After all of the horror stories I had read on the Internet (kidnappers waiting to grab Americans at the airport, planes crashing because someone tried cooking over a coal fire in the back, rampant corruption and required bribery) I was a little nervous before embarking on my travels to Nigeria. Somehow Nigeria had been built up in my head as a complex mixture of culture and chaos– afrobeat music a la Fela Kuti and colorful clothing, big personalities and the complex flavors of jollof rice embedded in the “Wild West” of Africa. By the time the wheels of my plane touched down in Lagos, however, the nervous voices inside me were subdued. I owe this sense of calm to Delta Flight 50.
My arrival in Nigeria began well before the plane’s windows fogged up with humidity on the runway or the immigration officers stamped my passport. I entered Nigeria at the very serene and un-scary Gate E2 in the Atlanta airport (due to Lagos’s lack of appeal as a tourist destination 95% of passengers were Nigerian with that other 5% primarily populating business and first class). It was a reassuring 11-hour introduction to the normalcy that is more prevalent in Nigeria than the horrific urban legends that proliferate on the Internet. There were no coal fires and no scammers, just a few babies crying like any flight to Hawaii or Hamburg. Passengers were friendly, but not overly so.
I deplaned with confidence. I buzzed through immigration pausing for only a moment to gawk at a fellow American who apparently had not been the victim of Googling “Nigeria Travel Safety.” He wore a stars and stripes button-up collared dress shirt (the stars caressing his right shoulder), blue jeans, cowboy boots, a bushy grey mustache waxed and twirled at the tips and a confederate-style beige hat complete with the emblematic crossed swords above the brim. “Bold,” I thought.
I changed money and collected my baggage (leaving my fear spinning around the conveyer belt). On my way out of the airport I was pulled aside by a friendly concierge. Not immediately seeing the men who were to meet me from LAPO, the Micro Finance Institution (MFI) I would be working with for the next 3 months, the concierge let me borrow her cell phone. The phone was ringing when the large LAPO sign caught my eye across the airport drop-off. There they were, as expected.
For a few hours following, we navigated the horrendous traffic in Lagos and visited one of LAPO’s branch offices. The staff was all smiles and we chatted a bit, all enjoying the fan that moved the otherwise damp and heavy air. I practiced getting used to the somewhat tricky Nigerian accent through excessive ambient noise (created by fans, air conditioners and generators).
Back to the airport in time to check-in for my three o’clock flight, I enjoyed a few moments of solitude again. This would have been a prime opportunity to reflect on how it felt to be here – how the expectations I had had were playing out, what commonalities and differences were apparent between Nigeria and my previous experiences in Southern and East Africa, what new questions had surfaced about LAPO and micro finance, etc., but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I sat one arm on my precious carry-on bag and the other cradled my forehead as I struggled to get some rest while maintaining a slice of consciousness.
The rest is a bit of a blur…propeller plane, walking off the runway at the very basic airport in Benin [City], brief introduction to another kind gentleman from LAPO who greeted me and began to tell me about his role in the Strategic Planning Department and finally the hotel after 24 hours of travel…big firm bed, cool shower and CNN. I cooled down and fell into a relaxed reclined position, grabbed the remote and caught up on developments in Zimbabwe trying to keep myself awake until a reasonable hour so that I wouldn’t wake up refreshed and ready for the day at 2:30 am. After a few hours and what I have come to learn are frequent and expected power outages, I took the 9:14 pm blackout to be a divine sign that it was time to sleep.
I dreamed of Fela Kuti, dancing, fried plantain and welcoming smiles rather than ransoms and rebels.