It was the end of the first half of term and we were about to begin the quaintly named Reading Week, a traditional break to allow students and staff time to pause, reflect and read in preparation for the next half of term. As it was off-peak season, tickets to Nigeria were relatively cheap and so I decided to take the opportunity to visit Nigeria to see my family, especially my first niece who I had never met. Serendipitously, the Abuja Literary Society which I had co-founded, were holding a goodwill awards night that week to recognize individuals and institutions that had supported us in the first five years of our existence. It was thus an auspicious homecoming.
High on the adrenalin of completing last minute tasks and delivering my first lecture, I hardly slept the night before and had no trouble getting to Heathrow at the unholy hour of 4 am which the KLM staff had insisted was the latest I could get there. Imagine therefore my chagrin to find a queue of about fifteen people and no sign of the airline staff at the check in desk. As we stood waiting, bleary eyed, I wished I had listened to my friends who had advised me to ignore the airline’s admonitions and turn up at about 5 am. Surely enough at about 5 am, an army of KLM staff crisply dressed in their pristine blue uniforms, in marked contrast to our bedraggled appearances, turned up and started checking us in. To give them credit, they were swift and efficient and in a twinkling, we were checked in and soon boarding the flight to Amsterdam Schiphol.
It was a short, pleasant flight and my first view of Holland, was so much like the images I already had from magazines and books, the flat land, picture-perfect cottages, windmills and tulips. Schiphol, I had long known (from ubiquitous adverts in the Time and Newsweek magazines that my father had religiously bought every week when I was a child) as a veritable duty free shopper’s paradise and it didn’t disappoint. There were literally miles and miles of duty free shops purveying everything from children’s toys to books, to diamonds, which could be set while you waited. I did a lot of window-shopping to pass the three hours before the flight to Lagos. Again, this was a pleasant flight and I was impressed with the quiet friendly efficiency of the KLM stewardesses, many of whom were more mature than the average glamorous image of stewardesses that one tends to have. The seat next to me was occupied by a young Yoruba woman and her son who revealed that she was a businesswoman in Germany and was taking her two year old son home for the first time. The rest of the plane was filled with the usual assortment of European and American businessmen on the make, young diasporan Nigerian men and women in the latest hip-hop gear, pierced ears, nostrils and brows and a smattering of elderly Nigerians obviously visiting their families abroad. When we landed in Lagos, the passengers applauded loudly, although it was unclear if it was the efficiency of the pilot, or the sheer relief of being back home that was being acknowledged. My neighbour nudged her son excitedly and said ” See, we are in Africa, beautiful Africa” as the first rust coloured roofs hove into view. Even though to the Western eye, there was little beauty to be seen, I understood precisely where she was coming from.
My airport experience this time was much better than last year. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Immigration Officer say “Welcome home” as opposed to last year when the greeting had been “Anything for us?” Again, this time, there were functional luggage trolleys available, even though we had to pay a fee of one hundred naira, a pleasant contrast to last year when I had to go through six or seven trolleys before I could find one that didn’t wobble too badly. The horde of uniformed attendants asking to assist you with the trolleys struck me as unnecessary, but perhaps were in keeping with the concept of Nigerian big-manism which holds pushing your own luggage trolley, or carrying your own bags as seriously infra-dig. Customs were again pleasant, even if they did ask “Anything for Valentine?” which was a direct contrast to last year when they had rifled untidily through my two cases, quizzed me endlessly and then finally asked for a tip, which by then incensed, I of course refused. This year I would have been happy to tip, had I had change to hand.
The drive to my parent’s home in Victoria Island, took us through the streets of Apapa, which brought back memories of my school days in Lagos when my guardians lived there. Sadly, the roads had deteriorated badly and the street lights were no longer in existence. Getting to Victoria Island, we were caught up in a horrendous traffic hold-up at the Kuramo Beach area which the driver explained was because of Valentine’s Day. I marvelled at the successful commercially led propagation of Valentine’s Day celebrations in a country which only twenty years ago barely knew the term.
Getting home and reuniting with my family, over a delicious meal of my mother’s garri and egusi soup, we sat up chatting for a while before I went to bed. Thankfully, NEPA had not struck unlike last year and so I was able to sleep in air-conditioned comfort, easing my transition from wintry London to humid Lagos.
The next morning, after church, I began the round of errands, which every Nigerian going home is saddled with. Indeed, my last few days in London had featured frantic lat minute visits to friends and acquaintances to pick up letters, parcels and messages for their friends and relatives back home. It was a process I had to go through in reverse when I was leaving – picking up parcels for people in London. One of the first houses I visited, a posh house in Ikoyi presented me with an interesting experience. The son of the house, an acquaintance in London had asked me to take some food items to his parents and I had agreed. Ushered into the lavishly over-decorated living room, I was greeted by the father in dulcet tones mimicking an upper-class English accent. My replies in Igbo only led to further questioning in this mock-Etonian accent. This was a greatly accomplished man by most standards, and yet he felt the need to adopt a “posh” accent to impress his son’s friend from London. Discussing it later with friends, we agreed that this was part of the tragedy of the Nigerian elite.
The next day found me at Onikan, at the offices of Farafina, a new online magazine whom I had written for. I had exchanged e mails with some of the staff and had arranged to visit their office. Having misheard the house number on Military Street, I was wandering lost on the streets of Onikan, when I heard someone shout my name from a white colonial building. It was Ebun Olatoye, one of the magazine’s staff and she later confessed that she guessed it was me because I was carrying a leather backpack, which marked me out as a visitor.
We had a very interesting and fruitful conversation in which Ebun and Yemisi, the editor tried to outline to me the vision of Farafina. It is a bold attempt to redefine African discourse and to project a strong African voice globally. I was particularly impressed because I had met the publisher three years ago in Abuja and we had had a long conversation about the imperative for young Nigerians to contribute positively towards shaping our society. In starting Farafina, he is putting his money where his mouth is and the magazine needs all the support it can get.
It wasn’t all talk, I had time to savour the cooking at Ghana High, an old haunt from my days as a locum medical officer on Hawley Street and to eat cow tail pepper soup at a shack across the road from the old Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi. At the latter place, I was pleasantly surprised to be offered complimentary snacks. Expressing my surprise, my friends retorted that even beer parlours in Lagos are now learning the benefits of added value. Equally memorable was the pounded yam and afia efere (white soup) with okporoko which Toni Kan Onwordi insisted on dragging me round to have at the Akwa Ibom State Guest House on Victoria Island one hot afternoon. I’m glad I yielded to his admonitions though and am always fascinated at how Tonikan manages to juggle his writing with his banking and myriad interests.
The next day I was off to Abuja to attend the goodwill awards night of the Abuja Literary Society which I had helped found five years ago. I had received a call from Jahman Anikulapo, Editor of The Guardian on Sunday whom I had often communicated with via e-mail but never met. Like Toni kan, he is one of the “friends” I’ve made over the internet in recent years, largely thanks to krazitivity, the vibrant Nigerian writers and artists’ e-group set up by Sola Osofisan and now ably coordinated by Victor Ekpuk.
As a result of Jahman’s call, I had decided to stop off at The Guardian offices in Rutam House on my way to the airport to catch my Abuja flight. At Oshodi, the taxi I was in was imperiously asked to “Cllleeeahhh, Park well” by a rotund senior police officer, who screamed abuse at the driver for not obeying fast enough. Slightly apprehensive because of the fact that I was carrying a significant amount of money in local and foreign currency on me, my passport, digital camera and other valuable items, I nonetheless got down as requested, all the while whispering to myself to remember that I was not in London, this was not my friendly local bobby and to keep calm.
Obviously senior policeman’s attention had drifted , so we were shunted to the constable who informed me that they were on “Stop and Search” and asked me to offer myself to be searched. I obliged, and as his hands roamed crudely, intimately over my body, I realized that I had somehow subconsciously adopted some “oyibo” ways. The sense of violation, of invasion of my personal space was such that I was shaking with anger by the time he had finished his body search. Slowly, methodically, he asked me to empty my pockets. As I did so, I tried not to think of the appointment at The Guardian I was getting late for, or the stories I’d heard about people forced to part with foreign currency by policemen in similar circumstances. To give him credit, he didn’t bat an eyelid at the foreign or Nigerian currency, but was more interested in rifling through my diaries and address books, another invasion that had me shaking with rage. What calmed me was when he picked up the manuscript of poems which I intended to read at the Abuja show that night and flipped them this way and that as if trying to discern hidden meaning from the lines. Perhaps he thought it was some sophisticated 419 code. Finally he asked me “What is this?” I put on my best English accent “Poems” He frowned and tossed them aside and started on my overnight case, turning and rifling through the change of clothes I had packed and the presents I had bought a few friends. Finally after what seemed like an hour but must have been about twenty minutes, we were free to go. As I heaved a sigh of relief, something in my demeanour must have shown him the anger I felt. He flashed his name badge in my face, “My name is Abu Anthony in case you need to know”, he scowled. Ignoring him, I asked the driver to move on and finally arrived at the Guardian in good time to have interesting conversations with Jahman and some of the members of the arts desk.
Again it was good to finally put faces to the names I had communicated with via e-mail and through krazitivity. We chatted about the state of Nigerian literature and I pointed out that with books by Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Attah and Chris Abani due out from major publishers this year, there was reason to be optimistic. Challenged by Erhumu Bayagbon on the fact that these were all “diasporan” Nigerian writers, I argued that in the week in which the Nigeria LNG Prize for Literature was announced, there was hope on the home front as well. Besides, reading the work of Chuba Jideonwo and Tolulope Ogunlesi, both Nigeria-based talented writers under twenty-five convinced me that good things lay ahead. I also described how Adichie, Attah and Chika Unigwe among others are crafting stories of the Nigerian immigrant experience abroad, putting the lie to the argument that diasporan writing suffered necessarily from disconnection from the source. It was on that note we parted, as I had to catch my flight to Abuja for the Literary Society Awards night, with Jahman graciously arranging for his driver to drop me off.