That my relationship with Nigeria is somewhere between strained and non-existent is something I have made no bones about time and time again. That sense of lostness rather than easing with time has only become stronger, the key events in my life over the last few years – Newcastle, the bookend to a horrendous year of work and the somewhat forced decision to not return to the bedlam and then H – all chipping away at what bonds are left, leaving them increasingly tenuous.
H’s passing cast a long pall over the last time I was here, so much so that by the time it was all done and dusted the sense was very much one of reeling and sinking, waiting for rock bottom to hit. The hope, as perverse as it might sound, was that hitting rock bottom would be the jolt to initiate a search for a new normal. There is the sense that a new normal of sorts has taken shape, somehow emerging without much intentionality on my part from the bits and bobs of life and duty that I have had to deal with. A significant part of that new normal for me has been very much work focused, part of why it has taken this long to plan a return here; the opportunity to take a week off work only presenting itself now that I have managed to shift perhaps my biggest work deliverable on to its next phase. The objectives for this trip are a lot happier than the last time – a wedding in Lagos (someone I claim somewhat loosely as a protégé) has thrown up the intriguing prospect that I might run into people I haven’t seen in far longer than I care to admit. There is also the opportunity to catch up with very special work mates whom I haven’t seen since 2011 and the niece I’ve never seen, #4, who is all of seven months old.
Everyone I tell I am going to Lagos has a cautionary tale for me bar L (whose opinion I suspect lacks any real objectivity). Mrs O, the latest in a long line of naysayers, regales me with tales of long queues for petrol, the near absence of power and the heat. She should know first hand as she has just come back from a 17-day sojourn. At work, G jokes that he’d be glad to be rid of me forever if I get kidnapped. We laugh it off at banter but when in speaking to my sister she mentions in passing the kidnap of yet another not so well off, but publicly visible person, in the area I grew up in, I wonder if it is indeed the right thing to be doing. In the end my self belief in my ability to blend in wins – I am sure I haven’t changed so much as to stand out like a sore thumb. That my pidgin English still remains impeccable and I intend to turn up in jeans and a very crumpled t-shirt all add additional layers of comfort around my decision.
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In keeping with the desire to minimise the disruption this trip brings to my new normal, my entire strategy has been based around flying with only carry-on luggage. That informs every decision I make; from buying a new cabin sized travel bag, to restricting my gift buying to 10 Peppa pig books for my nieces, and the plan to turn up at the wedding in jeans and a blazer. When I tell C the latter, she considers it the latest in a long line of fashion faux pas. I ask the twitterverse for a second opinion, but quickly give up on that as the consensus that is reached only confirms the need for a proper suit. That is how I end up getting fitted for a suit at 5.30 pm the day before I am due to fly.
Between arriving and leaving over £210 lighter, I get to hear of the sales assistant’s Nigerian connection – grandparents who ran a franchise of saw mills in Sapele, and a dad who spent time between the ages of 7 and 18 in Nigeria. We swap stories about the great home brewed liquids and reminisce about just how different Sapele is today from the one his father knew as I run my card through the card reader and pay. So completely taken in by everything am I that it is only when I get home I realise that this jeopardises my 2 bag carry on allowance. I spend the bulk of the evening googling furiously, ending up watching YouTube videos which purport to show us how to pack a suit in carry-on suitcase without ruining it. In the end I decide to take my chances.
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I toy with the thought of calling a taxi for a 5.00 am pickup given my flight out of Aberdeen is at 6.45 am. In the end my inner
gambler miser drives the decision to take my chances with the 727 from Broad Street. The next morning my alarm goes off at 4.00 am, by which time I have already been up for half an hour. That is not enough to prevent me from missing the 4.30 am bus. By the time the next one comes around at 5.05 am, I am biting my nails and kicking myself for gambling. In the end I manage to make it through security by 5.45 am, aided by the fact that I do not have any luggage to check in.
Safely through, I chase down a flapjack and a coffee to wake myself up properly. I am in the middle of that when a woman approaches me to share the seat at the corner of the airport I am plopped in. I suspect she has chosen to come my way because I happen to be the only visible black face in the not-quite-filled airport at that time. I nod a greeting whilst trying to swallow as she sits down, hands folded in her lap, bags in front of her. When she senses I am able to talk – flapjack downed – she asks if I am headed to London. When I reply in the affirmative, I sense that she is relieved, more so when she finds out I am going all the way to Lagos. We end up being travel companions through to Heathrow and until we board the Lagos flight. Her enthusiasm for the trip is palpable – in the various conversations we have she lets on that it has been her first time in the ‘Deen, helping her daughter out with her new born baby for all of 5 months. Her memories of Aberdeen this time are the cold and the boredom. Her expectations for Lagos and what lies beyond that for her contrast with mine – she is very much looking forward to reconnecting with the family members she left five months ago, I am largely ambivalent.
Whilst boarding, I pick up a Glaswegian accent from one of the cabin crew. I ask him is he’s Scottish, to which he beams widely, replying in the affirmative. I let on that I have travelled on from Aberdeen and share a quick joke about how both Glasgow football clubs – Rangers and Celtic are a bit long in the tooth. Another member of the cabin crew – as prim, proper and English as could be – hears us yakking on about Celtic and Aberdeen and jokingly retorts that the Scottish are taking over. Great banter which sets us up very nicely for the rest of the flight.
The only blot on that is I end up sat next to a very vocal Arsenal fan, with the scarf from the 2015 FA Cup Final around his neck. Like most Arsenal fans I know, he is all talk and bluster, somehow managing to ignore the fact that I have my headphones plugged in and have my phone in hand trying to select a playlist – a painful reminder of what lies ahead I suspect. Thankfully, the fellow in the seat behind us – and the Glaswegian – are more than happy to talk football with him; that I suspect is part of what makes the trip that bit more bearable for me.
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No amount of mental bracing ever quite prepares one for the shock with which the humidity and heat hit. That, and the almost sudden metamorphosis of a regular, fairly well controlled crowd into a seething mass of jostling, aggressive personalities, is all the proof one needs that this is indeed Nigeria. To be fair, my walk through Immigration is a comparative doodle next to what I remember from the last time; but then memory is notoriously fickle, particularly mine. Perhaps the much mooted change is beginning to trickle down after all.
Once through immigration, my first order of business is to grab and register a SIM card to allow me get in touch with the contact I’ve been given to pick up keys to the apartment I’ll be staying in. My peculiarly spelt surname – thanks to my grand father it contains a ‘Y’ and has made people guess my nationality as Polish, Czech and Cameroonian until they meet my very Nigerian self. I field a few questions – Mother’s maiden name, house address amongst others – and leave with a registered, functional SIM card for the journey that lies ahead.
Away from the airport, over 30 minutes of walking pace, bumper to bumper traffic ensures it is 8.30 pm before I pick up keys and can then begin to breathe a little easier. The only thing on my mind – when all that has been sorted – is a cold shower and food. By the end of the day, two things are clear in my head: the next week is going to be a long, hard slog and this thing, this love-hate relationship with Nigeria is one that will not go away anytime soon – tenuous bonds or not. Thankfully gala, real meat pie, pepper soup and suya are proven coping mechanisms; I am beginning to relish this.