You will not know until you leave
Lagos, September 1st, 2014.
I am leaving Nigeria for the first time and Lagos is that last rehearsal before my final departure. Lagos does not pretend to be anything else or care that I have been journeying since morning on a slow moving bus from Nsukka. Even at 9 pm, it bristles with sizzling energy in the twinkling dark. There is the rush it seems, to leave where you are, so as not to be claimed by it, to somewhere better, anywhere other than where you are: horns colliding against each other, screeching of tyres, human voices clashing against the desperate calls by conductors, frequent checking of time by those standing on the road side.
I have just an hour to my flight. In the thick of the rush to get to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, there is no time to haggle the taxi fare with the driver who has no ears to listen to such. “Bros, na N1000.” His eyes are set on the road ahead of him as though looking at me would make him miss something. “This na Jibowu. You go enter abi you no go enter?” I barely sit when he zooms off, meandering in and out of the snail moving traffic with bursts of dexterity and ease as though he is the one who is going to board the plane.
I barely slept the night before, packing and unpacking my bag, choosing which book to take, which clothes to fold into the bag, as all the decision-making-committees in my head sat at a meeting: This is an offer of a life time from Mr. O. Why are you thinking twice about it? Who wouldn’t want to travel to the United Arab Emirates? You can make money and still go back to school. Even if it doesn’t work out, nobody would hold you accountable…
September 2nd, Kenyatta International Airport.
My plane is on transit from Lagos after a brief stop at Cadjehoun Airport Cotonou. The flight to Dubai is in 12 hours. “What do you want?” The lady at the counter asks with a wide smile. My accent must have given me away as a Nigeria. Her eyes shine in anticipation of a big tip I might give her.
“Rice,” my weary voice says.
“I’m fine with water.”
Her countenance when I hand her the hundred dollar note says, ‘I didn’t expect anything less’. After eating, I notice that my change is not complete. I am given seventy instead of seventy three dollars. The waitress’ eyes shoot at me: are you trying to play smart? But I swallow the words I want to say so I can relish the calmness and orderliness here. Earlier, at Murtala Muhammad International, My ‘Virgin’ passport - passports without any visas or entry/exit endorsements - invited bright eyes and traffic jams of bureaucracies that ease through on banknotes and I followed a uniformed fellow like a puppy behind its mother, smiling with those he smiled at, dropping notes on outstretched hands, at counters. At the last pass, my hand did not pay heed. Greed mixed with vexation danced on burrowed foreheads.
“I no get anything on me again.”
The uniformed fellow pulled me aside. The day had been good. The tightness at his thighs made him look fat. “Bros, no waste my time. Na ten minutes remain for your flight to take off oo,” he said.
“Na true talk me dey tell you,” I say, tapping at my pockets.
Silence roamed between us.
“Madam abeg attend to am, I go see you later.”
The madam eyed me before emitting a train of sigh. “You dey go abroad and you no fit give your moda something ehh,” she said with a smile—a concoction of mockery, rebuke and plea. “You no see the work we dey do here? Oya, bring your things sharp sharp, other pipu dey wait.”
Dubai, September 3.
I am here now. The Dubai International Airport hums and throbs. Travellers check out and check in like bees on their honeycombs. United Arab Emirates. Welcome. Everybody knows why they are here, what they are here to do. The smiles on their faces punch me.
The fellow behind the desk scans my passport. He is a piece of ease in a long white cloak and a headscarf held in place with a black rope-like cord. I wish he could find something wrong, wave me aside from the long queue, and put me on the next plane to Nigeria. But his eyes - two balls of blankness, dwell on me from behind the screen for the third time. “The photo is a bit blurry. But it’s okay. Have a nice stay here.” He hands me the green booklet, and a lazy smile cracks his expressionless face. I am disappointed and relieved at the same time. Outside the airport building, under the dark sky of the night, the city shimmers like a multicoloured painting on a black sheet as a blanket of heat wraps me.
I board a taxi. The road is a bed of smooth surfaces gleaming under lit lamps. Our car glides with an almost effortless ease, like a toy pushed down a path.
“That’s Burj Khalifa. The tallest building in the world,” the driver says, pointing at a cluster of structures standing like coquettish damsels in sparkling robes relishing the spectacles of admirers.
“I drive up there... take photo... send to my wife and children... in Nepal.” His crisp, sky-blue shirt is struggling to hold his stomach.
“You Africa coming?” He asks, reassured by my nod.
“Ehn....Africa same... same language enh…”
“Ahh...what language speaking....English?”
We pull over in front of a three-storey with a fading white paint. I take the lift to the last floor. Mr. Kosmas, the agent, lives in a single room. A huge bed is pushed to one corner. Two settees complete the semicircle arrangement. In the middle is a table, and on the wall next to the door, a plasma TV.
“Welcome,” he says. His hairless head gleams under the fluorescent bulb, and accentuates the beard lines of a recent shave. His eyes wear a patch of light-red in their sockets. The skin at their sides squeeze when he smiles. And he smiles easily, with an air of graceful living. His words are breezy. Each word comes out as though he fears attention on him would be lost if he remains silent. He sent a Range Rover car to Nigeria two days ago. He will travel back home in a week’s time. He can’t wait to be with his wife.
“Dubai tires you,” he says.
Four mobile phones lie on the table. Two ring. He holds both to his ears. “Hello, the work is assured. You have to pay in the money for the visa process to be completed.... Hello. Who is speaking please? Sorry, the line is blurry. Call me later please.....hello, yes, he is here. He will come tomorrow.” He turns to me, and in a hush, “It’s your boss…you have to do whatever he tells you.” He shambles across to the kitchen - an enclosed space in the corridor, to fetch me some drinking water. Two other occupants of the room, who have been silent, grumble their welcome at me from the bed where they are sitting. “So this guy still dey bring people come this country ba?” one of them says sitting up, his round face squeezed with grim. This rings in my head as though a confirmation of my feelings. The other shakes his head and settles his eyes on the TV. Earlier at the lift, Mr. Kosmas said they are his cousins who have come to visit.
The settee carries my body to sleep.
Morning grants me a hot bath, though the water is not heated. Mr. Kosmas calls the employer I am going to work for and scribbles his number on a sheet, and says, “Call this number when you get there.”
On the visa copy, in the box next to ‘Occupation’, I read 'Cleaning worker'. I still want to ask him: “What kind of work is that?” Questions roll and roll in my head, but my voice refuses to carve them out. Mr. Kosmas is not an acquaintance. He is a friend of a friend of another friend of Mr. O who beamed on their assurances, and I in turn basked under his confidence.
Mr. O had called one morning. I was in the University of Nigeria premises—my Alma Mater, where I had applied for an MA to study Metaphysics. The admission list was yet to be out. I had kept that from him because I wanted to surprise him. But he surprised me first.
“You are travelling to Dubai in a few weeks time,” he said.
Until then, I had no intention to travel. There was never a conversation about it. Yet, the news came as a distraction. I was still unsure of what I wanted to do with my life even after my national youth service, in 2013. I applied for jobs and further studies not necessarily because I wanted to, but to fit into the stereotype of one who had graduated.
Mr. O lived with his family in Aba, on the last floor of a four storey. During my undergraduate studies, I spent my breaks there. In the mornings, I washed his white Volvo and filled the water containers in the house. Then, offered myself to the dining table---a sacred corner in the palour with piles of books on it. It was there I read My life by Bill Clinton, 48 laws of Power by Robert Green- I loved the first Law: Never Outshine The Master. I used to pride myself by quoting it to show I had read the book; The Bandsman’s Daughter by Irene Thomas from which I learnt the word, autocue; Divided We Stand by Cyprian Ekwensi; Never Again by Flora Nwapa; Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. I was fascinated by Innocent Asouzu’s The Method and Principles of Complementary Reflection in and Beyond African Philosophy, Commonwealth Short Stories edited by Anna Rutherford featuring writers such as Achebe and Ngugi who was credited as James Ngugi. James was the birth name which he would later reject as a sign of colonial influence. There were texts on Finance, Management, Accounting, and Insurance. The Sun and The Vanguard were his favourite papers. Punch Newspapers were complementary.
I read while the kids watched cartoons on TV or competed among one another for whom to put on the TV when power was restored. The first child had a slim frame, a contrast to his brother’s bulky build. The third and only girl, was yet to have those striking features that would give her away as the father’s or mother’s semblance, like the fourth who bore his father’s name. The last, unlike the others, had inherited his father’s dark skin. They scampered about the rooms, the passageways and corridor which overlooked the street at whose mouth off Umuatako junction, a newspaper stand chuckled with buyers debating the imposing headlines.
Their mother’s silence beat in the background. She had bequeathed to them her fine features in various shades. She was a silence rumbling inside and seeking release, yet it didn’t find a way to escape. Except in her notebooks and long conversations—breaks from her aloneness, when she talked and talked like a freed prisoner. But those were not enough. She wanted something more, something bigger than the mundane offering of being a wife and a mother.
Their father’s presence filtered through his loud chuckles in a phone conversation, a voice calling out names and giving orders, a face behind the large spread of newspapers, a keen interest in the 9pm news, a sigh at the emptiness of the news.
When the call ended, I didn’t know what to feel. This was a surprise gift. The money had been paid. The visa was about ready. I felt unprepared, caged in an expectation I had not created. Or wanted. To say yes was to pay homage to Mr. O. It was a yes on behalf of my papa, mama, and siblings whom I owed the favour of making their lives better too. Then there were the unknown eyes of every member of our large, extended family. As though being the first child meant one is the saviour of the universe.
‘No’ is not a word I had used often in my life. I had found myself in moments when I should say no, concede to thinking the other knew better and saw more than I did. 'Yes' was the pathway to existing in the capsule of another's expectation.
But I should have refused the comfort of honouring the goodwill of Mr. O. It was a deferral of my own onus, not so much about being ridiculed or seen as an ingrate, but of owning my own choices rather than the ones tailor made for me. It was a failure on my part to disregard my own bunch of feelings, each immense in their own right. It was also the fear of having to face them and make sense of them myself. It’s good to look up to others, to Mr. O, but I’ve got to look up to myself too. I can’t give what I don’t have, but I need to have what I can give. I may not live the kind of life expected of me, but I can live the life I expect myself to live.
Al Ain, September 4th
After two hours, the bus station in Al Ain welcomes us. Unlike the elegance and buzz of Dubai, Al Ain wears a reserved calm. I place a call and wait. He arrives thirty minutes later.
“EkooMO?” His eyes peer at me from their sockets as though to weigh the worth of a commodity on display. The hems of his trousers hover above his feet as if fearful of meeting the black boots. His words, heavily-accented, hit me like random echoes whose meanings reach me long after they have come off.
“Yes,” I answer.
His plump hand holds mine in a handshake.
I walk behind him to the car. Briskly. The sun is a furnace on my face. “45 degrees today,” he says, turning around. I loll in the back seat, bathed in the buzz of the car’s breath and burdened by the crispy cigarette air. Our drive, long and boring, is bothered by the thicket of his Arabic brewed words of Rs popping out like weeds in chopped English sentences.
The signpost at our destination reads, Companys’ Camp, Al Ain. My space is among other spaces filled by bodies in a room of two-tier beds that rise to the roof like towers climbing into the sky.
“Bros, welcome oo. Na so we see am,” one says, rubbing his fat belly.
“Bros, you get luck sef. My agent disappear as I reach here,” another says. “But small, small, I don adapt. You sef go adapt.” He pushes my bag among other bags under the bed. All the five beds house bags and foodstuffs underneath them. Then he taps on the bed above his. “Na your space be this.”
I nod and sit on a plastic chair in the centre of the room.
“Where are you from?” he asks. His eyes stay on me as if I was some statue. “Are you a Nigerian?”
“Yes.” My eyes shoot him a ‘Can't -you-see?’
He chuckles as if I had just become real. “Which part of Nigeria?” I look away. Blue coveralls hang from the bed posts. Pots and plates are scattered in the spaces between the beds. The smell of sweat mixed with thick air and raw food floats about amidst the roar of the air conditioner. But his attention runs away from me to join in the leisure of the others.
“Guy, today work na die. My waist don finish.”
“My own nko? Which work you work sef. You know how many bricks we cut? 25 pallets oo.”
“Na 400 by 400 abi 100 by 100?”
“See, tomorrow na work, make una allow person sleep.”
“Na you get the room?”
There is a sigh. Then silence creeps in. The light is switched off. Patches of illuminations from phone screens fill the room, bathing the faces of their owners with a surreal light.
“Oh boy, see comment for my Facebook profile picture...the one wey I snap for mall....the likes don reach hundred oo.”
“Mumu. When dem start to disturb you for money, you go start to make noise....”
“Post where we dey work na so that dem go see you for your dirty dirty coverall.”
“Na dem saby. Dat girl wey I toast for six months don reply me sef. She bin block me oo.”
“That Arab girl?”
“I dey tells you. Only say na nyash she go give oo.”
“But you sef, if dem catch you, na castrate o?”
““Guy, if you wan fuck, go look for better people o.”
“Dem no go catch me....”
Their conversations snake about until a staccato of snoring replaces them.
Lying on my bed and staring at nothing, my mind shuffles through the pages of memory, 2012, at the National Youth Service Orientation Camp, Kubwa, Abuja - a three week paramilitary training for recent graduates. There were 20 of us in our dorm of bunk beds. Our voices rose and fell on the backdrop of the universities we had graduated from.
The young Philosopher, what do you say about this?
Engineer, is this true?
Hmmm, so you're a writer?
Doctor, can you explain this medication?
Your university is just a glorified secondary school.
A second class lower from my school is better than a first class in yours.
We wore our alma maters in the white vests and shorts that made us look like happy prisoners. In the morning cold, military whistles unwrapped us from sleep and jogged us to the parade ground for rounds and rounds of drills, singing of the anthem, announcements, to platoon activities which one was reluctant to partake in, to standing in lines with food flasks to collect food rations, to searching for sleep’s company after Lights Out, to sleeping in the hall rather than attend lectures, to the excitement of collecting our first allowance, to camp fire night, and passing out parade. And we left the camp. I was posted to a school where I was assigned to teach drama in the department of cultural and creative arts. I was one among two other teachers. Mr Lobo taught fine arts. Mrs Mairo taught music. I flew the students to ancient Greece, to the city of Dionysia where Dionysius, the god of wine, was celebrated and drunken men with goatskins danced and sang to welcome a god, the evolvement of dramatic performances pioneered by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
The snoring in the room rises higher. Sleep gathers around my eyes like a cloud. In the patches of blur, I see Mr. Kosmas. His fat lips display the whiteness of teeth on his fat face. The smile is the only sunshine on that face. He is happy because I am a finished business. His phones still buzz. It is enough to tell new clients that they are going to work for a company. They would be paid 300k or 500k equivalent to naira. There would be free accommodation, free transport and feeding. They won’t see the out-of-range-things - living in cramped spaces, being owned by a boss who supplies them to companies in need of cleaners, labourers or maids, being paid a chicken feed compared to the lush their boss - the new custodian of their passport receives, the harsh sun biting their bodies and the hot air sucking their breaths. They just can’t wait to behold in real life the sweet images pouring out from the lips of Mr. Kosmas. They will sell their lands, lick their savings clean, and borrow too, in the presumed interface if leaving as tantamount to wealth.
In my head, I begin to write a letter to a client: ‘My dear, so, you want to leave. I know. What is the agent telling you...?’ But the agent is not just an agent. He is one of many: a friend of a friend of another friend; a brother, an uncle, an acquaintance to a prospective traveler.
It stops us. It stands in front of the taxi and shakes its raffia attire. I’m seated at the backseat, left-side window of the taxi, and I put my head out the window and see an endless number of masquerades stretched down the road, all of them donning wooden white masks punctured with holes
First of all, they are Nigerians. Who wouldn’t be happy to be Nigerian? I am totally enthralled to be a privileged citizen of a country that works perfectly well.
I am leaving Nigeria for the first time and Lagos is that last rehearsal before my final departure. Lagos does not pretend to be anything else or care that I have been journeying since morning on a slow moving bus from Nsukka. Even at 9 pm, it bristles with sizzling energy in the twinkling dark.
I read that it takes at least 25 years for the human brain to fully develop. Exactly when and where I picked up this information has become unclear. All through my secondary and tertiary education, I had always thought of myself as having a good perception of the world around me.
Students became detectives. They were assigned by senior prefects to catch anyone whose mother tongue rolled out of her mouth like a broken secret. Names were secretly written.