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

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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

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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.