One of the enduring memories of the early 80s was that grim ad where a guy named Andrew wanted to check out of Nigeria by all means due to the SAP induced economic hardships. In the advert, he was advised not to do so by another older Nigerian, but to remain and contribute his quota to national development. If only Andrew were living in these present times, he would find out that he could not ‘check out’ on a whim as was easily possible during those times.
Now, first he would have to fork out a king’s ransom to obtain an E-passport from the rowdy Immigration Office in Ikoyi. He may also have to bribe some unscrupulous agent to help him get the privilege of getting an interview date that is not sometime in 2090. Then he would find himself queuing on Walter Carrington in V.I, after paying an arm and a leg in visa fees, only to be given a 10 year ban for sneezing during the interview. He may need to write an English test before being allowed to do his Masters in Jand. In fact, people who plan to ‘check out’ nowadays for good or for school, do not tell anyone outside their immediate family of their plans, until they are safely on terra firma in Heathrow/Gatwick/JFK airports. Some bad bele people dey beef travelers for Naija.
Some people equate leaving the country with a golden ticket to utopia. There are people who believe that once you cross the border or our hemisphere, you are welcomed to a land filled with milk and honey. You can see it in some people’s actions, though they try to act ‘normal’. I remember some years back, when I went to the British High Commission in Lagos for my student visa interview, I ran into some girl I recognized from university. I and this girl never exchanged a word back in school because our paths never did cross like that. The girl saw me across the waiting room, and gave me a golden wink, like so Esco you are planning to Jand, eh? Me too oh.
She was called for her interview before me so she walked into the waiting room nervously. I looked around me in the waiting room, and people’s faces looked nervous and anxious, because Naija people dey fear visa interview officers. One guy was biting his nails and cracking his knuckles as if it was a doe or die affair, and that if he was not granted a visa, his world would end.
Then the girl I knew from school, walked out of the interview room, pumping her fists in triumph. I felt embarrassed for her. The look on Nigerian people’s faces in the waiting room of embassies is always priceless. Some people hissed, while a few looked enviously at my former schoolmate, like “You are going to Hollywood baby.”
There was time at another embassy interview, that I saw someone I knew after coming out of the interview room, and he was gesticulating widely with his palms like ‘did you get it’
It is not about the size (or length) of the visa, it was what you do with it.
Then you have the boastful loudmouths who brag or show-off about their travels on Twitter, BB or Facebook updates. I know this lass whose Facebook updates always go like this “Dubai state of mind” or “Jetting off tonite“ Like who cares?
For a good while, for many Nigerians, travelling abroad entailed either going to England or the U.S. Now there are many more popular destinations, as the world is now connected as a global village, and now almost anybody can go ‘away’ – Ghana, Canada, Southie (SA), Dubai, China, Germany, Italy (work visa program) – in fact anywhere but here.
Even the ordinary man on the street equates travelling out with easy dollars. And this ridiculous belief is shared by people who should know better. I had this place I used to go cut my hair in Lekki. It was a barber shop, with 4 barbers who usually engaged in banter with the cutting public. One of them in particular was a really flamboyant dude – he grew dreadlocks which looked more dada, he always wore some white sneakers like that, and liked playing Lil Wayne videos on the salon DVD. This guy was obsessed with Lil Wayne to a fault. He used to try dressing like Lil Wayne, even with the dreadlocks (dada), white wife-beater vests (shimi), and the bling (dog-tag). He ended up looking like Denrele instead. He even started grinning and laughing like Lil Wayne. Ha! He would rewind and play the ‘Lollipop’ video a million times and marvel at the stretch hummer, the girls and the champagne and fantasize about relocating to Yankee, where he heard that cash was easy, and that barbers earn a fortune. He usually grilled the rich people’s kids whose hair he cut for information about their summer trip to the States.
He wasn’t the only one obsessed with ‘checking out’ of Nigeria. There was another of them, a light-skinned barber called Osa. Osa usually cut my hair, because he was a better barber than the Lil Wayne impersonator, and I preferred him because the impersonator was always miming the Wayne’s songs close to my ear-drums, which is really irritating. Major Payne.
Osa said that he was just deported from Sweden about 3 months back, and it was his life ambition to return to Europe even though his passport was stamped with the deportation order.
Sweden? Before then, whenever I thought about Sweden, my mind went to Volvos, Abba, Ace of Base, beautiful blond women, Dolph Lungdren action flicks and IKEA furniture. Apparently they have a free tertiary institution scheme, which has attracted Nigerians there in droves.
Apparently Osa had travelled to Sweden on one of those schemes, but to hustle. He didn’t attend school, but hung out with some Nigerian dudes who had been resident in the country for years, and were into ‘business.’ They painted the town red, bar-hopping and going to clubs. They were at a club one night, when some people got into a fight and a girl was stabbed. Before anyone could say ‘Jackie Robinson’, the police had arrived and sealed the premises, and were checking every patron one by one. Osa was drunk, but he sobered up quick. The police didn’t buy Osa’s story that he was a student at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was booked and later deported. He had only been in Swedo for 4 months.
Back in Nigeria, he took up barbing in Lagos. He said that his family and friends in Benin had no clue that he had been deported, save for his sister. He was too ashamed to go back home and face people who were expecting ‘big things’ from him. Daft, I know.
Osa moaned about suffering in Nigeria and wanting to travel out every time I went to shave or cut my hair. I tried to advise him to try and get some education or try a business or develop himself and make the most of Nigeria. He was not interested. Bro, if you are a barber, try and be the best one you can be. Nigeria needs your talents more.
Then one day he met a white girl online at a cyber cafe. They started chatting everyday on yahoo messenger. Then the gist turned to love. The girl was originally from Ireland was living and working in South Africa, with the World Health Organization as a nurse.
Some weeks later, I was at the barbers when Osa told me that the girl had told him to come over to SA for a visit. First of all, I thought it was a scam, but he showed me the girl’s pictures, some texts and and an email he had printed out. Not entirely convinced, and fearing that it might be the work of scammers fronting as a girl to entrap mugus, I told him to wait and see if the person would ask for money or a kind of financial inducement. But nothing of the sort. Southie nurse was as real as Yvonne Chaka Chaka..
Osa was happy. He said “I no fit believe say I would soon be in South Africa. I would go and visit Mandela.” He did not tell any of his barber co-workers about the impending trip, as in his words, make them no go jazz me. He only told the nail file worker in the girl’s beauty department, and the chap begged Osa to bring him “Umqombothi” from South Africa.
The next time I came to the barbers, Osa was looking depressed, cutting a customer’s hair. I had half a mind to stay out of what was bothering him; besides I had just barely come out of a 2 hours Lekki traffic and the smarting Lagos sun. But Osa kept hissing and sighing until it became criminally impossible to ignore him. He had gone for a visa interview at the South African Embassy some days before. And, yes you guessed it, he had been denied.
I asked him what supporting travel documents had he taken for the visa interview. He said he had taken his passport, an invitation letter from the girl, a letter of employment from an computer sales shop he did part-time work in and a ‘souped up’ bank account statement.
So why was he not granted the visa? Wait for it, it is the daftest reason, I have ever heard. After grilling Osa on how he met the girl, why he was making a personal trip, what he does for a living, how he met the girl (to which he lied that she had come to Nigeria for holidays some months back), the interviewing officer still looked dissatisfied. The offer looked at his application, and asked him one final but irrelevant question: “ You said, you speak to the girl on the phone every day right? What is her phone number?”
Osa faced dropped, as he drew a blank. The interviewing officer ended the interview, and stamped Osa’s passport with a huge red ink. Denied.
When I heard this, I was so pissed. I told Osa that he was a moron. In this day and age, who the hell remembers anyone’s number, especially an international number off-head. That is what a cellphone’s address book is for! And due to Osa’s ignorance, he didn’t have the confidence to stick it to the man. The officer just played on Osa’s intelligence (or lack of). Some Nigerians fit fall someone hand sef.
Osa said the girl cried when she heard he was denied, and swore that she would come and visit him in Nigeria soon. But Osa discouraged her, because he wanted to leave the country instead, and besides he didn’t have money “to take care of this oyibo” if she came here.
When I came to the barber’s two weeks later, Osa had some anxious news. Apparently, the girl had insisted on coming, and was arriving in a week’s time. Osa was anxiety personified. He worried about how she would cope with NEPA, what she would eat, where she would sleep, what she would do for entertainment. In fact he worried about how he would get the cash to foot all the bills for the above.
He said that some of the “Lagos big boys” whose hair he had cut at the salon had heard his story and promised to help. One said he and the girl could lodge at his hotel for a week. Another told him to come and collect a car (Honda End of Discussion) from his fleet for his use during the girl’s visit. Another told him to come and lodge the girl in his big house, but at a price – so that they could ‘sandwich’ the girl. Osa had politely declined the last one.
I knew what it was all leading to – a plea for cash from me, but I didn’t want to indulge his crassness. According to him, he needed more money to “buy Indomie noodles, cartons of sardine and Uncle Ben’s rice, and also cash to take the girl go Silverbird, Shoprite and Alpha Beach.”
I told him: “I don’t have silver or gold, but I would give you a gem of an advice. Make you no go bankrupt yourself say you wan dey impress your oyibo girlfriend. When someone comes to visit you from outside Nigeria, the person would be more interested in eating our local cuisine and going to our own local joints. Carry the girl to places like Olaiya to eat designer rice. Take her to Kuramo beach and buy her cowrie shells. Or go to Lagbaja’s Motherland or Fela’s Shrine. You don’t need to spend beyond your means. After all she knows that you are a barber so you are not well off.”
Osa was nodding repeatedly, but I could see that my words were going in one ear and exiting the other, because he was nodding faster than I was talking. Ok o.
A month later, I came to the barbers and Osa was there. The girl had come and had left some days before. She had refused to sleep anywhere but in Osa’s house, and made sure she ate all the Nigerian food. She especially loved guguru and epa featuring boli and made Osa buy it for her every evening. She even convinced Osa to take her to see his cousin in Benin. He showed me pictures of them together on his phone. She looked a bit like Kelly Osbourne before she had lost weight.
How had she coped with NEPA? Osa said that he would get up when NEPA took light at night and fan her with a huge raffia fan, ignoring his own sweating, until she cooled down and fell back asleep. She still sweat buckets though, but there was a night he fanned her for 5 hours non-stop.
Wow! So I asked Osa, do you love this girl? He became evasive. Later he confessed that he liked her as a person, but more importantly she was his ticket to South Africa, then Europe. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This guy is an incorrigible imp.
I did not visit the salon for almost 2 months as work took me outside Lagos, and the next time I was there, Osa wasn’t there. One of the barbers and the manicurist then told me that he had quit his job and travelled to SA. Armed with pictures of he and the girl from her trip here, the girl’s bank account, and another letter of invitation, Osa had this time crammed the girl’s number and had reapplied for a visa. He was successful this time, and quit his job, by pointing to a sharpened Wahls clipper and telling his boss where to stick it.
This just showed me first-hand how vital some people see travelling out of Nigeria.
About 3 months later, I went to Ikota Shopping Complex to do a few things, and as I was driving by, who did I see? It was Osa looking very tore up. If his situation was bad before, it looked worse now. I stopped the car, and wound down my window. He tried to duck when he saw me. What had happened? He had been deported from SA. I didn’t even want to hear the full story, as the thing tire me sef. Some impatient drivers were honking behind me, so I told him that I would see him later. His situation looked like he was back to minus one.
Nigeria is a tough country no doubt, and I believe everybody is free to travel and reside wherever they please. It was even commanded in the bible, and in fact, the one-time human beings tried to stay in one place (the Tower of Babel), they were dispersed by God. What irks me is the mistaken belief or fantasies of some naïve people that the living abroad automatically solves all their problems, or that they wont need to work hard to make it when they get outside Nigeria. Desperation sucks as well.
Esco – Now writes a blog about Nigerian life, which has now clocked over 50,000 hits. He still drinks water directly from the bottle without using a cup, watches reruns of Jersey Shore, and still dreams of owning his own online newspaper.
Lil Wayne wanna be – Still works as a barber, but suffered bouts of depression when he heard that Lil Wayne got sent to prison. He would have emulated Wayne but thought twice when he remembered the difference between Rikers Island Correctional Facility and Kirikiri Maximum Prison. He was distracted by a Lil Wayne performance at an award show on TV, and mistakenly gave a Lagos Big Boy a bald patch while cutting his hair. He received an “Olisa Dibua-esque” beating.
Manicurist – Was promoted to a barber after Osa left. Still thinks Nosa is in South Africa as is still waiting for his Umqombothi.
South African nurse – Met a South African man at the airport on the day of Osa’s deportation, and they later hooked up for lunch, dated for a while, and are getting married next month. They are planning to come to Lagos for their honeymoon!
Osa – He is abroad, but not yet in Europe. I hear that he was among the Nigerian guys held and nearly killed by Libyan guerilla fighters recently. He was disappointed because he had one more border left till he hit Italy.
For the sake of your name, oh Lord/
may we break away from the chains abroad/
Nas (Ghetto Prisoners, 1999)
****N.B: Cheer up T.B