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.

The Diary: Jacqueville By The Sea

This has been sitting in my drafts for several months, so I thought I’d try to finish it off and post it here as a means to making use of the time I have on my hands.

**

If there is a silver lining to being a terrible sleeper it is that I usually manage to wake up in time for things, typically before my alarm rings. The blips on that record are increasingly regular –  and spectacular – like this past weekend when I slept through multiple alarms. When I finally woke up (having failed to do so to the alarm on my phone and on my watch), it was ten minutes before my taxi was due, cue half-brained rushing about to splash some water on my face, brush my teeth and grab my travel bags. By the time that was done, there were already two missed calls from the taxi driver and the company on my phone. There was, I thought, a hint of irritation on the driver’s face when I finally emerged. All of that disappeared once we were on the way, and speeding, to the airport.  The usual chit-chat revealed he had passed through the corner of West Africa I was headed for many years ago, and that he was Latvian, not that anyone could have guessed from his near-perfect Aberdonian accent. Scrambling for change at the airport, he waived the additional £1.20, helped me with getting my bags out of the car trunk and then promptly disappeared for the next gig. Bag drop and security took ten minutes at that time of the morning, by which time I was barely lucid and grateful for the cup of black coffee I poured myself once I was into the lounge. I was the first of my work party to arrive, which gave me some time to settle in and breathe a little, before the incessant chit-chat and mindless prattle began. It was a good thing I managed to catch my breath because the chit-chat, when it began, focused on the prospect of my leaving for greener pastures – being a traitor to the cause was the good-natured accusation thrown about. In those days before the oil price tanked, there were stirrings of growth and opportunities and I was only the latest in a long line of folk who had either left or were in the process of leaving. To cut costs, we had somehow engineered a tight connection at Charles de Gaulle, our turn around time being a grand total of ninety minutes plane to plane which left us hands full, running almost full pelt through the airport. We made it with some time to spare in the end and were delayed by a further hour for reasons unknown to us, all of which left me internally cursing the necessity of the awfully early start. We found out in the end that the delay was due to a deportation order being served on someone, cue police and immigration and all the malarkey that comes with those.

The flight itself was unremarkable, except perhaps for the opportunity it provided to catch up on some sleep and a small moment of which I am ashamed in which I relocated a very pregnant woman’s bags to ensure I’d have access to mine during the flight. Not my finest hour I’ll admit, though I’d point to my being less than mentally optimal from the loss of sleep. There was food, some movie of some description to pass the time and then podcasts to drown out the noise around. The Bamako pitstop was just that, though it added an extra hour to our travel, meaning we arrived at Abidjan just after 5.30pm local time. Customs was a breeze, the one advantage of arriving on a flight that disgorged the majority of its passengers in Bamako, which meant in just under an hour we were through customs bags in hand searching the gathered crowds for our assigned driver. H and I were at our hotel by 7pm and having dinner by 7.30pm, before turning in for our early morning helicopter flight offshore. That set the tone for the week: early starts, late nights and plenty of helicopter flights, meetings, getting frogged on and off remote platforms, and largely being visible. By the time Thursday came around, the days had begun to blur into each other, the situation not helped by terribly slow internet which was the result of issues with undersea cables off the West African coast.

These trips take me down memory lane, to a time and place in which I was the young, exuberant national engineer with expatriate advisors doling out dollops from their vats of wisdom. Back then, I felt like I was kicking against a glass ceiling and would never really hit the heights I wanted to. There is after all, a perverse incentive structure here; the expatriate is by definition highly paid – better remunerated than in his (and it typically is a he in these parts) own country, waited on hand and foot and holds a lot of power by virtue of his perceived expertise. His approval is thus something of great significance in the local power structure, and when given sparingly can drive behaviours of subservience in the local engineer. There is also the small matter of the expat boys club and the propensity to err on the side of supporting the hegemony in the event of a potential threat to that power. After all, every member of the club benefits, and the more the perceived requirements for their expert service persists, the more the local engineers are made to feel and look incompetent. Nationalisation schemes attempt to address the skills gap by demanding quotas for nationals in these companies – whether they work is a different matter altogether. The irony is not lost on me though, I too am out here because of a perceived superiority of expertise – I too have become part of the White-Saviour industrial complex, to borrow a construct from Teju Cole.  I can only hope that with time, at least some of the bright, young people I meet on these trips can hit the heights their exuberance and energy deserve, and opportunities to grow and learn come their way.

We spend the last day back on land, a day visit to Jacqueville being the objective. It is one of those little outposts big (or medium-sized oil in this case) manages to find, the small pump station on the edge of the town being the most important thing of economic significance in the area. The road there, usually impassable in the heights of the rainy season, has recently been graded and is thus somewhat passable. Graded or not, it is a bumpy ride, our convoy of 4×4’s leaving dust in our wake as we bounce along the final stretch of earth road. Palm trees line the earth road, tricycles dot the roads and in the distance, boats bob about on the sea as fishermen go about their daily business. At our final destination, we carry out an impromptu inspection of some work which is planned for completion in early March with several strong words exchanged at the state of preparedness (or not). Part of it is a manifestation of that industrial complex, and the resultant lack of agency of the national engineer in charge. Lurking beneath the surface for me is that it is my last time out here. Although, I have been involved in this place for all of three years. I’d like to think I’m leaving it in a better state than I met it. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere, plastic shrouds the roots of the trees.

Place

For The Sunday Muse prompt #108:

***
Bound up
in its faux pillars
and its dangling
chandeliers are
the memories
of stolen things,
the tears shed
here by the lost ones
reverberating in our ears.
Time disappears here,
subsumed by the delight
of truly feeling
and of seeing,
the art of each act
a tribute to the
ones who’ve come
before.

On Returning to the City of Red Earth

With NaPoWriMo done and dusted for this year, I’m getting the chance to catch up on other stuff. The fifth (and penultimate) assignment for the Creative Non-Fiction Course I started in February was to describe a city and the feelings it engendered in us during our last visit. Here goes: 

***

In my more nostalgic moments, I call her the City of Red Earth, but that is as far away as possible from what I feel as I drag my bags towards the check-in desk ahead of heading back out there. The last time, H had just passed, and the three weeks which followed were consumed by the busyness of dealing with the dead. Everyone I tell about this upcoming trip shares cautionary tales; of the power industry grinding to a halt, the spiralling crime rates, and the rapidly disintegrating roads. Not to seem too dismissive, I smile and nod at their concerns whilst inwardly telling myself I’ll do a good job of passing; after all my pidgin English – lightly accented as it is – is passable.

The first few days after I arrive pass in a blur: taxi rides on congested roads, visits to the local malls to indulge in local delicacies and the odd phone call with the groom-to-be filling my days. With the weekend comes the wedding, and the chance to finally catch my breath. Afterwards, we head East.

What first hits me when we arrive is how little the city of red earth has changed. A layer of red dust covers everything, the remains of the clouds that trail the steady stream of old creaking vehicles sagging beneath the weight of humanity as they head to the local market. The old woman who hawks her wares at the side of the road – still ensconced in the makeshift stall she has for the past four years – waves excitedly when she recognises my brother. That she can spot him at the distance is not the only miracle of sorts; her stall, with a sheet of tarpaulin wrapped around four bamboo stems to form three sides and roof, is still standing.

Everyone who spots us, waves and stops us for a few minutes of commiseration, a small human gauntlet of sorts. Mild irritation apart, I suppose it is refreshing to see the small community in which everyone knows everyone – and in which you were as likely to get a reprimand from the neighbour two houses down as your mother for a public indiscretion – has stayed the same, whatever pressures of globalisation there are all around.

The house on the corner of 39th street also looks the same, only dustier, which perhaps is the clearest indication of H’s absence. Some of my clearest memories of her are with a duster in hand driving clouds of dust off the furniture. That is something we’ll never see again.

Otherwise, it is clear there is a new normal slowly settling in. Thankfully none of the feared things materialises – we survive without any incidents – and leave just in time to be on the right side of the line between being August visitors and ones who have overstayed their welcome. Three days are all it is this time. There will be a time for lengthy swims in these waters, but for now, a dip seems sensible.

The Diary: Malta

 

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4 am on a weekend is far too early to wake up, particularly when it is the next day after a late-night flight, but given my flight the next day is a 7.30am one I have to suck it up. The next day, having rushed through a shower, completed final bag checks and double-checked I have my passport, we find ourselves in a taxi speeding away on the A3 a little after 5am, barely lucid but glad I don’t have to do the driving. At Gatwick, we find lengthy lines bent double on themselves with baggage handlers thin on the ground. That EasyJet, that famously lean airline, deigns to apologise over the state of affairs is perhaps all one needs to know about just how dire the situation is. Thankfully, we make it through baggage drop and security just before 7am; just enough time to grab a Shake Shack breakfast bun and start frantically eyeing the departure boards for signs of our flight. It ends up delayed, no surprise there.

It is almost mid-day UK time when we catch our first glimpse of the islands as we begin our final descent. The first thing that strikes me is just how small it looks, bringing to mind memories of our last jaunt a few months ago, Madeira. Passport control is a breeze (not for much longer given Brexit I suspect), finding our coach to the hotel takes a little longer but all told we’re at reception checking in to our hotel in Qawra just over an hour after our flight lands. The rest of the day is spent catching up on sleep and getting our bearings in the positively baking 17 deg C heat, a shock to the system given the London temperatures we’ve just escaped.

With time – three years and counting – a method has evolved around these holidays: a catch up with the official tour representative to get the lay of the land, followed by a hop-on/ hop-off tour of the city and then a few official tours with free days in which we do our own thing as we feel like. At our travel agency briefing we find out about shared connections – M is part Maltese and grew up in North London before upping sticks and relocating to this corner of the world. As for tours, we sign up for a day trip to Gozo, a guided tour that takes in the old capital Mdina, Mosta, a craft village and Valletta and the Christmas day special. We also sign up for the hop-on/hop-off tour of the south of the island to take advantage of the 3 euro discount.

There is a certain symmetry to the beauty of quaint European cities: narrow cobbled streets, old buildings and magnificent cathedrals around which each village/city is centred which, after you’ve been to a few, can begin to blend into each other. Undergirding what we see though is how the intersecting interests and intrigue over millennia have shaped the present. Thanks to its location, and perhaps climate, Malta has seen more than its fair share of conquest with imprints of pre-historic peoples, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, The Aragonese, Sicilians, Knights of Saint John and the British all there to see. These were all sights we took in in bits and pieces over the 8 days we spent out there. Most surprising for me though is how the Arabic influence has persisted, most notably in the spoken language. That tension between the past and the present remains visible in the form of cranes and spruced up facades sitting often next to the tired and worn limestone ones of other buildings.

We had the pleasure of experiencing two power cuts during the period of our stay, the causes of which we never managed to understand. That, and the chaos we seemed to just manage to avoid (read late departures for tours/ frantic phone calls by our travel agency rep to confirm tours were still on), brought shades of Lagos to mind. Back to the power situation: at the fishing village of Marsaxlokk we spotted a tanker delivering LNG to the power station visible across the bay and not very many wind turbines. Given the high winds we experienced – which threatened to toss someone’s weave into the sea as we waited to board the ferry at Sliema – the absence of wind turbines was interesting.

The ornately decorated insides of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and St Phillips in Zebbug caused me to cast my mind to sacred spaces and how their design can inspire a sense of wonder in the worshipping faithful. This is something our Pentecostal spaces would do well to learn from I think, given their typically more spartan outlook.

Being able to wander the streets, thanks to long paved promenades at St Julian’s, between Qawra and St Paul’s bay amongst others was a positive, particularly given the temperatures which were just warm enough, staying mainly in the 15 to 17 deg C range for most of the time out there. On one of those walks, we came across a game of bocce and stayed a few minutes to watch. Given it was our first time we had no clue what the objective was besides, as a German tourist who also stopped to watch put it, old people passing time 😊

One of the reasons for sticking with Europe this time was to try to get into the Christmas spirit. Nativity scenes and colourful night-time displays dotted the landscape. Running into several other black faces was a welcome change from our previous travels – even as it included running into friends of friends.

For all the things we planned and did, two things defined this holiday for me, both unexpected. A wander into St Paul’s Bay on which we chanced upon a tiny church which supposedly marks the location of Paul’s shipwreck and the introduction of Christianity, and a boy who took to the piano in the airport and proceeded to delight us all, to sporadic applause now again – the perfect, unscripted ending to a season of chilling if ever there was one.

P.S: More pictures here (on Google Photos), if those are your bag.

Stripping, (TV) Binges and Thinking About Thinking

dav

***
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.

Wet Weather Problems, Twittering about Tea and Loving at First Write

***
All it takes is an extended patch of wet and cold weather for things to descend into chaos on these islands, this latest batch of snow, heavy winds and cold weather culminating in flight cancellations and severe weather warnings amongst others. For the most part, I manage to survive – extra warm clothing, walking gingerly to and from work in the wet slush and almost continuous heating being the sum of the adjustments I have to make. It is at the weekend when the rooster comes home to roost in a manner of speaking. Having turned up at the airport for my 8.20pm flight down to Heathrow, delays till almost 11 pm are announced until at a few minutes before midnight we are advised the flight has been cancelled. Remarkably, everyone who should be on our flight is remarkably sanguine about it all,  helped I suspect by the sense that the weather ‘gods’ have been at it again. Between the final announcement of delays and the flight being cancelled, we find (from Flight radar) that the ‘plane designated to carry us away to London has made several attempts to land at the ‘Deen but has failed due to fog rolling in. They eventually get diverted to Glasgow whilst we make an orderly line at the front desk to get our flights rebooked. I move my flight by a week and then head home, not before I find out that the woman in front of me in the queue has family in the same area of Surrey that I’m headed to, and very much like me, she makes this trip every two weeks so. Joking about being four-day spouses, does have a ring of truth to it though. For me, it offers evidence that this thing – having a foot in two different countries – isn’t exactly impossible to maintain, mild weather-induced irritation notwithstanding.

***

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I have to thank this tweet, and the replies it spawned, for helping most of that time pass. Growing up in my other country, meals were all about being three ‘square’ meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tea – and apples amongst other things – were alien constructs I first came across in the various Enid Blyton books I scrounged off my more exposed friends. As I became older, tea became synonymous with instant cream milk (usually the Peak brand) and Bournvita (a chocolate drink) and on the odd occasion a cup of Lipton tea. Reading the replies and comments thus brought back memories of my first few years up here, particularly offshore and the contact with people from across the spectrum of UK regions it brought my way and brought more than a few chuckles to me too. A silver lining to all that waiting I would like to think.

***

Elsewhere, I have been slowly catching up with the first season of Aria Code, Rhiannon Giddens’ deep dive into a number of the most famous arias along with interviews with singers and capped off with the full aria from the Met Opera. The penultimate episode from this first season features the “Letter Aria” from Jules Massenet’s Werther, which opens with Charlotte at home on Christmas Eve, rereading letters that she has received from Werther an ex-lover she has sent away to be focused on her marriage to her husband. One of the themes explored in this episode of Aria code is the subject of long-distance love, a theme lived and explored by one of the show’s guests Peter Bognanni (after briefly meeting his wife, they fell and grew in love over email before eventually marrying) in his book Things I’m Seeing Without You. Well worth a listen if Opera is your bag, or if like me you have good memories from having made friends and loving over significant distances.

A different kind of the middle of nowhere

Image Source: Wikipedia


Nursing a double espresso in the Air France lounge at Charles De Gaulle, it’s the first time in a week that I get the chance to be by myself and reflect on what has been a whirlwind week. From being up at 5.00 am two Sundays ago (to catch an early flight westward from Heathrow to Abidjan via Paris), multiple flying stops to a number of offshore assets and then to this stop on the way back to normalcy, it has felt like a blur of perpetual motion. It has also, much against my natural bent, been a time spent overwhelmingly in the company of others -  work colleagues, fellow travellers and the odd hustler looking to make a quick buck amongst others. With each change of location – Heathrow, Paris, Abidjan and offshore – there has been a progressive browning of my surroundings, one that means that by the time I arrive at the work site I am lost in a sea of similar faces. Not since my last job in this part of the world at the back end of 2008 have I found myself in this sort of surroundings; not in the minority but one face in a sea of similar faces.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, the humidity hits like a bed sheet heavy with water might if flapped about by a strong wind, along with the million indecipherable smells – smoke from cooked food, the linger of car exhaust fumes, dried sweat – the minutiae of life which might be from any city along this West African coast. The airport itself is not significantly different from one I am more familiar with – Murtala Mohammed International – with its milling masses of people; particularly the hustlers who sidle up to you, somewhat conspiratorially offering up various taxi and money changing services and a Burger King. Like that other airport, this one is also named for an African strong man.

The days start early and end late, involving a variety of boat transfers including the frog, a walk to work solution and the odd clamber up boat landings via ladders. My two slight concerns turn out to be unfounded – the heat isn’t overly oppressive and I find enough familiar food to subsist on. One can hardly go wrong with eggs, bacon and sausages or rice and fried plantains for that matter (and EVERYTHING tastes infinitely better with a dash of chilli sauce).  Somehow, I get cast in the role of the Africa expert – asked to weigh in everything from food choices to social mores.

Nights are spent trying to get to sleep whilst being swayed by the swells rocking the accommodation vessel we’re on. Fairly recently the beds have been doubled up to increase capacity, which is how three of us get a room with two beds. I volunteer to take one of the top bunk beds, given I have less of a frame to squeeze in than the others.

Being out and about brings back memories of another life, being the young local engineer learning the ropes and then chomping at the bit to take on more responsibilities. In the stories I tell myself of that time, I wrestle with the tension between wanting to do more but feeling like the real decision making power was elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I upped sticks and left in the end. With the benefit of the distance of a few years since then, it is clear that structural problems notwithstanding, my youthful headiness played a part in whatever grievances I carry from that time.  I can’t help but wonder if these younger engineers feel any different, and if the various players in this space have the global reach and structure to truly develop these minds into ‘world class’ engineers. This is the first of many trips westwards and south I suspect. I am curious to see how this pans out.