The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Bullshit

This entry has actually been a year or so in the making… Recently I’ve been thinking a lot more about my relationship with religion. I was raised Catholic and although I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I’m not so sure about little-boy-rapists, thieves and hypocrites. I’m not saying that any religion is perfect, but rather that one should strive for matter over content – that is, to seek spirituality rather than to constantly apply rules and labels to what some call “faith.” With that said, allow me to ruminate.

A year ago I went to a discussion on my campus about Islamophobia. While listening to the other people present (all of whom had grown up in the West), it became clear to me that the word Islamophobia can have very different connotations depending on the geographical and cultural perspective of the person talking. Most people think of the words “jihad” and “terrorist” in this post-9/11 world when the topic of Islam comes up, which makes perfect sense sitting in a brownstone on New York’s Upper West Side. However, as the conversation went on and the participants were asked to give specific examples of Islamophobia that they had witnessed, I realised that as a Nigerian my experience of this phenomenon was considerably unlike that of those who weren’t from my part of the world.

I was living in England at the time the September 11th attacks took place. I was there when the London bombings of 2005 happened. I had seen the television reports and heard the hostile comments that painted a picture of the average Muslim as a rabid fanatic hell-bent on destroying the values of democracy that make “Western civilisation” the best of all human societies. Although I could go further into the problems of this level of stereotyping, I think I may save that for another entry. The discussion actually made me think for the first time about the ways in which Islamophobia works where I come from. Because Nigeria wasn’t directly affected by 9/11, the whole “terrorist” discussion didn’t initially come up with regards to Islam (again, thanks, panty-bomber). What does seem to be a problematic issue back home is the relationship between Muslims and Christians. Nigeria is split roughly 50/50 in terms of religion between these two groups. The Muslims live predominantly in the northern part of the country, whilst Christians occupy the south. My city, Lagos, is probably the most diverse in the country because of its status as the commercial centre, and for the most part Muslims and Christians happily coexist side by side there. In other parts of the country, however, this isn’t necessarily the case.

The news has been filled recently with stories of “deadly religious clashes” in Plateau state, which is in the “Middle Belt” of Nigeria (the dividing line between the “Muslim North” and “Christian South.” The violence was horrific – burnt babies, men mutilated by machetes, women wounded in indescribable ways. Although this violence is labelled as religiously-motivated, other factors such as scarce resources, a lack of education and the consistent failure of the Nigerian government to build a cohesive national identity over the past 50 years are probably more central to the issue. Many people on both sides of the religion line see each other as so fundamentally alien, despite the fact that we are all citizens of the same country and the many intersections in our history, cultures and languages. I’ve heard Christians I’m close to call Muslims “uneducated,” “polygamous” and “close-minded” like these are terms exclusive to Islam. My cousin has told me stories of being called an “infidel” by her Muslim classmates as a child, classmates who just a day earlier had sat next to her and called her a friend. And when you’re struggling to scrape by as a farmer and water gets scarce, it’s probably easier to take your frustrations out on the person from a different tribe and village than on the gun-protected officials who don’t perform the tasks they were “elected” to do.

I was just reading an article by David Goodhart for a political science class in which he argues that the more diverse a society, the harder it is for it to be cohesive. This may be true, but I find it impossible to accept that Nigerians are so dissimilar from one another that they cannot possibly find a common ground. Islam and Christianity are no more radically different from one another than a Yoruba is from an Itsekiri. A friend invited me to Friday prayers on campus last week and listening to the lecture, I heard nothing that I hadn’t heard in a homily at a Sunday mass. I can’t speak for other places but in the context of my country, I think that these supposed “differences” between us – whether distinctions of religion, ethnicity or class – are being exploited and exaggerated by leaders seeking support for their kleptomaniac ways and bullshit “ideologies.” Of course, this is only politics as usual but seeing a man sob after his wife was buried in a mass grave with his children nowhere to be found, one may have to start rethinking some things. Nothing will ever change in the country if its people don’t have a sense of community with one another, regardless of whatever superficial differences we perceive among ourselves.

P.S. This Jill jawn right here is beautiful… even though it really doesn’t have much to do with this post, that line always stands out for me. Sura 31:18, by the way, reads: “And swell not thy cheek/(For pride) at men/Nor walk in insolence/Through the earth/For Allah loveth not/Any arrogant boaster.” Good advice to live by.

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Le sigh – and another stay at home comes to an end. In 3 days time I’ll be sitting in the Atlanta airport after a vigorous patting-down and grilling by airport authorities (thanks, underwear bomber) waiting for my flight back to NYC and my last semester of college. Although I’m excited for this final stretch and to see all my people back on campus, I’m really going to miss home. The thought of trading jollof rice and the heat of the equator for greasy pizza and North-Eastern snow is wild depressing, especially because this trip home has been particularly enjoyable. My father, feeling adventurous, decided that we should make a trip to Senegal. Yesterday we returned home after spending 6 days in Dakar, which is officially one of my new favourite places in the world. It’s where the French Riviera and the West African savannah had a love child raised by a North African nanny. It’s considerably less chaotic than Lagos, and much more of a walking city. I loved the fact that the buildings were so close to the roadside that you could reach up and touch one of the brightly coloured shutters. It was fun practising my (rusty) French with market traders. And poulet yassa with un peu de pili pili? Heavenly.

Of course, it being a city, the hustlers were out in full effect. Every time we walked out of our hotel, we would be approached by an Abdul/Amadou/Yuyu who would smile and hail us with a “Bonjour!” hoping that we hapless tourists would be persuaded to take him on as our guide (for a few thousand CFA, bien sûr). If only they’d known that we were Nigerians: mon cher, you can’t scam the original scammers. But that was the interesting thing – they didn’t seem to know that we were Nigerians. I got asked if I was everything from Senegalese to Ethiopian, but never my home country. Given recent events, I’m sure most would tell me to be grateful that people don’t think I’m Nigerian. It’s been an interesting pattern since I’ve lived abroad, people thinking that I’m not from West Africa. I’ve been asked if I was from the USA, Kenya, Botswana and even Fiji (yeah, that right there got the side eye). I don’t think there’s anything about the way I look that suggests that I’m not a Nigerian. And as I grew up here, it’s even more baffling to me. Maybe motherfuckers just aren’t that perceptive. Or maybe I have a “non-African” air about me that throws people off – perhaps I don’t come across as your average African.

This is something that has plagued me increasingly throughout my life. What is it about me that makes people think I’m from Brooklyn rather than Ofagbe? Why don’t I come across as “authentic”? I guess the ideal place to begin answering that question would be to figure out what the “typical” African is like. Let’s begin with appearances: according to an African-American security guard at my college, African people are black.  As in, we’re all on that chocolate/ebony/midnight type skin tone. I guess my brown skin fails the first test – thanks, Scottish great-grandfather. Second of all, African women don’t wear their hair the way I do. In Lagos, I stand out when my hair is fro’ed – most women here have their hair relaxed, in braids or in weaves. If they do wear it natural, it’s cut short like a man’s. Second fail. What about the way I dress? West African women are supposed to wear ankara (traditional cloth often sewn into dresses or a skirt and blouse), and love them some gold jewellery. I guess my skinny jeans and wooden bracelets fail this authenticity test. Other ways in which I don’t measure up: I don’t speak any African languages. My accent has lingering traces of South-East England and New York City. I didn’t go to secondary school in Nigeria. I’m not poor. I like Russian literature… the list continues. Everywhere I go, from the streets of Dakar to the sidewalks of NYC, people seem to enjoy reminding me how I’m not really African. Yes, I have a Nigerian passport, but because my appearance and experiences are not typical, I’ve somehow lost my African-ness (if, indeed, I ever had it) and fallen into a no-man’s-land (after all, with a name like mine I can’t possibly pass for a real Westerner or as being from any other part of the world but West Africa). As a friend once told me, my “bourgeoisie” background which enabled me to fly home 3 times in as many months for my sisters’ weddings undermines my claim to being a “real” African. Mon Dieu! – I am, vraiment, in the position of being a member of the colonised elite that Fanon and so many others have written about. Caught between the world of the colonial power, which my education has given me some level of access to, but to which my skin tone denies me full entry, and the world of the colonised subject which my socio-economic status has moved me out of reach, what am I to do?

Following along this reason, I guess Leopold Senghor, Chinua Achebe and other intellectuals like them are also not legitimate Africans. Neither are any of the Africans that attend my university. Although some of them pass more “tests” than I do, surely their failure of others means that they too are condemned to flounder in the frustration of being an undefined hybrid, of not being fully able to “belong” to their respect homes.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I think all of this right here is bullshit. To all the people who have questioned the authenticity of my West African-ness: are you fucking serious? The fact that you define “true African-ness” just highlights the extent to which your mindset is dominated by colonialism. In case you forgot, when the British, French and Portuguese came it was them who drew a line between the “native” and the “citizen.” Your denial of my African-ness is you repeating the exact same ideology. Here’s the wonderful thing about identity: it’s fluid. This means that it doesn’t follow a set of rules or fall under a single list, especially in the context of Africa. I have the freedom to shape my own African identity, to accept what I was given, change what I don’t like and embrace the new. Just because it doesn’t match up to your personal definition doesn’t make it less valid. If you tell someone that their Western education makes them un-African, you are suggesting that Africans can only learn within the context of Africa. If you tell someone that their clothing makes them an outsider, you are saying that Africans can only dress in an African way. If you tell someone that speaking English instead of Wolof highlights a colonial mentality, you are claiming that Africans are only truly African when speaking “native” languages, and underscoring your own colonial mentality.  In other words, you are making a monolith out of the people of this incredibly diverse continent and reinforcing the very stereotypes that are keeping this continent down.

I think it’s important to make it clear that I am in no way, shape or form privileging my own experiences as an African to those of others: my American education doesn’t make me “better” than someone who went to the University of Lagos. Although I’m not going to engage in the “Western” vs. “non-Western” debate here, I’m definitely not okay with the privileging of Western ideals and standards over the many African ones. What I do what to emphasise is that difference – even when that difference comes from outside of the African context – is what makes Africa so vibrant and beautiful. Part of what I love about being African is the fact that you can see so many different cultural influences at play within our societies – for example, the way Dakar is a totally different kind of African city to Accra because of their histories.

In summary, I don’t believe judging people according to how “African” you think they are in order to make yourself feel better is doing anyone any favours. We’re ALL African, period. And especially to those who tell me these things as we both sit in an American university classroom – c’mon son. Fuckouttaherewiththatshitson. Africans, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” and fucking do better.

And with that said, let me go find some rice and beans to eat. I’m starved.

P.S. Title is from Fela’s “Gentleman.”

To my strong, beautiful black brothers:

A few months ago, I met up with a few of my ignorant favourite African male friends for dinner, and our conversation wound its way from Kelis’ “golddigging” ways and Kenyan music to an ever-contentious subject: interracial dating. All except for one of them expressed the following sentiment: “I don’t see anything wrong with an African man dating a non-African woman, but I don’t like it when I see an African woman walking with a man who isn’t black.” Now I have heard countless claims about the saltiness of the average black woman and her feelings about seeing one of “OUR men” holding hands with a Becky, but the black man who takes a black woman dating a Dale personally  is a new phenomenon for me. Puzzled, I asked to clarify: “So, you guys see nothing wrong with a black man dating outside of his race, but you do see a problem with a black woman doing so?” Their response? “Yes.”

Now, my dear black brothers: you know that I love you more than anything else in this world except chocolate. Y’all raised me, taught me, love me and challenge me to do better all day, every day. But PAUSE: really though? You somehow think you’re justified in restricting my dating choices because you feel threatened? You know you’re fucked up for that. And that will lead to you someone getting cut.

 I asked a fellow Nigerian this question straight up and he simply shrugged and said, “I know it’s wrong, but life isn’t fair.” To him, it is a serious affront to black male pride to see a black woman walking with a man of a different race. But black female pride? Psssh. Irrelevant. I got the same sense of a lack of regard for black women’s feelings on the part of black men again when talking to a couple (again, Nigerian) male friends of mine. One of them was explaining that he broke up with his last girlfriend because he was tired of being in a long-distance relationship. Upon hearing this, the other one remarked, “Oh yeah I feel you – you know men have needs.” Again, PAUSE. Because women don’t??? What in the hell is going on, my African men?

Now, I understand that our life experiences may be very different. Many of you were raised in homes where your father’s word was bond, as the man of the house. Many of you grew up with women who allowed men to get away with some trifling ass behaviour because if society condoned it, who were they to argue back? And many of you are now enjoying life in the first world as students and workers with all of these golden opportunities open to you, including the option of dating outside of your race. And you know what? I’m totally cool with that being the context in which you came up and your embracing of that developed world freedom. Actually, just the last part. The first part is hella fucked up, did not fly when I was growing up and will NOT fly in my house when I’m married. But besides the point: I too, have had the opportunity to move abroad and be educated at an American university and meet people from all different backgrounds. And maybe back home you can feel like society gives you one up on me. But this is the land of the motherfucking free: I too, can date whomever, whenever and however I please. You have no kind of right or obligation to dictate to me who can take me out to dinner. You cannot get annoyed when you see me walking with Ahmed, Ravi or Lee Kwok. And you absolutely cannot expect me to treat you one way, yet treat me in a completely different manner.

Regarding my actual stance towards the phenomenon known as “the swirl”: the only real qualification I have regarding the men I date is that they feel me on that minority/third world/AK-47 toting militant tip. It’s not that I don’t find “Western” men attractive – it’s just when you start zoning out as I talk about pidgin English/oil money/my mother’s propensity to randomly cuss people out which I have definitely inherited, it’s pretty unlikely that it’s going to work out between us. Plus what if he makes some awkward comment about my “exotic” name or going on safari? This is why I love y’all, my African men – I know you feel me on that fresh banga soup with starch on the side, on my Wafi craze and my third-world politics. So how are you gonna get mad at me for wanting to be with someone I can relate to on that cous cous/Indian nationalism/tropical heat joint? As much as I love you guys, you’re not always checking for me. There’ve been too many times you’ve told me, “Oh, you’re so beautiful” yet left me hanging waiting for the “Do you want to have dinner sometime?” There’ve been too many times you’ve just wanted me for my body and none of the other wonders I have to offer. There’ve been too many times when you’ve straight up broken my heart and left me crushed. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on you – but it does mean I want to diversify my bonds and shit, same as you. I’m not holding you back from dating whichever Hannah, Arusha or Ming Su you want to be with, so why won’t you let me be?

Signed,

A loving but heated confused African woman

P.S. Title is from the flyest girl group of all time, En Vogue. 15 years later and they’re still fabulous.  Free your minds fellas, free your minds.

Nigeria, my Nigeria…

Anyone who knows me is probably sick and tired of the amount of times I’ve said “I cannot WAIT to go home” in the past month alone. But I can’t help it – it’s been almost ten months since I was last in Nigeria. Ten long months since that red earth/hot sun/blue sky/sea breeze/palm trees/roast corn/go-slow/fast talk that signifies home for me. If you haven’t been to Lagos, start saving your money for a plane ticket right now. Seriously. There is nowhere else on this planet that is the same combination of cool/crazy/dangerous/beautiful/intense as my home city. Not only that, but going home means that I’ll be reunited with my family again. I haven’t seen my mother since April, nor have I met my adorable new niece, Amina, who was born in August. We’ve also moved into a new house in a different part of the city and have acquired a new dog (who’s butt ugly, but still). In just over two weeks I’ll be eating beans and plantain, watching MNET and indulging in the feel of the scorching sun on my back, a welcome break from the miserable cold of New York City in December.

But as much as I am looking forward to going home, I am also very sceptical about returning. Reading 234Next, a Lagos-based newspaper, has made me very concerned about the current state of political affairs in Nigeria – and by “concerned” I mean furious. For those who aren’t up on Nigerian Politics 101, let me explain: my country’s current president is Umaru Yar’Adua, a former chemistry professor who is a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP has been in charge of Nigeria for the past ten years of “democracy” following the death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha. President Yar’Adua has been ill for most of his presidency. He has been making regular trips out of the country for “medical check-ups,” is rarely seen in public and has been neglecting some of his presidential duties. When he ran for the presidency in 2007, there were persistent rumours that he was suffering from a kidney ailment, and his doctors have recently revealed that he has a “heart condition.” Many Nigerians are worried that he’s going to die before his term is over in 2011, and as a result there have been calls for his resignation. In any other country, this would seem perfectly logical, right? Not my people. This weekend, six of the politicians who had led calls for his resignation were threatened by members of the PDP who showed up at their homes with thugs, ready to assault them. And it will only get worse. You see, the PDP is not so much a political party as a crew of old army friends who have ruled Nigeria in some form – whether democratically or in authoritarian fashion – since the 1970s and who have no intention of letting go of power. They are drunk on the country’s oil and the money that it keeps flowing into official coffers, and which they believe they have free rein to siphon off for their multi-million dollar mansions in London and fleets of cars. And President Yar’Adua is their personal puppet – despite his probably good intentions, the power of the PDP is so deeply entrenched that efforts to prosecute the corrupt have been severely hindered by political wrangling. One example is the treatment of Nuhu Ribadu, the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, who was dismissed from his position by the Inspector-General of Police for actually doing his job rather than stealing. The president was powerless to do anything to stop this move, a sign of his political weakness that his physical ailments are doing little to help.

So why doesn’t it make sense for him to step down and the vice-president to take over? Again, my dear people: politics. The current vice-president, Jonathan Goodluck, is from the oil-rich South-South region of Nigeria (the part of the country from which I also hail). The PDP, which is dominated by Northerners, instituted a “rotational policy” of sorts regarding the presidency: they unilaterally divided the country up into six zones between the north and south, which the president is to be elected from in turn. However, the ethnic group that dominates the North (the Hausa-Fulani) benefit from this arrangement the most: in 24 years they would hold the presidency for 12 years in total (their exclusion of smaller ethnic groups in the same geographic region make it unlikely that they would allow someone from a minority tribe to be nominated for president), while the other two large ethnic groups (the Yoruba and Igbo) and the mix of Itsekiri, Ijaw and others in the South-South would only rule for 4 years each. Not only is this a problematic power fixation, but it also does nothing to dismantle the artificial ethnic divides put in place by the British during colonial rule which split Nigeria between North and South.

A further complication is the current constitution and how it defines the role of the Vice-President. Goodluck’s powers, now that Yar’Adua is technically incapacitated, are fairly limited: he can only act as president if Yar’Adua writes a letter informing the Senate and House of Representatives that says he can – which Yar’Adua has not done.  This isn’t surprising – I highly doubt that the people that actually run Nigeria would let Yar’Adua cede his “power” to someone who may, quite possibly, want to do the job of president properly and prevent them from taking advantage of the political system for their own benefit. What frustrates me is the way that the game of politics in Nigeria is played out within the confines of such a small circle. There is zero political transparency and no true representation in government – our supposed leaders make no effort in hiding the fact that they seek power for their own benefit, not for the benefit of their constituents. No popular movement or revolution can take place if people aren’t aware of the political process and the ways that they are being excluded from it.

Or are they? The Western media has increasingly picked up on one particular anti-government group in Nigeria: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). This is a group of “militants” (for lack of a better word) who are seeking greater resources for the people of the South-South, one of the most woefully under-developed areas of Nigeria. Their main tactics have involved kidnapping and disrupting the oil production process – not the most savoury methods, but nonetheless highly effective at putting the divide between the people of Nigeria and their government on the national stage. The government couldn’t just ignore or shut down the militants when the oil money was being threatened – they had to negotiate with the fighters and are now finally channelling money into the region (and bypassing the corrupt state governors in that area by giving it directly to local governments). There are still tensions in the region and the self-interest of many of the militants who feel hard done by the recent ceasefire (read: they didn’t get the money they were expecting) could lead to more violence at the expense of the ordinary people in the area. There is, of course, far more to the current political situation than my knowledge allows for, but from my perspective these are among the most crucial because of their potential to destabilise the country.

I remember reading the Odyssey my freshman year of college and discussing with my professor the inevitably bittersweet nature of returning home. Sitting in this miserable library with a ton of homework awaiting me, the thought of warm, sunny Lagos, good food and the love of my family seem so incredibly perfect. But then I read the news that leaves me increasingly fearful that my country could potentially plunge back into civil war and wonder about the place that I want to go back to so much. Despite the problems hanging over Nigeria, I know that being home will be good for me on some level, at least as I am right now. What exactly the future holds for me and my country… I suppose I’ll have to wait and see. Right now, everything seems as devoid of answers as the paper I have due tomorrow is of words =/

P.S. Had to bring back the main man Fela for the title.

As I’m an English major, I guess it can be taken for granted that I’m a fan of all things literary: plays, novels and – of course – poetry. A couple weeks ago I went to a spoken word performance by Jessica Care Moore which may have been the illest thing I’ve witnessed in a minute. Seriously, that chick is fire.

Anyways, I attended another poetry reading on my campus a few days later – this time, it was a guy reading. I have to give it to him: his poetry was pretty impressive. However, I was struck by the fact that every single one of his poems had him talking to a woman. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but some of his descriptions had me thinking, “Um, what’s extra hood?” For example, one poem compared his ideal woman’s nostrils to the Roman aqueducts, complete with bathing children frolicking in the streams of the snot life-bearing water which poured out from her. Yeah, anyway… I remember being told as a child by my English teacher that I lacked imagination. After I pulled a .45 on her I think what she meant to say was that I focused too much on “reality” rather than on the worlds that the mind could create. I won’t deny that I’m not much of a poetry-head – metaphors that encompass everything from the cosmos to termites and everything in between tend to be lost on me. I like the tangible, the rough around the edges, the things that I know and have experienced. I trust them more. That’s why I like Russian realist literature more than English metaphysical poetry. Escapism doesn’t appeal to me because there’s too much of the life right in front of me that I haven’t discovered yet for me to start wondering about what exists in another galaxy and whatnot.

Back to my point: this dude’s poetry – and the poetry of many other young black men – to me seems to build up a strangely unrealistic portrayal of the woman that they are speaking to or writing about. I love the fact that these men want to promote a positive image of the beautiful black goddess, especially as a woman who occasionally likes to fantasise that I could inspire a piece like “The Sun Rising.” Nonetheless, I feel scared as shit kind of intimidated by lines that invoke a woman whose back is an ageless baobab tree, whose curls are like the waves of the Sahara sands and whose eyes reflect the depths of the Nile. I mean, damn: I know I’m fly, but I’m not on that Maya Angelou/Nefertiti/Miriam Makeba tip yet. It’s funny because the dude actually read one poem that was an interesting departure from the rest. In it, he’s talking to a round-the-way girl with a weave in her hair, fake press-on nails and a quick-talking-bubble-gum-filled mouth. Not the most flattering description maybe, but that woman felt more real. I felt like I could identify with her more. I didn’t feel so egocentric imagining that the poem could be about me.

I brought up this topic with a guy and a chick that I know who both write, and they pointed out that they wrote their poetry with an unattainable ideal man/woman in mind. This totally makes sense – having some sort of Aphrodite/Apollo as inspiration – but this doesn’t mean that both men and women who write poetry or perform spoken word don’t use these epic descriptions to get more average-looking ass. And that irks me.

Look, I understand everyone needs a little head love. But that shouldn’t involve telling some Flava-Flav alike that you see your son’s smile in their smile. Because you don’t – what you really see is some crooked-ass teeth. AND you’re thinking about someone hotter, but because this person’s right in front of you, you’ll go for convenience over perfection. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but what I’m trying to say is that the dishonesty with which the poetic medium is used in the pursuit of hot sex on a platter kind of debases literature. This isn’t anything new – I’m pretty sure Shakespeare used his sonnets for seduction too. But the ways in which these spoken word artists spin lines to make these women (or men) feel special when it really isn’t about them… that’s just cold. I think that’s why I liked the poem about Shinequa (I’m not being facetious, that was the round-the-way girl’s name). It seemed to say “I see you and your flaws and your apparently ordinariness, and I love you for it, and I see past that Colour 4B Yaki to your unique beauty.” That to me means a lot more than being told about my aqueduct-esque nostrils and my thighs like the cosmos.

Maybe I’m missing the point of the poetry. I do like William Carlos Williams’ plainer style more than I do Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. I’m not entirely sure what this says about my literary intellect, but I’m not too fussed about that. All I’m saying is: when it comes to love poetry, keep it real. Speak on it.

P.S. Dead Prez = amazing. Title is from “Mind Sex,” which is absolutely that bizness.