On Lagos

01 Nigeria 1

That my relationship with Nigeria is somewhere between strained and non-existent is something I have made no bones about time and time again. That sense of lostness rather than easing with time has only become stronger, the key events in my life over the last few years – Newcastle, the bookend to a horrendous year of work and the somewhat forced decision to not return to the bedlam and then H – all chipping away at what bonds are left, leaving them increasingly tenuous.

H’s passing cast a long pall over the last time I was here, so much so that by the time it was all done and dusted the sense was very much one of reeling and sinking, waiting for rock bottom to hit. The hope, as perverse as it might sound, was that hitting rock bottom would be the jolt to initiate a search for a new normal. There is the sense that a new normal of sorts has taken shape, somehow emerging without much intentionality on my part from the bits and bobs of life and duty that I have had to deal with. A significant part of that new normal for me has been very much work focused, part of why it has taken this long to plan a return here; the opportunity to take a week off work only presenting itself now that I have managed to shift perhaps my biggest work deliverable on to its next phase. The objectives for this trip are a lot happier than the last time – a wedding in Lagos (someone I claim somewhat loosely as a protégé) has thrown up the intriguing prospect that I might run into people I haven’t seen in far longer than I care to admit. There is also the opportunity to catch up with very special work mates whom I haven’t seen since 2011 and the niece I’ve never seen, #4, who is all of seven months old.

Everyone I tell I am going to Lagos has a cautionary tale for me bar L (whose opinion I suspect lacks any real objectivity). Mrs O, the latest in a long line of naysayers, regales me with tales of long queues for petrol, the near absence of power and the heat. She should know first hand as she has just come back from a 17-day sojourn. At work, G jokes that he’d be glad to be rid of me forever if I get kidnapped. We laugh it off at banter but when in speaking to my sister she mentions in passing the kidnap of yet another not so well off, but publicly visible person, in the area I grew up in, I wonder if it is indeed the right thing to be doing. In the end my self belief in my ability to blend in wins – I am sure I haven’t changed so much as to stand out like a sore thumb. That my pidgin English still remains impeccable and I intend to turn up in jeans and a very crumpled t-shirt all add additional layers of comfort around my decision.

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In keeping with the desire to minimise the disruption this trip brings to my new normal, my entire strategy has been based around flying with only carry-on luggage. That informs every decision I make; from buying a new cabin sized travel bag, to restricting my gift buying to 10 Peppa pig books for my nieces, and the plan to turn up at the wedding in jeans and a blazer. When I tell C the latter, she considers it the latest in a long line of fashion faux pas. I ask the twitterverse for a second opinion, but quickly give up on that as the consensus that is reached only confirms the need for a proper suit. That is how I end up getting fitted for a suit at 5.30 pm the day before I am due to fly.

Between arriving and leaving over £210 lighter, I get to hear of the sales assistant’s Nigerian connection – grandparents who ran a franchise of saw mills in Sapele, and a dad who spent time between the ages of 7 and 18 in Nigeria. We swap stories about the great home brewed liquids and reminisce about just how different Sapele is today from the one his father knew as I run my card through the card reader and pay. So completely taken in by everything am I that it is only when I get home I realise that this jeopardises my 2 bag carry on allowance. I spend the bulk of the evening googling furiously, ending up watching YouTube videos which purport to show us how to pack a suit in carry-on suitcase without ruining it. In the end I decide to take my chances.

– – –

03 Waiting
I toy with the thought of calling a taxi for a 5.00 am pickup given my flight out of Aberdeen is at 6.45 am. In the end my inner gambler miser drives the decision to take my chances with the 727 from Broad Street. The next morning my alarm goes off at 4.00 am, by which time I have already been up for half an hour. That is not enough to prevent me from missing the 4.30 am bus. By the time the next one comes around at 5.05 am, I am biting my nails and kicking myself for gambling. In the end I manage to make it through security by 5.45 am, aided by the fact that I do not have any luggage to check in.

Safely through, I chase down a flapjack and a coffee to wake myself up properly. I am in the middle of that when a woman approaches me to share the seat at the corner of the airport I am plopped in. I suspect she has chosen to come my way because I happen to be the only visible black face in the not-quite-filled airport at that time. I nod a greeting whilst trying to swallow as she sits down, hands folded in her lap, bags in front of her. When she senses I am able to talk – flapjack downed – she asks if I am headed to London. When I reply in the affirmative, I sense that she is relieved, more so when she finds out I am going all the way to Lagos. We end up being travel companions through to Heathrow and until we board the Lagos flight. Her enthusiasm for the trip is palpable – in the various conversations we have she lets on that it has been her first time in the ‘Deen, helping her daughter out with her new born baby for all of 5 months. Her memories of Aberdeen this time are the cold and the boredom. Her expectations for Lagos and what lies beyond that for her contrast with mine – she is very much looking forward to reconnecting with the family members she left five months ago, I am largely ambivalent.

Whilst boarding, I pick up a Glaswegian accent from one of the cabin crew. I ask him is he’s Scottish, to which he beams widely, replying in the affirmative. I let on that I have travelled on from Aberdeen and share a quick joke about how both Glasgow football clubs – Rangers and Celtic are a bit long in the tooth. Another member of the cabin crew – as prim, proper and English as could be – hears us yakking on about Celtic and Aberdeen and jokingly retorts that the Scottish are taking over. Great banter which sets us up very nicely for the rest of the flight.

The only blot on that is I end up sat next to a very vocal Arsenal fan, with the scarf from the 2015 FA Cup Final around his neck. Like most Arsenal fans I know, he is all talk and bluster, somehow managing to ignore the fact that I have my headphones plugged in and have my phone in hand trying to select a playlist – a painful reminder of what lies ahead I suspect. Thankfully, the fellow in the seat behind us – and the Glaswegian – are more than happy to talk football with him; that I suspect is part of what makes the trip that bit more bearable for me.

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No amount of mental bracing ever quite prepares one for the shock with which the humidity and heat hit. That, and the almost sudden metamorphosis of a regular, fairly well controlled crowd into a seething mass of jostling, aggressive personalities, is all the proof one needs that this is indeed Nigeria. To be fair, my walk through Immigration is a comparative doodle next to what I remember from the last time; but then memory is notoriously fickle, particularly mine. Perhaps the much mooted change  is beginning to trickle down after all.

Once through immigration, my first order of business is to grab and register a SIM card to allow me get in touch with the contact I’ve been given to pick up keys to the apartment I’ll be staying in. My peculiarly spelt surname – thanks to my grand father it contains a ‘Y’ and has made people guess my nationality as Polish, Czech and Cameroonian until they meet my very Nigerian self. I field a few questions  – Mother’s maiden name, house address amongst others – and leave with a registered, functional SIM card for the journey that lies ahead.

Away from the airport, over 30 minutes of walking pace, bumper to bumper traffic ensures it is 8.30 pm before I pick up keys and can then begin to breathe a little easier. The only thing on my mind – when all that has been sorted – is a cold shower and food. By the end of the day, two things are clear in my head: the next week is going to be a long, hard slog  and this thing, this love-hate relationship with Nigeria is one that will not go away anytime soon – tenuous bonds or not.  Thankfully gala, real meat pie, pepper soup and suya are proven coping mechanisms; I am beginning to relish this.

1 – First Run

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My first run since I cracked a couple of bones in my foot last October went without incident, all fifteen minutes of it. I took my usual route, up the Beach Boulevard and then towards the Beach Esplanade; the long, straight stretch of which I have come to love for the sense of exhilaration I get as my feet pound the ground in time with whatever song I am listening to.

This time, I had 55mph winds behind my back, the view to my right one of the sea whipped into froth by the wind which made the Switchfoot song I was listening to an interesting choice. The sound of the crashing waves, the flying spray and the bone-chilling coldness of everything – juxtaposed with the sense of fragility I have felt both emotionally and physically through last year – all contributed to foist upon me a sense of my smallness amidst everything.

If there is a moral to all this – and I am not entirely sure there is one – perhaps it is a healthy reminder of one’s insignificance in the overall scheme of things. One has a place, important to the individual as it might be, what is critical though is not to lose sight of the fact that there is a much bigger picture.

The song?

And my heart is yours
And what a broken place it’s in
But you’re what I’m running for
And I want to feel the wind at my back again

Apt.

On Being and Identity

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Standing here on the cusp of a milestone birthday of sorts, the sense is one of relief – that what has been a deeply emotive, if difficult year, has ended without too much lingering damage. Much of course is relative, depending on that difficult to define quality emotional capacity, or resilience. To my untrained mind, it would appear that like muscles and exercise, the more experience one has had dealing with trauma and difficult, emotionally charged situations, the easier it should get. I suspect the jury is still out on that. Tempering the sense of relief is a sense of clarity, the detached sort that hits in the moments between when a car begins to skid off a bridge and when it hits the icy water beneath. Time, in those moments, seems to stand still, each event on the time line of dying taking on crystal clear quality, like an HD frame, frozen. This birthday has that feeling of being a portal to inevitable change. The facts are what they are, I am now nearer forty than thirty, and that realisation in one fell swoop takes away any remaining pretensions to enduring youth I still have. What this does in addition is bring to the fore the questions of being, identity and direction I have managed to sweep under the carpet over the past few years.

There is a sense in which one’s perception of person-hood and identity is shaped by experience, particularly experience of the sort acquired in the formative years of childhood. These experiences occur within the context of role and society, being shaped by multiple layers of interaction – faith, family, culture, education and exposure all being contributors to their nature and quality. In my case, my childhood experiences aggregate around three locations – church, school and the house on 3rd and 49th. Although in my mind I was a model kid, I suspect my mother felt differently, if the notes in the margins of her copy of James Dobson’s Dare to Disciplinequietly stubborn – are anything to go by. Perhaps, if she had been familiar with the blunter crafty little bugger she might have chosen to use that instead.

Being the preacher’s kid changes everything. I got dragged along to umpteen conferences, youth group meetings, sang in the choir, and gave the occasional message from time to time. In non-church settings, this also meant that I was held to a higher standard, the oft repeated line being, your father is a pastor, as though that fact – in and of itself – meant the natural proclivities of childhood did not apply to me. I did have my own defining, emotive moments too. I recall sobbing uncontrollably at an Easter Conference in April of 1991, whilst the speaker, Venerable O, calmly insisted that it was the last chance for quite a few of us at the meeting. I was 12.

School was the one place I was marginally popular. It helped that I had a reputation for being smart, a reputation forged on the back of two years in which the resident genius and I tussled for the top two positions in class. One of my enduring memories from that phase of life is being made, whilst in Primary 2, to stand up in front of one of the Primary 3 classes to read from their MacMillan reader. Mrs A – whose intentions I am not entirely sure of any more –  had been passing during a period of inactivity, post exams, and seen my head on my locker. When she found I had been engrossed in tales of Edet’s escapades, she was impressed enough to make me read in front of the older class. That in retrospect was one of the first inklings I had that books and reading could be cool. Later on – in my secondary school days – a slew of Enid Blyton, Pacesetters, Nick Carter and James Hadley Chase books would plug my entertainment needs. Being on the debating team – slight stutter notwithstanding – and the JETS club didn’t do any harm either.

Books are also prominent in my recollection of the home space – more so than the relationships I developed at home to some extent. We had them in abundance, shelves and shelves of Baldwin, Chaucer, Dickens, Emerson, Joyce, Shakespeare, Spencer, and others of that ilk lined our living room, as did Achebe, Ekwensi, Salib and the other authors on the African Writers Series imprint. Beyond that, home was an experiment in behaviour modification, James Dobson and Beverley LaHaye’s tomes being the laboratory manuals that guided everything. When I ask my sister if she’s kept my mother’s copy of both books, she assumes I am going through a season of self doubt and straight away proceeds to reassure me that my mother thought very highly of me. I humour her, listening to all she has to say, but the truth is all I am interested in with these books is understanding the notes in the margins, and what my mother’s perceptions of me as a kid were as opposed to what my own assessments of self are.


On my part, whenever I have had to describe myself, I find myself reaching for the familiarity of a few well worn phrases – recovering bookworm, corrosion and materials engineer, talkative introvert, Lost Son and Nigerian. On occasion, I have also described myself as a pretend writer, inveterate over-thinker and occasional essayist. Inherent in these descriptors, but not often clear are conflict and evolution.

Work – and the Corrosion and Materials Engineering discipline – has been a big part of my life over the past twelve years. Prior to rust finding me, I had aspirations to becoming a video game programmer – I spent my NYSC year free time coding an idea for a football simulation game, that obviously wasn’t very good. An internship in a steel mill probably sowed the seeds, bringing iron-carbon phase diagrams and time temperature transition curves to life for me, but when I set out for a mechanical engineering degree in ’97, my more romantic notions were of designing and building things, not eking more and more years of life from them. If what I hear at work is anything to go by, I’m not terrible at doing that, once in a while I still feel like the chancer who stumbled on to something good and has held on for dear life.

Books continue to be a big part of my perception of my identity, somewhat tempered by the ‘recovering’ qualifier these days. Bookworm still retains a certain pejorative connotation; in conversations, and perhaps for good reason, there is still the perception of reading as being a nerdish, real-world-useless activity. I suspect I opt for recovering to slightly reassure me that I am on a journey to re-engaging with the wider world.

Given how much faith underlined my life growing up, its absence in my self description seems particularly glaring. The last few years have seen me slide deeper and deeper into a state of cognitive dissonance, the increasing disjunction I feel between my real world and faith perhaps driving me towards playing down its importance.

To a lesser extent, self classifying as a talkative introvert also reflects inner conflict of some sort. There are friends who don’t believe I have quiet moments given how much of a buzz I carry when I am around them. Some others sincerely believe I am deeply introverted – and take it upon themselves to draw me out. The notes in my mother’s copy of How to Develop Your Child’s Temperament had me pegged as predominantly choleric. These days when I take personality tests I shake out as INTJ and temperamentally as largely Phlegmatic. Clearly, I was a lot more talky and pushy as a child, or at least masked my introversion very well. I still sometimes wonder how much nurture can account for my current social attitudes as opposed to my nature; that is neither here nor there I suspect.

Lostness for me, has a long and convoluted back story, inextricably linked to a strangely spelled surname that immediately complicates my sense of identity, a point that Chris makes succinctly in his take on the Straight Outta *insert whatever* meme.  Only yesterday at a ten year old’s party, I got talking to someone who straight away switched the conversation to Yoruba, wrongly assuming that I understood it. I don’t. This is further muddled by being treated very much as a minority in the (Nigerian) state my parents hail from. All this has done is build an increasing sense of disenfranchisement, and left me with no real stake or connection to the political entity of Nigeria. That may be another reason why work, and rust, have become a big part of my identity – the first few years spent working in Nigeria showed that it was possible – by being darned good at what one did – to transcend the limitations of ethnicity.

Here, one sleep away from beginning this ineluctable lurch towards turning forty, what is becoming clear is that there is a certain logic to how I self classify. These are the things I do not suck at. Maybe in describing myself in these ways, I am patting myself on the back virtually, celebrating the little victories life has lobbed in my direction so far. Would I, for instance, like to be a better people person, one that walks into a room and lights up the party? Yes, but only sometimes. I suspect that deep down, that sort of change requires going out on a limb and being very vulnerable, risking rejection and growing thick, callused skin that inures one to the discomfort that failing to get what one really wants brings. Whether there is the willingness on my part is a question I have no answer to, yet.

With Grace

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I have been (re) reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace, the central idea of which is that the church has gone the way of the world in dealing with people who are different; with judgement and disdain rather than grace. For a book from 1997, it does not by any means feel dated, somehow remaining current not least for the issues it tackles; issued which defined the late Nineties but still continue to define our current epoch than anything else – homosexuality and the moral failings of people in leadership, temporal and spiritual.

Only a few short weeks – barely a month – separates us from the landmark decision made by the US Supreme Court in ruling that same sex couples can marry nationwide. The 5-4 decision was perhaps indicative of how closely fought the battle was – each of the dissenting judges wrote an opinion. Christian America has not taken the ‘affront’ lying down with a range of responses from declaring the decision the final sin that will bring an apocalytic judgement on America to a few more nuanced – and blatantly fence-sitting responses from the likes of Brian Houston and TD Jakes amongst others.

There are no simple solutions or answers to the conundrum the church faces. On the one hand, gay activists have become a lot more militant, keen to take on the supposedly disciminatory message of the traditional evangelical position of an active homosexual lifestyle as being sinful. The church has often had to respond from a defensive position, one in which it has been forced to attempt to distance itself from the discriminatory labels activitist throw about. Others more biblically knowledgeable and aware than I am have widely differing positions on the subject, but in my lay man’s head I cannot think of any context in which Romans 1: 21-26 is not a damning indictment of the homosexual lifestyle, as a punishment for turning away from God. The science, on the other hand, suggests – not quite conclusively perhaps – that nature, and genetics, play a part in sexual orientation. If that is true, then roundly vilifying LGBTQ folk is akin to racism, an equivalence quite a number of activists for gay rights have often made.

One of the more emotive chapters in Yancey’s book is the one in which he talks about his friend Mel White, and the fall out of his coming out. In the space of a short time, he went from being a celebrated evangelical icon to being a pariah. That his coming out meant the end of a long term marriage in which children were involved can’t have helped, but the vast majority of people he had been associated with – he ghost wrote for a number of high profile evangelicals – ended up shunning him, and distancing themselves from him.

The model of Grace Yancey espouses is one in which although we accept a difference in opinion and theology, rather than roundly treating others with disdain and responding with defensiveness, or even going on the attack, we treat them graciously, as people carrying the Imago Dei first and foremost and thus deserving of love and respect rather than as adversaries primarily.There are no guarantees the battle will be won by Grace – at least it will guarantee that we get the chance to speak and be listened to.

We, like the best and the worst of the earth, are sinners saved by Grace. Unless we never forget that, we will be sucked into the trap of Gracelessness.

**Update**
Since I originally wrote this, I have since read Walter Kirn’s excellent essay on Mormonism (Confessions of an ex-Mormon in which from his perspective as an ex-Mormon he somehow hits the nail on the head on what church is perhaps is (or should be) really about:

God doesn’t work in mysterious ways at all, but by enlisting assistants on the ground. Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus. A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.

Well said, Walter!!!