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.