Forty-One

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

**

It was my birthday the other day, and in keeping with what is becoming a tradition of sorts, I spent the morning wading through a flurry of WhatsApp and text messages before a fairly lengthy video call with the niece who I almost share a birthday with. The rest of the day was spent off-grid, which has become one of the more enjoyable parts of the day. I don’t remember when the need to unplug on the day first came to the fore but I am finding that in the aftermath of all of that mental stimulation, some downtime is helpful. As I have reflected on here before, the five weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August tend to be emotionally draining ones. Dealing with a move – which is quite frankly a culture shock of sorts – has only added to that this year.

Turning forty seems significant, to be the onset of an important phase of life and a milestone (never mind it also being a magnet for slander on the interwebs :)). Forty-one, on the other hand, seems like an afterthought, just another notch on the pole of life occasioned by yet another spin around the sun of the earth. Having spent the first twenty and some in the Nigerian state of my birth, the next ten making my way in the world in Nigeria and the next eleven in the UK, it very much feels like a third phase of life. Interestingly, each move has taken me away from the safety of the cocoon in which I grew up, complete with all the trappings of the evangelical industrial complex. My focus this year is Delve Deeper, I suppose there is no better place to test one’s depths and roots than in a far country – to use the metaphor of the prodigal – with all the trappings of having to build credibility all over again. There is certainly no room for coasting. There are also the challenges of living and thriving in a post-oil world which, given the current source of my livelihood, I need to focus on, using today’s opportunities to create the tomorrow’s ones.

In all of that, I am finding the lyrics of NEEDTOBREATHE’s Hang On particularly fitting:

So hang on to the light in your eyes and the feeling
Hang on to your love drunk original reason
So hang on to the small town you love but you’re leaving
‘Cause you won’t be a fool for so long

Economists suggest I am a few years from hitting the bottom of my happiness u-curve. An uptick in happiness is at least something to look forward to, and the enduring tension of leaving the small town I love but which I’m leaving…

Prodigality

For The Sunday Muse prompt #122:

**
We have carried
our bodies to a far country,
the weight of the burden
of the duty of sons
driving us like a ship
heave-hoing in a stormy gale
to the place where our kin
were brought before.

Each day we toil
amongst the living
to save the ones
we hurt by leaving,
the labour of our bent backs
a libation poured on dry earth,
to appease the spirits
of the old ones. This
is our penance, a prayer
sung to the tune
of the songs handed down.

We the born, and those
who were borne
will someday shake
the shackles of shiny things
and like prodigals
find our way home.

Vices, Spices and A Question of Identity

Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash

**

For all S’s protestations to the contrary, it is my contention that there are far worse vices than playing Football Manager. On the odd occasion, when I am caught off-guard, I’ll admit the arguments for this can be tenuous at best but I sincerely believe there is a cachet attached to being this particular brand of a connoisseur.

Home, families and when spouses and children will get moved out here are typical subjects of conversation whilst waiting for the bus, which was how I ended up having such a conversation with a fellow commuter a few days ago. Time zones and staying in touch were the twin topics of interest on the day. My two-hour difference is hardly the sort of stuff to sweat over but in his early days, he had an eight-hour time difference to manage, difficult given the need to balance that with getting enough sleep and waking up in time to be on the bus at 6.00 am. Things were a lot simpler for him now he said, thanks to his family’s move back to their home town of Plovdiv. Perhaps my eyes lit up with recognition at the name, but somehow he figured out I recognised the name. I did, of course, thanks to some obscure Football Manager save, in which I ended up taking Brentford from the English Championship to the Champions League group stage via a two-leg qualifier against Botev. Inspired by all the football kicking about of late, I thought I’d reinstall it and have a few turns. The 821 hours I have apparently spent playing the 2015 version was an awakening of sorts (refusing to upgrade is the one act of self-discipline I have allowed myself in this regard). 821 hours seems like a lot of time to spend in a make-believe world of pretending to be Klopp, Nagelsmann or whoever is the latest managerial wunderkind, but on this evidence, some real-world value is there to be had, the geography of weird and wonderful places.

One question I get asked a lot is where I am from. The most obvious answer is the United Kingdom, but quite a few people out here know enough about its structure to want to delve deeper. Therein lies my conundrum. I feel a real kinship to Newcastle and consider myself a Geordie at heart, never missing opportunities to hop on the train, going back at least once a year in all my time up in the ‘Deen. I did spend most of my time up in the ‘Deen though, and the oil industry being what it is, there are several connections and connections of connections out here which has sometimes made it expedient to flout my ‘Aberdeen links. The three months I spent down in Surrey during the lockdown endeared that part of the country to me, its shaded forest paths, canals and running spaces all adding up to a very pleasurable, becalming experience. I am from there, therefore, in a manner of speaking.

Most people default to asking if I am Nigerian, aided I suspect by the reasonably large number, and visibility, of Nigerians everywhere. I am that too of course, even though my relationship with the country is very much that of an errant prodigal. Being fortunate or unfortunate to have grown up in the corner of the country that I did, I have come away with the sense of being a minority in a minority state, and therefore feel no real kinship or connection to it. What news that filters through hardly fills me with any real confidence that my relationship with it, fraught as it is, is heading anywhere good anytime soon.

Twice, whilst self-isolating when I arrived here, bowls of extra spicy rice and meat turned up at my door from people with Nigerian connections who very kindly took it upon themselves to help the new guy settle in. It was a relief to take a break from sandwiches and all the other bland fare my Whatsapp tennis with the local diner delivered. One of my first acts, when I was finally free to go out was to head to the local shop and buy as much pepper as I could lay my hands on, without looking like someone who had lost their mind. I may or may not be many things, but I am learning that one thing is incontrovertible, I am an eater of pepper.

Hope

For The Sunday Muse prompt #121. After Emily Dickinson.

**
Hope is the thing
that shimmers
in the distance
the faint light
flickering in the
brooding stillness
of the afternoon heat,
the persistent promise
that this thirst, this
longing for restoring
will be sated by rain.
It is the pulse
quickening with the
lengthening shadows
of evening and the
return of familiar
sights to the eyes.
It is home
calling the lost son
to return to the
dangerous duty
of tending.

The Other Things That COVID brought…

Not a day seems to pass without my having a staring contest with a cat. What has been most intriguing about this is all the very different places I find them: the bus stop at 6 am, outside the main shop at 4 pm, during my evening walk at 9 pm and most recently out in the plant, in the middle of nowhere. Their languid, fearless manner suggests they are as much at home in these spaces as I am, and have probably been for quite some time. There must be a story I am oblivious of, of abandonment perhaps (the French are top of the charts for that apparently), of having outlived their usefulness as rodent control or maybe they are just being cats out and about enjoying the warmth like I am. No doubt with time I’ll get to know the reasons why, but in the interim – cats apart – I have been grateful for the brisk breezes in the morning and the cloud cover that means that the day starts and ends in the low thirties, not the high forties which cause the heat to hang like a wet blanket around one’s head.

Besides cats, masks are also ubiquitous out here. Mandated since the early days of the COVID pandemic – with none of the pussyfooting and political posturing that has plagued their adoption back in the ‘West’ – everyone has been required to have one outside the confines of your own home. Gloves and temperature checks have also been required when going into shops and other closed spaces. Their usefulness or otherwise is a rabbit hole I would rather not go down (isn’t it interesting how folks end up for or against them depending on their ideologies?) but the biggest discomfort for me is how my glasses steam up, making things rather interesting given my less than adequate unaided eyesight.

More importantly perhaps is a point my friend U, who by the way is most certainly not socially awkward, makes as to how the eyes seem to be working double-time to compensate for the lack of facial expression. It is something that has been on my mind a lot over these past few weeks of work, particularly the lack of a facial frame of reference for the new people I’ve met. Being one of only two black chaps in the building – of similar build and both needing help to see properly – has made for some interesting conversations where I have been confused for the other person as he has for me. All of this rather leaves us semi-blind people facing the double jeopardy of losing even what little help we could get from our eyes. I can only hope the peculiarities of the situation are not held against me when my inability to connect names to body shapes shows up now and again.

On a sadder note, I had the opportunity to join in an online service to bid W* farewell recently. I first ‘met’ him virtually at the beginning of April thanks to Alpha which had gone online largely because of the COVID-19 lockdown. Having recently moved down South from the ‘Deen it was an interesting coincidence to be added to a group that featured a large contingent of folk from north of the border. I got to hear dribs and drabs of his fascinating story over the course of ten weeks and some, as the pandemic raged outside and I wrestled with the weight of wondering if this move would happen at all. I remember one of the early nights in which we mulled over the question of what we would ask God if we met Him face to face. H was very much on my mind at the time, as was the question of why bad things happened to good people which made for a very entitled spiel from me. With the benefit now of knowing a little about his story and how much pain he was in at the time, the scale of the sacrifice he made to share so much of his final days with the group is now apparent. My gripes at the way the world is seem fickle by comparison. I didn’t come away with any epiphanies from the course but the personal stories I heard underscored for me that perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence for faith is the changed lives of people who truly believe. In many ways W epitomised that: someone who believed, was genuinely grateful for prevenient grace and was ready for the end when it came. I can only hope my Prodigal journey reaches as satisfying an end…

*I hope it is obvious W was not his real name…

Weight

For The Sunday Muse prompt #120,  and B who in (wo)manfully wrestling pain to a standstill reminds us to hope again…

**
Remember, in
the failing light
of falling night,
when the weight
of the world feels
like a thing around
your neck, that
we see you, proud
against the night-
feet planted firmly
in the mushy earth,
unflinching
in the maelstrom.
Like the North Star
sometimes hidden,
sometimes peering out
from behind the clouds,
a beacon showing home
we see you and believe
again.

Getting My Finger Out

Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

**

I am finding myself drawn again to the radio and to the BBC World Service- not the physical box itself but the BBC Sounds app which my VPN allows me access – and in doing so, all sorts of memories come flooding back. Many moons ago, when I was nearer ten than thirty, the World Service was my companion on many a hot, humid day with not a lot to do. Programs such as Off The Shelf, Wright Around The World, various radio dramas and the bumper Saturday sports package which sated my Liverpool fixation in the days before colour TV (never mind satellite TV) came to my corner of the world, all came to define that era for me.

The offerings have changed since then, time and ratings conspiring to sound the death knell for some of those programs, as has the advent of the internet. Death itself has claimed a favourite of mine from those days, Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America. There are new favourites to be discovered I suspect but whilst the new offerings warm their way into my heart the sound of the World Service in the background as I putter around my house brings back memories, and some comfort, if I’m willing to admit it.

The World Service is not the only thing that has become a staple in my life. Between the peculiar timing of work and travel to work, I have now taken to waking up at 4.00 am, doing a little bit of indoor exercising (in a bid to exorcise the fruit of three months of lockdown, two weeks of quarantine and good neighbours who plied me with salah meat and rice) and then preparing for work. Podcasts keep me company on the bus into work and after dinner, a 5k walk helps me get the heart rate pumping. Ideally, I would like to get back to running 10k three times a week but given temperatures in the mid-forties even at night, I suspect that will be a jaunt for winter. At work, a cup of green tea with some mint leaves has become my after lunch pick-me-up.

When I first toyed with the idea of sending missives chronicling my time out here, the aspiration was for them to come out every week. In conversation with someone the other day, the difficulty of building a discipline of writing amidst all that life throws one’s way came up. Part of the issue for me has been trying to settle on where (Medium, here, a substack newsletter), when and what to write about. On far too many Friday evenings than I would care to admit, I have faffed about, worrying over one or all of the above rather than just writing.

So in the interest of getting on with it, here goes:

  1. What: Thoughts, a diary of sorts, anything from the mundane to the otherworldly. For inspiration, I will revisit my copy of Cooke’s Letter from America collection and one of my favourite expat blog from ages ago. Obviously, I’ll be trying to learn Arabic in 1,000 lessons (if I last that long given oil and all that stuff)
  2. When: On or before 10pm my time on Friday evening.
  3. Here!

Sorted

A Lift off of sorts…

Image Source: Rajab Guga on Unsplash

**

According to the Book of Proverbs King Solomon, who knew a thing or two about hope and despair once said – whether in despair or merely noting in a manner of fact way – that Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and for the last three months and some I feel like I have known just that; lurching — sometimes several times a day — between the delirious joy of looking forward to an adventure and the deep depths of despair. COVID-19 was the culprit, as were the not entirely unconnected issues of an oil supply glut and oil price wars leading to sub-zero oil futures pricing. That there was a clear cause-effect relationship did little to tame the perennial desire to find wider meanings in things that is our forte as Nigerians, cue warfare prayers from my near and dear ones, a la Mountain of Fire and all.

The call to suit up and boot up came out of the blue late one Thursday, which set off a series of throat swabs, trips into central London to hand in passports and pick them up and all the not entirely fun stuff of packing up a life and moving continents in a week. Part of me wondered if it was entirely sensible to be jumping onto a flight, cooped up with others for six hours and some, but given I had waited three months for this chance, I was not about to let it slide over the small matter of a lengthy flight. I felt like a guinea pig through it all – one way systems at the airport and all the rigmarole that came with those, unseasonably warm weather, and lengthy queues. Thankfully, I had my friend O for company, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer to slather my hands in. It might have been the weather, or plain old tiredness, which made someone drop in a faint was our queue slowly inched its way towards the check-in desk. We all had to physically check in our bags, which made for an interminably slow and painful process, exacerbated by the fact that people were flying with tons of bags, returning home after being stuck away from home I guess. Once through security and on to flights, it seemed like the plan was to send us through as quickly as possible – a quick turn around in Dubai and then onwards to our final destination being the plan. On arrival, we were whisked through security, on to the meet and greet folks and then in a taxi towards my final destination, reached at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, at which time I was barely lucid.

The price to pay for moving to the edge of the world in these difficult times has been to self-quarantine for 14 days, days which alternate between speeding past and dragging on interminably. The glorious gift of the internet is not something that is bestowed on us out here without any strings, so one has had to make do with a mobile wifi device and a pre-paid plan, a far cry from the unlimited fibre-optic broadband I enjoyed for the past three months. As such mindlessly watching Netflix or Amazon Prime has not been an option. Shades of living in Nigeria in the dark days before proper internet arrives you could say.

For food, I have had to ping WhatsApp messages back and forth with the chap who manages the camp diner, iteratively arriving – via pictures and explanatory texts – on a semblance of dinner. Bread and eggs have been a salvation of sorts. The downside to all of that though is the blandness of everything which led to me retching over a toilet bowl one afternoon after one too many meals comprising of bread and eggs. The small Nigerian community did come through several times though, bowls of soup turning up one weekend, rice on an another and then two trays of salah meat to cap it all off. Weight is something I am refusing to look at at the moment, not helped by the heat discouraging any attempts to running outdoors.

New routines are needed for this new life. One had best get going.

One

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #119, Artistic Photography Dreamlike Portrait Photography by Damien Casals:

**
You and I
are becoming one,
our unspoken words
a voice, mellow
in its timbre,
its echo light
like a soft hand
yet firm, kneading out
the noise from
the silence that we share.
In that silence
of being and being present,
of returning and reforming,
of holding out against
the pressure of the world,
are broken things
becoming whole again,
each breath a small victory
won by persistence,
a fresh shoot
pushing its way
through the things
that rage has razed.