I struggled to not slip into an overly pessimistic, dystopian view of Nigeria with all its troubles. In the few intervening years I have been away, the Nigerian tragedy has hit close home. As with most other people, it turned out that the Dana air crash had claimed a fairly recent acquaintance of my father’s as it did a couple of friends of friends of Sister #1. It also transpired that she – whether by some quirk of fate, divine orchestration, or plain old chance – had resigned from her poorly paid job as a doctor in the police officers hospital the Friday before the Monday Boko Haram’s bloodbath hit the IG’s offices. One day late and that could have gotten really personal.
The kidnap-for-ransom scourge has also hit close home. Only a few months before I popped into town, a friend of the family had been snatched at gunpoint and whisked to an unknown destination. Thankfully, the small matter of a few millions helped salvage his life, and avert what could have been a major disaster. Around town, I was baffled by the long queues at the ATMs in my little corner of the world, until I was told that the banks had been hit by armed robbers so many times they had scaled down to maintaining only skeletal services. Apparently, the ATMs were the only functional banking facilities left in town.
Uncle P, usually the unequivocal great Nigeria apologist, was a lot more mellow this time, conceding that we (minorities in a minority state) seemingly had little place in the ongoing evolution of Nigeria. Apparently a few changes at work had opened up his eyes to the harsh reality of just how ethnically fractured, and political, working in Nigeria really was.
I would be remiss to think that portions of my family were not part of the problem. My last morning at Aunt G’s house she, typically the quintessential dedicated teacher, was still sipping her cup of Earl Grey’s by 9.00am. I didn’t have the heart to issue a scathing rebuke in respect of her slipping work ethic – in the harsh brightness of the morning light, the grey in her hair and the lines etched by years of unrequited hard work were very obvious. I got the impression she had simply given up working hard whilst waiting for a reward that may or may not only be in heaven. My unwillingness to take her up on that might also not have been unrelated to the hour long grilling I got on the subject of the failed dalliance with F.
Midway through Sister #2’s wedding, as the hall swelled beyond its capacity, I took the opportunity to give up my seat to one of the Professors whose sense of African time was impeccable and headed outside to get some fresh air. I ended up sitting at one end of a wooden bench with the kid brother on the other side and the niece in between. I should have known being in such an exposed location was an unwise move – an error of judgement I paid very dearly for when I was cornered by an old teacher of mine. She was quite excited that I had managed to make it home – she had studied at Newcastle very many years ago and was keen to swap observations on the city. I did my best to sound measured and intelligent, as did she, before our conversation eventually segued into the present and what we were all up to. She was keen to understand my motivations for leaving the job I used to have – I gave her my usual seeking a technical challenge answer – which didn’t exactly convince her as I could see. Her boys, all three of them had been contemporaries of mine; one was now stateside and was married with three children, the middle one stilled worked at my old company in Lagos and the little one was now chasing a PhD in Wales. He had been a headstrong, unruly teenager the last time I saw him, keener to hang at the local game arcades that were springing up at the time than to study. She, like almost every one else who cornered me, wrapped up her little ‘homily’ by tossing in a reminder that as all the women were now gone, it was up to us lads to provide the next wedding.
My trusty old blackberry – packed almost as an afterthought – ended up proving the saviour on many a bored day, so much so that I was sorely tempted to switch to a BB plan on my return. Commonsense, and all the reasons I retired it in the first place eventually won over any nostalgic attachments to the device.
In a sense this wasn’t about chasing the abstraction of closure, rather it was about re-memory and reacquainting myself with the past in all its reiterations and reinventions. It was about time, and its passage, and how nothing seemed to have changed visibly and of how only when one looked back at the past from a sufficiently distant future reference point was it possible to see that life had evolved. I do not remember, but I suspect I once read somewhere that:
‘Time passes, and in it’s wake leaves no marks as to its passage – but in the faces of the ones that we have known for the longest of times we see etched in the wrinkles and the receded, greyed hair lines that time in passing has lulled us in a false sense of sameness, but in the births and deaths, we find that life reinvents itself again and again.
This was something that I learned over and over again.