Last Sunday I posted a blog post full of photos and not too much text about how it had been 25 years (from 8 September 1988) since my family first moved to Nigeria. As I mentioned in that post, which I wrote quickly so that I could put it up on the right date, I would try to write something more “literary” in the future. So, here is my column today from Weekly Trust, titled again, “25 Years in Nigeria,” in which I write a little more about my memories of that night we first arrived and the year/s that followed. I’ve also recounted some of this history in my “A Letter to Chinua Achebe, Never Sent.” As usual, if you would like to read the original, click on the photo or on this link to read on the Weekly Trust site; otherwise scroll below to read on my blog:
Category: My thoughts exactly Published on Saturday, 14 September 2013 05:00 Written by Carmen McCain
My first memory of Nigeria is grey, fluorescent-light tinted. Three soldiers waiting for us at the end of a corridor.
The air was thick with the damp sweaty smell of the Lagos airport in September. My thin blue passport opened to show me in a school photo wearing a red bibbed dress, an awkward preadolescent smile, a brown braid to one side. Tall for my age, I walked behind my father with my younger brother and sister. Children accompanying parents. It was the night of 8 September 1988. The soldiers, who had been sent by the university to smooth our passage, escorted us past immigration to the luggage carousal where large cardboard boxes and hard suitcases circled in and out. Masses of people crowded around. We stood to one side with our mother, while our father struggled by the revolving belt, pointing out our bags to a man with a cart.
Nigeria was the third country I had ever been to in my life. The second was England where we had just spent three days after leaving the United States. In London, we had visited our Aunty Lily, whose sister, my great grandmother had come to America as a World War 1 bride back in 1919. Aunty Lily served us cucumber sandwiches and tea and a cake covered in thick cream and almonds that we children wouldn’t eat. Her toilet had a tank as high as the ceiling and a chain you pulled down to flush. We nearly got killed in front of Buckingham palace when my dad looked the wrong way crossing the street. The policeman on the horse who stopped traffic for us told us, “In America you drive on the right side of the road, in Britain we drive on the proper side.” We also walked over the London Bridge. I figured that the original London Bridge had fallen down like in the nursery rhyme, because it was nothing special, just cement and metal rails. The tower bridge downriver was more like what I thought a bridge in London should be.
The hotel is the first vivid colourful image I have of Nigeria. The beds had nobbly turquoise bedspreads, and the black toilet seat was detached from the toilet and resting on the tiles behind the bathtub. Our dad had waited behind at the airport with the university liaison driver to bring our luggage and he writes in his journal that, “When I walked in the room, the children were laughing and playing and jumping on the bed.” I’m pretty sure that if we had jumped on the beds at any other time, we would have gotten scolded, but this time, my dad writes, “When I saw that I almost cried because this was the most relaxed and happy I had seen the children since we had left Atlanta and maybe even before then […] There are few burdens heavier to carry than to have your children unhappy.” It must have been 11:30pm when the food was brought to our room, big platters of rice and stew and plantain, which we sat on the bed and ate, our first meal in Nigeria.
The next thing I remember is the university guest house in Port Harcourt where we stayed while we waited for our house to be prepared. It had cool terrazzo floors, an airy dining room where, for breakfast, we ate cornflakes with hot milk, a staircase with open tiles that let in the breeze. On the light-dappled stairs you could have a conversation with a person standing outside, like I did with a girl who came up to the tiles and asked if I would be her friend. In the upstairs parlour, there were velvety green chairs and a huge throne we would sit on when nobody was looking. They said it was for the Chancellor.
A few weeks later we settled into our green bungalow lined with red flower bushes. In the yard was a pink blossom filled frangipani tree that I nearly fell out of once when a lizard jumped on my head. There was also a tall palm tree which would bend in the monsoon winds, its fronds flying, and a tall pine tree from which we cut branches to make a Christmas tree that first December. Our mother had uniforms made for us out of stiff blue and white checked material and sent us off to the elementary staff school on campus. We walked to school by cutting through our neighbours’ yard, through the maze of red hibiscus bushes, until we arrived at the low flat buildings where we first learned the lessons Nigerian children learn. I remember copying long passages of social studies and CRK from the board into my exercise books. I was once called to the dispensary where my brother was having a scrape painted over with purple iodine. “Stop talking your language in front of me. It is rude,” said the nurse. “But we are speaking English,” we told her. She did not believe us.
My brother quickly learned pidgin, and when he was playing outside, you couldn’t tell the difference between his voice and that of his friends. I was shyer and more aloof, not sure what to do with the notes I got in class that accused me of being proud for being closer with my classmate Gloria than with the note-writer. Not sure what to do when the rambunctious boys in the class jumped out of the windows when the teacher went to the bank, or when a teacher slapped my knuckles with a ruler when I got a math problem wrong or gave me a “C” on a creative writing assignment, so that I would “try harder.” I read a lot and wrote about it in the diary with a lock I had brought from the U.S. “Write down your first impressions,” my father told me. “You’ll never have them again.” At home, I would continue reading through the books we had brought. When I finished the children’s books, I moved on to my mother’s college literature anthologies and volumes of Shakespeare. My parents allowed me to home school the next year, when they moved my brother and sister to an international school that only went up to 5th grade.
When I wasn’t reading, I would visit my neighbours’ house. The two daughters were our closest friends. I liked to pause along their driveway to peel back the fleshy green-thorned stems of their agave plants until the tender innermost yellow spine was revealed. We would go on long bike rides around campus, riding over to my dad’s office to climb onto the roofs of the open air walkways, which were like sidewalks in the sky. Sometimes we would sneak off campus past the hole in the wall where people gathered at the tap to fill their buckets with water. There was a giant mound of white sand by the river that ran behind the university. They said it was for construction, but we would take our shoes off and dig our toes into the sand, eating picnic lunches as we watched the canoes skim across the river to the village on the other side.
Back when we lived in the U.S., when our parents told us that we would be moving to Nigeria, they told us it would be for four years. I would write long letters to my friends and cousins in America telling them about my new life, making little sketches of people and trees and the villages we visited in the margins of the lined notepaper. I always reminded them I would be back soon. But in 1991, after the third year, we moved up to Jos, where my brother, sister, and I began to attend an international school. A mixed group of Nigerian and American girls adopted me as one of their own. My letters to America grew less frequent. I no longer said I was “coming home.”
Over lunch last Sunday, my dad asked me, “Do you know what happened 25 years ago on this day?” “What?” I asked. “This was the day we first arrived in Nigeria,” he said. It is a week that jostles with the anniversaries of other more recent memories. September 7, the day the Jos crisis began, September 11, the day I watched silver towers in New York fall like London Bridges. But this year, I have spent less time remembering those traumatic events and more time remembering a happier occasion. September 8, the day we came to a country that has become our home.