Tag Archives: 25 years in Nigeria

25 Years in Nigeria (the writerly version)

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:

25 Years in Nigeria

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.

25 Years in Nigeria

On the Way to Nigeria 8 September 1988

The McCain family in Gatwick airport 8 September 1988 on the way to Lagos.

My dad reminded me this afternoon that today marks the 25th anniversary of the day our family moved to Nigeria. My parents have lived here ever since, first in Port Harcourt for three years from 1988-1991, and then Jos up until today. We kids “grew up” here and have been back and forth ever since. My brother and I both currently live in Nigeria, while my sister lives in the U.S. where she is doing her residency as a doctor.

I kept a diary at the time, but it is in storage somewhere now, so I’m relying on memories and my dad’s journal. I may write a little more on this later [UPDATE 14 September 2013, see my column about this topic here], but for now, I will just post a few photos of our move. We had left the U.S. from Atlanta a few days earlier (the first time out of the U.S. for my brother, sister, and I).

All of our Atlanta-based relatives came to see us off at the airport. Here we are in airport's chapel.

Our grandparents and our Uncle John, Aunt Miriam, and our little cousin Karen came to see us off at the Atlanta airport. Here we are in airport’s chapel.

We spent three days in London being tourists.

On the train from Gatwick into London.

On the train from Gatwick into London.

By the time we made it to the Tube, we must have been pretty jetlagged.

By the time we made it to the Tube, we must have been pretty jetlagged.

While we were in London, we visited our Aunty Lily. My great grandmother had been a World War I bride from England who married my great grandfather–an American soldier– and moved with him to Florida, so we visited her younger sister on our way through London. She served us a very proper British tea, including cucumber sandwiches, and a very rich almond cake, which I’m sure now I would love, but which at the time I thought was disgusting. I remember that her house had a toilet with a very high tank that you flushed with a chain.

With Aunty Lily and her neighbour

With Aunty Lily and her neighbour

We walked from her house to the guest house where we were staying, but it took a lot longer than we thought it would. I ended up carrying my sister on my back, while my dad carried my brother. My dad says that I took the whole thing as an adventure.  The next day, we went to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, Buckingham Palace, and walked over the quite ordinary London Bridge, which nevertheless has a great view of the more dramatic Tower Bridge. The next morning we left out of Gatwick to travel to Lagos.

We landed in Murtala Muhammad Airport in Lagos on the evening of 8 September 1988. My memories are vague, but I remember the scent of Lagos airport, a moist stale smell from rains and probably old carpet, and I remember we were met by soldiers at immigration (sent by the university liason office–this was during the Babangida regime), waiting for our luggage to come under the grey flourescent lights. The hotel we stayed in had blue bedspreads, buckets in the bathroom, and a toilet to which the seat was not attached. Our food arrived around 11:30pm, rice and stew and plantains. My dad tells of how relieved he was when he arrived later from the airport with all of our luggage and found us jumping on the beds. While normally we probably would have been scolded for that, it demonstrated that we weren’t too traumatized by the move. 

We flew to Port Harcourt the next day, 9 September 1988, where we were hosted at a university guest house for a few weeks before we moved into our bungalow on campus.

Our family in the university guest house, together with a Fulbright family.

Our family in the university guest house, together with a Fulbright family.

In the guest house, I am busy writing in my diary my first impressions of Nigeria. The diary is unfortunately somewhere in storage now.

In the guest house, I am busy writing in my diary my first impressions of Nigeria. The diary is somewhere in storage now.

The university accommodated us in a three bedroom bungalow, which became our home for the next three years until we moved to Jos in 1991.

Together with some of our closest friends in Port Harcourt, the Nwators, in front of our house.

Together with some of our closest friends in Port Harcourt, the Nwators, in front of our house.

After moving into our house, a few weeks after arriving in Port Harcourt, we began school at the university staff school.

Off to school.

Off to school.

In 1991, we moved to Jos, and I won’t go through all those photos, but here is one.

Family photo in Jos in the 1990s, around 1993 or 94.

Family photo in Jos in the 1990s, around 1993 or 94.

So, now twenty-five years after we first moved to Nigeria, four of us still live in Nigeria. My sister was able to come visit for Christmas last year, and this is the most recent photo of us all together in Nigeria outside our house in Jos.

Family photo Christmas 2012, Jos

Family photo Christmas 2012, Jos, somehow wearing purple again.

I will try to write something more “literary” about this in the future. But, in the meantime, I am reflecting on how what was supposed to be a 4 year stint turned into 25 years. Nigeria has become home.

UPDATE: 14 September 2013. In my column this week in Weekly Trust, I wrote another piece with more details.