Always Returning

border_agency_2413087b

[Source]

Whilst rustling through my documents at the weekend – I forget what prompted the decision to take on the Sisyphean task of rummaging through drawers filled with several years’ worth of papers of varying vintage – it struck me that it was now nearly five years to the day since I dragged myself, bags in tow, off the East Coast train from Newcastle to Aberdeen to begin a new life of sorts. Ditching my Nigerian job for grad school 18 months before meant that nostalgia – and twenty-something years’ worth of memories – counted for little; pragmatism was very much the defining consideration. In a sense, Newcastle, and then Aberdeen afterwards was about tearing everything up and starting afresh from scratch, pretty much the recovery from a self-imposed apocalypse. The driver for that decision was a sense of injustice at the Nigerian work environment; five years of being unaligned (being from the minority in a minority state didn’t help), a sense of having hit a glass ceiling and the desire to prove myself on a global sense all contributing.

I had a soft landing. Unlike some of my peers who had dependants and money issues to focus on, I had the good fortune of cashing in on my Nigerian stock market investments just before the big crash and did not require supplemental income from overnight stints at the Greggs warehouse across town, or tours of duty as a night club bouncer or a as a security guard to make ends meet. That coupled with my not inconsiderable experience acquired whilst working my way up the ranks at a global major in my discipline deluded me into thinking making the transition would be a cinch

The first few months of job hunting with little tangible success, bar the odd interview here and there, put a big dent in that super sized ego. What confidence that was left ebbed quickly with each dead end; being replaced by a hardened pragmatism as the reality that my Nigerian experience – global major player or not – was discounted out here began to sink in. With slightly lower expectations, fitting in and becoming one of the guys became the imperative, even when it meant ditching my very passable Nigerian accent for a (perceived) posher sounding imitation RP version, cobbled together from years of watching British sitcoms. My otherness was a perceived liability, one to be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism.

Between distance and time working together to conflate memory with imagination, and less pressure as some of the aspirations of those early years become either solid achievements or at least seem far more attainable than they once were, I am finding that that hard, pragmatic stance is slowly yielding, being replaced by a more nostalgic notion of home. This notion of home is one that I find seeks out sameness, emphasises commonality and seeks to build community; the difference between cringing inwardly at the overdressed Nigerian bloke on the 727 to the airport speaking loudly into his cell phone in Yoruba and smiling wistfully at the memory it teases out of the mental ether of my friend M and his (well-earned) reputation for classic Awe-bred razzness.

Two events last week reinforced the sense of a far more nostalgic perception of home for me. First off, at around mid-day on Wednesday, I got an external phone call at work. That happens fairly regularly on any given day except that on this occasion it was from a vendor I had only started using at work in the last few months. By the time the conversation safely navigated the terse, opening introductions – not helped by the fact that we both sounded a lot different from how we used to in the throes of 500 LT, and she had a Scottish surname these days – it turned out that my caller had spotted my name in an email she had been forwarded. After privately wrestling with the pros and cons of reaching out, she had decided to give me a call to confirm if I was the self-same person she’d known in the past. I was, it turned out she’d been a class mate of mine in under grad. We spent a fair few minutes catching up; who was where now, and who we had stayed in touch with or hadn’t. We agreed to catch up in person if we were ever in the same city over the next few months. Thinking over the conversation later, the sobering thought I couldn’t shake off was that with confirmation that she lived and worked a few hundred miles away from me, there were now only four or so people from the top ten finishing positions in my final year class still living and working in Nigeria. Clearly, tearing everything up and starting over isn’t something a lot of my peers are averse to.

Later, on Friday, whilst waiting for some hot water for a cup of tea, I ran into one of the cleaning lads. The sum of our conversations prior to the day was nodded greetings when our paths crossed. A little digging revealed that he was Nigerian, and was working part time with the service company that manages the facilities in the building I work at. Having just wrapped up a Masters degree, he was working part time to make a little cash whilst waiting on applications and interviews. Not a real surprise given that Nigerian students tend to drift to this city, oil capital of Europe. What was more than a little surprising was that he had also graduated from my Nigerian alma mater, and was from the area in which I had spent my own formative years. Our conversation naturally segued into our memories of studying at my previous department. The academic landscape has changed considerably over the intervening years – two deaths, a couple of lecturers who have been lured by the call of big bucks into oil, and a number of retirements – with a few of the young Graduate Assistants from my time blossoming into lynchpins of the departments. As to future plans, he was eyeing up a few PhD options across the globe, the current socio-political climate not being particularly geared towards easing the progress from studying to work in my corner of the world. When the subject of my previous experience came up, he seemed befuddled that I had decided to chuck it all in and start over. There it came out that for the right job, Nigeria would be his preferred destination. For him, nostalgia clearly won over pragmatism.

Implicit in both conversations was the sense that we are always returning, our current locations as homes in name only, dictated by the pragmatics of life rather than any overarching sense of love or attachment. Interestingly, even B – Scottish Husband notwithstanding – mooted the idea of returning to Nigeria in the (distant) future in an expatriate capacity to work for big oil.  Maybe for my children, without the hang ups of a past life, a past home and nuclear family in the motherland, the choice will be a lot more clear cut, but for me and my generation I suspect this battle between head and heart, between pragmatism and nostalgia is one we will have to get used to. In a sense, we are always returning.

Did We Do Any Learning – Savouring Memories

A few thoughts – with the benefit of a few months since losing H – on living and learning…

Life’s lessons are neither bleeding obvious nor palatable. All we possess for sure are the moments that we share with our friends and loved ones. The challenge is to enjoy and maximise the moments, not putting off the kind word, the lingering touch, or the act of kindness we know they deserve.

More on the livelytwist blog

The Way The World Ends: On Loss, and Lostness

 

LHR

It is sometime after 5pm – between chomping down on a very meaty beef burger and swigging from a can of apple juice – that the call comes in. Up until then, I have been having the exact weekend I had in mind when I dragged myself away from work to catch the 727 to Aberdeen Dyce airport a few days earlier: go-karting and then a BBQ, with the prospect of Lakeside shopping with B. to come. The scene is one of self-indulgent relaxation; two grills fully stocked with burgers, chicken drumsticks and barbecue meat on the go, little children running about, wives and girlfriends munching on burgers and sharing intimate gossip moments, and men standing around the grill sipping from cans and surveying the scene – wife, 2.5 kids, picket fence and a few hundred quid to burn on a splurge in tow. It takes a while – probably the better part of ten minutes – before the gravity of the news begins to sink in. When I return to the three-way conversation I was having before the call, B senses there is something wrong. In response to her quizzical look, I motion for her to break out of the conversation and explain what has happened. All told, twenty minutes after hearing the news – give or take – my mood has morphed from indulged, self-congratulation to inner turmoil as I attempt to digest the news in the relative quiet of B’s.

It is nearly 10pm before my brain wakes up. I fire an email off to the team leader at work to let him know I’ll be out for a couple of weeks, ask the TwitterVerse for pointers to quick tickets for Lagos and call M. for an update on the situation and how A.’s holding up. Twitter delivers – I end up grabbing tickets for a return flight on Arik, as well as get an email from the work asking to be kept in the loop as things evolve. By the time B. hauls me off to my hotel, it is nearly 12.30am – seven hours and some after the news broke. Things are still very fluid at this stage, what is becoming clear is that the next few weeks will be a long hard slog.

***

The hours between getting the news and reaching a semblance of acceptance pass like a blur, largely in silent contemplation whilst I run over the last weeks’ worth of communication with H. The last time we spoke, our conversation had been one of those ones where skirting seriousness was more important than the conversation itself, with barely a nod to the multiplied elephants in the room. It was only the second time we were talking after a big row – certain things we had come to regret had been said – hence the extreme carefulness. With the reality of loss beginning to sink in, the overwhelming feeling is one of lingering regret. With the benefit of hindsight, the time we had – limited unbeknownst to us – would have been better spent focusing on all the things we shared rather than our issues of significant dissent.

I finally get home  – after navigating massive delays on the M25, a 90 minute delay on my flight out of Heathrow and having to buy my own toilet paper at MMA to  – to pick up on meets and greets. They come in their numbers – an endless stream of people – some come crying, some with choice sound bites in tow, others sit in respectful, contemplative silence.

The numbers passing through are something I struggle with.  I have always believed that loss is intensely personal and private, something which has guided my interactions with people in the past. As such whilst the meet and greets are great, my initial reaction to them is one of irritation, considering them a distraction of sorts. When we as the immediate family have a first quick chat to define the expectations for a program of activities, I am in favour of a quick, simple sequence, focused on us and a few good friends. Unfortunately I am in the minority, the consensus that we arrive at is for a program spread over three days with multiple requirements to provide food and refreshments for people who will attend. That seems counterintuitive to me – wasteful even – given the expense involved.

Over the course of the next few weeks my position would soften somewhat. The sort of life that H lived – with interactions across multiple spectra – meant that there were loads of people genuinely feeling a sense of loss. That helps me come to terms with the expanded program being proposed. Others’ grief is every bit as real, if less intense as mine.

***

Looking back, 2014 has been an interesting year in deaths so far. Of the trio of friends A. had in his St John Bosco’s College days, he alone remains alive. Of H.’s trio from undergrad, Aunt L alone remains. For those who had not succumbed to the ineluctable call of death, the passage of time is etched in their very bodies – faced deeply lined, sagging body parts and lumbered with aches and pains of varying descriptions. Even the little kids, barely out of their diapers I took care of many years ago, have all morphed into near teens and adults.  Placed in the context of my upcoming birthday a few days after I have planned to return, the underlying narrative is one of transience and the inescapable fragility of life.

Being part of planning and executing H.’s final journey allowed me to take a long look back. What was incontrovertible was that H. left a significant legacy. The outpouring of grief, the support in cash and kind that rolled in, and the emotional tributes that were given were proof incontrovertible of that. Her story is one of succeeding against the odds by dint of perseverance and trail blazing – multiple scholarships and prizes academically, noted contributions to world class work over a 34 year career, and a life that was lived in consonance with her Christian worldview. Somewhere in between she met A., who credits the heights that he reached in his own career to the stability she brought to the home front as she kept things running smoothly in the background.

***

With loss, I find that I swing between three responses. An initial stage of denial where I struggle with accepting the reality of loss and absence, and then when that is no longer a plausible position, I attempt to find a new normal. In tandem with that there is a desire to make sense of our loss, given our, and H’s worldview. That life as we know it has changed forever is not in doubt. A. seemed a lot more gaunt than I recall when I first saw him. His eyes were rheumy, and bloodshot – not a lot of sleep and loads of private tears to blame for that. Life as he has known it for more than 40 years has involved H. in some capacity, I worry as to what the new normal for him might be.

With death, ‘normal’ changes irretrievably. The equilibrium, if one is ever reached, is a new, radically different, dynamic one one with new behaviours, modified expectations and present realities. Someone was, and then is not, the facts are what they are and no equilibrium can change that. For me, finding a new equilibrium revolved around four things – immersing myself in planning for the funeral, spending quality time with the sisters and their children, catching up with B, and reading. I managed to wrap up three books – Paul Carter’s Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

One morning as we took a breather from the hectic, gruelling pace of planning, my Aunt S stepped into the room which had evolved into a sanctum of sorts for me, my one oasis of quiet amidst the turmoil. There she proceeded to initiate a lengthy conversation around marriage, or more specifically my delay in closing it out. That was a scene that would recur throughout the weekend. Mrs E. put it a little more subtly – hinting that our new normal needed to include a celebration to get us all excited again. In their own way, these were attempts at coping – by attempting to focus their energy and attention on a potential future event, rather than the particularly difficult one at hand.

***

In tandem with loss in this case was a sense of lostness. My earliest memories of growing up are inextricably linked to H; her bowls of soup and Sunday afternoon cooking marathons the most lucid reminders of how she kept two homes ticking along steadily in two different cities. Given the events of the past few years, and my ever increasing isolation from Nigeria, H. was an essential link to Nigeria.  With her gone, there is a sense of even more Lostness. That sense was never more obvious than in my interactions with the extended family, my less than stellar language abilities making difficult conversations even more awkward. There was a sense of nakedness – being thrust out of a protective cocoon into bright, harsh light. What tenuous links that remain were even more weakened by the dysfunction on display. The frustrating, harsh reality of working in the medical profession in Nigeria (by some weird coincidence some two thirds of the family gets their bread and butter from the field) was a subject of numerous conversations. Unlike me, most of the others seemed quite keen to tough it out. The final nail in the coffin of patriotism was delivered on the morning of the funeral. For a chance to take control of the 2,000 naira ‘bathing fee’, the head of the team of morticians at the morgue somehow contrived to lock up the items we had delivered for preparing the body for burial, preventing the nightshift team from completing the task. That two thirds of the family worked in the self same teaching hospital, and we had made multiple trips to ensure there were no hitches on the day counted for little. One wonders how those without family members working there fare.

***

The question of loss and what sense there could be made of it was one we wrestled with all through. The biblical narrative suggests that life on earth is infinitesimal compared to life beyond it. Within that context, death is merely a passage to another life, a portal into another space-time continuum. That much was repeated in varying forms over the course of my three weeks by various people. The reality of loss though is a lot more personal, time does blunt the keenness of pain – and helps promote a return to a new normal – but I suppose until time does her work, no amount of philosophising will suffice.

***

I found the three weeks of conversations, mourning, planning and burying a huge strain. By the time it had all been wrapped up, all I wanted to do was to get away from everything, and begin to breathe again, hence the plan to leave straight after event number three – a thanksgiving service in church. When time to leave finally came, I found it difficult to up sticks and just leave. Three weeks were the most I had spent bonding with my family in more than ten years – since before my UX5 days. Nearly an hour behind plan, I was eventually in a cab speeding towards Benin and the airport. Beyond that was Lagos, sleep overnight and then a return to Aberdeen via London.

This is only three weeks in – by no means have we reached our new normal yet. A large part of what that will become is still up in the air – A still has work in the city, I plan to make Aberdeen the hub around which I ‘do life in a great church and a great city’, there is a lot of paper work to sort out before some semblance of real normalcy can be restored. What is not debatable is that life is incredibly fragile – birth and death its epigraph and hypograph. If visions of cold lifeless forms strewn over tables in a morgue – which remain seared in my memory  – are anything to go by, TS Elliot put it most succinctly:

This is the way the world ends,
not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Lostness

It was meant to be a quick year off work- away from what had quickly degenerated into a morale sapping, five-year-plan derailing slog complete with over-paid and over-pampered expat bosses more keen to leave a boot in to demonstrate their continuing relevance than develop fresh graduates. That year’s appraisal was the final straw – the spiel about the ranking process being an assessment of the best and the brightest and the slowest driver in a Formula 1 race being a darned good driver somehow put the lie to being ranked firmly in the middle percentile AND yet being offered a position of greater authority.

I took the first opportunity to bail – grad school, pipelines and the prospect of a study leave for it all seemed a good safe bet. All unpaid, but with an almost iron-clad guarantee of a return to the very well paid job I had, or so I thought.

All that was not to be, the official company line was they couldn’t find a role that fit my skills and experience.

At first the lostness was intentional, a purposeful forgetting of the past and its accoutrements – an attempt to isolate myself from the longing and nostalgia for dirty, rowdy, yet loveable Lagos. And I didn’t go back for the first three years.

These days, it’s more a case of never quite fitting in – neither in Nigeria, nor in the cold, wet and windy corner of the world I have squirrelled away in..

It’s been 4 years, 7 months and 17 days but yet there is no abatement of the inner lostness.

On the kinship of the Prodigal

Long before I segued into the way of all flesh, I had always had a sense of connection with the Prodigal Son. In these dark days when my faith vacillates between the highs of unquestioning belief and the depths of blatant scepticism with the increasingly longer spells of being mired in the drudgery of self deprecating musing, I find myself drawn to the text again and again. Something about the lost son finally coming to himself, realizing there is a better life, a better way of doing stuff resonates with me. I fear I am lost, that somehow I have eaten so long of the hors d’œuvres of the beguiling tempter that his full feast of bitter gall is an ineluctable consequence. Trust me I have tried; but the overwhelming sense of guilt at the bloke I have become weighs me down. Like the proverbial swine given pearls, I appear to have taken world class opportunities and contrived to lose them amidst the quotidian pursuits of the good life.

My scant consolation, is that someday, sometime, I can drag myself back home – and that the Father will still be there to run the last few miles and welcome me home. .. Sigh..

The Life of a Lost Son…

Edit: This is me venting… Nothing personal.. Just vexed by the way certain things have panned out..
I fear that soon all I will have as memories of my Africa will be the melancholic bits interspersed with a few shards here and there of a nostalgic past – growing up, friends, family, schools, holidays and times spent in wanton play – occasional successes mired in a morass of resounding failure. I wrote in my journal when I turned 21, that I felt my future was inextricably linked to Africa and that whatever I did, I would always have her at the back of my mind. Nine years on, I fear I may have made a volte face; one not altogether of my own volition.

The harsh reality is that the Africa I grew up eulogizing; enshrined in the words of Diop’s Africa my Africa, Clarke’s Call of The River Nun, and in the exquisite prose of Achebe and co; lauded in the legends of great empires now extinct and brought to life by the tales with which my grandmother nursed me to sleep; has taken on a whole new life – entombed in the murky waters of bare faced deception, brazen theft, gross inequality, sycophancy and all such things – a myriad of false dawns and a future far removed from the brilliant ideals the likes of Tom Mboya, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Kwame Nkruma and others of their ilk tried to espouse.

Today, I officially joined the ever swelling ranks of ‘Africans in the Diaspora’; and true to type I will be an arm chair politician; spewing meaningless rhetoric from the safety of an uncensored IP address, hiding behind the nameless, faceless facade that is a blog and its associated moniker. I will sign all the on-line petitions, use the right hash-tags and send the occasional token to the charity back home. I will order home made music by the ‘ghana must go’ whenever someone travels back to Africa, to assuage my conscience that I am indeed African at heart and remind the kids, conveniently given non-African monikers, that they are truly African at heart. I shall ensure we visit at least once a year, as long as it doesn’t jeopardise my chances of getting a second passport. And then when I am old and grey, when senility slithers in and death brazenly appears to demand its recompense, I will conveniently be buried back in Africa, the land of my fathers. Ah, the life of a lost son.

A Lost Son…

In moments like these, the stark reality hits me like a blow to the solar plexus – I am lost….caught in the neverland between two worlds – never fitting into either one. My lostness is multi-faceted; spawned by the dissonance being caught between the fervent patriotism of a son who once believed he had something big to offer his country and the hard nosed pragmatism of a thirty plus bloke who realizes –  a trifle late –  that finding his place in this world is more important in the near term than the anonymity of sacrifice.
The last eighteen months have been intense – filled with activities which have changed me. Some came close to breaking me – like losing my Nigerian job, like enduring that nasty breakup, like feeling like the world caved in all at once… I like to imagine I survived, and am slowly picking the pieces of my life back up and together again.
This is me in transition, at the edge of the world,  retooling a leaner, meaner me… And hoping to make sense of both my worlds.
Time will tell