Stripping, (TV) Binges and Thinking About Thinking

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By some unexpected twist of fate, I found myself heading into Central London on the hottest day of the year, a fairly tropical 37 degrees Celsius, and that for the first time since last December. The destination was the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, the plan to get my expired Nigerian passport renewed. To get here I had had to jump through several tortuous loops, not helped by the fact that my trips down to England are scheduled months in advance with impromptu trips being aggressively minimised due to the costs. My takeaway from my dealings with the appointment’s system was that the (re)scheduling system could be significantly improved  – first, you sign up via a third party web service, pay the booking fees and then get randomly assigned a date, one you can only change to a more suitable one by emailing back and forth, no less than six in my case – which meant in addition to the heat I very much had my mind prepared for a terrible experience which could potentially take the whole day. It might have been my low expectations, but the experience was far less stressful than I expected, sans the slow pace at which things trundled along from picking a ticket to getting called for an initial review and then submitting my biometric details. If there was a silver lining, it was that the slow pace of things – and the very many other Nigerians there for similar purposes – increased the likelihood of running into people I had not seen in a long time; 20 plus years and two kids in one case. That the most unsettling thing from all of that was wondering what the scrawny lad I ended up sitting across from on the tube from Charing Cross to Waterloo was up – to whilst reading from 2nd Corinthians 1 in a huge bible – is a miracle of sorts (events at the High Commission didn’t leave me mentally drained as they have in the past) or perhaps only the symptom of my low expectations.

A lot of my free time over the past month has been spent catching up on TV which, admittedly, is hardly the stuff of living intentionally  Be that as it may, all that TV watching did manage to throw up something to relish. The movie was The Upside, a comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy quadriplegic (played by Bryan Cranston) and his ex-convict Life Assistant (played by Kevin Hart) with the sub-text of his relationship with his devoted assistant who it would appear hs feelings for him (played by Nicole Kidman). In one of the surprise birthday scenes, the opera assembled for a private performance began to sing a tune which I thought was very familiar. My first thought – borne out by events in the end – was that I had heard it on an episode of Rhiannon Giddens’ Aria Code. one of my favourite podcasts from earlier in the year. It was indeed, a portion of the Queen of The Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The downside was that it led me down a YouTube rabbit hole which swallowed up the rest of that Saturday.

The one book I managed to finish in July, Alan Jacobs’ How To Think, is increasingly beginning to seem like an inspired choice not least for how often my Twitter timeline has tottered on the edge of a complete meltdown over the past few weeks. Existing online as I do at the intersection of being Nigerian (with all its spiritual, cultural and political baggage) and being an active seeker of intellectual complexity at times my Twitter feed has seemed like a frothing mess of controversial tweets and retweets, 140 character takes and counter takes and the occasional link to a think piece published so soon after the event it seeks to analyse that any claim to thoroughness could only be wishful at best. Many a time, I have started typing a furious response to a tweet only to catch myself mid tweet, sigh and walk away. I would like to think that the overriding driver behind my choice to not add to the noise has been noble but the longer I think about it, the more I see that most times it has been due to a fear of sorts – that the views I am about to share might get ripped to shreds by the collective wisdom of the frothing masses – or at other times fatigue from all the digesting and engagement I am having to do. A recurring thread in the book is how our perspectives, views and memberships colour our understanding of facts and (naturally?) drive us towards thinking in herds.  Social Media and its engagement algorithms drive us further into the depths of our herds, our Inner Rings (to borrow from CS Lewis) and our echo chambers. The final chapter ends with an offering of 12 ideas – a thinking person’s checklist – which are well worth a read. A few key ones for me not in as many words: Take 5 minutes, value learning over debating, eschew virtue signalling, gravitate towards communities that can handle disagreements with equanimity, assess your repugnances and be brave, one I can certainly use more of I suspect.

The Road Taken

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Me, Benin City and an intense desire for fried chicken was how I ended up here; walking along Airport Road looking for a Chicken Republic. Having spotted it from the window of the speeding cab ferrying me from Ring Road to the neither-here-nor-there hotel I planned on sleeping over at on Ihama Road, I grossly underestimated the distance. That only became apparent once my cravings had gotten the better of me and I was back on the road, in the sweltering heat, plodding along whilst wondering what had gotten into my head.

The joys of peppered chicken, fried rice and an uber chilled coke? Well worth the road taken, if I say so myself.

Of Weddings, Cheesecake and Paper Planes

05 Wedding

The somewhat impromptu trip to Lagos was designed around three main objectives; making an appearance at a (self-proclaimed) protege’s wedding, dinner with the Lagos based elements of my old work crew and appeasing my father, who as early as New Year’s Day had begun to sound his dissatisfaction at my conspiring to avoid making what used to be an annual trip to Nigeria last year. For the wedding, the plan was to arrive at 10.00 am, 9.00 am invitation notwithstanding. That decision was one I rationalised away by assuming that as with all things Nigerian, a certain element of tardiness was expected. By the time I arrived at 10.30 am – sweating profusely following my ill thought out attempt to walk till I found a yellow cab – I was as undressed as I could be, my tie slackened to let what precious little fresh air there was get to my skin and my suit dispensed with. That meant I had to find somewhere to cool off for a few extra minutes and get my outfit put together again before popping into the venue. In the end I had to settle for the wing mirror on a parked car, studiously avoiding the gaze of the soldiers sat on the bench only a few feet away. Once in the building proper, I managed to find a seat next to a rotating fan to ease my pain.

The ceremony was in full flow by then, the sight in front of me a mix of colours aplenty; of which green and white stood out being the colours worn by the family and selected guests. The signing of the marriage register and the thanksgiving shuffle by the bride, groom and friends followed in quick order, for which I had to overcome my long standing aversion to dancing. The upside was I managed to catch a good glimpse of my friend, all glammed up for her big day, as well as shake their hands as we passed them once we had divested ourselves of our tokens of appreciation. Being doused in holy water was an unexpected bonus of sorts.

Picture taking and then the reception soon followed, the highlights of which were the food, the long speeches and dancing, elevated to the heights of an extreme sport. Part of me wonders if there isn’t a sense of competition between in-laws at these shin-digs; both sides of the marrying families being keen to not be outdone by the number and quality of guests invited, as indicated by the number of suffixes they carry. The MC was perhaps the singular blot in my opinion, choosing to walk a tight rope more than a few times with his joking. A chance conversation with someone I had not seen in ages highlighted the fact that I could pay for Uber rides with cash which considerably eased my movements thereafter.

My time at the wedding over, the next pit stop was the Ice Cream factory. I was there to meet my friend D and his wife whose acquaintance I was yet to make. I ended up waiting for over two hours before they showed up – poetic justice I suppose given my decision making around the wedding. His Mrs was his excuse – having dragged him to a wedding in a different part of town she had insisted on divesting herself of her wedding clothes before heading out to our meet up. For my pain whilst waiting, I dug into some cheese cake, appropriately sized for killing time. Across from me, a gentleman typed away on his MacBook, dipping into a tub of ice cream now again. By the time D and Mrs arrived, they were dressed very comfortably in Saturday evening, heat-appropriate wear whilst I still had my suit and tie from the wedding. A third friend F joined us eventually, making for a four strong group with a lot of catching up to do. In a tongue in cheek way, my friend D moaned about just how little a life he has had since he got married in 2014 – being driver, cleaner, occasional cook and two or three time punch bag. We both laughed knowingly; truth is he is a much better person than he used to be – more focused, no longer scrawny and generally happier, Lagos traffic issues notwithstanding. Somehow we managed to fit a conversation about loss, lostness, identity and the travails of living Lagos in the two hours and some we spent catching up.

red earth

A quick catch up with my friend A with whom my paths crossed for the grand total of five hours – a logistical nightmare on any day – was quickly followed by a dash across town to the airport for my flight to Benin the next day. The final leg of the journey was made a whole lot easier by a ride from the brother in-law, the added benefit being the opportunity to reacquaint myself with niece number 3. For all the stories her mother relates of how she continually sings my name, our reconnection was muted. I suppose we can blame her being sleepy for that, not my sloppy uncle skills.

Ekpoma – home – this city of red earth baked hard by the relentless beating of the sun which I have come back to time and again since I first left for good as a seventeen year old in the late nineties was the same as I remembered it. By the time I arrived, it had already been three days since the national grid last supplied power to the area my folk live in. Fairly typical, with a chuckle, is how my cousin relates their ongoing ordeal with NEPA – or whatever the disco in the area is. To ease my arrival, we had the generator run for a few hours to charge up phones, laptops and get the fans whirling and moving air for a bit. The days when I was waited on hand and foot out here are sadly long gone, the joys of a cold shower – the first time since I had one here – did help me get to sleep.

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The next few days passed in a blur – eating, sleeping and catching up with family the subject of my days. The third day was spent getting to see nieces #1 and 2. The day itself, as unremarkable and indistinguishable from the rest of them in being boiling hot and powerless was greatly improved by all the playing I managed to get in with the nieces. The Peppa pig books I managed to travel with helped a sight, as did being able to google up how to make paper planes and origami houses. The day enjoyable as it was had a bitter sweet after taste to it. For all the fun and games we got up to, it was only a few hours long. Doting Uncle or not, I am missing the opportunity to be a big part of their lives. Hopefully the iPhone their mother managed to blackmail me into giving her will mitigate that. The other days were more of a pain, filled with difficult conversations skirted around, and visits to old friends of the family to keep up appearances. Not the most exciting stuff, but I suspect getting to see my nieces more than made up for that.

There was time to get back to Lagos, catch up with old friends, make a pit stop at chicken republic and tuck into some cake and ice cream at Hans and Rene – before I had to pack it all in and head to the airport to catch my flight back. All told, it was a largely enjoyable trip, one that put into perspective all the things I miss about Nigeria – family and friends mainly. Whether that lure is strong enough to save this lost son, only time will tell.