Saturday, March 29, 2008


Lagos to Port-Harcourt

Bellview flight 1833 landed at Murtala Muhammed Airport at about 5.30am, local time. From the air, Lagos was a sea of black. The odd street light would be the equivalent of a candle under a transparent bushel. I think I may have read somewhere about the view of Earth from space, and how much darker Africa is compared with the rest of the world. It gives new meaning to the phrase ‘Dark Continent’. I think Conrad can now get a reprieve, and perhaps all racists connotations can be removed. The continent is dark.

The walk from the plane to the conveyor belt was the quickest ever. It took about five minutes, if that. Immigration was perfunctory, no melodrama whatsoever. A bit of a tiff developed when someone apparently jumped the queue for picking up trolleys. And I thought, there we go, another queueing brouhaha. Nigerians can’t queue.

Picked up my luggage, and headed towards customs. I was wearing a bright yellow Togolese football jersey, with a kaffiyeh scarf tied around my neck. Some of you are probably thinking that was very naive of me. Dressing like a clown and attracting attention to myself. Dis one na JJC. It only dawned on me when I got to customs and I was pulled aside.

“Wetin you bring come for us? We dey accept any currency.”

“I didn’t bring anything, I came for a wedding.”

Note the two fatal mistakes there: speaking in proper English rather than pidgin, and saying I came for a wedding. For some ridiculous reason I thought coming for a wedding would present me in a sympathetic light. Did it?

“Wedding? If it was a burial, I for say. Wedding is a time of rejoicing.”

I gave a him some sterling, and buggered off. I am naive. A friend of mine once said that when he got to MMA, he ‘flipped mode’, he switched and became a different person. His attitude, his driving, everything changed. Mr Hyde came to fore. One can’t afford to wait till outside the airport to flip mode. Flip mode must take place, at Heathrow or Gatwick possibly, or at the latest, on the the airplane. This probably explains the (sometime) behaviour of people flying to Nigeria at Heathrow/Gatwick airports.

Why did I give him the money? Because I didn’t want undue stress. I wanted to get him off my back. But I’ve learnt my lesson. It is my kind of behaviour that perpetuates the culture of ‘gimme chop’. I put my own convenience ahead of the good of Nigeria. I wasn’t prepared to endure even the slightest duress. I was ashamed of myself. Next time, I have my line ready. “I work for the BBC. I’m here to do a documentary about corruption and the collection of bribes by Nigerian officials. Would you like to say a few words for my microphone?” I have to flip mode and think ruthlessly, otherwise I’ll be chewed alive in this country.

My uncle picked me up, but had to go back and pick up his car. A ‘tout’ was beside me, pushing and shoving me, making sure he earned his keep. Despite the fact that I hadn’t requested his services. My shirt was beginning to stick to my skin, that all too familiar Nigerian heat. The kind you can bite, chew, and spit out.

Most of the area around arrivals is now no parking, stop there, and the clampers do you down. And they nearly did us down. The tout shoved the luggage onto the no parking road, and as my uncle was driving down, he bundled the luggage into the car. The clampers got up and started running towards the car. Suddenly another three of four people swarmed around the car. “Oga wait, we no go clamp you. Settle us first.” I was sitting in the front passenger seat, feeling vulnerable. It reminded me a riot in Lagos, circa 1989, when our car was stopped at Iganmu. My mum’s necklace was snatched, my uncle’s watch ripped off his arm. There’s something about too many people around your car, hitting, pounding, and demanding. Quite frankly, it makes one want to pee their pants. It’s a claustrophobia where breaking out isn’t an option. My uncle ‘settled them’, and we drove off, heading towards the local airport.

During the short drive between the international and local airports, I realised what made me uncomfortable in Nigeria, but perhaps more specifically, Lagos. I felt naked. I felt exposed. If you’d can give you a list of people who can attest to how much I hate being naked. Email me.

I was looking forward to the new MMA2 of great fame. Sit down in an air-conditioned lobby, blog, drink some hot chocolate. Instead we went to the old local airport. The glorified molue park. If my uncle hadn’t been there to help, I’d have been lost. I’d probably have flown in the end, but possibly only after at least two hours of flip mode hustling.

For the first time in my life, I understood why money is so important in Nigerian society. It isn’t to buy cars or houses. It is to buy favours to keep the cars or houses running. What’s the point of buying a Mercedes SLK if you have to queue like everyone else to put petrol in it? What’s the point of owning a huge house house if you have to do the gardening yourself, open the gate yourself, secure the house yourself? Money in Nigeria is used to keep one’s lapels clean. I have money, so let other people do the scratching and biting for me.

We had to pay a penalty because I’d missed my flight from the previous day. Paying the penalty involved considerable pushing and shoving. And then we had to pay a charge for excess luggage. Paying the charge involved considerable pushing and shoving. But one can’t fly without a boarding pass. Getting the boarding pass involved, yep, yet more pushing and shoving. But I stood back and watched. We had a ‘tout’ who did all the biting and scratching. That’s what money allows one to do. Stand back and watch.

This was Arik, and from what I hear Arik is supposed to be one of the better performers. If this is what happens with the good, I shudder to even think of the bad. As it iturns out, new aircraft does not a good airline make. The plane was littered with oil workers and expats, made distinct by the company logos on their shirts. I was given a seat number, 25D. But as I walked to the back of the plane I noticed all the seats were taken. The flight attendant shouted “sit anywhere you find a seat”. Okay, no need to do oyinbo, find a place and sit. The guy standing behind me had been flown in from the US on Delta Airlines.

“I have a seat number, if someone is sitting on my seat, they should get up.”

I turned around and said to him, “My friend, this is not Delta Airlines. If you want to go to Port-Harcourt today, you better find a seat, and put your arse down.” Or something close to that.

The flight was smooth. They served a snack of meat pies and drinks, which I didn’t have. I was bursting for a wee. I hadn’t been since shortly after take-off the night before at 11pm. It was now 8.30am. And because I was sitting by the window, I didn’t want to have to fight my way out of my tight little corner to go to a loo I’d probably have had to queue for anyway. So I slept instead.

Port-Harcourt is very similar to how I remember it. I used to come very often as a boy, cos my mama’s family are from Rivers. Yes, I know, I’m mixed race – half-Igbo, half-Rivers. I hadn’t been to PH since 1993, so 15 years. In the time in between, I heard that Garden City status of PH was no longer justified. But I must admit, PH was clean and tidy. I’m comparing it to Lagos, which isn’t hard to beat. Then again, some Western cities are filth boxes, London being one of them. PH airport is a building with a roof and a baggage carousel. Get off the plane, walk into the building with the carousel, walk out. It seemed like a colonial outpost, designed for the purpose of supplying Her Majesty’s Imperial Government of the Protectorate of Nigeria.

I saw the famous solar powered street lights which line the route into town. But I didn’t get a chance to see them in action as it was daytime. My cousin who had picked me up from the airport was complaining about about the okadas, nuisance, accident magnets, etc. But I actually don’t mind them. I understand that there are quite often the cheapest and quickest way to get around several Nigerian cities. For the supply and demand economists out there, the market talks.

PH felt like a much saner place than Lagos. Despite all the talk of kidnappings, it still felt safer. I didn’t feel the vulnerability and nakedness I felt during my brief time in Lagos. This was a city where I felt I could walk around on my own, hop in a taxi, jump on an okada. No creaking neck from constantly looking over my shoulder.

The great thing about these trips is seeing family one hasn’t seen in a long time. Paying ones dues, saluting the cousins, uncles and aunties – especially the ones that haven’t seen you since they carried you as a baby. Why do they always disappear for decades, and then turn up at your wedding and tell the world about how they changed your nappy as a baby?

It also appears that when men reach a certain age, only one question becomes relevant. Marriage. When are you getting married? Is there anyone we should know about? Should we start preparing? When will you give your mum grandchildren? Flaming Heck! Give me a break, man! It took a lot of willpower not to have to cuff some of my aunts round the ear... The look on their husbands' faces almost seemed to say, "don't do it son, look at us."

From PH, I got on a Rivers State Transport Company bus to Awka, Anambra State.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A first.

For the first time, I'll end up spending more time outside Lagos than in. Got to Lagos in one piece, then flew out to Port Harcourt straightaway. Spent two days there, and I'm now in Awka, Anambra State. Lots of stories to tell, lots of theories of relativity and other things, but so little time, and so little bandwidth...

Friday, March 21, 2008


...made it. Writing this from duty free. The only way I can miss this flight is if I fall asleep because I'm just blooming exhausted. Believe me, that isn't far-fetched. Woman at the check-in counter described me as a model passenger. "If only they were al llike you." All my luggage was within the weight allowance, I had my passport at the ready, I knew where I wanted to sit. It took me precisely five minutes to check in. Yes, I deserve a medal.

Let's not even get into the lack of order, and the provenance of chaos in the early queuing stages. Nigerians don't know how to queue. To say the concept is alien to them is misleading, because at least aliens live in the same universe as us. Queuing and Nigeria are not even light years apart.

My hand luggage was given the Tel Aviv treatment. It was swabbed for all sorts of incendiary, fissile, explosive material possible, I'm sure. Basically, I forgot a half drunk bottle of water in it. Silent alarm bells obviously rang, discreetly, and lights flashed in some ante-chamber. In Tel Aviv they swab all your luggage about three times before check in. Heavy. Off to board.

I didn't

...make the flight. Got close to the front of the queue, before being told they had reached the magical number of 199, or something. I was mildly peeved, more amused by the incredulity of it all. Airlines always overbook. We all know this. Passengers are fickle as fireflies, and don’t always turn up. So airlines do the sensible business thing by using the laws of averages, probabilities, and possibly physics to make sure they get as many people onto a flight as they can. This being an airline, the “Nigeria Factor” cannot be applied airside, otherwise one can imagine baggage holds and foldable chairs being used to boost numbers.

Things will always go belly up, in Nigeria, Togo, or Germany. What matters is the response to the inverted belly. When Virgin or BA realise that their plane will probably be full, what do they do? They start alerting customers, offering them free tickets, cash, anything. Just so people can continue saying nice things about them despite not getting on a flight they were booked for. Bellview waited until the very end. We were still queuing 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. Nobody suspected we woudn’t be getting on the plane, because there was no indication of a crisis. Slow checking in, and/or the “Nigerian Factor”, perhaps, but a full plane? Most of the paranoid talk was mainly a combination of jest and good ol' cynicism.

The rub was that we didn’t find out we were going nowhere slowly till the very end. No explanation, nada. Being the English gent (sans irony) that I am (or chicken - in the queue I had joked about staging a sit-down protest on the conveyor belt if we didn’t travel), I went to the man in charge. “The flight is full, we’re sorry. Come back tomorrow.“ It stung as much as I imagine it would a perpetually hungry but dim debtor at seeing the “No credit today, come back tomorrow” sign in Iya Sekira’s buka. Travelling being second only to nothing in stress terms, seemingly law-abiding passengers metamorphosed into irate Tibetan monks in search of a Lhasa Chinaman. No zen-calm Buddhism being practised here, thank you. To affirm the fact of travelling as the preeminent stressful event in life, think of the two best men who weren’t able to get on the flight. And think of the groom, who had to call his future wife and tell her he’d be landing on the morning of the wedding instead of the Friday. Saturday will be a breeze for them. If he makes it.

The Metropolitan police were called after a little verbal sparring between a Nigerian guy and a couple of check-in people. “Fuckienh himmigrant”, ‘e said to dem in d ‘eat of batool. One was eastern European and the other looked South Asian. “Dey tink I’m illegal”. His wife’s white, going to Nigeria for the first time, cafe-au-lait baby daughter in pram. Of course this altercation had no bearing on anything, save some enterntainment for us, and a chance for London’s armed finest to serve and protect. They left after two minutes. One theory was that they’re all immigrants, let them bludgeon themselves to death for all we care.

In the end we were taken to St. Giles Hotel, twenty minutes away in Feltham. We got there at about 1am, checked in, got our instructions that we would be picked up at 2pm today. I got a single room on the 10th floor at St. Giles, four star, right by Feltham train station. Decent enough place, but Bellview did the cheapskate thing and only got us a continental breakfast. And if you know anything about continental breakfast, it can only be described in similar terms to what our old driver, James, used to call rice - “bird food”.

Woke up this morning at five, after just three hours of glorious bedtime. People in Nigeria calling to find out when Bellview will do the decent thing and bring me “home”. I couldn’t fall asleep again, so I watched BBC News 24, picking out colleagues in the background. Just 24 hours before I was one of those pottering about the place. But I was now in a hotel room, having left them, but not quite. I haven’t slept properly since I woke up at 1pm on Tuesday. My eyeballs will pop. I’m sure they will.

We’ve been at Heathrow since 2.30pm, so you can imagine the other cheapskate thing Bellview did was to pay for one-night only. Check-out times tend to be around midday. So I’m sitting here blogging. Then I’ll take a tour of Terminal 2 and all its (non)goodies. Check in at 5. Then Nigeria. Hopefully.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Will I, won't I

...make this Bellview flight. What the hell, it cost £430. The two Virgins were attempting and failing to seduce me in the £700 range. BA was about £600. The Europeans were in the £500s, and forcing me to change in Timbuktu, while only allowing me a not so grand total of 40kg baggage allowance. Sacre Bleurgh! I'm going to Nigeria, not Pimlico. And you can rest assured that my stuff is only partly contained in one of the cases.

If I had a more prominent gut, it and its contents would have been splattered all over London. Got here at about 2045hrs. Irresponsible you might think. Not always, but this time it was. Anyhoo, here I am. It's 2134hrs. Scheduled departure time is at 2200hrs. Yoruba peppers the air behind, and in front of me. Yes, there are people behind me... The talk is of, "come and try and refund my money," then something about "gbo oyinbo". I understood what they meant at the time, but now I forget. Probably something like, "they better not blow grammar".

Some people's flights were cancelled yesterday. Are they getting priority? Will I make this damn flight? I hear raised voices. Not good... That will teach me to adventure during peak season. I need to be in Nigeria yesterday.

The woman in front of me smells a bit. All the stress and tension....