The ceiling leaked with the sound of mismanagement, in her opinion, a staple in all things Nigerian. It was evident in escalators that stood without motion, air conditioning units that hummed only to exhale warm air, patches of concrete on the carpeted floor, and the worst, the humans that fiend politeness in search of tips. The humid air left her brows heavy with sweat, but she didn’t wipe it or complain. This is why she was here, this was what she wanted. It was one thing to be something — it was another thing to live it. Cloaked in the comfort of New York living where she hopped around intellectual circles with the fear of coming off pretentious the height of her worry, she had grown detached from her home without even knowing it. Sure, she checked up on the country over her morning coffee in Starbucks, browsing her favourite sites which included Linda Ikeji’s blog even if she would never admit it in public. On many occasions she would read an article and in a fit of rage attack the keyboard, spewing her opinions on the comment section. It was either that or spilling her latte if she wanted to break something. The latter wasn’t an option.
Three months ago, Nigeria was on the news — again. A pair of lesbians had been caught in the act and set on fire by an angry mob. Her eyes welled with tears as she canvassed through the news for what felt like the hundredth time. In her head, she could only imagine the horror as her mind painted a picture of two naked bodies dancing in flames on the red clay earth. She could see the mirage of the naked fire and inhale the choking smell of burning flesh. Then there was the screams, the screams. How was this any different from the lynching of blacks? How could she stand on any moral high ground knowing till today her society was even less humane? How could people do this? Where was their humanity? Did they ever even have one to begin with? Animals! She proceeded to tapping away as fast as her fingers could manage, always a few paces behind her mind. When she was done, she had written more than the post itself contained. She swept through for grammatical errors and ideological inconsistencies. Happy to find none, she clicked on the post icon.
She returned to her life almost immediately, first flicking through Netflix on her smart TV. With Orange is the New Black finished for the season, it was hard to give much meaning to her life. Perhaps she could carry on with her work. These articles weren’t going to write themselves and her deadline was fast approaching.
“Passport please.” The custom officer demanded.
With unsure hands she dug through her bag and fished out the little green document. After being away for over fifteen years, there wasn’t as much as a single stamp on the new booklet. The official examined the data page where a passport of her hair wild with a rich afro could pass for a background.
“Madam, you didn’t do your hair to take the picture.”
Online, she would have launched into a rant about how her hair was part of her identity and it was most offensive and self-hating for a fellow African to talk down on it in this manner. Here, standing before an authority figure that could delay her with just the wave of a hand, she swallowed her thoughts.
“I missed my salon appointment.” she was disgusted with herself.
“No problem,” he flicked through the blank pages, “where are you coming from?”
“I can’t see any visa.” He adjusted the spectacles on his old wrinkled nose.
“I have another passport, do you need to see it?”
He reached for his stamp and pushed down on a page. He had seen enough returnees to know the ones that hadn’t been home in a while. From the glow on her skin to the accent she spoke with, her situation was evident. Even her attempt to completely drown out every trace of foreignness did not save her from a certain punch when she mouthed vowels.
“Welcome back,” he slid her passport over the counter.
As she wheeled her hand luggage past the immigration counter in search of the luggage conveyor belt, she couldn’t help but think back to the very message that kick-started her trip. It was a reply to her post about the lesbians. The first few comments agreed with her, spouting inputs she considered well thought out and intellectual. Some followed with the classic homophobic slurs, she was no stranger to that and the threat of rape and murder most came with. If anything, it baffled her that such inputs from reprobates with keyboards even bothered her to the point of an emotional reaction. She scrolled through, sighing heavily to expel the anger that was brewing. And then she came upon a post.
“See this one with big big grammar, abeg shift go one side. You are talking about libertinism abi na wetin, when last did you even enter this country? All these ones that will be commenting from abroad like they know what it is to be Nigerian. It is not by having passport oh, abi by reading There Was a Country and Half of a Yellow Sun. Come here and see for yourself first and then you can talk. Telling us Nigeria needs to do this, Nigeria needs to do that. Because all of us here are idiots that we can’t tell right from wrong abi left from right. When you want to really do something apart from complaining, dust your passport and come and see your country.”
Temi was particularly taken by this comment because she had never stopped to consider that her detachment from the issues she tried to address were so sharp that a stranger could perceive it from her comments. Over and over again she had read the post, and even when she was away from it, like a song on repeat, it looped in her head, driving her out of her mind. She tried to picture what her replier looked like, but nothing could help. The username killyasef was a dead end, the avatar, a noose, didn’t do much either. The best she could do was imagine it was a man, and she didn’t even know why she jumped to that conclusion.
“Madam, rent trolley. It’s only one thousand naira.”
She waited for another customer to inquire.
“How much for trolley?” A big bodied woman in a lace top and distracting head-tie asked.
“It’s one thousand naira ma.” The young man’s voice cracked under the weight of his lie to a woman he knew would know better.
“One thousand naira, even if you wan push am reach my house for Surulere, I no go pay like that.” She counted three hundred naira and handed it to the man. Embarrassed, he flashed a smile to reveal his stained teeth.
“Ehen, so you would have taken one thousand naira from me?”
“Madam you big pass that one na. I no even charge you anything.”
So much for first class service — just when she thought an apology might be coming. In the man’s opinion, he had a right to her money just because she had more than him. What she thought of as corruption or cheating was so normalized that even the lowest level culprits didn’t understand it. She counted out three hundred naira and handed it to him.
“Thank you ma.”
When she reached the conveyor belt it was still stationary. Some passengers had begun to grumble, most murmuring about how nothing worked in the country. Some simply waited with complete indifference like they were numb to the delays. She wondered how long till she was one of those people, beaten, battered, broken. That’s what she made of them anyway. As she waited, her eyes darted around the room to take in what she could. A gang of uniformed men she could only guess to be airport customs waited towards the exit, pulling people over at will to search their bags. Even from this distance she could see money change hands with quick handshakes. At least a quarter of the florescent tubes that were meant to illuminate the place were either broken or completely missing. As for the air-conditioning unit, she had learned online that it was a luxury only for passengers in the departure wing. Here, they didn’t even get as much as a broken unit.
“Welcome to Lagos. They don’t even let you get out of the airport before the shit is all over your face.” A young man pulled up next to her with his trolley.
“I know right. I haven’t been back in so long. I thought it would have changed a bit.”
“No, it has changed a lot — for the worse.”
She turned to get a better look at her new acquaintance. If he grew any taller, a law to force him to play professional basketball wouldn’t sound so outlandish. His face was clean shaven to expose strong features like a bony nose, beaded brown eyes and a strong jaw. She would have placed him as a military type, but at the shake of his hand she was sure a table knife was about as violent a weapon he ever held.
“My name is Michael.”
“I’m Temi. You have very soft hands.”
“I get that a lot. In my defence I’m a surgeon so I wear gloves a lot.”
“Oh, well you are excused then. I’m only a writer so I have no idea why my hands are so hard. Apparently it’s not so good for a woman.”
An awkward pause lingered for a breath before he broke it, “Maybe you were a mechanic in your past life.” They both laughed to ease the tension. What was she thinking? The man tells her he is a surgeon and all of a sudden she is flirting with him. She wasn’t sure if this was her being proactive or just living up to a stereotype she would have sworn to have escaped.
“Do you practice here?” She enquired.
“God goodness, no way. If I really wanted to throw away my certificate I could just toss it in the fireplace.”
She shot him a quizzical look, “I don’t understand?”
“I haven’t spent almost ten years in school to work in a theatre where I can’t even be sure my scalpel is sterilized, and I haven’t even gone into pay and the machines I need sometimes. It just isn’t worth it.”
“Interesting,” the conveyor belt began to move, “oops, seems like it’s working.”
They edged closer to keep an eye out for their bags and as they watched, she found herself dissecting what Michael had just said. Who knew how many more of his kind existed across all fields? She didn’t have to look very far. For all her complaints about the white washing of the world with institutional bullying by the West, her dream as a writer was to be published by a big foreign press and to win a few foreign awards. “Foreign” in this case just a synonym for western to sugar-coat a bitter pill she had to swallow without leaving too strong an after taste of hypocrisy. But it wasn’t her fault, what choices did she have? What choices did anyone with dreams too big for the country have?
“Here we go, I think that one is mine.” Michael stretched his already long neck to get a better glimpse of the luggage hovering towards his direction.
“Great, well I guess that’s you.” She smiled.
“Where about are you headed from here?” He asked.
“Lagos Island, Lekki side.”
“Great, I’m going towards that side so I can just wait for you. It’s probably cheaper to split the taxi.”
“Cool, and hopefully you know how much is reasonable. Can you believe this guy tried to rent me the trolley for one thousand naira?”
“How much is it supposed to be? I’ve been paying five hundred every time I come.”
“Jesus, it’s three hundred, and now I’m not even sure about that.”
He sighed, “well good for them. It’s not like they are paying them anything reasonable.”
“Are you justifying what they do?”
“Justifying is a strong word, but people need to survive. It’s like when the waiters at New York think you’re an ass for not tipping. Some even after they have included a service charge in the cheque.”
“I think that’s mine.”
“Where did you get that from? The sixties?”
Michael lifted a retro-styled suitcase out of the conveyor belt and placed it in her trolley.
“Now let’s go find that taxi and see how mildly they rob us. I think there needs to be some kind of directory that gives an idea on the price of everything for idiots like us.”
The pushed their trolleys towards the exit where the custom officials waited. Temi’s choice to travel in a tracksuit was one way of giving off her newness in Nigeria. Tracksuits were more or less only allowed on an evening run, and even that was an activity only the rich partook in.
“Madam, please come this way for inspection.”
At the mention of the first word, she already knew what this was about. Before she could completely pull over with the luggage, Michael had balled a one thousand naira note into the fists of the officer in charge.
“Abeg, na my madam be this.” He winked.
The official flashed a broad smile, “Leave that one, her oga don take care of us.”
“You are free to go ma. Have a nice day.”
Pushing past the busy exit, Temi couldn’t help but seethe in frustration. She repeatedly tried to tell herself that this was only her first day and she had no idea what it was like everywhere else. Maybe this problem was localized in the airport, or just Lagos mainland, maybe just Lagos state. She knew better than to believe these lies she tried to tell herself.
“Why did you give those guys money? You shouldn’t have.”
“Would you have really rather have them go through your stuff, touching your underwear and all that?”
“This is the problem — there is always a reason, some excuse. Corruption here is like a Kafkaesque experience, I can’t even explain it and yet we all have to fall in line.”
“You really haven’t been back in a while, have you? I’m not sure why you are here but I will tell you this for free, if Martin Luther King was Nigerian, there wouldn’t be a Martin Luther King Day.”
“What are you saying?”
“He would still be shot, but nobody will remember him save a few intellectuals that care to bother. This place is a dead-end where dreams come to die. You think anyone would care about Fela if he came out now? We have become so used to this way of life. You can’t save a drowning man, he will pull you under with him.”
“So what are you suggesting? That we wait until he passes out before we swim for the rescue?”
“Exactly, it might take a decade or more, but this madness will implode one day, and when it does, I want to be as far away from here as possible. I just worry for my relatives. I’m only back for my brother’s wedding. This luggage is filled with more toys than anything else. Sometimes I feel guilty for not seeing my nieces and nephews enough.”
“Aww, that’s sweet.”
A group of men mostly in worn clothes and hard faces circled around the pair like vultures about to feast.
“Aunty, where you dey go? Make I carry you. I be licensed airport taxi.”
In a variation of words, all the drivers asked the same question as they tried to woo her attention.
“We dey go Lekki.” She spoke to the man that appeared oldest of the bunch. He was smallish with tribal marks consistent with the Hausas and their signature small cap over his threading kaftans.
“I take you ten thousand.”
“If na so make I dey use leg,” words in pidgin felt strange in her mouth as she spat them with an accent. If they weren’t thinking of extorting her before, now they were.
“Oya, how much you wan pay?” he asked.
“We go pay six thousand. Na so we always dey pay. If you no want, no take.” Michael butted in hoping his less accented diction would do the trick.
They carried on haggling over the price till the old man settled for seven thousand naira before heading off to bring his car.
They waited in the evening breeze under a darkening blue sky. Cars honked their horns in every direction, uniformed men harassing anyone that parked even for a second to pick a passenger. At least the mosquitoes weren’t out yet.
“So what sort of stuff do you write? Anything I would have read?”
She found herself somewhat embarrassed by his question. While she did a few important editorial posts, the bulk of her writing was on women’s issues, which thanks to what most publications wanted, revolved around relationship issues. The best she could do to make herself feel slightly useful was to infuse her feminist philosophies in her pieces.
“Well, if you don’t read Cosmopolitan, I doubt you would have read anything from me.”
“Woah, so you are like a relationship guru or sex goddess.”
“There are other things in the magazine you know.”
“Forgive me, I’m just going off the headlines on the cover page.”
“I do write a relationship and well-being column.”
He quickly glanced at her ring finger and smiled, “bet your boyfriend is a lucky guy.”
“Yeah, he is lucky he doesn’t exist. Being is pain.”
“You know, you talk like I imagined a writer to. Interesting that you aren’t dating but you write about it.”
The taxi driver appeared in a Toyota Camry that might have as well been a motorized old wheelbarrow. Everything about the car was a struggle, from opening the trunk to closing the doors. The air conditioner barely worked, the radio was dead, seats or what was left of it tattered from what Temi could only imagine to be rats feasting. She just hoped it was strong enough to make it to the island. When it moved, the groan from the engine did nothing to ease her mind.
Michael’s last remark had not gone unnoticed. It wasn’t the first time someone said something in that vein to her. But this time, it was different. It made her really question a lot about herself. Like how her reality about the dating world as an outsider could be similarly warped like her experience of a Nigerian in the Diaspora? They both sat in silence while the driver navigated his way out of the airport traffic. It was only one roadblock on what Michael knew to be one of many.
“We’ll be lucky to make it home by nine.”
“It’s like New York traffic on steroids.”
They both chuckled. Temi wished there was at least one thing she could feel good about. With every second she understood more why so many here had grown docile. She hadn’t spent a whole day and she already left like she was stuck in a universe where a paradox of choice between a million evils left her paraplegic.
“Phew, I thought it would never end.” She was happy to see a strip of tarmac with fast moving cars. The roads were still littered with portholes, death traps, and hawkers that dodged cars balancing trays on their heads. Traffic lights were sparse and streets lights often broken, but at least they were moving.
“Don’t get too excited, we haven’t passed the Third Mainland Bridge yet.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” she looked out the window to be greeted by plastic bottles and other forms of trash. She sighed.
“I don’t even know what we need. Education seems like the easiest thing, but I’m sure there is a reason we can’t even have that.”
“Well, with the current teacher to student ratio in public schools at about one to a hundred and a growing population, yes, there are serious structural problems.”
“So what? We are just supposed to sit down and watch the country burn?” She asked.
“And hope it rises like a phoenix from the ashes.” He answered.
She sat in contemplative silence, the picture of a noose flickering in her tired mind as she remembered the words of her unknown commenter. There had to be some sort of hope.
“Park this side.” The armed police man motioned the taxi driver to move off the road. Temi didn’t like how loosely they carried their guns slung over their shoulders. All it took was one moron with their safety off and an accidental discharge could kill somebody. The pair sat in the back, trusting the driver to handle himself with the authorities. If driving was his line of work, chances are this was nothing new to him.
“Officer, na me now, good evening.”
The police officer bent to peek into the backseat. His militarized uniform did nothing for their comfort, but if Nigeria was the dangerous place it was touted to be, this was exactly what they needed.
“Where you are you coming from?” the officer asked.
“From airport sah.”
“Make I check you boot.”
“Oga please na, I dey try beat traffic.”
“My friend come out of this car and open this boot.” The police man reached into the car and turned off the engine, forcing the driver off the steering wheel.
“Officer, what is the problem. Why are you harassing him?” Temi protested.
“Passenger no put mouth oh. Oya, open the boot”
Michael jumped out of the car before Temi could even process what was happening. It all happened so fast, one second a police man was forcefully uprooting the driver from his seat and ransacking the trunk, next she heard the crack of a gunshot. She found herself sprawled on the backseat staring at the rear view mirror where a police man stood with the open trunk obscuring most of his body. She could just about make out his waist. Other cars sped by but passersby on foot were beginning to pool around even with the police asking them to disperse. Trembling with fear, Temi managed to peek through the door Michael had left from. On the tarmac, his limp body pulsed with what life was left in him after a bullet had torn through his stomach. She watched him jerk convulsively as his soul spilled out of his body to give way for death’s embrace. Mouth open and coughing up blood, eyes wide with darkness — blood streamed down the road until it met the dusty sidewalk where it congealed and darkened in hue.
“No be gun be this? Na why the guy dey struggle with us.”
Temi couldn’t believe her ears. She wasn’t one to trust people on contact, but she had trusted Michael, even if a little. Was his name even Michael? Why was he carrying a gun?
“Madam, where you know this man from? You have to follow us to the station.”
More than ever, Temi found herself wishing the police would just take a bribe and let her go. At the point she was willing to give them everything in her wallet and even more.
“I swear I don’t know him. I just met him.” Her voice was already teary with fear.
“We have to follow procedure ma. There is nothing we can do. Please come out of the car.”
“Madam abeg come out.” The taxi driver chimed in.
Barely able to stand, she wobbled in fear, supported by two police men escorting her to their vehicle.
“Can I make a call?” she asked.
“You will wait till we reach the station.”
She inhaled, where was a noose when she needed it? This was hell on earth. In that moment she knew she wouldn’t be staying, not like this. As the police pick-up truck took off, she heard one of the officers mutter a bunch of indistinguishable words in Yoruba ending with an English phrase she couldn’t have missed.