By Morak Babajide-Alabi
This is the first in a series of articles I have done on emigration (immigration), racism and life in the diaspora. Some of these topics are written on my own personal experiences, supported where necessary with events witnessed or told to me by those concerned. My aim is to draw attention to certain issues that majority of us in the diaspora go through, the fun and the silent tears. I hope you find them entertaining and educative.
Arriving at the Heathrow Airport, London as a first-time traveller to the United Kingdom, in October 2003, was a bag of mixed emotions for me. Immediately I stepped off the plane, as a Nigerian Christian, I muttered a few prayer points that this new land shall favour me and yield me good fruits. I said “amen” but didn’t know I was loud enough for the white man walking next to me to take a glance. I smiled at him, but he instantly looked away and quickened his pace. He must have thought to himself: “Another crazy one had arrived”.
But to be honest I cared less about him. I had just landed in the land of the Queen, the mother of Charlie. Before I left Nigeria I was thoroughly educated by many (some of who had never visited any international airport before in their lives) that the UK is a land of opportunities. I was told I should never let any opportunity pass me by, as it could come only once. As I walked towards the immigration desk, I looked right and left if any “opportunity” would smile at me before I even “checked in to the country”.
The atmosphere was good. As I walked away from the immigration desk and towards the exit, my mind instinctively flashed back to the “home” I had left behind in Nigeria. I felt strangely happy, with a twinge of loss. My mind flashed to my friends, school mates, colleagues and family members. I realised that it would be difficult to maintain the type of close relationship I have with some anymore. I shrugged my shoulders and thought, maybe I won’t need them afterwards. At least, I am a “Janded Boy” now (Janded is a coined word for a Nigerian who lives in London).
I arrived in a totally different environment. A society which obviously is the opposite of the one I had left behind. There are ew bridges to be built, new friendships to cultivate and a shift in thinking and behaviour. I had no clue how it would work out, but there was something remotely in the air that assured me that all would be well.
Emigrating to another country is a decision that is not taken lightly. There are so many things that are sacrificed to achieve this. It takes a lot of careful, long term planning or else it could be a journey into a void. The result is usually emotional and physiological trauma. There are so many reasons to foster the idea of emigration from a country of birth. For some, it is a matter of life and death. For these individuals, the decisions are made for them by the situation of events in their home countries – wars, conflicts and poverty.
For most emigrants from Nigeria, the major reason is the disillusionment arising from the directionless travel of the political and economic leaders. Many people had packed their bags because they could not discern themselves in the narratives of the leaders. They see no opportunities ahead of themselves, as a result of the inability of leaders to lay solid foundations for the future.
Coming from Nigeria, a country that was struggling to get the most basic thing working, you will understand why everything seemed a big deal. The night before I had left a country that was on the brink of collapse. I had departed from a nation where nothing worked and suddenly transported into modernity and civilisation.
A few hours ago, I was at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. I had travelled through an “international airport” that was in total darkness for days. This was the week when the notorious Nigerian electricity company (NEPA) decided to cut off the power supply to the main airport over non-payment of millions of naira in bills. It was a national shame to a country that has, in the past, been touted as the giant of Africa, and also the sixth largest producer of oil in the world.
To make matters worse, the management team of the international airport made little or no effort to provide backup electricity generators to ensure smooth operations. That was the country I had departed from, a few hours ago. The confusion in the departure hall was unimaginable as airline officials screened passengers with candles and torch lights. It was hot. The humid air in the hall was so thick you could cut through it. Travellers bumped into each other, children cried, with thieves posing as airport staff to dispossess travellers of their valuables.
It was a distressful scene as passengers were hurriedly cleared into the historic last flight of the Swiss Air in Nigeria. You would definitely understand what I am describing here if you had ever tried to get on a moving danfo bus from the old Oshodi Oke to Iyana Isolo bus stop. To compound your situation, imagine trying to do this with two suitcases and a backpack. You would have so many things to contend with – the touts, pickpockets, impatient drivers and mobile policemen looking for innocent bystanders to extort.
As I made my way to the gangway in the commotion, a Nigerian Swiss Air staff harangued me with “find me something to chop”. In the Nigerian way, she was clever to mutter it under her breath but clear enough for me to understand. I had a glance at the robust looking woman and said: “Madam, next time, I will settle you”. For non-Nigerian readers, “settle” is a replacement word for a tip.
I couldn’t really see her facial expression, but I sensed her anger to my reply. She let out a long hiss (just like a snake) and this was a warning that I should move on. She raised her voice this time around and said “na your sister you go come back meet here. As if you no know say this na Swiss Air last flight for Nigeria.” There was no point trying to explain anything to this woman. It would be an exercise in futility.
I finally made my way to the plane after being frisked and travelling documents checked, once again. I said out loud, to no one in particular, that no doubt there was a curse on Nigeria. I noticed a few foreigners cowed into their seats, praying for the plane to taxi off the dark space in the middle of nowhere. Their fears were boldly written on their faces.
Some Nigerians discussed loudly and apportioned blames to every government agency in the land. They were angry and very disappointed in their leaders. A particular deep London accented voice kept repeating, “until we kill all these leaders, Nigeria is not going anywhere.” The frustration really got to him.
It was a sigh of relief as the Swiss Air aeroplane taxied off and lifted into the night sky. Just as I was getting comfortable in my seat, the pilot announced that we would be stopping over at the Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana, as the departure from Lagos was just to get out of the darkness that pervaded the airport. I muttered to myself, “who cared? As long as Accra is not as dark as Lagos.”