As I stand, satchel slung across my shoulder waiting for the call to board the KLM flight from Schipol to Lagos, I think back wistfully to a similar scene just over three years ago, when I stood within the Departures Lounge at the Murtala Mohammed Airport making the transit in the opposite direction. Then, as with now, it was a wedding – that of Sister #1 – that had lured me across the miles, outside the safety of what had been a year of near total insulation, back to Nigeria. In truth, the time and the distance have been mere blips on the timeline of life, but so total has the lostness been that it almost feels like I need to be reacquainted with everything all over again.
The six-hour thirty minute flight from Schipol to Lagos passed eventually – aided by flitting in and out of sleep, watching (very) old episodes of The Big Bang Theory and How I met Your Mother and failing woefully (in my admittedly half-hearted attempts) to catch the eye of one of the air hostesses; an almost otherworldly beauty with small lithe hands and an almost permanently plastered smile. Although the flight was reasonably full, I somehow had the luxury of having an aisle seat with three empty seats either side of me. Surprisingly, given my preference for being left alone on these jaunts, I found myself feeling the aloneness a little bit too keenly at times, like being marooned on my very own atoll. The captain’s voice over the tannoy announcing descent into Lagos for the final thirty minutes of the flight jarred me out of any lingering bouts of sleepiness or self-pity, and ensured I was quite alert by the time I lugged my satchel and ambled on through the walkway through to passport control.
I joined the steady stream of people ambling on towards passport control. At the end of the walkway, there was an immigration officer, kitted in the dull brown uniform, directing us with animated hand gestures into two lines. “Nigerian passports, here; foreign passports there”, he kept saying as each new wave of passengers poured out of the walkway into what was a small waiting room with barriers. Just ahead was a suite of three desks; each manned by two immigration officers. Two of those desks serviced the line for Nigerian passport holders which had quickly swelled and snaked all the way backwards.
Close to the head of our queue was a man dressed entirely in white, his flowing galabeya contrasting with the black shoes peeking out from beneath them. He was standing to one side of the queue and speaking into his phone when I attached myself to the end of the queue. Soon after he finished someone, dressed in the brown of immigration but with a lot more colourful adornments than the people at the desks in front of us, walked up to him, conferred a little and then extricated him and what must have been his bag boy from the queue. With a curt nod to the officials at the desk he swept past them with his bag carrier in tow, heading for the priority luggage carousel.
As our line continues to inch along, I notice a little cluster around a man in front of me, where our line doubles back on itself for the final time before terminating at the desks. His face looks vaguely familiar, and there are quite a number of handshakes and poses for photographs going on. My suspicion that he is a Nollywood persona is confirmed when in reply to a young woman gushing over him and proclaiming him a star he insists – in that slightly disinterested, studiously self-deprecating style of faux humility – that he is no star, just Kanayo O. Kanayo. The woman who has offered the ‘star’ moniker is left to stutter and move on.
Three people ahead of me, two men are engaged in an animated conversation about the merits and demerits of traveling light. One – a pudgy looking gentleman with a protruding stomach – insists his preference is to always travel light, although his wife usually has other intentions, never passing up the opportunity to stuff his luggage with the last clothes she’s acquired. The other – dressed very casually in shorts and a sleeveless vest shares his secret magic bullet for navigating that particular peeve – leaving the booking of his flight till the last possible moment. Some how I get the impression these are not two people who have been previously acquainted, but are people who think there might be longer term benefit in staying in touch. Mr. PodgyBelly asks for Mr. HipWannabe‘s phone number. Replying in a tone of voice a tad bit too loud, he replies – “I haven’t been back here in a while, I’ll have to give you my United Kingdom number. That’s fine isn’t it?” They exchange phone numbers and then continue yapping on about some other subject. Behind me I hear a muffled hiss. The young woman behind me has as much time for that little bit of showoffishness as I do, precious little.
When my turn at the desk arrives, the first of the officials takes a cursory look at my passport and hands it on to the official seated next to him. He opens it too, flips through a few pages and asks me what I am doing outside Nigeria. “Studying”, I reply. My cover on these trips – useful to avoid the inevitable ‘any thing for us question’ – is to insist that I am a poor broke student. On this occasion my bushy hair and my school boyish satchel slung across my shoulder appear to satisfy him and he waves me through. The girl behind me, with whom I had shared a snicker at the behaviour of Mr HipWannabe gets a far more thorough grilling, involving a question about Kwara State, and where she is from within the state. It takes me a further twenty minutes before I spot my checked in luggage chugging along on the carousel towards me. All told in just over forty-five minutes, I am all clear and heading out towards the gates for a cab.
The one essential skill I have never mastered is the art of haggling. That war of attrition, an often slow laborious dance of offer and counter offer towards an amicable centre from two usually widely differing starting points, often seemed to me like a pointless waste of time. Two counter offers in I give up, accepting his (at least to me) highly inflated price of four thousand to run me into the Opebi area of town. I console myself with gaining five hundred naira; less than his initial offer. He must have sensed I felt I had been had – or I had truly been had and his concience wouldn’t give him rest – because all through the trip he ran a monolouge of how hard the country was and how he was having to eke out a living. The cornerstone of his argument? The fact that at a relatively early 8.30pm there was already a clutch of scantily dressed women close to the Allen Roundabout getting their hustle on early. That was one argument I had no answer for.