Nigeria; In nostalgia
Born in England, I was four and a half years old when I moved back to Nigeria with my parents and older sister. I spent the next twenty-one years there and except for a few isolated incidents, my time in Nigeria was quite enjoyable unlike the traumatic experience it was for a lot of young ‘returnees’ that I know.
Below are some of my memories of my time there.
I remember arriving at the Lagos Murtala Mohammed International airport and seeing lizards lounging lazily on the walls as they soaked up the extremely hot sun rays. I ran, shrieking “Snakes, snakes”. This was my introduction to both the wild and domestic animals which sometimes freely roam the streets, houses or wherever else they may find refuge.
A few weeks after we arrived in the country as our shipment of furniture and cars hadn’t yet arrived my father made his way to work on public transport. Oh his return late one afternoon, he decided to take a short cut home via the railway tracks.
He was accosted by a group of robbers who relieved him of his watch, wallet and slippers!!! My poor father walked home barefoot. On hearing him recount his woeful encounter, I burst into tears and blurted out “I want to go back to my country”. To which my father’s brother, who was visiting at the time, promptly and indignantly corrected, “This is your country.” Talk about baptism by fire!
I attended a boarding school for all five/six years of my secondary education. It was an all-girls’ school. I was only nine years old when I got in so it took some adjusting. Some nights I cried myself to sleep as I was homesick but I soon got into the swing of things and adapted to my new circumstances.
Sometimes there was limited water supply so we had to fetch bathing water from a ‘mono-tap’ or ‘mono-pump’. If you’ve ever seen one of those ‘hand bikes’ in a gym, then you can imagine what one of the mono- pumps looked like. I bet we had some well-defined biceps back in the day but we weren’t vain enough to appreciate it.
Each student had a bucket or two to fetch water in and cart to whatever part of the school compound their dormitory was located. At bath time we would scoop the water out of the bucket using a small bathing bowl and pour on our bodies. The buckets could be either plastic or metal. My parents opted to buy me the metal bucket as they considered them more durable. My initials were painted boldly on the outside as if daring any would–be thief to try and steal it.
Empty, these metal buckets weighed a fair bit; talk less of filling them with water and carting them the distance of about half a mile from the mono-taps to our dormitories. I scraped my shins and calves so many times, I lost count. Some girls chose to carry their buckets on their heads.
There were showers in each dormitory but there weren’t enough to go round. It was much quicker to have a bath in the makeshift outside bathrooms. I call them bathrooms but more accurately, they were a space that had concrete floors and four walls made of corrugated zinc sheets to afford privacy from prying eyes which was a bit daft as there was no roof. So it didn’t really – afford privacy, I mean.
The school was surrounded by several tall palm trees. It so happened that timing of our baths, sometimes as early as 5.30 – 6.00am, conveniently coincided with the harvesting of the palm wine. The local palm wine tappers, who also happened to be male, would be strategically placed at the top of the trees by bath-time, getting an eyeful each time. Need I say more?
I studied foreign languages at university majoring in French. It would have been French and German but our German lecturer suffered a mental break-down in my first year so that put paid to that part of my degree.
Part of the programme included a ‘year abroad’. This was the study equivalent of a gap year in a country where the language studied was spoken. This meant going to France for a whole year however just as I got to my third year, the government funding was stopped. Most students couldn’t afford to pay the tuition and boarding for a whole year in France, a deal was negotiated with a neighbouring French-speaking African country, Togo.
I was fortunate. The year after me had to make do with the French village in Badagry, a town on the outskirts of Lagos and close to Nigeria’s border with the Republic of Benin. That’s as close as they got to a French-speaking country as French is not spoken in Badagry.
There’s so much I remember about Nigeria including;
- Eating plantain roasted by the roadside on charcoal barbecues made out of a cut-up metal barrel and wire netting fence accompanied by an oily pepper stew and roasted fish.
- Street traders and hawkers weaving in out of slow-moving traffic with their wares piled high on trays carried on their heads. When the traffic speeds up, they chase after the cars, in the hope of making a last-minute sale.
- Shouting and in some cases, groaning, “NEPA” (the acronym for the national power supplier) every time there was a power cut and again when it was restored.
- Many escapades on public transport including jumping on and off moving buses, sitting in taxis so rickety and rusty you could see the road through the holes in the floor and getting burns from the exhaust pipes of ‘okadas’ (motor bikes).
- Being woken up early in the morning by the ‘adhan’ (Islamic call to prayer) over loudspeakers in the mosques.
I’m going to Nigeria for a visit soon not having been in six years. I have heard things have changed, some for the better and others, for the worse. My excitement at visiting a place I called home for twenty-one years is tinged with a bit of apprehension.
So here’s a ditty that captures how I feel.
Home, they say, is where the heart is
So this leaves me in a bit of a tizz.
For where I once lived, I do call home
But now somewhere else, my heart does roam
To both I feel an affinity
So which do I call my vicinity?
My heart is torn, betwixt and between
To choose one over the other, I am not keen.
One’s where I was born
And indeed where I now sojourn
The other, for many years I lived
But to leave, I was indeed relieved.
Home is where you make it
So I do not care a whit
I make my home in both
For to let go of either, I am loath.