Nigeria: The Land of Hidden Frowns and Giant Smiles – Chapter 1: The Arrival
Sanni’s first trip home to Lagos, Nigeria in eight years and my first time ever visiting Africa and meeting my husband’s entire Yoruba family. A month. A journey. These words are my interpretation only and shouldn’t be taken as anything but my observations of a foreign land that has done everything it can to accept me and I it.
Chapter 1: The Arrival
I was struck first by the similarities to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The dusty red soil that coated everything, the manic driving with constant horn blowing that didn’t warn, instead demanding others get out of the way, the black & white striped concrete road barricades and ram-shackled, incomplete concrete buildings that all looked the same. It looked like a country whose government didn’t care enough for its people to do more to increase the standard of living. It looked like a country run by politicians who banked offshore.
The drive from the airport, once our hotel driver finally arrived, was for Sanni a relief. We were on our way in his country. From the moment he stepped in to the hot, tunnel leading from the plane to the terminal, the stress sat heavily on his shoulders. Quite uncharacteristically, we took opposite roles. Where normally he would go with the flow, now it was I that took the chilled attitude, ready to simply take what comes and manage it. Sanni, on the other hand, seemed to fight every moment.
With Sanni’s fame, it didn’t take long before someone from his past recognized him. One of the airport luggage porters was the first to call, “Machine.” The nickname given for his machine-ability on the field. He helped to collect our bags, got us a trolley that is normally paid for and stayed with me as Sanni attended to changing money and finding out where the hotel driver was. All of these were reasonably normal requirements arriving to any country, and yet, to Sanni, it was extremely stressful. Perhaps the heat had melted his patience.
The customs officer was paid (1000 Naira or about $5.70US) as we left. A standard bribe to not be hassled with additional luggage inspections. We waited in a local fast food restaurant, paying 2000N for a 1.5L bottle of water. I had no way to know yet how outrageous the currency conversion from US to Naira would be. It is not much better from AUS either. But then again, airports around the world are known for their exorbitant prices.
We arrived to the hotel after our 24 hour journey to discover a large, loud party in the courtyard. The staff Christmas party was underway. Local Nigerian hip hop music blared. Staff wore matching blue print outfits as is the custom. Guests sat around and stared. I felt disheveled and ugly and in no frame of mind to be stared at, but I smiled anyway at the warm greetings from staff.
We were taken upstairs and told we were being upgraded to a better room than we’d booked due to the noise from the party. We were taken into a plush suite, with a large lounge room and dining table and three lockable bedrooms with king size beds and simple, poorly painted ensuites. We were asked to choose which room we wanted. Sanni and I were so tired we couldn’t remember what the others looked like, they all seemed the same. It hardly made a difference to us since we knew we’d only be there one night.
Our host, Princess, softly, almost too kindly, made it clear it would be appreciated if we contributed to the cost of the better room. This we discovered of course, only after we’d agreed to take the room and our luggage was brought upstairs. Tiredness began to set in. I wasn’t prepared for the haggle that was to come. She made it seem like a free upgrade because their party would be an inconvenience, now it felt like a scam.
Sanni started by explaining that we had booked the room online and since it was their decision to upgrade us we shouldn’t have to pay extra. She wasn’t listening. She explained that she had to keep her boss happy. She knew I held the purse strings and she let it be known all the while smiling pleasantly, as though she knew this was a foul game she was playing. I was angry at the disrespect she showed Sanni. In a country where the man is the decision maker (in public at least), she had caused an offense she thought I wouldn’t notice. My frustration obvious. I asked her to give us some privacy to discuss our options. Leaving simply wasn’t one of them, we were too tired.
Sanni & I agreed to no more than $110US for the night, an increase of $13, which as I type it, doesn’t sound like much, but as I will explain in time, it was more than we had budgeted for. A further shock was given when I learned that the driver had to be paid. Now I cussed heavily under my breath and left the room to prevent myself from losing my shit completely. I sat in the lounge room, inhaling deeply and trying to clear my exhausted mind to work out what to do.
I returned. I explained that the site we’d used to book stated that the hotel included airport pickup. It didn’t say there was an additional cost, and certainly not 6000N. I argued they had already made more money from us for the room that was supposed to be a free upgrade. Princess insisted the website was wrong. We had no proof, no way to log online to check. I looked at Sanni, his eyes pleading me to not completely lose my cool. I was ready to leave. Is this the way Nigeria is then? Always looking for a way to take more from the foreigner?
Sanni spoke Yoruba and requested she leave, that he would discuss it with the driver as it was a private business arrangement. Sanni bartered to half the price. We thought he was being fair until later he further ripped Sanni off by driving him to buy local sim cards. Taking him back to near the airport again and then charging him another 3000N. In comparison, a recent trip to the local grocery store with a private driver who waited and took us back (over an hour and half of service) cost 2000N. We had no way to know, even Sanni was out of his element.
This is a country I’m learning that stands on the backs of others in order to rise up. The people will look for any opportunity to get ahead. Foreigners are easy targets. Even Nigerians returning to their own country. But they’ll stand on the back of anyone who stoops low enough.
While Sanni was gone I showered, readying to join the celebration I was invited to. I thought I could go down alone but I found myself without confidence. Sanni returned and convinced me it would be fine. As soon as I stepped outside, I wanted a hole in the ground to swallow me whole. Everyone single one of the 50+ attendees stared at me again. One of the attendants took me down to watch a small boy sing his heart out. I felt bad. I felt like I was stealing attention from him so I remain focused on him, as though he was the only person in the yard. Trying as best I could to block out all the eyes fixated on me.
I may as well have stood there naked for all the attention. And yet, no one made a move to speak to me. After some time I made eye contact with a staff member. She directed me to sit, to eat, neither of which I wanted to do. So there I stood in my bright blue, flowing dress and matching stiletto’s, grossly overdressed for the party. After the boy stopped singing I made my way back upstairs. I was done being stared at.
Sanni laughed at the description I gave of my experience. “What will it be like outside this compound?” I asked him in an exasperated tone. “Will I always be stared at and ignored simultaneously?” He laughed good-naturedly. I felt like I was back in China, only without the cameras getting their paparazzi on. At least the Chinese asked me silly questions.
Sanni learned from a gateman that there was a recommended restaurant he should take me to for dinner. We waited outside the gate, away from the entrance so the owner couldn’t see him walk with his wife and child and us to the main street. Were he seen, he would have most likely lost his job. Sanni explained that he didn’t like where we were standing. He didn’t know the neighbourhood. We couldn’t stand in front of a gate, we couldn’t stand on the corner, and we couldn’t stand in clear light either. All might result in attracting the wrong attention and result in us being jumped or followed. The streets at night, especially for a white woman simply aren’t safe.
We tried to get a marua (aka napep, a three wheel car/ tuk tuk) from the main road to the recommended restaurant but each time they added the white-person tax to the quote. The instructions from the gateman weren’t clear. I was concerned we’d get lost, resulting in a bigger drama than I had strength to manage. I was over it. I now just wanted to snore.
I pleaded with Sanni to find somewhere local. Not surprisingly, there was a local fast food restaurant selling all kinds of fried-death nearby. Once again, Machine was recognised. This time by the attendant serving him. The surprise for his family would now be even harder to keep secret. ‘Just how famous is my husband?’ I wondered.
I don’t even remember what I ate. Fried chicken and jollof rice I think. Jollof is a nice-enough fried rice made on a base of tomato sauce, chilli and fishstock with pieces of vegetable. The cost, once again, made us shake our heads in disbelief. And this was without the added WPT. I hadn’t realized that the gateman had invited himself to join us for dinner. I didn’t know that meant he expected that we would pay for their meals. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that as the gateman had to return to work to collect his forgotten phone, his wife only accepting water.
This is not uncommon I’ve learned. Sanni has returned from overseas. Anyone who returns, and does so with a white wife, has made good and therefore must be very wealthy. It is not uncommon at all for strangers to ask for money, meals or drinks to be purchased. Even two men at an adjacent table asked Sanni to buy them food.
Her child squirmed and cried each time the mother tried to sit next to me. For the first time, I was on the receiving end of the fear Sanni receives from my niece in Australia. She is terrified of him. We think it’s because he’s black, and now, this small girl was terrified of my white skin. I was speechless. If it wasn’t entirely inappropriate to do so I would’ve laughed.
Sanni insisted we take a napep, mostly because I was too tired to walk, but also for my safety. He was concerned that now it was just the two of us he would be powerless to protect me. Something I would hear a lot in the coming days.
I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow. And yet, slept restlessly. I woke several times, for the last time at about 3.30am. I tossed for an hour before deciding I’d get up and sit in the lounge to read. In such a large bed, Sanni and I slept worlds apart but he too, I discovered, was awake. We discussed the day before, his shock of his country and its cost. We discussed what to do next and decided we had no choice but to tell his family he was here. It was not the surprise we planned, but turned out to be the best thing we could’ve done. We simply couldn’t afford for them to not know we were here.
We had already decided the night before that we would tell Moses, our mutual Nigerian friend, who lived with us in Cambodia. We knew by 5am that he was on his way – a two-hour journey for him. I’m not sure I know how to explain how much Moses means to me. In Cambodia he was my protector when Sanni wasn’t around. He was always there if I needed anything. He helped me understand Yoruba culture and language, he taught me football (soccer) rules – although I still can’t identify an off-side, hardly the WAG I’m meant to be (jokes) – he was my bodyguard, my friend, my brother. He is a patient, caring, loving man so it made sense that the first person I wanted to see was him. I needed my protector nearby to help explain this country to me in a way that Sanni simply would not be able to do.
Stay tuned for Chapter Two: All out Wow!
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