By Morak Babajide-Alabi
In 2003, I ran into a “big Nigerian” on the streets of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. It was a chance encounter that happened because I was eagle-eyed at the time, starring at every black person I saw on the street. I was just a few months in the country, and especially in a city that, at that time, had little concentration of black people.
At that time every black face looked familiar leaving me wondering where I knew them from. It took me a few years of living in the UK to accept the reality that, as a “newly minted” immigrant, all I was doing at that time was looking out to spot someone I know from Nigeria. It was all in a bid to validate myself that I was actually “abroad”.
This is more of an ego tripping than actually looking to make new friends. Let us be honest, most Nigerians of my generation had been in this position before, especially if you had travelled in the nineties or at the start of the millennium. If you “landed” outside London, you really need someone or something to validate the fact that you have now relocated.
In the days before the availability of smartphones or social media that now allow us to instantly announce or broadcast our locations to our friends and enemies alike, we relied on photographs. So we find ourselves in the situation whereby though we live abroad, we still need to prove our presence outside Nigeria.
On this particular mid-morning Saturday, I spotted this “big” Nigerian on the other side of Princess Street, Edinburgh. I was just coming off the Waverley Stairs to join a bus going to the Clovenstone area of the city. I recognised this “big Nigerian”, who at a point in time was a power broker in the political and military set up.
Wait a minute, I said to myself. But why is this “big Nigerian” looking so ordinary? Why is he not with the usual retinue of assistants? What is he doing in front of the “One Pound Store”? What has happened to him? I just could not place him compared with the “big man” I was used to seeing on TV back in Nigeria. This was a power broker who commanded all the trappings of power.
You can imagine my bewilderment when I saw him. I crossed to the other side of the road and caught up with him just in front of “The Phone Shop”, where he was about to start another session of window shopping. He saw the intent in my face as I said: “Hello sir”. He responded with enthusiasm and I could sense a bit of eagerness to talk, and not particularly to me, but to just anybody.
I asked him with feigned surprise if he was the person I thought he was. Enthusiastically, he replied, “Yes”, with a broad smile on his face. He was happy somebody could recognise him in a foreign land. Jokingly, he said that probably because he had a T-shirt and jeans trousers on instead of the usual military apparels he was identified with on Nigerian TV that was why I couldn’t recognise him easily. I actually recognised him at the first glance.
We exchanged pleasantries like strangers we were. I warmed up to him, thinking he could still be able to facilitate a few things in government. At this time I had “accepted” his “commonness”. So I asked him: “Can I buy you a cup of coffee sir?” He seemed a bit surprised; probably thinking (as a Nigerian) he should be the one offering to buy. I was okay in asking as I knew there was a McDonald Restaurant around the corner by the ”Job Centre” and familiar with the cost of a cup of coffee in there. By quick calculation, the total bill for two cups of coffee and latter would not be more than £2.
We collected our coffee from the assistant and took a vantage position in the restaurant. Before we could settle down in our seats, he fired his first question. “Do you work?” Of course, I had a job. I didn’t know why he asked, but I thought to myself, probably he felt he could do me an introduction letter to an employer (the Nigerian way). As a military man, he put me on the spot, practically asking for a step by step guide on my journey to live in Scotland. The questions were all in rapid successions.
I seized the opportunity of a pause to hijack the discussion and quickly asked what his business was in Edinburgh. According to him, he was in the city for his annual medical check-up. He told me how he had attended a further course at the University of Edinburgh many years ago and was compelled to register with the general practice – registration he had not given up ever since he left.
He told me his family was in Nigeria. On every trip, he lodged for a few days/nights at a house apartment in a street behind Princess Street. According to him although he has no history of life-threatening disease or ailment, he enjoys how he “maintains” his health and gets looked after by qualified medical personnel with up-to-date equipment, as well.
Momentarily I became depressed and disappointed in our “big man”, and suddenly I felt uncomfortable in his presence. I thought about the many Nigerians that had no access to good health facilities in the country that was at a time governed by the likes of the big man sitting in front of me. My mind wandered to many who died just because General Hospitals in Nigeria could not treat them and had to be referred to private hospitals, bills of which they could not afford.
I looked at him from the corner of my eyes and I saw a disgusting little man, who though, could afford private clinic bills in Nigeria but felt comfortable coming over to the UK to eat from the “awoof”. What a small-minded man. Here was a man who was part of the military administrations for long and could have made an impact on the health systems in Nigeria, but, together with his clowns in government, did nothing.
For 45 minutes I was on an emotional roller coaster with my supposedly “new friend”. I admired him from afar, moved closer to him, analysed him, angry with him and now I found myself sympathising with him. I could see in him a typical Nigerian leader: Selfish, care less for others and yet vulnerable. While he saw nothing wrong in coming over to the UK to maintain his health on other peoples bills, he felt no remorse for having not taken the opportunity to improve the health facilities when he was in government.
Just like many other Nigerian politicians you run into on London streets, his thoughts about the Nigerian health systems are unprintable. Yet he had the opportunity to make a difference but chose not to. Do you still wonder why Nigerian leaders care less when doctors in public hospitals go on strike? Wonder no more. They either have the money to foot the health bills over here or like my friend; the cost is the air ticket out of Nigeria.
I took leave of the “big Nigerian”. He was a waste of time. As I walked towards the bus stop to catch my bus I realised I had wasted my precious time on a loser like him.
First published in the Sunday Vanguard of September 28, 2014, under the title – “Sir, You Look So Ordinary”.