people clueless clues asking them to 'see what has changed 'or 'what is missing' in me. It was not like I was wearing a three piece suit with a tie in tropical conditions. So what were they supposed to be looking for? I was in my Acting Big Man full Nigerian National Dress. No surprises there because one of the most enduring popular aspects of the AU razzmatazz is the orchestrated display of the best in African dresses with the West Africans always in the lead but with increasing competition from other regions especially Southern African women.
So if the change was not about how I had dressed what was it? Finally, with the smugness of the only one who knows the sense of discovery comparable to Newton discovering the Laws of Gravity, she shouted: "Look at him, the pipe is missing". Then everybody realized that, that piece of wood that was perpetually dangling in my mouth was indeed missing. Everybody started demanding to know where the pipe was. Instead of them congratulating me, they wanted to know where the pipe was and why I was not smoking; yet I had stopped smoking for more than a year.
It was not a sudden realization on my part that smoking was dangerous that made me stop. Every smoker knows that and-does not care about the legal warning- just like any alcohol consumer or abuser of other substances is aware that they are bad for them.
For alcohol, there is still a half hearted-debate whether it is completely bad or is it the excess of it that is the problem. In the case of tobacco, there is no such debate. Every quantity of it is dangerous. Those who smoke the pipe delude themselves that they smoke less. But the truth is that it is the same nicotine we are talking about, the difference may just be that pipe smokers may have chosen to die in style. The message should not be smoke less but do not smoke at all.
Even now that I have stopped it, it does not mean that the impact of my previous smoking will not be with me to my grave. But more than the impact on me, there is the impact on friends, family, complete strangers and the rest of humanity, alive and yet unborn, in whose face I have smoked. Smokers are the only true Socialists left because they share with you whether you like it or not. This is where and why smoking ceases to be a matter of personal choice. If I serially try to poison my family or a circle of friends or whole community I will safely be behind bars, if not executed and gathering manure in some grave. Yet smokers are doing this, directly or indirectly every time they smoke.
I am no latter day convert to No smoking evangelism with the zealotry of a new convert. I do not or wish to preach or lecture people. I confess that I still miss the buzz, satisfaction, elation, bonding with complete strangers, cancer friendships, emotional release, pressure antidote and all the feelings that go with smoking. I am still very tolerant and understanding towards my former lung comrades and not panicking over passive smoking. But I have given it up and hope for those still in the club that the puff you are now having is your last one too.
It is not the medical arguments and scary tales of lung and other kinds of cancer and health risks that made me give up. My spur for changing from a life long habit was a plea from my older daughter, Aida. On a wintry morning, last year, I was taking her and her younger sister, Ayesha, to school in North London. I rolled down my window and settled for my first puff of the day (which any smoker cherishes). Out of the blues Aida said:
"Baba do you know that you will not see me graduate".
I was shocked and queried her why she was talking about death at 8.00am wondering why a young girl like her should be thinking of becoming an orphan. She said:
"Because you are smoking". And proceeded to reel out all the medical, social and environmental reasons as befitting of kids brought up on ICTs and obviously lucky that her father and mine were different. Gone were our days of 'do as you are told', 'do not speak unless you are spoken to' and grandfather of all indiscipline, to correct the Mzee!
I was happy and saddened at the same time. I was happy that my 10 year old daughter was confident that she was going to graduate but sad that my lifestyle is already making her feel that her father may not be there 10 years down the line when she proudly takes that degree. What kind of father am I that traumatizes a young girl at that age? The buzz, the urge and everything that goes with that puff drained out of me that morning and I have not filled up the pipe again. It has been so much part of me that not many people have noticed.
Occasionally, I am now able to pick up one of my many pipes and hold it in my mouth without any tobacco. This may be withdrawal symptoms but I need to make a clean break and stop my identity being synonymous with smoking. Africa is far away from the litigations nightmare of the US that makes long term smokers go to court to prosecute Tobacco makers that they were not warned it was bad for their health! There are so many dangerous things we eat or drink that do not carry any warning. How many manufacturers do we have to sue?
Having said this, it is scandalously true that Tobacco companies like Oil companies and other Corporations get away with serial murders in Africa and other Third world countries. It is not just their exploitation of the environment and people, but most of their adverts would not have been broadcast or published in the West. Tobacco and Alcohol advertising has become more difficult in the West, but booming in the poorer countries where both political corruption and weak regulatory capacities allow them to do what they like.
They also present themselves as partners in development because of the economic contributions in countries where tobacco growing is very crucial. They have loads of money to advertise and the media too dependent on narrow advert base to be discriminatory to such big spenders.
Governments may be compromised and Media owners reluctant to act but as individuals, there are little things we can do. For me, the least of the actions I can take begins with the Picture editors at The New Vision newspapers in Uganda, the original publishers of this column.
By this article I am making a public break with the tolerated poison industry that tobacco industry represents. I am no longer active in the fraternity. I can no longer aid and abet its destruction of lives and communities and our shared environment. I may not be able to stop the British American Tobacco, BAT and other Tobacco companies but at least I can demand that The New Vision no longer uses a picture of me with a pipe.
I hope my good friends in the East African branches of the anti smoking lobby, ‘Tobacco or Health,' and others who have written to me on this particular public association with the Cancer Stick take this as a public atonement and a determination on my part to be of service that affirm life instead of being accessory to my own death and that of others. There is nothing glamorous about smoking.
The Tobacco corporations already have too much money to convince and confuse the public about their merchandise that it will be making the rich even richer for me to weekly give them free advert with that dangling pipe picture. From now on I say: not in my name to the tobacco industry.