Maureen Chinwe Onyeziri
After two years away from home, the journey back to Nigeria comes with its own story. Most important is the story between a mother and her daughter, the love that exists between them and how they interact like sisters.
On a beautiful fall day early in November, I said goodbye to the United States. I was returning to Lagos for the first time in two years. I left Indianapolis for New Jersey and quickly boarded a long-haul flight from New Jersey to Frankfurt. On both trips, I had window seats, and I enjoyed staring out at the fluffy white clouds set in the brilliant blue backdrop of sky at over 30,000 feet. While watching swirls of white glide effortlessly past the window, I pondered if home had changed much. Nigeria, with its group of corrupt politicians and greedy, disillusioned populace was probably worse. At least the economy was; that I knew.
On the flight from Frankfurt to Lagos, I had an aisle seat in the middle three-seat column of the massive Lufthansa Airbus A300-330 jet. I sat next to a woman wearing two large jackets and an oversized beanie that covered all of her forehead and part of her eyelids. We exchanged glances briefly. I knew she was Nigerian. The man next to her wore a brown suit and maroon tie. He too seemed Nigerian. There was nothing in particular that distinguished him as Nigerian, there was simply a knowing, which I believe most Nigerians have; an aha moment when we sense that a random black person encountered abroad is Nigerian and we know we are right. Most of the passengers on board my flight to Lagos were Nigerians. The constant, loud chatting in pidgin English and Yoruba was all the evidence I needed. I smiled. This trip will certainly be different, I thought. It was already starkly different from my first two flights which were mostly filled with white passengers, and what was that saying about a gathering of Nigerians in one place again?
Not long after we took off, Beanie Lady next to me dozed off. Man-in-Suit soon followed. I was relieved to watch them fall asleep because it eliminated the possibility of unnecessary small talk. Once we reached cruising altitude, a crew member pushing a cart holding assorted drinks walked up the aisle, handing out beverages until she got to me. She paused and asked politely, “What would you like to drink, please?”
I looked up at her. She was tall, slender and incredibly pale-skinned with high cheekbones. She wore dark red lipstick and her hair was neatly parted to the side and held back in a ponytail. I smiled and said, “Ich lerne Deutsch. Können Sie bitte Deutsch sprechen?”
Her face lit up and her lips curled into a smile that revealed even white teeth and lifted her already high cheekbones higher. “Ja!” She responded. She seemed animated as she reeled off my drink options: orange juice, apple juice, soda, water, and some varieties of alcohol.
“Ich trinke Wasser,” I responded.
“Stilles oder Mineralwasser?” She asked.
I opted for still water. She poured the water into a plastic cup, handed it to me with a “Danke schӧn,” then pushed her cart to the passenger seated in front of me where she asked what he would like to drink, in English. As I sipped my water, I tried to rationalize her sudden switch from cool politeness to profuse exuberance at hearing me speak my elementary German. Perhaps she was unaccustomed to hearing people speak German on long-haul flights to Lagos, and was surprised that I had tried to initiate conversation with her in the language. Or maybe there was something about speaking to someone in a native tongue that sparked openness and warmth. It reminded me of how happy I was when I first met the Afoakus in Bloomington and we conversed in Igbo. I was quite convinced she told her colleagues about me because each crew member spoke only German as soon as they got to me. Not that I minded, I was learning new vocabulary and even once asked for the correct syntax of a sentence I was sure I had butchered. There was laughter, and I noticed that they seemed to linger by my seat to chat after handing me food or drink.
Beanie Lady woke up with a bad breath and decided it was a good idea to talk to me. As she narrated her unsolicited tale of woe, I tried to give her a look of pity while holding my breath. After spending two days in an airport holding cell, she was being deported since the person she supposedly came to meet in Germany failed to identify her when called by airport security. While in Lagos, she used to be a seamstress but decided to try her luck for a better life abroad. Now she was banned from entering Europe. When she said, “Sister, shebi na to go back go dey sew cloth na? I thank God for my life, say I no enter proper prison.” I nodded and turned away. I had had enough of her breath on my face.
As soon as we landed, the Nigerians on board immediately burst into praise songs as the aircraft taxied the runway at Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Clapping, sounds of hallelujah, thank God o, and the like rose from the cabin as I looked around, half amused by my Nigerian people and half excited that I had finally touched down home.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” I said to the cabin crew as they stood by the exit politely saying goodbye to everyone. The tall lady who first served me waved and responded, “Auf Wiedersehen!” The others enthusiastically said, “Tschüss!” Maybe they wanted to see me again too.
Lagos was hot and exceptionally humid. It wasn’t cool and dry as I’d expected. The air hung thick and low and unbreathable and perspiration immediately formed on my forehead. I regretted wearing a sweater. The arrival terminal was not air-conditioned.
As I waited for my luggage, I was accosted by different people asking, “Sister, trolley?”
I repeatedly replied, “No, thank you.”
By the time I had gotten my luggage from the rickety conveyor belt—two large suitcases which, including my hand luggage, made three suitcases—two men swooped on the large bags and began lifting them on to a trolley that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
“Leave my bags alone!” I shouted, “Shay I ask una for trolley? Abeg, comot for my side!” I was irritated and upset at the rudeness of lifting my bags without my permission.
They quickly dropped my bags and one of them, short and fat and wearing a brown singlet over blue jeans taunted, “Ah ah, sister, how you go carry all these big-big load by yourself? Fine sister like you!”
I smiled as I remembered the Nigerian tendency to emphasize certain words by doubling them. “Leave them for me,” I responded calmly, my annoyance gone as quickly as it had risen, “I fit carry them by myself!”
I hauled my luggage, with my hand luggage resting snugly on one of the larger suitcases so that I pulled one suitcase with one hand and the second with the other. Using their trolley would require payment, and I didn’t have any naira notes. I certainly did not want to part with dollars. Only a Johnny Just Come or JJC would do that. I was not a JJC. This was my home. As I wheeled my luggage towards the exit of the hot arrival terminal, I ignored various calls of “Welcome sister,” and “Anything for me sister,” and “Sisi bless me na,” and wondered who let these people in. It was obvious they played no other role at the airport than to beg newly arrived passengers for money. An international airport! I walked out sad and embarrassed. After two years, Nigeria had not changed at all.
My mother and younger sister Lulu were waiting outside and both enveloped me in a hug as soon as they saw me. I was sweating profusely and as they released me and looked me over in the affectionate way one is assessed when one has been away for too long, my sister giggled and asked, “You were coming home and wore a sweater?”
“I wish I hadn’t,” I replied. “I expected harmattan this time of the year, and I checked the weather forecast while in Frankfurt and saw that it would be raining by the time I got here so I thought it would be cooler.”
“Yes, it rained before your flight landed, but it didn’t last long.”
“The rain these days does nothing to cool the place down,” Mommy added. “Rain falls but everywhere remains very hot.”
They helped me pull my luggage to the curb and we bundled into the taxi that had been waiting for us—because Mommy doesn’t drive at night. Lulu sat in the front seat next to the driver, whose name I would later learn was Baba Monsurat, while Mommy sat at the back with me.
Baba Monsurat welcomed me by asking, “Shay you bring banana from London come?”
“America,” Mommy corrected, “Na from America she dey come, no be London o!”
Baba Monsurat replied, “All of them na the same thing, mama.”
I smiled. I didn’t bring any bananas.
Mommy and I embraced in the back seat for the longest time. I had not seen this woman in over two years and I missed her terribly. We cried together in the back seat as Lulu and Baba Monsurat chatted about the evening traffic.
I had made it back to Nigeria. I was home.
Visiting Balogun Market
I had been home for two weeks and had already visited most of my extended family. There was the uncle and his family in Victoria Garden City, the aunt who lived near Osapa London, the aunts, cousins, nephews, and niece in Ajegunle, the half-sister and her family in Isolo. While I was glad to be out and about in Lagos, Mommy insisted on driving me everywhere. Her strange insistence left me perplexed. It was as if she felt my time abroad had somehow changed me, softened me to the point where I would not survive alone on the wild streets of Lagos. Her reasons changed with each new day. “You just got back, are you sure you remember your way around?” She would ask, even though most times she drove us to see our relatives, she seemed to always lose her way and I would direct her. From “The heat is too much for you,” to “This is Christmas period. Kidnappers are everywhere,” she used anything as an excuse to keep me from taking public transportation. It became a game we played. I would bring up public transport as a travel option, she would give an excuse. I would attempt to counter it. We would go on and on until I gave up and gave in. Looking back, I think she was afraid, and I couldn’t fathom why. “You don’t understand,” she would say, “Lagos is now very terrible. People are hungry; their eyes are red.”
The Saturday morning Mommy and I were scheduled to go to Balogun market, I sat on the bed in her bedroom and observed her tie her headscarf in front of the vanity mirror. I watched her hands work the soft, ákwà oche material around her head until she was satisfied with it. Then she turned around and smiled at me. I smiled back, and joy rose from my belly to my chest, coursing through my veins and filling me with warmth. My smile widened. I was happy to be home, to be a few feet away from a woman I missed terribly. I didn’t have to dream of hugging her, I could get up and hug her right there. It was surreal.
“Nnebekee, is my scarf OK?” She enquired.
Nnebekee was what Mommy called me from childhood and, sometimes, I wondered if my eventual travel abroad had anything to do with her special pet name for me manifesting itself in my reality.
I nodded. “It’s great.”
“Alright, I’m ready. Let’s go.” She was about to grab the car key from the table when I brought up public transport again.
“Mommy, this is Balogun we are going to. Where will you park? You know how rowdy it is. Isn’t it better to go by bus? Remember that this is the period when most people do their Christmas shopping. It’s going to be crowded.”
I knew enough about Balogun to know that it wouldn’t have changed drastically in the years I was away. Balogun is a massive market and, true to its size, is almost always tightly packed with cars and trucks and pedestrians and bikers and sellers and buyers and thieves and honest men. Before I left Lagos, I knew it as a driver’s nightmare, especially a driver who lacked the measure of insanity needed to traverse the roughest Lagos roads. Mommy seemed to lose her insanity as she aged. Now, she would probably regret driving there. She just didn’t know it.
She hesitated, “Hmm, you have a point.”
I pushed further, “It’s a straightforward journey by bus and we don’t have to take the bus back home. I know we’ll have a lot of bags. We can call an Uber. I’ll pay.” I could sense her giving in. I pressed even more, “Please, Mommy. Let’s do this. I’m yet to take danfo anywhere. You can’t keep driving me everywhere. Besides, this will be fun!”
“Ok. You win,” She replied. “But make sure you don’t complain o! Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Let’s go.”
I chuckled. Finally, after two weeks of being chauffeured by my mother, we would travel by public transport, the popular yellow-and-black striped danfo buses, with their rough drivers, rude conductors, and tightly squeezed passengers. I won.
The sun was high when we got to Mazamaza and boarded a bus to CMS. I was seated by the window and Mommy sat next to me. We were squeezed in with three other passengers on a row that should normally seat four people. It wasn’t the epitome of comfort, but at least I could stick my head slightly out the window and feel the hot breeze on my face as the bus wheezed towards Mile 2. Before I left Nigeria, Mile 2 was notorious for its ever-present traffic jam, and soon, we were caught in it. As the bus slowed to a halt, the heat descended. I say descended because that’s exactly how it felt. The hot breeze stopped blowing and the air became stagnant and heavy. I immediately began to sweat, and silently prayed the traffic wouldn’t last long. For all my insistence on traveling by public transport, I was not quite accustomed to the Lagos heat, which seemed to come from a special brand of blistering fire and, even though I never said it, I appreciated the air conditioning in the car whenever Mommy drove. The unmoving traffic lasted over an hour. From time to time, I would glance to my side at Mommy and catch her staring at me with furrowed brows as I dabbed sweat off my face with a handkerchief. She was probably worried I would get heatstroke. Heck, I was worried I would die from heatstroke, but I managed to keep a smile plastered on my face to assure Mommy that I was fine, while wondering what I was thinking when I convinced her not to drive to the market.
“Brothers and sisters in this bus, PRAAAIIISSSSEEEEEE THE LORD!” A lanky man shouted. He wore a blue and black police uniform and stood from his seat two rows in front of me, tightly clutching a worn-out Bible. His voice was loud and screechy, especially when he shouted “praise the Lord”. Few people responded with the usual hallelujah. I groaned, stole a glance at Mommy and saw her suppressing a smile. She was amused! If we weren’t in a tightly packed bus and surrounded by strangers, this would be a perfect I-warned-you moment for her. I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t bad enough that I was sitting in unmoving traffic amidst the unbearable heat, I also had to listen to a headache-inducing unsolicited sermon too. As the man preached, rebuking sinners and urging women not to wear trousers or put on makeup or use hair extensions for fear of going to hell, I wasn’t sure what I felt more: amusement or frustration. Despite his warped doctrine, in all the twenty-something years I spent in Lagos before leaving for the United States, I had never seen a police officer preach in a bus, and this novel observation amused me greatly. He is probably an honest policeman, I thought, a rare breed in the Nigeria police force. I tuned out the words coming from his lips—thick lips that seemed so out of place on a small head—and observed his uniform. His shirt, light blue and dirty-looking, crested with ‘Nigeria Police’ and the elephant logo in blue, green and yellow on the left sleeve and his rank (I knew he was a sergeant from the three winged chevrons) sewn on the right sleeve, was tucked loosely into clearly oversized black pants held on his waist by a large, black belt. The belt did a poor job of holding anything up, because from time to time he would pull at a belt hole with one finger and hoist his falling trousers up. He was also sweating copiously. Large beads formed on his forehead and fell down his face, down his thin neck and into the visible neckline of his white inner t-shirt. He didn’t bother to wipe his sweat off. As he bellowed out his sermon, thick veins could be seen pushing against the skin of his forehead and neck. After what seemed like an eternity, our bus finally eased out of the bottleneck and began whizzing down the highway again. The hot breeze resumed blowing through the open window. With the breeze came an overwhelming sense of relief, both for the sweating officer and for myself.
Balogun was as I remembered it: a cacophony of market sounds intertwined with honking horns from cars and trucks and buses driven by impatient people. It was also very vibrant, with splashes of rich colors from fabrics, glimmers from displayed gold, silver and other precious stone jewelry swinging this way and that, catching the light of the sun. There were shops everywhere displaying merchandise, from shoes, bags, wedding gowns and bouquets to traditional beads, wigs, walking sticks, cosmetics, underwear and whatever else you can think of. People were heading in all directions searching for what they wanted to buy and, after finding it, bargaining until they were satisfied with the price. Traders on foot hawked all kinds of food and drinks: ewa agoyin in large iron pots propped atop the heads of women, fresh, hot Agege bread, prepackaged jollof and fried rice with fried plantain, coleslaw, and chicken, water, malt drinks, energy drinks and soda, which the hawkers called ‘minerals.’ Men pushed wheelbarrows heavy with kuli-kuli and tiger nuts or ofio, while women braved both the sun and the hot grill to sell roasted plantain or boli. It was order and it was chaos and it was harmoniously discordant and I loved it.
As Mommy and I walked through the crowded market to the ankara section, men and women pulled at my arm, imploring me to buy whatever goods they sold. Some held me by the wrist, saying, “I have jeans, stock jeans, fine ones,” as if I told them I wanted to buy jeans. Or “Fine sister, come and see. I have what you want,” without actually knowing what I wanted. Others displayed their trousers or skirts or blouses in my face, shaking them as if the act of shaking somehow revealed a hidden beauty. In the past, all the calling and dragging and pulling and cajoling would have irritated me, but, on this day, I was strangely at ease. I responded with a polite “please don’t touch me” whenever someone pulled my arm. Mommy on the other hand, was not having any of the touching. “Leave her alone!” She screamed at the traders, eyes blazing, ready to pounce on them if they refused to obey. “Hold your bag tight!” She instructed me as I followed behind her. Thankfully, Mommy had a ‘customer’—an ankara seller she regularly patronized—so, when we finally made it to the ankara section, we didn’t have to scour that entire part of Balogun. Instead, we made a beeline to the woman’s shop.
“Mommy, Mommy!” The woman, whose name I would later learn was Bilikis, hailed Mommy as we walked into the wooden shop where ankara of different colors and patterns were piled from floor to ceiling. “Welcome ma,” she greeted. She pointed to the wooden bench perched in a corner and we sat down. “Mommy is this your daughter? You look alike too much! Chai! See resemblance.”
I smiled, and Mommy replied, “Yes, she just came back.”
Bilikis nodded a knowing nod, perfectly understanding that I had come from overseas even though Mommy didn’t specify where I had ‘come back’ from. “Welcome, sister.” She said.
“Thank you,” I responded.
“How is obodo oyibo?” She asked, using a slang often used to describe the United States and countries in Europe.
“Fine,” I replied. “Quite cold this time of the year.”
“E good as you commot for there,” She said, “Make you spend Christmas with Mommy.”
Mommy began buying. The transaction was swift because they had done this many times before. There was no need to bargain, and the woman quickly stuffed our purchases into a large, black polyethylene bag. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I will call those people to carry it for you.” She hurried out of her shop to look for those people: the women who helped shoppers carry their heavy load for a fee. As soon as our purchase was sitting on the head of the woman Bilikis had searched out for us, Mommy and I began our walk to UBA House where our Uber was waiting. On the way, I picked up a few items I would give my friends on my return to the States: dashiki, earrings, bracelets and so on. We reached the Uber, a blue Toyota Camry whose driver was David from Rivers State, and climbed in. Mommy sat in the back with our bags while I sat next to David. As David drove, I turned around to face Mommy. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” I asked. “At least you don’t have to go through the market wahala and still drive us home.”
She nodded. “I’m already tired,” she replied.
“I hope you’ll now let me take public transport wherever I need to go.”
She smiled, “We’ll see.”
I groaned and turned away from her. If there was a trait we both shared, it was stubbornness.
We were home in a few hours. I paid David, and we stepped out of the Uber. As we entered the house, I asked again, “Shay I can take danfo now, Mommy? You’ve seen that I won’t melt if I do.”
This time, she replied, “You can go wherever you want to go by yourself. It’s not as if you pay me to drive you around sef.”
We both burst out in hearty laughter.
Maureen writes from Bloomington, Indiana, where she is currently a microbiology doctoral student at Indiana University. When she’s not in the lab or teaching undergrads, she’s taking long walks or writing short stories. Her writing has appeared in several literary magazines and webzines including www.africanwriter.com, www.lagosconvo.com and www.lekkirepublic.com.