Mimi Mwiya On Returning To Nigeria And Reuniting With Lagos
On the day I got my visa for my first trip to Lagos last year, I posted a pic of the visa on Instagram with the caption, “Walahi, every other country I’ve ever visited has been to prepare me for Naijaaaaa! I will either come back a little less obsessed with it, or a little more, and be returning only to return.”
I came to Nigeria, spent 11 very memorable days in Lagos (you can read about that trip here) and I went back home feeling like I’d left a big chunk of my soul behind and I wouldn’t be happy until I returned. So after over a year of back and forth, with myself and with the people in my life, I returned.
The trip was a bit of wistfully nostalgic one. I kept comparing it to the first one, kept expecting a Sogo to walk into my life at any point. That didn’t happen, like I knew it wouldn’t. When it was announced that we would be descending down to Lagos,I kept looking out the window, hoping to see the magical city lights I’d seen the last time, they were nowhere in sight. I sat back a few minutes, thinking I’d looked too soon, then looked again, still nothing. I wondered if the power cuts had gotten so bad the entire city couldn’t afford to be lit anymore.
As I sighted a few lone lights off in the distance, I wondered if maybe I’d exaggerated the magnificence of the Lagos city lights the first time I’d seen them. Then I realised I had just been looking out a side of the window where one of the plane’s wings obstructed the view. I looked on the other side, and there it was, just as breathtaking as I remembered it: Lagos at night, looking like a forest full of brightly lit Christmas trees. I wanted to nudge the woman sitting next to me and ask her if she’d ever seen the beauty of those city lights, but we weren’t cool like that, so I practiced some restraint.
We disembarked, and as we waited for our luggage, I realised I would need a trolley for my bags. In Namibia, airport trolleys can be used absolutely free of charge, so I walked over to the trolley bay to pull one out, and it wasn’t budging. I tried again, more forcefully this time, still nothing.
I decided it must be a faulty row, so I moved over to the next one, only to be met by the same struggle, and an attendant telling me I first needed to pay before I could get a trolley. Eh! I didn’t have any Nairas on me, and I didn’t want to go to a bureau de change before I’d gotten my luggage. So I tried to lug my bags around on my own, I failed. I’m not sure what exactly those guys in blue at MMA do, but there was one of them nearby, so I looked up pleadingly at him and he rushed over.
He asked which bags were mine, then took them. I followed as he went over to the trolley bay and we got a trolley. He walked with me to the bureau de change, where I got my Nairas, all the while wondering how much all his helpfulness would cost me.
Now, in all the years I’ve been travelling, I’ve only had bags wrapped about three times. Of those three times, I’d never been asked to open the bags. Then this time, the fourth time I had my bags wrapped, Lawal(guy helping with luggage) told me I would need to unwrap them because airport security would need to search them. I was tired, anxious to find Mama T(the gorgeous, gracious and incredibly patient woman waiting to pick me up from the airport), and while I didn’t have anything illegal in my bags, I did have two precious bottles of wine, and some dried meat.
I didn’t know if they would have an issue with them, I also did not want to risk finding out. So when Lawal suggested we give the security guys “something” so they could let us pass without my unwrapping my bags, I’m not sure what I said out loud, but I’m pretty sure mentally I said, “Yeah, let’s do that.”
Do I sound excited? I kinda was. I had never ever paid a bribe in my life before, the novelty of the experience was a little thrilling, but once that moment of thrill passed, guilt and shame took over. I thought of how those guys had just been doing their jobs, not thinking of being bribed, when they were approached by me(through my representative, Lawal. Don’t I sound like some mafia character?) with the bribe. And of course they could have refused(sic), but it hit me then that contributing to corruption just as badly as corrupt officers wanting to be bribed, are corrupt people willing to pay bribes, and I had become one of those people. Knowing how much I paid, though, I think my friends would say I shouldn’t even be telling that story, especially in the bragging kinda way I am, not because bribery is bad, but because I paid far too much.
And now I must talk about how easy these Nairas are to spend, gosh!
Usually, when I give (unsolicited) travel advice, I tell people to never ever think about how much they are spending in their local currency, or what they could be getting for the same money in their own countries. For example, in Namibia, for 10 Euros, I can get two very good bottles of wine, possibly top class Merlot or Shiraz. In most of Europe, for 10 Euros, I’d be lucky to get a bottom barrel rose´. In Namibia, for 100 US dollars, I can buy enough food to feed me for at least a week or so. In Angola, for 100 US dollars, I’d be lucky to get enough ingredients for one complete meal. So I always try really really hard not to think about how far the money I’m spending on a cup of tea in another country, could take me back home.
In Nigeria however, I find myself thinking perhaps I need to start converting as I spend. See, I ‘m not used to the concept of single 1 000 notes. The largest Namibian Dollar(N$) note, is 200, so at the absolute least, N$ 1 000 would be 5 N$ 200 notes. Also, N$ 1 000 is about 75 USSD or so, which is kind of a lot of money. For N$ 1 000, I could get 3 Pinot Noirs(pardon me, lately I think in wine) or 10 to 11 good Merlots.
For 1 000 Naira, I can get exactly one Merlot. Not because the wine in Nigeria is super expensive, but because 1 000 naira isn’t as much as 1 000 Namibian Dollars is, and so my Naira thousands have been feeling like small money and I’ve been spending them a little too liberally. What could possibly help in this situation, would be to think of the things I could do with 1 000 Naira back home, although, maybe I need to just think in 5 000s or something, just so I can remember I’m spending real money and not small change.
Anyhow, I parted with 1 or 2 more of my thousand Naira notes to thank Lawel for also letting me use his phone to communicate with Mama T. I was picked up, taken to my lodgings for the night to drop my bags, then taken back to her house to fittingly be welcomed by a big serving of fresh plantain chips and stew. 🙂
That should have sunk in the fact that I was back in Lagos, but have you ever associated a place with a person and somewhat felt like unless they were there, the place wasn’t quite what it was? I was in Lagos, but because I didn’t see Jenny on the night I arrived, I didn’t really feel like I was truly in Lagos. What was Lagos if not the city where my best friend was?
Thankfully that wrong was righted the following day. Our friend Sonia had tickets to ‘Heartbeat’, a beautiful musical stage play produced by Olu Jacobs and Joke Silva. So Jenny and I met up the next day at Terra Kulture. As soon as I saw her, I ran to her and we hugged. To anyone watching, it probably looked like a really sweet embrace between two people who were ecstatic to see each other, but let me tell you now what was really happening during that “embrace”: Jenny was admonishing me for not wearing a bra… and daring to run in my braless state. It was in that moment, as Jenny was doing her mother hen routine, that I felt I was in Lagos.
But just in case I still needed some convincing, Lagos decided to go out of her way for me that night. After the play(a truly breathtaking production that had its entire audience enthralled), we went outside to take a few pictures and order an Uber. As we were waiting for our Uber, right there on the same pavement as us, stood Olu Jacobs, in the flesh. Olu Jacobs, you guys, Olu Jacobs! The man is nothing short of an icon, an icon I’d only ever seen on tv, and he was right there, barely a few feet from me.
Now, I’m an easily excitable person, so of course I had to embarrass my friends by going over to pester him for a moment of his time and some pictures, pictures he was not too eager to take, I must add. Do not take me to meet famous people, I have total groupie tendencies, I will embarrass you!
While I was still taking in the fact that I had just met the iconic Olu Jacobs, we realised there was a ‘Lagos at 50’ concert nearby and we could hear 2Baba Idibia giving a live performance. I felt like Lagos was granting me wishes I never even knew I had.
This trip back is for 2 reasons: 1. Jenny and all my other wonderful reasons 2. To see if after staying a bit longer than I did the last time, my fascination with Nigeria will wane (I’m hoping to prove it doesn’t).
So far, nothing has changed, I am still enchanted by this city and I’ve still been so fortunate as to experience only kindness at the hands of its people. For example, on my 4th night here, I was moving to Jenny’s. I got out of the taxi that dropped me off, not having seen Jenny’s frantic ‘I’m coming down, stay in the taxi please.’ text. I was struggling with my bags, when a young man came up to me saying, ‘Where are you going please? Let me help you.’ as though in letting him help me, I would be doing him the favor and not the other way round.
And about a night or so after that, I was waiting for Jenny to get back from work, one of her neighbors insisted I wait in her house, then pleaded with me to have some rice and stew while I waited. I really hadn’t been hungry, but it was one of those awkward situations where while I genuinely believe in the kindness and hospitality of Nigerians, I also believe African culture has placed a great burden on us to feed the people who come to our homes, whether or not we were prepared to. And in turn, we are told it is rude if as a guest, you are offered food and you turn it down.
What I really think everyone the world over should do, is master the art of discerning when food is being offered merely out of politeness and then return that politeness by declining, I swear you’ll see the relief on the person offering’s face. Although maybe people just shouldn’t offer food unless they really are willing to part with it. If I ever offer you the last(or only) piece of chicken on my plate, or the last bit of wine in a bottle while my glass is empty, I’m only trying to be polite, kindly reciprocate my good manners and say no.
Anyhow, I’ve digressed terribly. So Jenny’s neighbor pleaded with me to please have even ‘small’ rice and I gave in. ’Small’ turned out to be a really generous portion I ate about a quarter of, and that woman thanked me, like I had just been the one to feed her. She also thanked me for accepting the invitation into her home, like in doing so I hadn’t been the one to benefit.
I also got the chance to visit Benin City for a little bit, but that’s a story for another day.
As I write this, I’ve been in Nigeria 10 days, and I still believe Lagos is the place to come to make your dreams come true. Although I may not be the most objective person on the matter seeing as over the past 13 months the sum of my dreams has been to return to Lagos.