Hours before landing in Nigeria, a few years after leaving the land of your birth to savour the usually over-hyped American dream, there’s this feeling that you are already walking the riotous streets of Lagos. Many moments before the aircraft gets on the runway for its speedy run before it eventually soars into the skies, you’ve been gripped by a thickly chaotic Nigerian air. Inside this tightly thronged MD11 in Amsterdam, there is a striking similarity between the passengers and those of an Oshodi-Oke-bound molue bus. A babel of impatient voices feuding over the pettiest of details, with some resorting to vulgarities, even as pidgin English rules the air. In truth, there couldn’t have been any doubt that the big bird is destined for Lagos.
“Whose bag is this?” roars a female voice. ” This space is reserved for this seat. Whoever owns this bag should take it to his seat right away. This space naturally belongs to this row”. The angry female makes to rid the space of the offending bag.
“I beg na my bag be dat madam.”
“Oga why you no keep am wit you now? This space belongs to those of us on this row.”
“We no get more space here madam. I beg”.
“This bag is even too big for a hand luggage. I wonder why they should allow this type of bag as a carry-on luggage. None of the bags I checked in was as big as this bag.”
“Na wah for our people o,” submits a frustrated gentleman. “No be travel we don dey travel with people since? Now as na only Nigerians dey this plane, see as everybody dey shout as if we dey inside molue!”
Then without warning, as the plane slowly begins to taxi onto the runway, a sudden noise from one of the back rows promptly increases the din in the cabin. A frenetic would-be female deportee, shackled on both hands and legs, but who apparently prefers the fetters of Amsterdam to the economic uncertainties in her homeland, makes a desperate, last-ditch attempt to frustrate her ignominious expulsion from the land of her dreams.
“I will not go. I am going nowhere,” she screams. “I don’t want to go to Lagos. There shall be no peace inside this plane in Jesus name unless I am released. I don’t want to go to Nigeria. I am being punished for nothing. Jesus, save me from this persecution. Save me O Lord. Release me from this bondage O Lord.” And she intersperses her maniacal outbursts with some Christian songs. “O Lord God of Israel, you are my God. You are my God I know. What a friend we have in Jesus.”
For about one hour, she screams, yells, sings, swears and curses, conscious of neither the other people in the plane nor the two mean-looking security men escorting her to her fatherland. And for one hour, the plane is forced to remain on the same spot, with no word from the KLM officials, even as the impatient passengers heap vituperations upon the unconcerned flight officials and on the failed central government in their homeland.
” See as dis people dey treat us just because we be Nigerians. If to say we be White people, dem no go explain to us why dem dey delay us like dis?” The question is directed at the uninterested reporter, already fatigued by the long flight across the Atlantic and the unexciting prospect of a further five hours in the air. But a fellow passenger mercifully comes to the rescue.
“Na dem fault? If we have a government in our own country, are we not supposed to have a national airline? But they destroyed Nigerian Airways and now they are talking of some Virgins bullshit! Since yesterday I’ve been in the air flying from Chicago. If we had a functioning airline, am I supposed to be flying through Amsterdam? Can you see why that raving lady in the back would rather stay in the prison here than go to her own country?”
Soon, the plane embarks on a reverse back to its original spot, to the chagrin of the passengers. Then the pilot and several of the flight attendants relocate to the back, and after a few minutes’ chat with the dark-suited security agents, the rabid lady is helped out of her seat and led out of the plane. Many minutes later, the plane begins to taxi back to the runway again.
Shortly after take-off, the pilot makes a casual explanation of the earlier theatrics and the seeming state of anarchy in the plane. According to the pilot, the delirious lady had to be escorted out of the aircraft since her screams were a serious threat to the security of the flight. “We are sorry for the delay. Right now, we would be landing at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport an hour and twenty minutes behind schedule, and we are expecting very nice weather.” By then, you are already losing interest in his announcement. The flight attendants have begun serving drinks, and you greedily consume two chilled bottles of wine before drifting off into a deep, dreamless slumber.
Three and half hours later, the sleep has had its fill. Then you throw back your head while a recapitulation of the previous hours plays out in your brain.
The previous evening, aboard an old DC-10 from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport to Detroit, Michigan, sundry thoughts had rioted in the reporter’s mind. On the first leg of the homeward trip from the United States to Nigeria, assorted imaginations ran wild in this homesick brain. Hard questions about Lagos and its intrigues traversed the reporter’s soul. Has Lagos now started living its sobriquet of “Center of Excellence”? Have Oshodi, Ajegunle, Ijora, Mushin, Agege and scores of other slums littering Lagos now donned new garbs of decency? Do aggressive, dollar-demanding touts still hold the ace at the Murtala Mohammed Airport? What about the area boys? Do they still persecute every danfo driver in sight? And have our cops become born-again, ridding themselves of their twenty-twenty naira daily disease?
Your impending liberation from the yoke of hamburgers, pizzas, and hard salamis swelled your soul with unimaginable bliss. Images of sundry foods filled the mind. Vivid pictures of pepper-soup, isiewu, akara, kulikuli. Images of amala, fufu, iyan, the real iyan, pounded in a mortal-and-pestle, not some yam flour beguilingly tagged “pounded yam” and consumed by Nigerians in America. Thoughts of some yellow eba-Ibo served at a Ketu bukateria with a mixture of soups-ogbono, drawsoup, bitterleaf, egusi- all combining with assorted meat (orisirisi) to bless many a starving soul!
In Detroit, the magnificent A330 sat in its splendour like a prince already dressed up for a royal rendezvous. The plane was scheduled to take off at 9.25pm Eastern time. And at the exact time, the big bird roared into the heavens. From the window, you could see Detroit, the city of automobiles quickly disappearing, and the glittering lights getting dimmer as the plane careered into the clouds.
The first course served by the airline officials were newspapers. Since the few copies wouldn’t go round, you were respectfully asked, would you be kind enough to share a copy with your neighbour? But then, the dinner came in handy and you settled down to savour the sundry meals aboard Northwest’s Airbus.
While toying with a few books and magazines to while away the hours, you just couldn’t wish away Nigeria from the inner recesses of your heart. You could picture yourself among your excited friends. You could sense the festive mood within your household the following night when you would be relishing the Nigerian air. You remembered with nostalgia the various places you had lived in Lagos, Ojota, Oshodi and especially, the Ketu/Alapere axis, where you lived for ten years before jetting out to the land of the Yankees.
You remembered your first day in America, when, minutes after alighting from the taxi in New York, a coarse, tough-looking black American had accosted you, begging for a few dollars to purchase some weed. You smiled to yourself as you recalled a similar incident a few years earlier when, on a clear, sunny afternoon, somewhere around Brown Street in Oshodi, a tattered-clothed ruffian had walked up to you, demanding some money to smoke mar
ijuana. And now this Akata making a similarly godless demand in God’s own country! Lost for words, you had gazed at the drug addict for a few moments. He scratched his left shoulder and repeated his request, obviously wondering why you seemed so agitated by his harmless plea. Then with a suddenness that jolted the junkie, you had clutched your luggage more tightly and commenced a speedy dialogue with your willing legs!
A peep through the window, and your eyes caught the Atlantic Ocean below enjoying a serene, cozy nap. The massive ocean, viewed from the firmament, was deceptively tranquil. But you were not deceived. Was this not the same ocean that gave birth to some merciless hurricanes that have relentlessly ravaged several beautiful cities of America and the islands of the Caribbean? In your empyreal spot above the seemingly calm waters of the Atlantic, you quickly muttered a short prayer, reminding God of your earlier promise not to miss church on Sunday when you arrived Lagos safe and sound.
Schiphol airport bustled as always this morning. But there was little time to waste. In a few minutes, passengers on the KLM flight to Lagos would be boarding. So you quickly went to the nearest bathroom, brushed your teeth and waited for the airline’s announcement.
The announcement soon came, but it wasn’t that passengers should start boarding. The airline had sold more seats than the plane’s capacity, so they needed some people to postpone their journey to the following day. Such volunteers would be fed, lodged in a hotel and be paid 300 Euros, the sonorous female voice assured. But like the detained Ezeulu in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, another day’s wait was simply unthinkable. So you shoved your way to the front to join other passengers pushing to board the aircraft, like the ever-familiar struggle to board an Ijora-bound molue at Ojota bus stop.
The co-pilot’s deep voice suddenly wakes you up from your prolonged reverie, filling the crowded cabin of the Royal Dutch Airlines-operated MD 11. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have been cleared for landing, and very soon, we shall be touching down at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos. On behalf of the captain, we would like to thank you all for your business.”
For the reporter, the pilot’s announcement is a welcome relief after such long hours in the air. And indeed, ten minutes later, the massive MD11 has touched down at the Murtala Mohammed airport, and you are calling your friends outside the airport, explaining why you are one hour twenty minutes behind schedule, and assuring them you would be out in thirty minutes.
But for the next two hours, you are holed up beside the conveyor belt at the airport, waiting for your luggage. The whole airport looks drab and dismal, the escalator, long dead. Two or three youths walk about, anxiously scanning every face, apparently waiting for some strange guests, each holding high a piece of cardboard on which some names are written.
Forty minutes at the belt, you are still waiting for one of your bags. Over a dozen others lounge around, apparently tired of the endless wait for their luggage. Then all of a sudden, an elderly man rushes in with a story-and a big blue bag. He had earlier grabbed ‘his’ bag and rushed home, beating the porous security arrangement at the nation’s busiest airport. On getting home, however, he discovered that the bag he so hastily grabbed actually belonged to someone else. He then rushed back to the airport to pick his rightful luggage which had been making the rounds at the conveyor. The reporter, grateful for the safe return of his bag, mutters a quick “thank you”, seizes the luggage and hurries out of the facility.
As you walk down to the parking lot where your friends anxiously wait, a scruffy airport tout, attired in a blue denim and black T-shirt loiters behind you, persistently hailing you in Yoruba, unabashedly demanding for some foreign currency. You decide to ignore him. But his pestering soon becomes unbearable. You then look at him, sizing him up in two seconds.
“Please go back”, you softly tell him in Yoruba.
“Baba alaye, make you just help me find something,” he pleads, switching to pidgin. “I be your brother. E ba wa wa nkankan egbon”.
Unable to tolerate his harassment any longer, you suddenly drop your bags and grab him by the collar, offering him a rigorous shake.
“O ti kuri ni”, you ask in a language celebrated among his ilk. “Have you experienced death before, or you want to taste it right away? If you don’t disappear right now, I will be forced to give you a taste of hell!” For a few fleeting moments, the shock is visible on his dark face. And then, with a mild, “Mo kan nyo si yin lorun ni egbon”, he vanishes into the night.
Down the snaky streets of Ikeja, everything seems like it was a couple of years back, with man and machine racing everywhere as if on a desperate date with the devil.
The journey home from the airport shouldn’t last more than 30 minutes. But somewhere near Berger on the outskirts of Lagos, you run into a thick traffic jam. And for the next four hours, you are stuck within a two-kilometer stretch. On both sides of the road, human beings with heavy loads on their heads, and apparently, heavier ones on their minds emerge from the commercial buses and hurry along, like the Israelites of yore on their way to Canaan. And around the bushes where some youngsters loiter, light smoke frequently evaporates into the air, and a thick marijuana odour assails the nose. At the end of the long traffic jam (with no discernible cause, as usual), you are sweating from head to toe like an adulterous housewife nabbed on a hot afternoon without her underpants upon her lover’s bed. There will be some cool relief at home from the AC or the fan, you console yourself.
At 1.27am, you finally enter the house after abandoning the car at a safe spot and completing the rest of the journey on foot, dragging one hefty bag and carrying another on your head like some seasoned labourer unloading rice at Daleko Market. Mercifully, light is on, and after a quick shower, you are ready for an early breakfast. But just then, the light blinks, and in a second, the whole world is enveloped in a thick pall of palpable gloom.
“We are even lucky to have had light this evening”, explains your friend. “At 10 o’clock each night, they take the light and bring it for two or three hours the next afternoon, then maybe another two hours in the evening. And that’s it for the day.”
“Let’s go put on the generator, man”, you eagerly suggest, unable to stomach the darkness. “I need some cool air upon this back.”
“Oh, since yesterday, we’ve been trying to buy petrol for the generator, to no avail. I wanted to put a container in the booth in the afternoon, but it escaped my mind. Anyway, we all say there’s no place like home. This is your country for you. Welcome home, friend”.
“Thanks”, you mutter softly, as the reality jolts you like a hard slap on a drunkard’s face. And, your appetite having been totally quenched, you move into your room, slowly and sadly, for a somber sleep in the heat and the gloom.