I found a friend in Lagos called Joe. We became such good friends that he even took me home. If you knew Lagos, you would appreciate that that was quite a gambit on his part. Decent accommodation is very difficult to obtain in Lagos, and unless one earns a good salary, one’s accommodation might not necessarily suit one’s imagined social status. All right – let’s say one’s self-image. And, as we all know, self-image is of the greatest importance to some people – especially those who feel a little bit insecure.
Whether he was insecure or not, Joe took me home – and he could not have done a better thing, for when I met his family, my attitude towards him changed for the better. Which was in my own interest, for Joe made my life so enjoyable that I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach when I was leaving Lagos.
Aah? Pain at leaving Lagos? Short answer: “Yes, whether you believe it or not.” Oh, all right. I did feel a bit apprehensive as Murtala Muhammed airport loomed up on the horizon. Yes, if only one could conveniently get to Lagos without passing through that airport, life would be much better.
Trouble seems to be waiting for me every time I pass through that airport! On my last visit – less than a month ago – I was met. This was good, for it meant that I had no problems with either Immigration or Customs. Oh, all right – the conveyor belt had broken down and I waited about half an hour longer than usual for my luggage. But so what? Eventually I emerged from that hell-hole of a place, and followed the newly-found friend who had met me, towards his car.
And then Murtala Muhammed Airport struck – as suddenly, as unexpectedly, as it had struck at me on previous visits. Someone drove his luggage trolley straight at my ankle! “Agya ei!” I cried out. I don’t remember the last time I had cried out like that in my native tongue, but there it was. Which means that the pain was considerable enough to make me retrogress into my childhood, during which time I used to cry out: “My father!” whenever I encountered unexpected pain!
I think my cry shook the trolley-pusher, for he apologised most profusely. He was stricken with what might be called “arrival anxiety” in the sense that he wasn’t looking where his suitcase and trolley were going at all. He was, instead, scanning the vehicles that had lined up at the arrivals’ bay to see whether the one coming to fetch him was there. And my ankle was in his way! I nearly cried real tears: the pain was sharp and searing! But in seconds, my brain had calmed me down. It told me: “Hey, this is Murtala Muhammed oo! Do you not know? You’ve broken no bones my friend! Thank God and go your way!” I thanked God and went my way.
Once, at the same airport, I entered a kiosk at the departure lounge to buy a newspaper. The kiosk had a very low roof – I noticed that and bent low to enter. But having bought the paper and been distracted by the headlines it bore, I forgot where I was and lifted my hand to reach my jacket pocket to take money to pay for the paper. “Pah!” I heard. At the same time, I felt a sting of pain, and blood began to trickle down from my hand.
My hand had struck a fan which the owner of the kiosk had installed on his low ceiling and which was whirring round at full blast. I looked at the kiosk owner. And he looked at me. Meanwhile, the blood trickled from my hand. The kiosk owner was very, very apologetic. He even offered to give me the newspaper free of charge! Again, my brain came to the rescue: “Hey it’s absurd that he should put a fan just where his customers would straighten up to pay him, right? It’s maddening that the airport authorities should allow such unsafe kiosks to be erected at the airport, right? But you can do nothing about it! The absurdities are a fact of life. So just count yourself lucky – the fan only grazed the skin on your hand. Had your fingers been caught by any of the fan’s revolving arms, what do you think would have happened, huh? Thank God for small mercies and go your way.” I thanked God for small mercies. And went my way.
Kai? Murtala Muhammed airport? Nothing can surprise me there, you would have thought. One day, I got there all flustered, aware that the traffic from my hotel to the airport might have made me miss my flight. As I looked around, trying to locate the desk of the airline with which I was flying, someone shouted across to me, “Are you going to London?” “Yes,” I yelled back in relief. A guardian angel was looking after me, I thought. The guy was wearing an airport attendant’s type of uniform – white shirt and shorts of either khaki or blue drill; I didn’t look too hard, in my condition of maximum anxiety.
“Follow me!”, the man ordered. And I followed him into an office. There was a guy there, similarly dressed, and they briefly exchanged words in a language I did not understand. He said, “We’ve already closed the flight, but I can arrange to have you taken into the plane.” Without pausing, he said: “The only thing that might delay you is if you have any foreign currency. Do you have any?” I said, “Yes!” He said: “Bring it! I shall go and see the chaps in charge of that desk and show it to them so that they will allow you through without filling out forms to delay you.”
I gave him my travellers’ cheques – a thousand dollars worth of travellers’ cheques. They were still unsigned – I had just collected them from the cashier of the organisation that had invited me to the conference I had attended in Lagos, and I had told myself I would sign them, but what with this and that … they were still unsigned! “Wait here! I’ll be back in a minute!”, my ‘guardian angel’ said. And he promptly vanished. Soon, his mate also left – “to go and look for him”.
I never saw either of them again. I couldn’t even find out who owned the “office” to which he had taken me. I didn’t have time, anyway. I knew an Air France plane was checking in passengers for Paris and I managed to persuade the Air France people to put me on that flight. In Paris, I would easily be able to catch a flight to London. I still get dazed today when I think about how easy it had been to filch one thousand dollars from me. I knew I had been stupid not to have taken time to sign the travellers’ cheques, so that at least, cashing them would have been more difficult for the thieves. And now, to my last MM airport story. I arrived there one hot afternoon, carrying a suitcase in one hand and a typewriter in the other. I needed to get a taxi quickly, and seeing some parked near the airport entrance, I waved my arms. About 10 taxi drivers rushed towards me. Before I knew it, my typewriter had been taken by one of them, whilst the suitcase was in the possession of another.
No problem, I thought: I would badger them about the fare. One of them said he would charge me X Naira; the other said his charge would be Z Naira. But as soon as he said that, the other chap also dropped his charge to Z Naira! Somebody standing near me whispered helpfully: “Offer W Naira!” I said: “I shall only pay W Naira!” And both drivers said they would take W Naira! By this time, I was sweating so profusely my sweat could have filled two buckets. To stop the nonsense, I said I would go with the one who had the suitcase. But ho! – the one who had the typewriter refused to give it up.
The two taxi drivers now began an altercation in Yoruba – a language which sometimes sounds as if it was made for nothing but quarrelling done at the top of the participants’ voices. Passers-by stopped to hear the argument. Many joined in. Eventually, the argument was moved away from me altogether, to whether the members of a particular trade union were entitled to pick up passengers from the airport and not the other!
I sweated some more and began to suffer from a headache. Fortunately, there were some soldiers manning a checkpoint nearby, and seeing the commotion, they came over to find out what was going on. They quickly retrieved my possessions for me and advised me not to use the services of either quarrelsome taxi driver. I easily found another, and was soon on my way to the Bristol Hotel – and a well-earned, ice-cold beer!