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.

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!

Vices, Spices and A Question of Identity

Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash

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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…

Getting My Finger Out

Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

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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

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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.