Fighting for the Light

There is not a lot to say this week except to say that the events in Nigeria with the #EndSARS protests have been particularly encouraging, not least because they prove that the trope about Nigerians being endlessly resilient and willing to accept broken systems is patently false. Beyond the willingness to hit the streets day in day out, the speed with which systems of support and organization have sprung up and have been deployed at scale has been a thing of fascination. Young Nigerians do have the tools, the desire and the nous to make a difference, long may it continue!

Also interesting has been seeing quite a few of the popular Pentecostal heavyweights lend their voices, and feet, to the protests. Looking on from the outside, it has often felt like the PFN, and other organizations of its ilk, have previously been far too interested in preserving their access to power than to be effective voices speaking truth to power. Whatever has driven this pivot in certain individuals, it can only be for the better – we all know how closely beholden us Nigerian folk can be to their MOGs (the frothing at the mouth, and general refusal to think in the aftermath of a certain MOG’s 5G revelations not too long are a case in point).

One hopes that this marks a real move away from religious leaders being complicit in the pillage of the country, towards a more outspoken state where they take on the mantle to speak truth to power, with their power. Whatever happens, one feels like the Youth have experienced the power of their voice, and they will not be shut down ever again.

Fall-ish

***

We woke up to a grey, watery mist rolling in the other day, a state of affairs which had me wondering for a few seconds if I had somehow ended up in good old Blighty. That was before the heft of air weighed down by 26-degree heat hit me in the face as I made my way to the bus stop. By the time we rolled into work, everything was shrouded in a thick, soupy, fog with visibility all but gone. It had all boiled away by 10 am though, with things returning to the way they always were: bone dry, warm with clear skies. Fog was not something I expected to encounter out here, although the roadsigns which show a 15km/hr speed limit in fog should have been a clue.

Back in Blighty, S. is now up to two jumpers for the evening and has given up the battle against the radiator. Out here, it definitely feels different, with the high heat of summer now giving way to a more breezy, cooler fall of sorts. Whilst there are no deciduous trees to turn their leaves into a mosaic of brilliant golds and browns, the date palms seem to be shedding their fruit onto the walking paths more frequently than I recall. Nature is certainly winning the battle of the wills with the grounds people who battle gamely to clean up whatever falls, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.

Cooler evenings have meant that my evening walks now start earlier, which in turn has enabled me to return to an hour or so of reading before bedtime. The first fruit of that was finally completing Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale, a detail-heavy depiction of life in Ethiopia from the early 20th century to the beginnings of the 21st as told through the lens of her grandmother’s eyes. Intersecting as it does with a lot of the history of modern Ethiopia, it sheds a personal, intimate light on things like the Italian occupation, the deposing of Emperor Selassie, the civil war and the famine of the early eighties.

Between finishing the book and coming across a picture posted by a friend on Instagram, I have been thinking about our personal histories and how we curate them. This brought to mind the3six5 project, a web-based project which ran from 2010 to 2012. It featured a daily slice of life, written on the day by a different person and inspired a number of local versions, including our very own Nigerian one. I also enjoy images curated by the Bumpkin Files account, although it has a decidedly Black British slant.

Today’s concerts, #EndSARS protests and life under lockdowns are yesterday’s famines, civil wars and momentous election victories. If we’re not curating our personal histories, I wonder what lost personal perspective on today’s events we might rue when we’re old and grey and little Aoife asks what it was like to live in these times.

Of Hymns and Poetry-ing

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

**

For all my flirtation with being prodigal, I have never quite managed to untether myself from the Pentecostal faith tradition, especially the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, tongue-blasting, frenzied version that is your typical Nigerian church. There have been times I have felt right at home in a subset of it – my Eket days, and latterly, my sojourn in the ‘Deen come to mind – but for the most part, it has always felt designed for the loud and the intense, to the detriment (and inadvertent?) exclusion of those of us who live on the more introspective side of the spectrum. Not being blessed with the gift of nimble footwork, or being particularly willing to apply myself to acquire the skills involved if I’m being honest, Thanksgiving Sundays in that tradition were a veritable minefield, partaken in with the threat of being stuck behind an overly expressive dancer an ever-present danger.

When I have had the choice, I have gravitated to less exuberant – even orthodox – expressions of worship, thanks to an ongoing fascination with hymns. It is yet another one of the ways H’s long reach continues to colour the present. Many moons ago, she threw herself with great gusto into beating a ragtag group of non-professional singers into a semblance of a choir at the University Chapel we attended growing up. as I recall, whilst there were more than a few hairy moments, their enthusiasm was never in doubt. For all the stirring a clappy, happy, dancy song can bring, I think there is a certain gravitas a hymn can bring to a worship experience that is inherently different, and dare I say useful. The often arcane language surely helps, in the same way the King James’ Version still has its attraction amidst the plethora of more modern translations and paraphrases.

Choice in worship has been one of the boons of the lockdown for me, as it has for quite a few people if the numbers of people trying Alpha Online are anything to go by. I fear that for all the runction about churches and physical meetings particularly in America, not a lot has been said about the opportunities decoupling worship from place presents. Of course, there is the argument that too much choice perpetuates the idea of worship as something to be consumed rather than participated in, with the ability to hop around online enabling a search for an experience which soothes rather than one which challenges. I am grateful for the choice though, given the restrictions first of disease, and now distance.

It is a similar way I feel about poetry, for which I am thankful for the return of the second season of my favourite poetry podcast, Poetry Unbound. I suspect Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Irish lilt contributes to the sense of serious contemplation each episode brings, as does the care and thought clearly given to the selection of each poem. It helps that he is a theologian too.

In the introduction to the first episode of this second season which features Ada Limon’s Wonder Woman, Pádraig opines that poetry is “interested in stopping in small moments and telling the story of that moment”. It is the same way a hymn can hold a present reality and a future expectation in tension without breaking us. In my own pretend poetry practice, I find that the structure of a rigid form can often be what forces some semblance of sanity to arise from the depths of a chaotic emotional experience. Many of the Psalms sound like this, this conflation of poetry and prayer.

The other thing which triggered the journey down this path was listening to Steven Furtick’s message from last Sunday, another one of the gifts the lockdown brought. It includes a segment, from about 12:47 in, in which he goes back down memory lane and riffs on a few good oldies, capped off by two of my favourite hymns, including one I haven’t heard in a very long time (Come Ye Disconsolate).

In that same introduction to Season 2 of the Poetry Unbound pod, Pádraig says that poetry helps you “to cast your eye on small moments that can give you some fortitude [and] that can help you through”. That is a real-world definition of faith, isn’t it?

* Originally posted in A Prodigal Abroad, my (usually) Friday evening letter from the edge of the world… You can subscribe here.

Fits, Starts and a Dim View (of Humanity)

I have now been out here for just over eighty days, days which have sometimes felt like they have been punctuated by starts and stops. There were the two weeks of self-quarantining in which nothing seemed to happen, then a two day week occasioned by the Eid al-Adha holidays, and most recently a three day week for the National Day Holidays. Though somewhat an accident of timing, I have been grateful for the opportunities to break the monotony of work; up by 4 am, on a bus by 6 am, back home by 5 pm wash-rinse-repeat, and the gifts holidays sometimes bring, like a large tray of meat I got during the previous Eid holidays.

Coming from the ‘Deen where what bank holidays we got were added to our annual entitlement, it is a strange feeling for everything work-related to shut down and for everyone to eschew emails and work phone calls completely. It does bring back memories of working in Nigeria many years ago. For what it is worth, I will not be complaining about forced breaks from work, given these are days I would have been loath to take off, being the new guy and all. Unfortunately, the borders are still not open, and all the holidays have meant delays to my paperwork (I still don’t have a drivers licence yet), so the free days are lost on me, although they have helped me catch up with friends and family around the world and reduce my sleep deficit.

A consequence, surely intended one suspects, of the dawn to dusk routine and the lack of mobility – besides iffy taxis – is that the eighty days have been spent very much in a bubble with little interaction besides the immediate locale. As such I have not had much opportunity to dispel or confirm the notions of the country I have in my head. Speaking of notions, there is a narrative that is often repeated which paints the West as bastions of personal freedoms, opportunities and the rule-of-law and elsewhere as somewhere between a backwater and a shit-hole. Each new revelation of what is at-best underhand, and at worst kleptocratic with regards to the UK’s handling of COVID related contracts makes me wonder if every country is not only a group of bumbling idiots – and failed checks and balances – away from the precipice of self-destruction and avarice.

All of this makes me wonder what the trajectory of human existence is. The last few years seem to suggest that perhaps all the gains of the 19th and 20th century – and there have been great gains as the RBG eulogies show – were an aberration and that we are reverting to our darkest, basest means again. An altogether dark view perhaps, but on the evidence of 2020, one that is not inconceivable.

* Originally posted in A Prodigal Abroad, my (usually) Friday evening letter from the edge of the world… You can subscribe here.

Decluttering

Photo by Lindsey LaMont on Unsplash

**

I finally got round to migrating my contacts to my local phone, the process of downloading them from one account to a new one the last grudging act of acceptance at being here, a signal as it were of the finality of moving. It felt great to be able to do all I use my phone for – WhatsApp, podcasts, ebooks and all – from one device. What I did not bargain for was the trip down the rabbit hole of memory that exercise would be.

If you had asked me, I would have said I was great at moving on, never letting the detritus of the past hang around too long – this exercise put the lie to that. There were contacts from my Eket days, from Newcastle and every pit stop in between; with a few very dead people in there. The longer I think about it, the more I suspect that finality is difficult, and keeping phone numbers of lost or atrophied connections is one last stand for hope against hope. It is a false hope of course. Although I haven’t called H’s number in years, P did a few years ago and found out the number had been reassigned to someone else, which given the time that has passed is reasonable.

One could argue that with the undead, the situation is much less nuanced. There seems to be little benefit to keeping contacts for people I haven’t spoken to in many years, especially in situations where the spheres and cycles we live in have significantly diverged. Sentimental attachments make the decision less clear cut for some though, not least because there is at least one such person who I have the (fortunate or unfortunate) coincidence of sharing a birthday with.

I took the opportunity to clean up my contacts and remove a number of these dead and lost connections. H, E and F remain. Ridding my contacts of their numbers – even if those might have been reassigned to someone else – seemed a bridge too far this time. Maybe someday in 2030, I’ll finally bring myself to do that.

Speaking of the dead, I found this interview with Fabrice Muamba on the subject of those 78 minutes fascinating, not least for his thoughts on faith and community and how it helped him pull through the dark days after his cardiac event when it became obvious his footballing career was over. Well worth a listen if I say so myself.

Got ‘Til its (Kinda) Gone

The less common variant of the “Where are you from” question I get comes from the unconventional way my surname is spelt. Family folklore suggests that my great-grandfather, whether in a fit of pique or an attempt to be contrarian – no one is certain which it is, took his rather mundane Yoruba name, replaced a couple of vowels with consonants, and declared himself unique. To this day when I ‘goggle’ myself, every reference is to someone I know and have met, bar a frankly confusing article that includes TB Joshua, Togo and Canada. Make of that what you will.

On this occasion, the question came whilst filling out a form in preparation for getting my ears tested – a hearing conservation test for work. The chap in question, from a South East Asia country I shall not name, wondered where I was from, as he had not seen a name spelt that way before. I gave him the short answer – The UK, but when that clearly did not provide the clarity he required, I explained the Nigerian great-grandfather connection. That put paid to that line of questioning and allowed me to take the test. The good news is I have the hearing of a twenty-five-year-old, whatever that means. I would much rather have the metabolism (and thus the mid-section) of a ripped sixteen-year-old, but then the one about wishes, horse and beggars comes to mind. We revisited the subject of where I was from as he wrote up the test results. From that conversation, it transpired that he was waiting on a response from the High Commission on an application which would enable him to move there. His eyes seemed to light up at the opportunities he looked forward to, ‘ a lot of travelling’ he said in addition to working in a London hospital and potentially offshore in the future.

A few months ago, the vistas that greeted my eyes were the verdant greenery of the Surrey countryside, a corner of the world crisscrossed by canals, streams and protected forests. At the time, the uncertainty of what direction the future lay clouded my mind, preventing me from truly appreciating all that great nature. Now that I have swapped that for the sterile, over-engineered badlands I am now in, those days seem dim and distant. Until the COVID restrictions get properly lifted, I may not get another opportunity to enjoy them at length. I look back and miss those days, being wary of not falling into the same trap again and failing to appreciate what I have got now (‘til its gone again). The irony in all of that is perhaps that it took going halfway around the world and meeting someone excited about going to the place I left with nary a shed tear to remind me of some of the good things about it.

* Originally posted in A Prodigal Abroad, my (usually) Friday evening letter from the edge of the world… You can subscribe here.

Sometimes The Third Time Is A Charm

Photo by Victor Xok on Unsplash

**

One of the non-perks of living at the edge of the world is that everything has to be ferried in, and even the small matter of activating a registration requires a 60km ride into the nearest town. All of these meant that having finally received a critical piece of documentation, I needed a taxi ride for the third time in a week. As it turns out, I got the same chap as I had on the past two trips, my experiences of which varied from merely irritating to downright terrible. The full story is too long to recount but involved a couple of wrong turns and ending up in a different place, which added thirty minutes to what was already a lengthy forty five minute lunchtime dash into town. That ordeal was compounded by a malfunctioning temperature scanner at the gate which required three tries before I was eventually granted access to the office.

All of this came rushing to my mind when I saw him, along with a sinking feeling of despair, especially because the trip was a complicated one involving several stops. He and I had no choice though. Our fates, tossed together that very afternoon, were inextricably linked for all of Time. He needed to earn his pay, I needed to get to the next town, so make do with each other we did.

An uncomfortable silence punctuated by the sounds of the road – other passing cars, the clump of going over a bump now and again and the air conditioning on full blast – was all we had for most of the journey, the silence easier than trying to communicate across the language barrier. To my shame, I pretended to poke around on my phone then look thoughtfully out into the distance where there was truly nothing to see.

I will never know how long that state of affairs could have lasted for because halfway through the journey he asked if I was Nigerian. I answered in the affirmative, which prompted further revelations of other Nigerian folks out here he had worked with. After that, I had to ask where he was from. It turned out he was as local as it could get, being born in the very town we were speeding towards. That helped allay some of my anxiety about the journey and defused the building tension in the car.

The journey did not go without any hitches: the aroma of the cigarettes he lit up every time he had to wait for me at a stop never quite left, his meter stopped working three-quarters of the way through the journey which meant I paid an estimated fare (which probably worked out in my favour, to be honest) and he had to take a call from his wife at some stage. It wasn’t the greatest of afternoons but then nothing involving humans, not least two people navigating a new thing, ever goes perfectly. I did come away with a reminder that behind every transactional relationship lies a human: with quirks of character, needs and maybe an irate wife or two. I can – we all can – deal more graciously with others.

Duly noted, Universe!

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…

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.

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…