The last time I went back to Nigeria was 2 years ago and I truly had no idea what to expect. I hadn't been back since I was about six. I just knew that I was missing being home and I wanted to be there. By "there" I mean experiencing the culture, the food, the people, environment, including the smell of roasting Suya (Suya: beef grilled and sautéed in variations of hot pepper that is grilled and sold on a stick)
The reason for me going home recently was partially to assist with my mother's non profit organization, Kene Olisa Charities Inc. The other reason was to nurture a long distance relationship.
You know that you're in Nigeria once you step off the plane. The humidity is the first sign of a distant land, and after that is the joyless officers you meet in customs. After following the line of people in front of me, a tall lanky woman with her hair tied in a bun looked me up and down then motioned for my Nigerian passport.
"Kenechukwu...." she pronounced it slowly as she looked at me then back down at the picture. [Kenechukwu is my full Igbo name, it means "thank God"]
Where are you staying...?" She said.
"Lagos..." I mumbled.
"Abeg! where in Lagos.."
I just stared at her, and raised my eyebrows. Surely she could see my anger could match her own.
"Ikeja".... that was a lie, I had forgotten the name of where I was staying, but I had to keep it moving, she stamped my passport and I continued to follow the line. Many Nigerians are straight shooters, some interaction can possibly be mixed with what in America they call, an "unprofessional attitude." It isn't always that way, but It's good to be on alert.
At luggage claim we waited roughly 3 hours before almost 50% of the passengers started seeing their bags being released. One guy approached me and offered to get my bags for me.
Me: "It's no problem, leave me"
Man: Aunty I dey watch you oh, you neva get strength to grab those bags
Me: (rolling my eyes) "Guy I dey, hapa mu aka ( Guy, I'm fine, just leave me alone)"
This wasn't enough for him, as he stood next to me and continued to point to various bags, asking repeatedly, "Is it that one?"
I looked the other way ignoring him. I asked him if he even worked at the airport, he said yes and I advised that he didn't have on his uniform, nor did he have a badge. He got a nearby guy to vouch that he worked there. What did I care? I could grab my own bags, I was determined not to have him help me. I knew I didn't want to pay for something that I could take care of myself
After grabbing my luggage, the young guy was still persuading me that he could get me through local customs for 40 US dollars.
" You dey craze? (Are you crazy!) , I said.
"Guy biko, I neva get time oh." (Guy, please, I don't have TIME!)
"Take $5 and let me be please...," I continued.
After much debate I settled him and his friend with 15 US dollars both, telling them that I barely had a penny to my name and they should just take what I was able to give to escape the Murtala Muhammad international airport alas!
After 10 minutes I walked out the corridor and found my mom. She was waiting and smiling with her college friend Auntie Ifeoma. The itinerary of my stay was as follows:
-Stay in Lagos (capital of Nigeria) three days
-Travel to Nnewi (the East) for two weeks
My boyfriend's friend Okey picked us up from the airport. People offered to put my luggage in the car, and Okey quietly shunned them away. At the airport you are likely to find many bystanders selling you a variety of items and offering to carry luggage. Nigeria is a country populated by hustlers. Many of this is due to government absence or lack in many areas.
As we sat in Lagos traffic, we become a tiny part of the huge bustle. There's something about it that I enjoyed; something that reminded me of chaos, but the chaos worked here. The fact that you can stay in your car while street sellers try to have you buy a variety of items from cashews, bottled water, to knock off Gucci watches. My mother and I stayed at Auntie Ifeoma's for three days before I was to start heading to the east. My first night was not like any other night I had experienced. It was HOT. It wasn't the type of hot you've experienced, and certainly not the hot you find in the South of the United States. It was a hot that keeps you awake for hours while you fan and beg God above for some sort of breeze. God did not answer me that night, and after two nights with minimal breeze, It was my time to head to the East.
[ The East is historically populated by Igbo's, which is my root of origin. My parents are Igbo and from the town of Nnewi, which is located inside of Anambra State, nicknamed "Light of the Nation."]
Meet me in Asaba
I had to fly into the Asaba airport which is a thirty to forty five minute drive away from Nnewi. By the way I almost missed my flight to Asaba but if I went into that story we would never finish. Just know the intercom was not working in my favor.
Hearing of horror stories of a few unfortunate local flights made me scared to go by airplane, but my boyfriend assured me that It would be fine. He was right, It was a breeze. I got a break from the hot weather in the plane, partially due to our high altitude and when I landed he was there to greet me. He actually recorded me coming out of baggage claim....hashtag "embarrassed face." My boyfriend lives and conducts his manufacturing business in Asaba, which is about 35 minutes outside of Nnewi. Before he took me to my grandmother's house we went to a local eatery where I experienced "Point and Kill." What is that you ask? I'll explain. The restaurant we went to was located outside. Towards the back there was a contained pool of 6-12 catfish swimming briskly. My boyfriend looked into the container where they were kept and let the attendant know which one he wanted by POINTing to it. The attendant who shouldn't have been more than 23 years old grabbed his net and scooped the fish out. It flipped and flopped as he laid it on the ground. I tugged Abuchi (my bf's blouse)
"What is he about to do?" He looked at me and smiled ...
A large pound came next... KILL.....
I stood there with my mouth open. The fish attendant stand continued to turn his large wooden club after each pound to silence the squirming fish.
"Isn't that enough?" I asked.
My boyfriend chuckled again as he guided me out to a table to talk while the fish was being grilled. We came back 45 minutes later to a fully cooked and pepper smothered catfish. It was the freshest fish I had ever tasted in my life. I also thought my tongue would fall off from the amount of hot steam that was coming from my nose, but I survived through it.
When it came to the city of Asaba, I would describe it as more relaxed than any other place I had been to at that point. It almost reminds me of many suburban areas of Georgia. It isn't too congested like maybe Atlanta but more so like a suburban Cobb County. There were many outdoor hotel venues to sit down and relax as well as lovely open fields. We spent lots of time talking about our future. In the days ahead, my boyfriend also kept his promise to introduce me to Shawarma, which is in the form of a burrito, with various ingredients, including hotdog, a combination of creams, vegetable and chicken. Another discovery was Soursop, a fruit that is green with large rough black bumps, but on the inside you find a creamy sweet filling, almost like a mango that tastes like a starburst candy square.
Welcome to the East
Between spending days with my boyfriend , my main place of residence on my trip was at my maternal grandmothers house who lives in the heart of Nnewi. Nnewi is no longer what you might call a "village," like many call their ancestral homes. It is filled with so much life. Okada's ( a motorcycle used for local transport) begin their bustle by nearly 5 a.m. in the morning. You are likely to see busy roads packed with cars, buses and okadas, lots of side shops selling local call cards and a variety of drinks and snacks. I also had the pleasure of eating fresh fruit. Nigeria produces many foods as strictly 'natural.' If we were ever to eat chicken or beef, It was caught, killed or plucked that same day. The occurrence of preservatives is not wide spread.
Many days I would ask my cousin Chukwudi where to find Puff Puff . ( Puff Puff is a sweet dough dessert rolled and fried in hot oil). It is happily delicious. I spent a long time trying to find the best Puff Puff in the East. (Note that while in Lagos I had some Puff Puff by a local woman not too far from where I was staying and I ate the whole bag... all 12 of them).
In the following days, my mother came to Nnewi by car and we ventured to assist with KeneOlisa Charities making our way by car to several close states such as Enugu State, and Ebonyi State. In Enugu we were led by a passionate school counselor who knew the community and wanted to collaborate to help some of the underprivileged schools. He was able to show us particular schools that needed assistance with either uniforms, seats for the students or supplies. KeneOlisa Charities initially was founded to assist hospitals that needed medical supplies in rural areas, but she was offered donations from one of her only sponsors in the United States to help with education and she took it on. I was the official photographer of our school tours. While there I caught photos of dilapidated classrooms, missing chairs, and wooden built shelves they called their library with various novels and workbooks stacked on top of each other. Even though the children probably knew they did not have much, they were accepting of their situation because it was all they knew. Some shyly waved at the camera; many walked by me with hesitation.
The headmaster sounded off a four count clap and they started to sing. I admired the discipline I saw in them that is widely found in our culture. There is always a clear respect for authority, and active discipline.
As we toured another school , I noticed how much the students loved the camera. Every time I wanted to capture a part of their school building, a cluster of them would gather in front of me and shyly stand tall hoping that I would capture them in my pictures. I would take their picture and they would laugh and run away. One young boy came up to me and seemed shy, but then he touched my arm and said ,
"Auntie nwanyi ocha.. please snap us. (english: "Auntie "white woman, or woman of white, snap us."
I laughed and took their picture. That name is not something that is new to me. Although a moderate population of Igbo people tend to be light in complexion I'm light to the point that many people are never able to believe that I'm a Nigerian; especially when you add my American accent onto it. I noticed that my skin was an undercover phenomenon in Nigeria, especially with Nigerian women. Woman much older than me would ask how they could get their skin to match mine. I never understood it and still don't, but when I forget my color in my own country, I am sure to be made aware of it somehow.
We continued the travelling and organizing what the schools would need until I had to leave. We were able to donate school chairs made from cherry oak to two public school in Enugu. KeneOlisa was also able to give assistance to a rural medical center in Ebonyi State, as well as give a donation for school uniforms for the children who were not able to afford them. After I left, my mother continued her work and had a free health fair/ screening at a local catholic church for the community, even extending it to other parts of town. The experience was amazing, especially knowing that you were spreading hope and happiness to children and adults who deserved it.
You don't appreciate what you have until....
Visiting Nigeria again made me realize more than anything how we take tasks that have been made very simple in the Unites States for granted. A vivid task that I had adamantly taken for granted was washing my clothes. Washer and dryers are definitely in Nigeria, but it has not become a huge thing yet in Nigerian households, especially in the village. You can see them in major cities like Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt. In Nnewi, where I spent a majority of my time, It was nonexistent. It is almost like a washing machine in a local Nnewi woman's eyes could not be trusted to clean the clothes as well as she could do it by hand washing.
I remember scrubbing the batch of clothes in soapy water, then transferring the clothes into clean water and doing it twice again with each batch. The most difficult were the blue jeans. Yep... those blue jeans I bought with no thought that I would ever be bending over the bathtub with sweat dripping down my face as I scrubbed the life out of them .. only to watch them hanging on a long line across the back of the compound, and take 5-6 hours to dry properly. I sat in the parlor that afternoon as the sun hit its peak; watching my blue jean shorts and a number of my underwear flying in the wind.
"Those are the cleanest my panties have probably ever been." I said to my grandmother's house girl Uche.
"Kene.. Chai!" she said. She looked at me blushing, as to disprove my lack of modesty.
You don't appreciate what you have, until pressing start on the washer is no longer an option, LOL.
After nearly two weeks, It was time to come back to Lagos. My cousins were nice enough to let me stay with them when I came back to Lagos. My boyfriend dropped me off and waited for me to board before we left each other again. Although the goodbye happened quickly, it was a very sad one. Due to the fuel shortage during the time I was there, my cousin Edward sent a taxi to come and get me. It was good to see him. Even though we kept in contact over social media, I had not physically seen him since I was about five years old. Edward and my cousin Uju live together on the island which is about 30 minutes from the mainland of Lagos, called Ikoyi. When you begin to cross what is called the third mainland bridge, it's as if someone is carrying you to another country .
Once on the island which inhibits, Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Lekki the scenery begins to really change.. All of a sudden you no longer see the street sellers, no instant bustle, the cars begin to change, AUDI, Porsche Cayenne, Mercedes. It was here that you could drive these kinds of cars and it wouldn't seem out of place. I felt like I was back in the United States. There were skyscrapers, beautifully lit hotels with luxury cars parked in valet. There were police officers, as well as traffic lights that were enforced. That night my cousin Uju and I went out with her guy friend Ugo and I felt like I was lounging with friends in Atlanta. The DJ played songs that I bopped to in my car on the way to work in Atlanta traffic. Everyone around me was my age or a bit older. My cousin explained that many young people worked and lived here. Many business men, many of the big companies had offices right here on the island. It all made sense. I found myself in what seemed to be a nouve riche experience.
The next day I slept almost the whole day and had my small goodbyes with my cousins. I was taken to the airport by a taxi yet again due to the fuel shortage. After a 45 minute check in and having my last harassing experience by customs I dragged my luggage off their scanner without having to give up any money with a smile and checked in. I took all my flight info and fell into line with the others to board my flight back to the United States. I was happy to be going home, but it was almost as if everything happened too quickly. As I buckled my seat beat and shoved my pillow behind my lower back, I looked out the window at this country that inhibited every part of who I was. No place is perfect, but there's no other place I could form such memories. I could never forget this experience. There's truly no place like home.