Travelogues…Isn’t that what observant people who have something to say (not necessarily in that order) write when they travel out of their country for a brief period? I certainly don’t fit either of those portraits.
So, what do you write when you reside elsewhere and you’re only traveling to your country for that brief still a period? A dialogue! With the self! Yeah, snapshots really. Moments caught on the film of my mind. I went to Nigeria for twenty four days and I am instantly an authority on all things Nigerian! Ah, I will even write a book! Here goes!
GOING HOME? NOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Never tell anyone if you’re traveling to Nigeria. You will be amazed at the number of items they want to send home and poor soul that you are, you’re trapped! What are you going to do there anyway? We hear nothing but bad news from folks out there. Still, the South Africa Airways flight that took me home was filled with Nigerians. It’s in such a state of total disorder, so what compels us to return home?
It’s home, that’s why. You cannot rationalize home. You just get up and go. You don’t have to have a reason for going home. That’s why it’s called home!
Why do we all go quiet when a plane is lifting off? Perhaps we get reminded brutally of our mortality and the fact that it all could end so easily. Don’t they say take off and descent are about the most dangerous time on a plane?
I am a stark illiterate. I don’t have the faintest inkling how aeroplanes fly. To me, the very concept of aerodynamics is a puzzle, one of the many that conspire to confuse little minds like mine. How they fuse the concepts of “thrust” and “drag” and “weight” and “lift” to make this metallic mountains fly is beyond me.
Still, the view was incredible. We were above the clouds on this beautiful summer day with the sky so blue anyone could write a poem. You look out the window and it pops nimbly into your head. You want to go for a swim. How about that? Swim in the sky that looked like a vast pool beneath and all around you. A swim? No, a soar! You want to pierce the sky like Superman – yeah, just like Superman! For a moment I felt like a god…It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I see the world from this perspective. I marvel anew. I become like a child in the air, eyes glued to the tiny window, watching the ground spread out like God’s personal map (probably printed off Yahoo or Mapquest!). You could reach out to grasp it.
At 2300 feet, the clouds look like the secret playground of little goddlings…a padded playpen. That ceaseless hum of power surging through the plane…power enveloping you, power so immense it could propel this huge and heavy metal at this incredible speed through the sky…Power!
The Murtala Mohammed Airport has changed. The air conditioner was on full blast! Electricity has become more stable. And the conveyor belts worked! Some of you can imagine the magnitude of the change just from those few words. The AC works! Even the notorious area boys at the Arrival Lounge Entrance have been pushed far back by a combined army of forces that let members of your family through once you’re identified.
RAIN RAIN GO AWAY…
I arrived on a Sunday morning. I was out on the streets a few hours later in the rain. We lost a tire at the busy Oshodi “Oke” and had to switch it in the rain, splashed with dirty water from the puddles that still manage to fill the streets.
Lagos is still as noisy as ever. Mosques still contest with Churches and schools for your ears at dawn. Motor parks now feature huge loudspeakers to announce destinations (just in case you can’t hear the screaming conductors). And buses still rip your best clothes! Buses still die in out of the way places, but they don’t get deserted like they used to. Tinubu’s LASTMA boys tow dead (and badly parked) vehicles now, so if your car is dead, get it out of the way fast or you’ll get fined (5000 Naira upward). It works, believe me. The same LASTMA boys also ensure traffic moves smoothly all over, supported by Local Government hands, former area boys now gainfully employed as traffic wardens.
In spite of the usual complaints, many in Lagos say good things about Governor Tinubu. Tinubu will be remembered for many things long after he’s ceased to be governor of Lagos state. He will be remembered for either initiating or concluding work on some roads in Lagos. That local airport road for instance…Julius Berger did an incredible work on dualizing it throughout the entire stretch. The road that connects Ikeja to Ojota via Oregun is also like a vision from another country where everything works seamlessly. Apongbon is no more the bottleneck that chokes the whole of Lagos Island. Buses are not allowed to stop or pick up passengers there anymore and the traffic moves like cream. Tinubu worked on the Federal roads, instead of waiting for Obasanjo’s people to do something about it. Now he’s chasing them to reimburse the state.
Electricity is steadier, more predictable. There are ambulances located at strategic points to respond quickly to accidents and emergencies on our roads. Decay has just wormed its way so deep into our bones that it will take much more than we’re throwing at it to resolve the issues rearing their heads.
I couldn’t stay out late in Lagos. What I mean by late? Well, the roads got deserted pretty early. There was some sort of curfew that prevented commuter vehicles from plying the roads after 10pm, resulting from some increase in the use of such vehicles by members of the underworld who had taken there daredevilry to new heights. They aren’t interested in gaining access through doors and windows anymore. They arrive with sledgehammers and descend on the walls, taking their time and turns to bring it down. They take a break when tired, drinking, resting, laughing and then continuing…Like construction workers legitimately busy at a Julius Berger site! And the police…Still a laughing stock.
Lagos is a state under siege, my friends. That’s what you call leisurely robbery attacks that go on for hours without any police assistance in sight. The so-called Rapid Response Squad is pretty good at responding AFTER the fact. I witnessed several instances of the RRS briskly responding to nothing, just deriving their sadistic pleasure from edging common folks off the streets so they can pass to go nowhere quickly. If you’re going home, inform only the one or two people who are essential and can pick you up at the airport. Every other person should see you on the ground.
My country is in a desperate battle for life. This will sound like an exaggeration until you talk to those who are in Nigeria or have gone visiting recently. Nigerians skulk about now, used to the sound of the gun, primed to run at the first warning of trouble. Everywhere you go, from one end of Nigeria to the other, it appears the robbers just struck – or if you stay there long enough, will. Many believe these are ex-soldiers who now exploit their one skill: using the gun. According to a stranger on the bus, “na dem and Obasanjo dey rule Nigeria now.”
It is a near panic situation at bus stops after 9pm as people get desperate and begin to seek all avenues to get home. The ignorant bus operators capitalize on this to hike their fares. The random warning fire of vigilante groups (mostly OPC boys now) is a standard part of the night now, just like the chirring of crickets.
Keep Nigeria in your prayers, people. Pray hard.
INTERNET AND COMPUTING
Internet connectivity is still dragging its feet. Don’t believe all the emails you’ve been receiving from Nigeria. Internet connection is still far from being accessible to the masses, no thanks to the high cost of telephone services. Still, there are so-labelled cyber cafes in every available store space.
I walked all over in search of ample bandwith, needing desperately to do some serious emailing and surfing. It took forever for this website to load on most of the services I tried and I couldn’t try to edit the pages on the slow PCs that were available. A typical Cybercafe features a 133mhz PC with 24MB of RAM. That is enough to complicate an already slow server end because most are on networks that are then linked to the ‘Net.
Email is all Yahoo is known for among my people. Yahoo? Very few know about search engines, road maps, shopping, financial advisory, etc.
Enter a typical E-Centre with me:
Hello, do you want to check your email?
I just need access to the Internet.
To check email? Is it Yahoo? Our Yahoo has been misbehaving all day.
It isn’t your Yahoo. And I just need an hour online. Don’t worry about what I do there. I know my way around.
Oh, you mean browsing?
Yeah, browsing, whatever you call it.
An hour will be 600 Naira.
I was out a few minutes later, frustrated by the speed – or the lack of it. At someplace, they had Java disabled and the browser set to reject cookies. You know how near impossible it is to surf the Net these days with a browser configured like that! I realized later that I was getting technologically snobbish simply because I had access to some of the things my friends and people didn’t. I felt terrible about that. It’s very easy for us to go back home and start acting like some stuck up fools among the people we grew up with and have known all our lives. I had to back-pedal and knock my head back into place.
It cost more to use the Internet in Nigeria than it does to have the unlimited monthly service a Worldnet ATT offers in the US. That may be because to get a fairly fast connection (which I found eventually at NetInfo, a new place on Adeniran Ogunsanya) they resort to wireless connectivity for their servers. I also needed to be in daily telephone contact with the US (the first place I tried charged me 150 per minute). I got to make the calls with equal clarity at NetInfo using Voice Over Internet Protocol for 50 Naira per minute, way cheaper than my long distance service in the US. The service knocked us offline occasionally, but it was mostly reliable. Clarity, affordability…Legality is debatable, I suppose.
Due to the peculiar nature of the Nigerian economy, it is currently impossible for many households to afford the low end entry level systems available for about 70k (Naira). There are extremely old systems available for about 40k, but that is still expensive. Nevertheless, In a few years, the world will be dazed by the high-tech wave currently brewing in Nigeria. Just as many Nigerians are getting into info-tech here in the diaspora, they are exploring such opportunities back home and this just may be the much needed springboard to launch Nigeria into the technological age. You know my people. We love it when a line brings in good money and can also offer some semblance of security.
I visited the computer market in Ikeja to buy a couple of monitors. It is another Alaba Electronics Market, this time, for computers. There are schools all over now, big and small, teaching applications, programming, hardware – and a handful where you can take certification examinations such as CCNA, A+, Networking, etc. The secondary school leavers have discovered the open doors and now rush in. Only the sparsely equipped laboratories hamper them. They can’t afford the IT exam fees either, but they study it anyhow.
This awareness cuts across all the ethnic groups and that is a good thing. My people read in adversity anyhow, so now that they see something that can open the world to them, they know to grab it fast. If you can afford it, send your family a computer back home. Let them all learn how to use it. The day will soon come when the world will bow. No, the world hasn’t heard the last of Nigeria.
Nigeria. Beautiful Nigeria. You can never take enough money with you to Nigeria. The money melts like ice cubes in unseasonably high temperature. It just drills holes in your pocket through which it falls. Everyone you give money goes on to tell an army of others who come calling…Yeah, they love you. But the economy has so reduced their take home to nought and they are forced to scavenge wherever they can to make ends meet. Nigeria has turned around the fortunes of the erstwhile comfortable. Many of my friends who were okay now groan like everybody else.
The skyrocketting cost of garri is particularly vexing to my people. It used to be cheaper than rice. Now, the reverse is the case. Nigerians in the diaspora are blamed for that because the exportation of garri (they say!) is what’s making it expensive locally. What’s most upsetting is that you can’t drink rice!
By the start of the second week, I had inhaled enough dust to develop a hacking cough that only good old Benilyn with Codeine could redress. But the cough mutated to a windpipe viral infection which then became a cold. The antimalarial agents in my bloodstream could not address that. Neither could the Septrin I was given and I coughed all the way to NY to see my doctor. Have you ever noticed the look people give those who bring a contagion like cough into an enclosed airplane at 35000 feet?
As for those of you reeling from excess fat, Lagos Nigeria is a natural Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers all rolled into one. Hop on buses. Walk with the masses. Sweat in the sun. Get darker. You will lose all that weight quicker and cheaper. And the weight will stay off. The memory of the experience will scare the fat into oblivion, believe me!
Never again. Never again! At least, not until The South Africa Airways/Nigeria Airways alliance gets competition. While booking my flight here, I asked the South Africa Airline girl on the phone if I still had to get to their Lagos office to confirm my return trip. And she said no. She said she was confirming it right there and I just had to get myself to the airport on the appointed day to be flown back to the US in one piece.
Still, knowing how things can get screwed up in my dear country for seemingly no obvious reason, I went to the Victoria Island office of the SAA to re-confirm my flight out four days before the appointed day. I even got a printout from one of their computers to prove it!
Guess what! It was a wasted effort. Check in, I was told, would be starting at 6pm for the 12.20am flight, so I arrived around 8pm. The line I met was so long, it was terrifying. And it moved so sluggishly, most of us were still waiting to be checked in at 11pm. Still, many of us did not worry because we had tickets twice confirmed. Nothing could happen to our seats, right? Everything that could happen did!
First, the airline officials started packing their tables and papers at some minutes after eleven, leaving without saying a word to us. You’re laughing! It wasn’t funny, believe me. I had planned the flight so it would get me to the US on Saturday morning, for a restful weekend and work resumption on Monday morning. Apparently, a lot of other people had similar plans. We were all scheduled to resume work Monday morning. And here they were packing there things and I wasn’t even on the plane yet! What did they think they were doing? Where were they going?
They had overbooked the flight. I understand it was the Nigerian Airways end of things that screwed up, letting all sorts of people without proper confirmation on after accepting the usual “egunje”. And they left many of us with suddenly useless confirmed tickets staring at them, flabbergasted. A woman had come with four children all the way from Akure. Another had just told members of her family to go home because it was getting late, assured she would be checked in since she had a confirmed ticket. A young lady burst into tears. She was going to turn 21 in a matter of hours and she had citizenship that would be nullified if she missed the flight and had to take the Monday flight as the officials were offering. It was terrible! There were all sorts of scuffles, wrestling and boxing events going on all over the place. It was a huge disgrace, huge embarrassment. Nationals of other countries were staring at us incredulously.
Many of us finally left the airport after 1am for our various homes. Some accepted to stay at the Sheraton Hotels offered by SAA. It was dangerous moving at that time of the night with boxes and probably foreign currency. Terrible experience. The SAA officials had taken down our names and were going to confirm us for Monday night. A guy called Billy was so exceptionally calm and polite in the face of all the pinching and pushing and abuses he received, we all marvelled. That guy single-handedly saved that night. If he had displayed any emotion other than remorse and politeness, he would have been mobbed by that angry crowd.
I woke up the next morning (a Saturday) and went back to their VI office to confirm my ticket a third time. I had to. It suddenly didn’t make sense to me anymore. It had dates on it that had expired and I was a counfounded man!
Monday came and they did give us all sorts of special treats. We didn’t have to get in line to be checked in, and we were bumped up from Economy to Business class. Big deal. I missed Monday and Tuesday at work and nothing could make up for that. That airline? Never again! Okay, for Billy’s sake, not until they get their acts together.
Aside of the obvious vacation and escape from everything foreign, I went home with the intention of achieving some things. My book, Darkvisions, was scheduled to be published by Malthouse Press. The publisher missed the target for some reason and now hopes to have the book out by the end of the month. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
I wanted to package a radio show and needed to hold preliminary discussions with a few people and potential sponsors. Again, that didn’t quite go as planned. I held the discussions, but the pilot just fell through the cracks.
A movie tentatively titled Merchants of Destiny that has been in the works for the past couple of years, a collaboration between Nigeria and the US primarily for the US cable market got closer to execution. I managed to convince a couple more of the important people who can play pivotal roles to jump on board. Now to raise the money on this end. If I come knocking on your door begging bowl in hand, don’t throw me out. And don’t pour hot water on me!
WINGS OF THE EAGLE…
I was in town when the Black Stars of Ghana stopped by in Port Harcourt to receive a wallop from our Eagles. It was the World Cup qualifying match and nerves where on edge.
The first goal didn’t elicit the usual “goooooaaaaaaaaal!” from my people. It came early and took everyone by surprise. The second and third made up for it though. Goal! One word hollered by 120 million voices united by a piece of round leather. No country really knows sports until it’s peoples have yelled that one word in unison in one frenzied moment of glee. There is no describing that sound. Yeah, sports still manages to do what four decades of perplexing leadership has been unable to do – unite us…For 90 minutes.
The NTA almost ruined the transmission with their notorious ineptitude. They had a confused director calling shots to cameramen whose reflexes have been eroded by too much alcohol or years of misuse. Too many ads. The digital facility in use – rather than achieve instant replay – gave us instant regret. Some things never change.
Okay, I’ve been to hell, knocked the devil around in his abode and lived to tell the tale. Okay, I exaggerate. I love Nigeria. I love her. Nigeria is my passion, my first kiss, my first foray into the unpredictable terrain of ecstacy, my own personal pain in the neck…There’s no place like home!
Yes, there’s still a lot of frustration on the streets, the angry bus drivers and their hostile conductors, the resigned passengers… It’s still street wisdom not to get on a commuter bus full of men. There are still holes in students’ uniforms. Some nutcase Vice Chancellor banned the approved public buses from entering Unilag, replacing them with a handful bigger ones that are too few to serve the purpose and now the lines stretch forever and students beg for rides.
What else? The pedestrian bridges are still largely ignored. You can still go into any chemist to buy any category of medication without a prescription. I took a moment to watch the video billboard at Barracks Bus Stop in Surulere, thinking of NY. And you can’t get lost in Lagos anymore. The Okada riders know every nook and corner. Just call one to lead you to your destination for a mere 20 Naira! Yeah, there is no place like home.
As the time drew near for me to return to the US, I caught myself say “I’m going home”. Funny, I said that when I was leaving the US for Nigeria. So, where is home for the traveler? Where do people like me belong?