As we approach the new international terminal, the driver makes to turn left toward the train station but instantly changes his mind. He hasn’t been to the airport since the new terminal was opened. He is apparently thinking that the entrance to the new terminal must be on that side. Its underbelly betrays no orifice but its snout kisses the train terminal. As we pass in front of the new terminal under the snout, I continue to wonder where the entrance is.
We get to the usual first drop-off point. I ask the guys standing by. The entrance is close by, one of them says. Without being asked, he yanks out my two pieces of luggage from the boot. Yes, two bags. You must ‘carry load’ of foodstuff and other things for people in America whose palates continue to be nostalgic and who continue to indulge the palatine and lingual homesickness with each passenger from Naija.
The sign at the entrance says Arrivals, not Departures. Are we in the right place? The guy chuckles, Oga, no worry, dem never complete the place finish. Na im dem come open di place? I thought to myself.
Right inside the terminal building, after a ramp running up on the left, we come up against two flights of stairs side-by-side. One is supposed to be a moving staircase but it’s as motionless as the other. I remember a friend who has used the new terminal before saying that the escalator has never worked. Why?
An airport staff beckons us to use the lift but my guy is already half-way up with one of the bags. I followed him. It’s all part of physical activity.
We get to the first floor. We ascend a gentle ramp. The place is so full of space. Glass. Shiny steel. White walls. Granite tiles. Overall, very plain. None of the jaw-dropping architectural extravagance that one has seen elsewhere. Nothing artistic. Emphasis is probably on functionality. No matter. And with the elevators and ramps, a guy on a wheelchair can get by easily. And the AC is working. Like in those foreign airports that we admire and envy so much. Great. An official tells the guys that he can’t go beyond here. I pay him off. An airport worker sees us. “Where is my own?”, she says smiling. “Your own what?”, I replied in a friendly tone, “Which work you do for me?” Another guy employs a different but more common strategy in a soliciting voice: Oga, happy weekend. I ignore him.
All these people doing fine bara upandan.
I pass through security uneventfully. One woman’s bag is being turned upside down. She is explaining things to the security guys. Her voice is loud and agitated. No be small sontin.
I check in at Lufthansa. I fill out Immigrations and Customs cards. Last check-point. I leave the capacious belly of the airport into its long tail that juts into the runway.
Old school music flows out of the loudspeakers overhead. Michael Jackson. Diana Ross. Donna Summer (?). Others I can’t name.
Time to perform Maghrib and Isha. Where is the mosque? I am directed to the very end of the tail, the tail end. I drop my bag in the small prayer room. I find the ablution room. I turn the tap. No water. What! I find the restroom with difficulty. I am hit by a faint disagreeable smell. Not the smell of disinfectants. Not the smell of the cheap strong-smelling chemicals commonly used to deodorise toilets in public buildings. It is a smell redolent of organic chemistry. I empty my bladder. I pick up the nozzle – no water. I press the flush button – no water. I use toilet paper. But I need water. All the taps are dry. The smell of stale urine gets stronger. The smell in the air must be that of ammonia, the pungent gas that our briny waste product gives off as urea decomposes. A brand new airport fa. Chai!
I check the other restrooms. No water. I ask the workers around. Oga, there is no water o. They are working on it. One of the staff blames the Chinese. They are still in charge, they’ve not handed over. Chinese or not, this is the international wing of the new airport in the nation’s capital.
What if somebody finishes opening their bowel before they realise that there is no water? And how soon will the water start flowing in the toilets? Can’t they put up a sign in the meantime? Or lock up the restrooms until water has been restored? Is this not a national embarrassment? I hope they are treating this as an emergency.
First boarding announcement. We go down the tramp to the final waiting area. The airport free WiFi is quite fast. Some redemption.
On board, I run into a close colleague apparently escaping to Germany for the Easter break. We exchange pleasantries. I nod a greeting to his amiable wife. I find my seat. The travel agent has checked me in to a window seat. Great. As if they knew. I pick up Naija No Dey Carry Last, a book I bought some time ago and never came around to reading until the tragic death of the author which now imbued the reading with a sense of duty. In the week following the plane crash, I devoured the kindle version of You are not a Country, Africa on the train between Abuja and Kaduna. The way the death of a writer makes people want to really know what they had been saying all along. And the way it increases sales, if not always readership. Since then I have read only two of the forty-four pieces in the book.
Initially published individually between 2008 and 2014 and collected as a book in 2015, these satirical gems have preserved in an artistic form aspects of the history of an era marked by a greedy, visionless and irresponsible leadership. And nothing much has changed since then. Pius is such a consummate satirist. The parodic appropriation of biblical language and imagery. The subtle critique of prosperity pastors and Pentecostal exuberance. His mischievously faithful rendering of the formulaic and colourful prayer of the evangelists with its unmistakably Nigerian flavour and its almost incantatory casting and binding. The rib-cracking dramatic sketches that I have, for a long time, associated almost solely with Reuben Abati. In this book, Pius hilariously brings to life major political characters like Olusegun Obasanjo, James Ibori, Bode George, Mr. and Mrs. Goodluck Jonathan, and Umaru Yar’adua. Along with these guys, he doesn’t spare his satirical koboko on his friend Olusegun Adeniyi and the other courtiers like Reuben Abati, Reno Omokri, Doyin Okupe and Oronto Douglas. He does to Reuben Abati exactly the kind of things Abati had done to people in power before he joined them and became pathetically ineloquent. The guys suffer no be small.
Frankfurt airport, the hub of Lufthansa. Modern. European. Incomparably bigger than the Abuja airport. It has more than ten times its capacity. But I don’t particularly like it because of the great tiring distances one has to cover from the arrival terminal to the departure terminal when traveling between Abuja and America. Which often involves all means of transport possible – stairs, escalators, trains, buses.
A friend, a medical school classmate, now a health economist at a DC university is waiting for me. We have briefly greeted each other as we embarked at Abuja. Since we left school, we have only run into each other at airports. We talk about public health in Nigeria, the inefficiency of government institutions, the corruption, the waste, the changing landscape of funding in global health. Bill Gates and his foundation. Donald Trump. World Bank. Global Funds. CDC. The continuing procurement irregularities of public health commodities and other scandals despite President Buhari’s much-trumpeted fight against corruption. The rot that proceeds right under his nose as he vows to deodorise the prevailing stench in the country.
At passport control, he hands over his passport, he’s waved on. I am told I will have to undergo extra security check. It’s a random security check, I’m assured. I have heard that before. I understand that your security reasoning or algorithms can raise a red flag when you encounter a Nigerian and a Muhammad but don’t give me the bull-crap of random checks. Random ko, random ni. The woman ignores me.
The checks shouldn’t take long. My friend steps aside to wait for me. He has been in America for more than a decade. Must be a green card holder. Maybe even a citizen. Explains why he is not ‘randomly’ selected for extra checks.
Also waiting for ‘random’ checks is an African woman and her daughter. And a white woman in hijab and her daughter. Turkish, Bosnian, Albanian, I can’t say. A cluster of Africans and Muslims at a European airport is not random anything. It is systematic. I teach statistical reasoning. I know how important it is to differentiate between random and systematic. At the security check point, I peep at their passports. The Africans are Nigerian. The other pair is Tunisian. In anger, I tell the security guy that this is not random anything. He too ignores me. The African woman says not to worry, we are just passing through, who wants to live in Germany? The Tunisian woman and her daughter go through cheerfully. She’s obviously used to it, resigned to it. I’m the only grumpy one.
I find my way to my departure gate. I can’t find my colleague to continue the conversation. These lie-lie security people have denied me the opportunity of hearing trending thoughts and views on global health governance. Diarris God.
I find the restroom. Clean. No smell. Not even the smell of air fresheners. No need to touch anything. Toilet flushes automatically. Taps come on as commanded by infra-red sensors. In Nigeria, we are still touching everything all over the place, oblivious to the potential for public places to amplify infectious diseases all over the world in just a few hours. I brush my teeth and perform ablution.
I connect to the free airport WiFi. I find the qiblah with Muslim Pro.
Big cup of hot coffee. Orange juice. Hot fresh croissant. Open laptop.