Season’s Greetings

It feels very much like my first Christmas up in the ‘Deen, what with being house bound, friends and family some distance away and there being a decided chill in the air. Now, as with then, I woke up to We Three Kings in my ears with all the rabbit holes of memories it brings with it.

The key difference this time is that the lockdown has given everyone practice of staying in touch across the distance. Fortunately or unfortunately, that means I have several family zoom calls to jump on. It is a small inconvenience I guess, given the year we have all had – the best of years and the worst of years to use that oft quoted line from Dickens.

There is a lot to be thankful for on all counts, so all I’ll say is give those friends and family members a call over this period and catch up.

Season’s Greetings from the Edge of The World!

On Lights, Language and that (c)old December Weather

Photo by Lawless Capture on Unsplash

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In about as low key a manner as could be, lights – I won’t go so far as to call them Christmas lights – are slowly making their way on to trees around me. That they first turned up in front of the communal lounge and then a few houses here and there complete with inflatable Santas made me think they were put up by individuals. I am no longer so sure of that, given that some lights turned up on the tree in the middle of no man’s land in front of my house. Lights apart, you would have no inkling it was a week to Christmas – work continues apace and the only official holiday is the 3rd of January. For all the sameness that living in the bubble I live in seems to cultivate, it is these little differences that drive home the realities now and again. The positive is that I get to take the days off when I want which, all things being equal, should be soon-ish.

Two conversations this week, and one of my favourite podcasts, brought the subject of language to my mind. First was a conversation around learning French which for me remains lost in the dregs of the someday/maybe folder. Three months of lockdown had me diving into Duolingo on a regular basis but in the face of real life since then, the inscrutability of gendered nouns, tricky pronunciations and head scratching verb conjugations have put paid to that desire. Maybe English is far too reductionist – or more likely as a reasonably fluent English speaker I have become lazy with languages – but one wonders what the world-view behind gendered nouns is.

The past few episodes of the On Being podcast have focused on the subject of love and loving. In the notes to Ellen Bass’s Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh, the subject of language and how we refer to the ones we love comes up but perhaps most close to my heart was a conversation with O. O is a distant cousin who insists on speaking to me in our shared mother tongue. In the aftermath of our last conversation I couldn’t shake the thought of how we greet in the morning from my mind. In my mother tongue (and why is it mother tongue?), we say “mole muude”, which loosely translates as welcome from yesterday. Maybe some distant ancestor realized that life was a hard slog, and making it through a night exposed to the elements and wild beasts deserved a welcome of sorts, or not. Given the multiple theories on the origin of language, I suspect we will never know for certain.

When the morning temperatures first dipped below 10 degrees a few weeks ago, I spurned the use of a jacket as I the one I had was not fire retardant. Fast forward a few weeks now, and every morning when I get off the bus without my jacket, I am invariably asked if I am not cold. My usual response is to say that I’ve seen worse, and that 10 degree weather, sans the bracing Scottish wind – is hardly cold. This is an explanation I have overhead others repeating. I fear this is one of those things that will take on a life of its own, with interest continuing until the day I finally cave in and turn up with a jacket. For now, I am still holding out.

Recent Finds

  • Michael Curry (he of the rousing homily at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) & Russell Moore (one of the more considered and nuanced voices amidst America’s Southern Baptists) come from widely differing Christian traditions but manage to have a friendly, wide ranging conversation on the On Being podcast. Well worth a listen if conversations around public theology are your thing.
  • On the subject of language and poetry, David Whyte on the Art of Manliness talks poetry, life and the intersections therein. A theme which seems to be popping up a bit amongst friends and acquaintances turns up here too, the need for men to develop friendships that encourage difficult conversations.
  • Somewhat related, the folk from Love Thy Neighbourhood talk about gender on Where The Gospel Meets Manhood.
  • From Math Twitter, Steven Strogatz (The Joy of X, Infinite Powers) posted a link to The Mountains of Pi which delves into the story of the Chudnovsky brothers and their quest to build a super computer to compute the digits of pi, back in the early 90s. They’re still going, incredibly.

Coming Up For Air

Based on a photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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That doing and not doing are both habits is something that I have come to grudgingly accept over the past month, seeing as the longer I was away from here the harder dragging myself back here seemed. In my defence real life has been manic, the stultifying pressures of time-sensitive deliverables not lending themselves to the pursuit of non-essential, creative pursuits. I have myself to blame for some of that pressure, seeing as I somehow thought fitting a poem a day challenge into everything I had going on would be doable. I made it through fourteen days of that – a minor miracle at least. With some breathing space coming up towards the end of the month, my hope is to go back over the prompts, edit, write some more, and begin the process of pulling some of the pieces together into a chap book for the evaluators in January 2020.

Winter is very much here, not enough to turn on the heating (I love it cold at night for sleep) but enough to feel the bite in the wind at noon when I make a beeline for the canteen to grab my regular lunch time fare. My evening walks now include a hoodie for some warmth and protection against the chilly weather which, believe it or not, hovered just above 10 deg C the other night. We have had rain a couple of times too, in addition to the occasional heavy fog rolling in like a wet blanket. Rain and fog most assuredly did not cross my mind as weather effects to expect out here. A learning experience if ever there was one I think. The next milestone – six months in the current gig – is just round the corner. I’m hoping that it goes well, bucking the recent trends of lay-offs, hiring freezes and all the other things the headwinds facing my industry seem to have driven every one from small, nimble operator to lumbering erstwhile giants to. Back in Blighty, Boris and his oven-ready deal have proven to be anything but that, with recent briefings suggesting that no-deal – by whatever name it is called – seems to be the most likely option. Surely his days in the hot seat must be numbered with any number of challengers from his ranks waiting in the wings it seems.

Oil, and the head winds facing the industry, are never far away from the conversation. The recent up-tick in oil prices and what seems to be some sense prevailing amongst the sabre rattling big producers and cartels perhaps delays the inevitable but oil has certainly has its day. In conversation with G the other day at work, we concluded that our generation is probably the last one that will benefit from the ‘largesse’ of the oil industry. The latest cuts at one of my previous employers – whilst borrowing to keep up paying dividends – certainly removes any sense of rose tinted glasses. It is a numbers game now, and any notions of pride in esoteric knowledge very much need t be tempered by the realities of life. I am betting on data and porting my skills into adjacent industries.

Proper reading has taken a back seat to everything else with the only real time I’ve had been on the bus to and from work. Audio books and podcasts have come to the rescue in that regard. Here, for your pleasure are a few bits and bobs from what I have managed to consume.

  • Season 2 of perhaps my favourite podcast is still going strong, now standing 22 episodes deep and featuring a wide variety of work from folk such as Lucille Clifton, Chris Abani, Gregory Pardlo and Ada Limon. Next to Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, I am finding Dilruba Ahmed’s Phase One an especially evocative one. Something about learning to forgive oneself is particularly resonant given the year we have all had in which carefully laid plains have been disrupted by things outside our control
  • A thoroughly fascinating and wide ranging conversation between Nanjala Nyabola and Yousra Elbagir over at Intelligence Squared had me nodding and smiling to myself from time to time at how very articulated several of the thought which have been kicking about in my head were made. The power of passports is something that I know only too well.
  • My views on government are shifting, decidedly I think, in the direction of smaller, less bloated forms. Fareed Zakaria certainly makes the argument in Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World that the quality of governance is what matters more than the quantity. Nigeria certainly has a lot of quantity (and bloat) and very little quality, good old Blighty seems to have neither to me.
  • And from Church of the Way, Land of The Living, which has become one of my favourite songs over the past month. It might be the song itself, or its lyrics which soothe a craving for certainty but all told, I think it is well worth a listen.

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

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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

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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

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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!