I have been in Nigeria for two months. I have been feeling isolated. It is as if I have not been having enough contact with humanity. That is really odd because I teach every day and I come into contact with 200 kids every day. I even know all my neighbors by name, I know what car they drive, I know when they are home and when they are not. Some times I even know where they are, when they are not at home. Anyway, what I really want to say is that I should not be feeling so isolated. This is not the Africa I know.
In the time I have been here, I have met some interesting people and what my friends have in common is that they all have something foreign about them: either they are half-Nigerian and half something else. The other halves have been Russian, Bajan and Jamaican. My other friends are outright foreign and have lived here for a while.
At times I have tried to talk with Nigerians, that I come in contact with and who have not been introduced to me by someone else. These attempts have been an uphill battle because the usual light-hearted conversational banter was just not there. It is as if people can only talk about factual things. My dry humor has been met with blank stares. My subtle sarcasm has been misinterpreted as factual statements. I feel as if I am talking to myself. Maybe I am just not as witty as I think I am. Or maybe people just do not speak to strangers at all.
For example, once the service at my usual café was extremely slow so I asked with a smile in my voice and half- laughing,
“ What took you so long, did you go to Timbuktu?”
“ No ma, I did not” he replied.
Another time I was in the line at the supermarket waiting to pay for my groceries. It was a Sunday in the early afternoon, so all the churchgoers were there. It was definitely not a good idea to go at that time. Anyway, that aside, the electricity kept going off and the cash registers had to be rebooted constantly and so the lines just kept getting longer. I had this brilliant idea – a l’africaine. Put one leg in one line and put my other leg in the neighbouring line, so claim a position in both lines. Why? The new line was much shorter. The lady behind me, with the afro, dressed in black and white with patterns and pointed toe stiletto heels in my newly discovered line had just joined, so in fact I had been standing in my line for over an hour and she had just joined the new line beside mine. The lines were so close together anyway, what difference did it really make? Plus the man in front of me did the same thing and I seemed to be the only one who noticed. So I just followed. I was now firmly in both lines, you know how that goes- the line that you are not in, appears to be shorter and to be moving faster. It is the international the-other-line-is-better phenomenon.
“Which line are you in? the church-going-afro lady asked in a serious tone.
I turned to her and said “ I have split myself in two, I am half in this one and half in that one” I said half laughingly and running my right hand down the middle of my body to demonstrate the splitting process.
“You cannot be in both lines” she responded without a smile in a very serious tone.
“You know I have been standing here a while and I even showed you where to join the line” I replied trying to plead the case of my splitting in two.
“ Well since your basket is small and you don’t have a lot I will allow you to go,” she replied with almost pursed lips.
I did not give up trying to lighten the moment. I then tried to appeal to the fact that she was just coming from church and said with a smile,“ That will be your good deed for the week”.
This week I have a mid semester break and decided to vacation in Nigeria. I want to give the country a fair chance, explore as much as possible and look for the positive. I decide to drive down to the southern part of the country, South-South, as the locals say. I am in search of the ocean, so I head down to Akwa Ibom state, and plan to base myself in the capital Uyo. I chose to do the 10-hour drive, as I wanted to see the countryside and the small towns along the way.
I pass through the states of Kogi, Enugu, Ebony and Abbia. The first eight hours, except for passing River Niger, are uneventful with uninteresting towns; annoying police check points and most-times-crappy roads. The checkpoints are fairly harmless, just policemen asking you to subsidise their salaries in very indirect ways. The police are pretty clever too. They position themselves next to the worst parts of the road where you have to slow down to navigate the giant multifaceted craters, which spread across the entire width of the road and have rolling hills and gullies within. As you rejoice that you have made it through the crater and plan to happily move on to the next crater challenge, the policeman points at you. That is the “ pull over, let’s have a chat” sign. He will ask you for all manner of things.
“ Do you have a fire extinguisher?
“Does the chassis number on your ‘particulars’ match the chassis number on the windshield?”
“ Do you have a permit for your tinted windows?”
“It is a hot day. What are you going to do about that?”
“Are you just coming back, what are you going to leave with me?”
It is annoying, but as with anything, once you get used to it and know what to expect, it becomes a game. This game is called “ how-will-I- get–out-of–this- one- with -the-change -that- I- have- tucked-beside–the- steering- wheel –for- times- like-these-untouched”. At the end of the journey, if you have money left over you get yourself a drink, preferably with alcohol and celebrate the end of the road trip.
Back to our road trip, things start to change after Umuahaia. Umuahaia is the main town in Abbia state. The countryside becomes a splash of color with ochre red, green, deep blue and yellow houses dotted along the side of the road. The vibe just completely changed and put the town on the status of being a quaint little town surrounded by thick, lush vegetation. From then on, I feel at ease somehow and less isolated. When we get to Uyo, in Akwa Ibom the neighboring state, I am impressed at how clean and orderly it is. Even the driving is orderly – less horn blowing and cars ceding you right of way, much less aggressive than in Abuja. Humanity as it should be. I get to my hotel and the staff are well spoken, smiling, genuinely welcoming and accommodating especially when none of my credit cards work (it’s a Nigeria thing). My feeling of being at ease becomes more tangible when I chitchat with the receptionist and I can even feel my facial muscles relaxing into a smile and me feeling like ‘me’ – ready to start greeting strangers with a simple ‘hello’ and random banter. I check in and look at three different rooms before choosing one – I am really just testing to see if they are as accommodating as they appear. I could have looked at a fourth, if I had asked. They pass the test! This is the Africa I know. I will be in Akwa Ibom for a whole week, discovering what the state has to offer. So far, so good.