You know you have arrived in Abuja by the slack in activities and movement. The place is calm and laid back, at peace with itself. Hausa is in the air, subliminally present; one can almost see the sonorous language floating above the tree tops. Upon my arrival, I breathed in the air of the land of my birth. My Eastern name can say what it will, but I am a dan arewa, a son of the north.
An hour earlier I was in the animal kingdom of Lagos, western Nigeria, a hobbesian state of nature like no other. Yoruba, the language of Western Nigeria swirled around like a tornado punctuated by loud curses, blaring horns and sounds of haste and struggle. In Abuja, I was in a city of relief and contented sighs. I could almost touch simplicity. The calm ambience of Abuja is inspired by the philosophy that “one gets only what Allah wishes to give.” So why hurry? Why struggle? Why leave your home by 4am and return at midnight? Lagos needs this philosophy. The quality of life here affirms its truth.
Outside the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, I was surprised not to be overwhelmed by cab drivers promising to drive me to anywhere, even to my own living room, as I was used to in Lagos. I wondered, briefly, if Abuja cab drivers were also on strike like the airport authorities who made me sit for four hours inside a steamy airplane. But this was Abuja – cab drivers here had style and clean air-conditioned cars.
A man in a danshiki approached me.
“Taxi?” he asked.
I nodded. “International Conference Centre.”
“The China Achebi program?”
I nodded again. Even though he pronounced Chinua Achebe wrong, I was still impressed at his knowledge. Cab drivers back in Lagos wouldn’t have known. They know only their enemies: Governor Fashola and LATSMA (Lagos State Traffic Management Authority).
The ANA symposium organised in honour of the late Chinua Achebe was to have started at 10am. My flight from Lagos was scheduled for 6.45am that morning. I should have gotten to the ICC in good time to cover the event for ZODML, but Nigerian air travel is characterised by “unforeseen circumstances” – something frustrating always truncates one’s best-made plans. This time it was an industrial action by the air traffic controllers. My flight was delayed for six hours.
So there I was, at 2pm, urging the cab driver to speed up and hoping that somehow ANA would obey the Nigerian time rule and start the event late. We arrived the ICC in minutes (Abuja roads encourage and inspire speed). I walked through the wide doors of the conference centre and met everyone standing for the national anthem closing the event. My anger and frustration was palpable. The airport authorities were to blame, but how does one go about fighting an airline? They were not like the road transporters in Lagos, where you can cuss out the driver or beat up the bus conductor. Hours before, in Lagos, our hostesses had borne the brunt of the frustrations of the passengers. When the air traffic controllers finally took pity on us and cleared our plane for takeoff, people had expected the flight to begin immediately; they were not in the mood for the pre- flight demonstrations and security measures. One woman told the hostess that everyone knew how to buckle the seat belt, could the pilot just lift off? Another voice from the back, an Igbo man by his accent, told the hostess to shut up about that nonsense about emergency landing on water, and that if the pilot stupidly decides that the water was the best place to make an emergency landing then there really would be no point.
For some minutes passengers debated who thought up the silly policy of making emergency landings on water, and why they didn’t consider tree tops (which would presumably provide better cushioning). My neck developed a kink from twisting to put faces to some of the frustrated voices.
Then another hostess committed, from the furor it caused in the economy class, a treasonable felony. As she stood between the business and economy classes, holding the curtains apart, she paused to make sure we all saw her, then dramatically drew the curtains closed. People flared up again. “Mumu girl,” said one traveller. “How much will they dash you?”
“Nonsense,” said a bearded man beside me, “Shegia! If the plane crashes we will all not die?” Voices rose up in protest at him.
“Haba! Why are you talking like that?”
“God forbid, I reject it.” “Blood of Jesus!”
“We will land safely, Insh’Allah.”
A baby at the back had had enough and let out her frustration in wails. I didn’t fully understand the angry reactions, so I asked the bearded man what the hostess had done.
“Kai, you didn’t see what the shegia did? The way she closed the curtain to make us feel like, like, talakawa, you know, poor persons, because we are in economy class? Irin, like there is something special happening in the business class seats. Instead of them to signal the pilot to move, they are… they are showing off!”
I felt his pain. As far as I was concerned we were all in the flying container together:those sitting in business class could still hear the baby crying at the back of the plane.
Thankfully, the plane did not crash and I even got a wink from the hostess when she handed me my snack of juice and a cake.
But as I stood looking foolish and trying to pretend that I hadn’t arrived ignobly at the close of an event for which I had travelled across the country to attend, I wished I had shouted at the hostess like everyone else and maybe broken something in that aircraft to prove my point.
The trip was not entirely fruitless, however. Part of my mission at the event was to interact with authors and raise awareness about ZODML.
“A free private library in Nigeria, in Lagos? Eziokwu! Ah, but if only Nigerians read,” said a professor who asked for my card. I told him Nigerians actually read. He beckoned two of his colleagues over to hear what this young man was saying. They came. We argued. I won. They promised to visit when next they came to Lagos. I discussed business with Richard Ali, a co-founder of Parresia Publishers and took pictures with friends and Caine Prize finalists, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adamu Ibrahim. I also had a good time with the poets of Words, Rhyme and Rhythm, Kukugho Samson and Su’eddie Agema, and some of the Association of Nigerian Authors top guns (Mallam Denja Abdullahi and BM Dzukogi). Oh, and did I mention that Chinyere Obi-Obasi took me out to lunch? The trip ended up being not so bad.
But we live in a strange country.
As I got into a cab to head back to the airport, the driver glanced at the programme of events and a magazine I had with me and then asked in broken English, “The man come?”
“The man? Which man?” I asked. “The man, now… Achebe come for the programme?”
My mouth dropped open.
“Driver, don’t worry, I am not going to the airport anymore.”
“Ah ah, bros why?…toh, come pay 2,500…”
I ignored him, alighted from his cab and hailed another. The cab driver had dispelled my illusion that Abuja Cab drivers knew things other than destinations.
My return flight to Lagos was scheduled for 5.45pm but of course, we landed at Murtala Mohammed Airport at 11.20pm. That return flight and my ordeal at the hands of the Nigeria police on my way home from the airport is story for another time.
First Published in ZODML News letter