0. Postscript

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.

6. The Return

MMA_final

MMA International

On a clear, cloudless day, Amsterdam from above looks like a patch work quilt, its greenery criss-crossed by a network of canals, an endlessly repeating pattern; broken only by the shore line, and a little further out the silhouettes of oil rigs, an enduring monument to the Dutch pride of place in the scavenging of North Sea Oil.

On the morning of my return to cold, wet and windy Aberdeen, I find myself half asleep, mentally pulling myself up by my very own bootstraps to remain awake as my City Hopper makes the hour forty five minute hop from Amsterdam to Aberdeen. Ever since an ever so slight snore embarrassed me a few years ago, I have tried to minimise future risks by limiting how often I fall asleep in public places. There were mitigating circumstances then  – EJ might be best placed to tell if I indeed snore as a matter of course – I had stayed up all night studying just before a class test and I was very very knackered.

The flight was fuller than the hop in the opposite direction at the start of my journey. From the number of sharply dressed suits and skirts, the number of brief cases and portmanteaus and the fact that it was an early morning flight, these could only have been people coming in for business meetings in the famous Oil Capital of Europe.

My fight with sleep was manful – aided by two shots of espresso when the stewardess rolled her trolley my way and asked what I wanted for a drink and by the time my flight arrived, I was clear eyed enough to take on immigration. On all my jaunts, I am yet to be subjected to extended searches beyond what is usual, so as I made the quick stroll from the plane towards immigration I was mentally looking forward to a quick breeze through, a short stop at the carousel and then a cdab to the comfort of my bed. Unfortunately, for the first time I was hauled over by a police man as I made to squeeze past him. He asked a few questions – where I was coming from, what I was doing in the UK and how long I had been away for. I gave him the requisite answers and then he let me grudgingly go. A few feet further ahead I was also hauled over by customs who insisted on doing a search of my luggage. Thankfully, my return to Lagos was hurried and I had no food stuff in my bag. Upon coming up short he tried to make small talk – asked me what I did, I mentioned I was a corrosion engineer which ended up leading us down a discussion on cathodic protection and zinc anodes and all what not. After three to five minutes of corrosion talk, he let me go, finally letting on that in a past life he was a mariner, and had seen huge blocks of zinc used as sacrifical anode systems.

I gave him my pasted on smile, inwardly furious at the delay, retrieved my bag and headed on out, to the cab rank, with the wind grabbing at my jacket and alight drizzle – typical Aberdeen fare!

5. In Which I return to old haunts

man_cafe

My return to Benin was less about closure than reacquainting myself with the past all over again. As feared, there was an immediate fall out from the wedding – the next morning, Mother was at the door of the room I was sharing with the kid bro wanting to chat, and there could be no uncertainty about what her primary objective was. It was thus expedient to engineer a move away to the relatively low pressure of Aunt G’s back in Benin. I had an official reason for upping sticks and bailing – chasing up transcripts for the Welding Engineering PhD I may or may not require after all. The other unofficial reason was to catch up with Cousin E and her baby, Dara, the fifth and final member of the clan born since the last time I was out here.

 I find there is a spanking new park just outside the University’s main gate where all the buses plying the routes from town are required to offload their passengers. I don’t remember what used to be there, but right there now there is a row of shiny new shops offering everything from a cold drink to quick passports and internet access. There are Security men at the gate, armed with a baton and a metal detector. My satchel, slung casually across my neck isn’t unobtrusive enough to squeak through, and I have to submit to a check and a peek into my bag.

 I toy with the idea of jumping onto one of the buses plying the routes from the main gate to the various stops within, but I finally decide to walk to avoid the hassle of chasing change (I don’t know what the fares are anymore and I am light on small denominations). The walk to Exams and Records is short and quick, the only downside being that I end up in one puddle too many, ruining my shoes in the process. From afar I catch sight of the new bursary building, its façade and red signage furnished in the signature Zenith Bank style [it turned out that the building had indeed being paid for by Zenith Bank].

There is no one in the office I am meant to hand in my application fees to. A few metres away, a menagerie of people bedecked in sporting garb run aimlessly on the lawn. To my untrained eye, it looks too random to be anything but concerted play – Aunt G later confirms that there is some form of group exercise thing which certain departments have instituted. Just why, at the not exactly early time of 10.30am on a Wednesday, these exercises are still ongoing leaves me bemused. I eventually find someone to attend to me, and then proceed to complete the application process. Job done, I take a stroll down towards the engineering building via the main cafeteria.

The old main café was a big part of my life back in the day. Back then when I was fairly active on the campus fellowship scene, I attended twice a week there, and also read there. In my final year, I would eventually make the acquaintance of a petite, medical student E who would sometimes leave her books under my care whilst she dashed off on some jaunt or the other to her medical hostel lodgings. On this occasion I find its forecourt busy – there are cars parked around and one or two traders under the trees just in front of it, and various business centre lackeys trying to convince passers-by to stop over and use their photocopying machines. The one thing I am in desperate need of is the one they don’t have – an internet connection of any sort. The once bustling UB Technologies cafe within the building is under lock and key. I can only walk on, hoping I have merely chosen a bad day to try to surf the internet, and not that a perhaps iconic institution has gone under.

 The once familiar haunts of the Engineering building looked the same – well almost. The notice board looked a lot less bare than I remembered. Back in the day there was almost always a conference announcement or a notice to students or the other.The door leading to the dean’s office though has had an upgrade – burglary proof metal bars protect it, and a flashing blue sign above it show the way. Out front, where there used to be an eatery where we would go grab lunch in between classes, there was a new building with the sign internet café. It was unfortunately not in use – it was securely locked, and the padlocks looked like they hadn’t been disturbed in a while. There was also a new building next to it – some sort of hall with ‘ETF 2008 project’ emblazoned on it’s side.

My time on campus done, my final pit stop is at Aunt G’s. Her gateman, one that I do not recognise insists there is no one I know at home, and offers me a dirty, rain beaten bench for a seat till someone comes through. Thankfully Cousin E rescues me when I give her a phone call and find out she is actually at home after all. We catch up – her life back in Nigeria as a house officer in UBTH, juggling motherhood and her fledgling career, and navigating a marriage from across the sea. Glad for the help, she hands the kid over to me for some uncle-niece bonding.

Aunt G has aged since the last time I saw her – being a three time grandmother cannot have helped either. In agreeing to sleep over, I have gambled on her not having enough time to give me an earful. She had been a big fan of F from day zero, and I got an earful over the phone when she heard that we were history. This being the first time I am physically seeing her since then, I am braced for a barrage which never comes. She does ask though, and I give her my version of the story. Ageing seems to her mellowed her a wee bit. Papa G and I have a quick chat on his return, his own concern primarily being the future – a return to Nigeria, marriage and how my parent s are. It is almost 11pm when my various conversations wrap up. All in all it has been difficult territory navigated fairly safely, I think.

4. On A Nigerian PK Wedding

You know that the bride’s wedding gown will be ultra conservative as will be those for the bridal train. There will be no low cut, cleavage accentuating, eye candy-ish, strapless nonsense, and the hems will be at least an inch below the knee.

 You know that there will be at least ten different preachers – each with the belief that he is a colossus in his own right – and where both bride and groom are PKs, they might be nearer fifty than not.  You know that the program will be tweaked to provide an opportunity for every one of them to do something – give a word of admonition, pray, or lead the reading of the vows, or take a thanksgiving offering. You know that every speech and every prayer will be interminably long, as though there were an unofficial contest with a prize for the longest, most colourful speech. You know that it will be baking hot, and dry, because the powers that be have ‘decreed’ that there will be no rain.

 You know that there will be a whole lot of non-subtle symbolic references – the bride and groom feeding each other will be reinvented as a holy communion, and the first dance will be a thanksgiving dance, not just a dance.

 You know that the Mothers in Israel will be visible, and not just for the intricate whorls and loops of their obstructive head gear. You know that there will be oddly timed shouts of hallelujah, accompanied by hand clapping and the garish sounds of tambourines gone berserk. And when every one lines up to dance out to the front for the offering they will hold up the line by their unbridled dancing.

 You know that the lead Bishop will arrive late, sweeping in with his entourage of bible carriers and anointing oil holders. You know that it will be as though someone pressed a big reset button, and oblivious of the baking heat he will insist on laying hands and praying all over again.

 You know that the two hour service will stretch into three, and only some quick thinking will prevent it from extending even further. You know the picture taking session will be a full event in and of itself – the youth choir she once led will want a separate picture, as will all of the spiritual heavyweights who have ‘sown into her life’.

 And you know, that somewhere on row 76, in the crevice formed by the junction of the half open side door and a disused speaker, there will be a bloke slouched in a chair, his unruly hair the least of the oddities around him, alternately squinting and then stifling a yawn, and every now and then scribbling frantically inside his little black book.

3. Journey’s end, red tape and finally a breather

old_house
Deserted... The House on the corner of 3rd and 12th.

The sun had began to lose some of its unblinking menace by the time my overloaded bus laboured up the final incline and began its descent into Ekpoma. Although we had made steady progress on the Lagos to Benin leg, navigating the maze of the Uselu – Lagos road and finding my way to the Big Joe motor park across town had taken a while and it was well past four pm before I found my not particularly comfortable seat on a bus to Ekpoma.

The short hop from Benin to Ekpoma is one that I have made more times than I care to remember. From my early years – spent living with my father as he made his name as a young academic whilst Mother managed a family in a different city – to my five and some years of undergrad study, that commute – and on a good day it is only a 45 minutes journey –  came to define my life. Time and time again, I managed to time my sleeps so well that as whatever vehicle I was in was labouring up the hill into town I would awake to the welcome of home just over the horizon.

Home, the little brown house on the corner of 3rd and 12th no longer exists in the sense that no one lives there on a permanent basis anymore. My mother, like all women, has had her moments of impulse buying – her closet of shoes and never worn clothes are a testament to that – but one of her more prescient actions was to pay all of 2,000 naira for a piece of land somewhere on the outskirts of town very many years ago. Thanks to that inspired purchase and an Architect friend of the family, a couple of years ago they were able to join the trickle of people moving out of the University owned quarters to their very own place. The one downside of that – besides all the memories associated with that house which I may have lost for good – was that it was impossible for me to locate it myself. I thus had to call for the parentals to pick me up from the motor park.

By this time it was inching closer to 5.30pm, and all that was on my mind was a cold glass or bottle of something, a nice bath and some sleep; unbeknownst to me I would have to navigate a further two hours before those simple quotidian pleasures were granted me. My father decided – without recourse to me of course – that it would be expedient to make a pit stop at the hall that had been organised for the wedding reception. The plan was to hang around a little to chat with the women helping to clean it up and decorate it before heading on home.

It proved to be an inspired decision as it turned out. Some local council chieftain had set himself up as judge and jury in his own small court and decided that this was the perfect time to smoke out tthe ‘culprits’ behind what he felt was a conspiracy to defraud the local council. He insisted, much to the chagrin of all of us, that we would not get access until a receipt was produced. Fortunately or unfortunately, there was only a letter of approval from earlier in the year as the receipt had being lost in the intervening period. Multiple phone calls to the officers in charge of the building and even the council chairman failed to resolve the matter as our crusader decided he held all the aces, even against the mediation of his own boss. Very nearly an hour, a fresh payment – backed up by a signed receipt  – and a covert picture capturing the exchange of the money on a phone was what it eventually took before access was finally granted, at which time it was too late to get the place properly cleaned up as initially planned. So much for a chilled out time with the family; everyone’s mood was foul to say the least.

My ordeal is far from over though. It turns out that Aunt Liz has had major trouble locating the house on the edge of town. In describing the location to her and her driver, Mother has made the mistake of using the wrong landmark. There are two seminaries with similar sounding names in different parts of town. Mother has given a description with the wrong one, and they have ended up quite some distance from where they should be for pickup. I  get sent to sort them out – with only my mobile for company. When I do not find them where they should be, a flurry of phone calls follows before I realize the problem is in the description. They finally stop off at a well known junction and I walk till I find them.

Now truly hungry and tired, I have to plaster on a smile on my face and make small talk as I join her car and direct them in person for the last few kilometres. She has always had her agenda – and certain things I do not want to talk about are usually on them – but I somehow manage to steer the conversation into less controversial matters. Her twin boys – firm favourites of mine from my time spent with them in the 2000’s – are always a good diversion and I end up getting a good earful of their current situation.

It is almost 7pm by the time we eventually pull in, and I leave the Aunt and my Mother to catch up as they always do, whilst I make a bee line to the kitchen. Thankfully Sister#1 had done some boiling and frying. Whilst I have been trying to bring home the Aunt, the kid brother who had made the trip from up north himself on the day had arrived a few minutes before I did, so there was enough relatively young company to engage with. All it lacked was Sister #2 who was away getting a proper coiffure in preparation for her big day and niece #1.

It was almost 9pm before we all got together – the kid brother and I having our meal standing up, Sisters #1 and #2 filling us in all  the happenings we had missed, and the niece being all coy and shy around us. Not since the back end of 2007 have we all been in the same place together with feeling the pressure of a performance on our shoulder, and never more has it felt like I have missed this for far too much.

2. Road trips, small margins and a return to the city of red earth

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Hawker, Lagos

Plan A was to catch a flight from Lagos into Benin and then a bus for the final leg of the trip to the small university town of Ekpoma, where the wedding was to hold, but the events of the last few weeks ensured that the one thing my mother insisted on was that the journey out of Lagos would be by road. I thus had to brace myself to navigate the tortuous 3oo km+ trip from Lagos into Benin with minimum fuss.

Early the next morning, I rushed a bath, skipped breakfast and then found out that the 1.5 star diggs I was staying at actually had a cab service. The pleasant surprise was that he was a cabbie I had used a lot in the past, and that he had managed to recognise me despite the passage of time and the extra kilograms. Somewhere on the road as we drove towards the Yaba section of town, the slim margins between life and death were enacted right before our eyes as only his braking sharply and swerving enabled us avoid sweeping a motorbike and its three occupants into the yawning chasm of a gutter. A few choice strings of abuse later – both given and received by the driver of my cab – we were back on our way, grateful that all we had had was a minor intermission, not the full blooded inquisition that a more serious crash would have occasioned.

Our first pit stop was at Jibowu where we found out that there were no more scheduled trip at the Edo Line offices. We then had to make the final run in to the Edegbe Motor park at Yaba. We found several buses, all in different stages of being filled up. I had to settle for a seat at the back of one, and in addition to the transport fare fork out nearly an arm and a leg for my one box. The park was a bee hive of activity, a menagerie of hawkers milling around offering items as varied as pre-paid mobile phone recharge cards and supposedly genuine 24k gold. Like a human scrolling billboard they jostled for position in the mind and the eyes of us trapped passengers, hoping to make a killing by dint of repetition. One hawker, peddling ‘ice-cold la casera’ ended up in a verbal spat with a passenger over her pricing – apparently the bottle she was trying to fob off for 170 naira costs a mere 140 just around the corner. There were also all sorts of books being sold – a book of poems, nursery rhymes and one that particularly piqued my interest – a collection of 150 text messages supposedly crafted to make any woman giddy with focused flirtation. Unfortunately my wallet was lost in my jacket, stuck between my bag and the flabs of the buxom woman who was seated, impassive, next to me.

The final piece of the pre-travel routine was the obligatory preacher, the incongruity of his three piece suit, extra large bible and booming voice perhaps offset by the very practical face towel with which he dabbed his shiny forehead, which leaked sweat like a rafia basket filled with water. After a quick word of exhortation, he proceeded to bind and cast ‘every demons’ of bloodshed on the high way, and declared we would arrive safely at our destination – a small ritual that prompted the pressing of a few naira into his hands by other more impressed passengers as he launched into his support the ministry spiel.

The trip to Benin was steady, not spectacular. As it turned out, the driver of the bus was a gracefully greyed man who looked to be at least within touching distance of 60, and it showed in how he piloted the bus. He was content to ignore the rants and raves of the excitable passengers keen to get off to a flying start and maintain a steady pace. Aside of a few snarls in the flow of traffic at certain points – one was occasioned by the FRSC attending a recent crash where a lorry filled with Coca Cola bottles had somehow crashed into the road divder and overturned, turning the road into a collage of dark brown liquid, glass shards and red coke covers – we made steady time. The one thing that particularly irked me – and forgetting my phone charger in the ‘Deen meant I had to be frugal with what power I had left – was how many loud telephone conversations went on for the first hour of the trip, at full pelt. There was a young woman (apparently a student) playing the age old game of Dad v. Mum to draw out an extra 100,000 naira from her parents to fund whatever lifestyle she had in Benin, a man seemingly at the centre of a family feud sending instructions to an accomplice to break open a box he had left somewhere and retrieve certain items, and another calmly informing what sounded like an ex girlfriend that he was in town briefly and would like to meet up.

Somewhere around Ore, the bus stopped for a break – the driver going to have lunch in one of the places around, whilst the rest of us made do with what we could. Whilst sauntering along the road, I found suya being made, and at the urging of the Mallam (I really didn’t need any persuasion) I took a taster. 1,000 naira lighter, with a bottle of malt in my lap I was back in the bus, waiting for the journey to resume.

I must have fallen asleep – the sameness of greenery broken only by the odd bump as a bridge is traversed must have lulled me – because the next time I am aware of my surroundings, the bus is packed by the road side offloading a young woman and her box next to a board welcoming all and sundry to Igbinedion University Okada. She seems young, probably in her very early twenties and was dressed very simply. I had briefly wondered why she had an iPad complete with a magic cover sticking out from her hand bag, but I suppose given the astronomical fees charged there, an iPad was small beans. Given the history I have had in the past with the school – F spent five wasted years there before she upped sticks and went elsewhere, and Cousin B narrowly escaped being stuck on the treadmill there – the one brief thought that passes through my mind as the bus is loaded up again and we begin to move is to hope that she hasn’t fallen prey  to the Ponzi scheme that is that University’s medical school.

In due course we arrived in Benin – Oluku junction with its truck lined roadsides, the precious Palm Royal Hotel and UNIBEN Main Gate  in quick order were the prelude to the bedlam that was the Uselu -Lagos road with its half crazed okada riders, buses, trucks and overly exuberant teenagers with cars. The normally impassable roads at this time of the day – around about 2pm – have been made worse by closures for road works; sections of the road are in varying stages of being expanded to six lanes. I suppose the short term pain is a small price to pay if it ends up resolving the larger issue of congestion and drainage. In a nod to the increasingly real threat of abduction, the expatriate site engineer managing the section between Uselu market and the fork in the road where it snakes towards Ring Road or New Benin Market is guarded by three armed soldiers in a white Isuzu truck. Just how inflated the costs will be as a result of needing to provide a security detail, and no doubt appeasing restive youth, remains to be seen.

It is campaign season in Edo State. Posters of Comrade Adams Oshiomole and his deputy litter the billboards of the city. As is the norm, quite a few of them feature various interest groups – I seem to remember a few by the Bini Youth, the association of tipper drivers and others – keen to align themselves with the powers and ingratiate themselves. The clarion call seems to be that a vote for the Comrade is a vote for progress and continuity. To be fair the roads seem to be in much better shape than I remember them from a few years ago. We had to navigate a few back streets to avoid the long tail backs, and that brought to the fore just how much road repair work had been completed in the last few years. The schools too have also been given significant face lifts – new buildings, fresh licks of paints and Coca Cola branded signs indicating the names of the school. There is also the expected billboard with the Comrade’s face on it, proclaiming him the saviour of the school system. I am not the only one who notices – one of the passengers mentions in passing just how relieved he is to see improvements in the city as a whole and wonders why there is even a sliver of doubt that the powers that be would allow a swift return to power for the incumbent. Someone else responds dismissively, insisting that he is an upstart and that he will be trounced at the polls. There is some to-and fro which quickly gets heated, until the first proposer of a second term refuses to reply anymore. If there is one thing this has impressed all over in my mind, it is that politics remains a deeply emotive subject, fractured along ethnic lines and completely disconnected from performance or suitability in this my little corner of red earth.

There will be time in the next few days to return to this city and reacquaint myself with it after my season of insulation, but now all I get is a flying pit stop on the flight to the place called home.

1. Eastwards

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.

Nigeria Bound…

A few weeks ago when I sat down to identify the five or six things that would make 2012 the perfect year, one of the things that eventually came to the fore was carrying over zero holidays in to next year. That by itself shouldn’t have been significant, but between hoarding my holidays for what I thought would be quarterly jaunts westward and my eventual withdrawal into my time honoured silo, I ended up needing a flurry of trips late in the year to claw back what was a huge holiday backlog. Even that was not enough, I ended up losing four days having carried over the maximum seven days into the new year.

A trip to Nigeria beckons this time, something which created quite a few coffee room talking points with my team mates at work given the latest news out of Nigeria. Regardless of my lost son affectations, she still has her attractions – perhaps even more so now than before. There is the small matter of the niece with whom the extent of my communication has been her baby babble as she has tried to distract her mother during numerous telephone conversations. [I haven’t quite forgiven her for stubbornly insisting on arriving two days late, missing the opportunity to share my birthday with me, for which I fully intend to find some way to surreptitiously give her ear a little pinch in retaliation]. As well, there is the other sister’s wedding, and then fourteen days later one between two of my old friends in a different part of the country; both weddings nicely book-ending my stay. Around those key drivers are a myriad of other births, marriages, promotions and the odd death and breakup  to share – quotidian joys (and sorrows) which my decision to remain stuck in my corner of the world has kept me insulated from. Thanks to a couple of supermoms off Twitter [@aloted and @Mz_SoupaWoman], I shall be dragging a few boxes of age-appropriate gifts in my wake. That should help promote some uncle-niece bonding, as well as deflect some of the vitriol that might be lobbed in my direction when it transpires I have pinched a few ears!

Overall, I suspect it will be an intriguing trip, perhaps even something to be looked forward though in some respects. Besides the obligatory suya based dinner on the first night back, the only other culinary delight on my mind is a big steaming calabash of ekpang nkukwo. I sincerely hope that my old haunt on the corner of Grace Bill and Park that served that as its speciality still exists.  I sense there will be a few awkward moments too. In getting the baby sister married off, the final buffer the kid brother and I have had between us and el Madre’s cross hairs is being eased out of the equation. Once the dust from the dancing feet and swaying hips has settled down, and everyone has recovered from the exertions of planning and executing a wedding, I fully expect to be the recipient of a full on heart to heart chat, part of the reason why I intend to spend a lot of the time on the road, and why I accepted to attend the other wedding across the country. There is also the distinct possibility  that Mlle. F will be putting in an appearance  – if my sources have it right, she might be attending  with the arms of a certain young man draped protectively around her shoulders. That is most assuredly not a sight for my sore eyes, but closure of any sort cannot be a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

I would like to think I have the capability to write some Noo Saro-Wiwa-esque Nigeria travelogue, or perhaps more appropriately mindlessly ape Teju Cole‘s now extinct blog of a similar genre but something tells me between the food, the activity, and the spectre of work looming in the back of my mind I will have my hands full. I suppose the least that I can do is at least try. After all, as they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Certainly Uncertain….

A few days ago, mid way through a telephone conversation with one of the lads I used to work with in my UX5 days, the delectable lass who joined a few months before I was due to leave overheard our conversation and asked to speak with me.

Even back then, in those early days of 2008, I was the bloke with a 5 year rolling plan complete with milestones, leading and lagging indicators and a roadmap. Her question had an air of inevitability to it; it had to do with the current iteration of the plan. Sadly, I could not give her the reassurances she was seeking – namely that the plan was still on track, and that an invite – amongst other things – would be winging it’s way to her Nigerian post box in the not too distant future.

The one thing I could not have factored into those – admittedly bullish plans – was the uncertainty around a few of the critical outcomes on which the plan flew or sank. I couldn’t have known that what looked like a door temptingly left ajar was in fact a door on its way to slamming shut with my finger stuck between it and the door frame; or that what felt like nirvana two years later would spontaneously combust over one big thing.  The uncertainties have not somehow dissolved into thin air with time. Au contraire, they in all probability have somehow become greater. More important because the outcomes are now more critical than before, and also because the interdependencies are even more convoluted.

In an ideal world, I suppose one would be able to tell with a reasonable amount of certainty what certain outcomes would be, without having to resort to Bayesian techniques, or applying the relational equivalent of hit and hope. Or maybe,  like my mother insists, I am simply over thinking it – micromanaging my outcomes so much that I end up not doing anything or losing the sense of adventure and unpredictability that not having all those backup plans brings.

Or maybe not…..