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In loving memory of Sara Al-Bader (1976 â 2010),
my dear friend and inspiration.
You'll never be forgotten.
The deep voices boomed loudly enough to jolt me from my mid-morning snooze. My eyes opened up to a predominantly male crowd of Nigerians clustered near the information desk in the centre of Gatwick Airport's departure lounge, gesticulating angrily.
âYou are treating us like animals!' one man barked at the blond airport official, who absorbed the verbal barrage with a passive, slightly bemused smirk. âAre we not human beings, like you?' A mechanical fault had delayed our flight to Lagos indefinitely, and some of the Nigerian passengers â always alive to the whiff of conspiracy â smelt something fishy. They gathered in a circle around a fellow passenger who had appointed himself as spokesman for their suspicions. Angling his head towards the mezzanine, this
sermonised at maximum volume about Gatwick's strategy to humiliate us, and Virgin's stinginess in not providing a replacement aircraft.
Others waved their compensatory food vouchers at the information desk staff, shouting at point-blank range about Gatwick's deliberate withholding of information. They huffed and pontificated, everyone offering a theory on why the plane was grounded, gradually transforming the tranquillity of the departure lounge into the tumult of an angry football terrace.
But whoever decided to send in armed police to monitor the situation was taking an unnecessary precaution. I wanted to tell them not to panic: Nigerians like to shout at the tops of our voices,
whether we're telling a joke, praying in church or rocking a baby to sleep. I also wanted to tell them that we're not crazy â decades of political corruption have made us deeply suspicious of authority â but there was no one to discuss this with, so I had no choice but to sit and watch our national image sink further in the eyes of the world.
When two Italian men walked past, one of them giggled to his friend, tapped his forehead and said the word â
' before swinging round to take one last derisive glance at the spectacle. The English travellers, more understated in their feelings, shrugged their shoulders at one another and smiled with their eyes, while two spiky-haired employees at a nearby electronics shop chatted amongst themselves and gestured their condemnation of the crowd's behaviour.
An hour later, the airport information officer switched on the tannoy to inform the Nigerian passengers of a 50 per cent discount on our next return flight.
âWe apologise for the delay,' the woman began, but her words were drowned out by the disgruntled crowd, which was now clamouring for extra food vouchers. She tried again, this time half bellowing down the microphone. âCan you
be quiet, I'm trying to
you!' The entire departure lounge flinched in surprise.
âWe lack discipline,' an older Nigerian lady murmured to me as she shook her head in shame. She and I, along with the silent majority of Lagos-bound passengers, watched from one side, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Being Nigerian can be the most embarrassing of burdens. We're constantly wincing at the sight of some of our compatriots, who have committed themselves to presenting us as a nation of ruffians. Their efforts are richly rewarded at airports, where the very nature of such venues ensures that our rowdy reputation enjoys an extensive, global reach. I've always dreaded airports for that reason. They are also places where, as a Nigerian raised in England, I'm forced to watch
the European and African mindsets collide in a way that equally splits my loyalty and disdain towards both: I wanted to spank that Italian for misunderstanding our behaviour and revelling in his sense of superiority; I also cringed at the noisy Nigerian passengers for their paranoia, ill discipline and obliviousness to British cultural norms.
But the embarrassment and sense of cultural dislocation were nothing new. These airport fiascos began for me back in 1983, when a similar scenario saw my family and 300 irate Nigeria Airways passengers bussed like low-grade cattle to a faraway hotel in Brighton until our delayed flight was ready. I was too young to understand the circumstances surrounding the delay, yet I remember the shouting, chaos and feelings of national shame with visceral clarity. From that day onwards, travelling from England to Nigeria became a source of anxiety for me, a journey I repeated only under duress.
As a teenager, I virtually had to be escorted by the ankles onto a Nigeria Airways flight at the start of the summer holidays, not only because I wanted to avoid all that airport angst, but also because I didn't want to reach the ultimate destination. Having to spend those two months in my unglamorous, godforsaken motherland with its penchant for noise and disorder felt like a punishment. I wanted a
holiday, riding banana boats in Barbados or eating pizzas by the Spanish Steps, like my school friends. But my parents didn't have the money or the inclination for that sort of thing.
,' they insisted with the firmness of people who knew better than to waste exotic travel on the very young. Come July each year, I would pack my bags and prepare to serve my annual sentence in a country where the only âdevelopment' I witnessed was the advance of new wall cracks and cobwebs, and where âgrowth' simply meant larger damp stains on the ceiling. Nothing ever seemed to change for the better politically or economically in 1980s Nigeria.
I would arrive at an airport that hadn't been refurbished in
twenty years. The humid viscous air, pointlessly stirred by sleepy ceiling fans, would smother me like a pillow and gave a foretaste of the decrepitude and discomfort that lay ahead. Back then, when international flying was considered the height of sophistication, many of the child passengers were dressed as if attending a black-tie event. Parents tarted up their little girls in frilly party dresses; the boys sweated it out in bow ties and dinner jackets; while armed thieves (otherwise known as government soldiers) rummaged through everyone's luggage at customs. Only in Nigeria could you see machine guns, tuxedos, army fatigues and evening frocks together at an airport. The insane aesthetic summarised my country's vanities and bathos more clearly than anything else, and it depressed me. I wanted out.
I wanted to go back to the place I called home: leafy Surrey, a bountiful paradise of Twix bars and TV cartoons and leylandii trees, far removed from the heat and chaos of Nigeria. I was a toddler when the family moved here in 1978. It was during the oil boom, when the Nigerian currency, the naira (
), enjoyed near-parity with the British pound, and a middle-class Nigerian life could easily be transferred to England. With plans to give us English schooling, my father settled the family in the UK while he continued to work in Nigeria as a property developer, writer and businessman. For months at a time, our family was headed by our homesick mother. She cooked plantain and grappled with central heating and the other novelties of English life. We watchedSesame Street
and scribbled naughtily on the walls when not scanning the fridge for snacks.
But the luxuries of English life were not what my father had brought his children to England for. We were here to get an
, and he was terrified we'd all gone soft, which is why our summer returns to Nigeria sometimes included a brutal acculturation fortnight in our village. The experience was a âcharacter-building' one in which we were forced to live without electricity, running water and â the most egregious of deprivations â television. It was
a tropical gulag. Nameless aunts and uncles would claw lovingly at our faces and mock us for not speaking our native language fluently. â
O bee kruawa?
' they would deliberately ask us, cackling at our non-response. For dinner they fed us intensely savoury dishes such as ground rice and okra soup, eaten by the light of a kerosene lamp and washed down with body-temperature Coca-Cola. Then at bedtime
provided the meals for an invisible but frighteningly audible army of mosquitoes and sandflies. By dawn, our arms were covered in itchy lumps that looked like strawberries, only bigger, and our fingernails had turned black from the nocturnal scratching of sweaty flesh.
Having a cooling shower was the only incentive to get up and face the new day, yet even achieving that was a chore in itself. You had to
the water first. We didn't have to trek all the way to the river, but the jerrycans still needed to be dragged from my grandmother's house 20 metres away from ours, which wasn't easy when the water weighed more than we did.
Concerned that all this suffering wasn't sufficiently authentic, my father later instructed my grandmother to take us everywhere she went. We were to shadow her every move to get a true taste of village life. But she interpreted this diktat more literally than my father intended, and tried waking us for pre-dawn prayers. Faking sleep, my siblings and I cowered against the hot, sticky bed sheets as her lamplit silhouette banged against the window and called out our names: âZina! Noo! Tedum!
Wake up!' I had never suffered such cold sweats in such a hot place.
By contrast, my parents believed that without their country they were nothing. My mother habitually referred to our Surrey residence as the âhouse'. Nigeria was âhome', the place where her parents and siblings lived, where her wilted energies blossomed and her pale skin toasted to its original brown. At âhome', she sparkled in Nigerian traditional clothing, rather than battling the British winter air in woollens and thick overcoats. At âhome' she was no
longer the alienated housewife but the Madam, handing over laundry and shopping lists to the servant while she caught up with old friends.