Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Saturday, June 10, 2006

FRANKFURT The Germans are really nice people. I mean, really, really, really nice. And not in a phony way, either.

So why does the sound of their language frighten me?

In the past few hours I’ve sat through two in-flight movies: Failure to Launch and The Pink Panther. I want to stick pencils into my own eyes, true story.

Welcome to Nigeria

It’s overcast when the plane touches down in Port Harcourt… Well, actually it just looks overcast from the sky. By the time I hit the ground I realize it is righteously raining buckets. Port Harcourt is one of those airports where the passengers dismount on the tarmac and walk through the open air into the airport, so the heavy rain constitutes something of a problem as the airport officials scramble to assemble a chain of umbrellas to get us off the plane while we are backed up at the plane doors for like 15-20 minutes, impatiently waiting to get off.

Welcome to Nigeria.

In pretty short order, the passengers get into one of the favourite Nigerian pastimes: trading quips about how effed up Nigeria is (by the way, did you notice that I just spelled “favorite” with a “u”?).

One of the passengers even turned to the plane’s pilot (a white guy) and said “A beg o… Make una come colonize us again.”

Now, of course the pilot was German rather than British so it’s not like he or his people could necessarily come and colonize us “again,” but the point was pretty clear: There is a tacit (and sometimes even very vocal) perception that when the Europeans held the reins in Africa they exploited us and siphoned our resources, but at least under their stewardship, Africa worked as a modern society.

This idea has always irritated me a little bit, even when expressed in jest.

Still, it’s good to be home. One of the first things that really impressed me upon hitting Nigerian soil was the surfeit of shapely, sexy women. There’s something about the… carriage of Nigerian women that is so proud and regal… even orange sellers on the side of the street look like princesses. But I think the curves that I was even more happy to see were those of all the Peugeot 504s in the streets.

But before I saw any of that I would have to get through Customs.

As I walked into the airport, I was immediately shunted into the “expatriates” line. The guy behind the desk took one look at the Igbo name on my American passport and scolded me for making things harder for myself by not using my Nigerian passport and allowing myself to be treated as a foreigner in my own country. I tried to offer a perfunctory explanation about the passport issue but he had already started rapping to me a mile a minute in Igbo.

This kinda raised a red flag in my mind because I knew his switch to vernacular communication was his way of indicating to me that he was “my brother,” being of the same ethnic origin, and hence he was going to “take care” of me. But since I was “his brother” he would also expect me to “take care” of him. If you know what I mean.

And yes, he did “take care” of me if your concept of being “taken care of” involves some dude standing behind you barking useless instructions in Igbo while you scrambled back and forth through a mad crowd trying to retrieve your six luggage items.

I don’t know how many of y’all have ever deplaned in a small, “Third world” airport… The experience is pretty much the same whether it’s in Port Harcourt, Nassau or Kingston: The oppressive humidity, the massive press of bodies, the overzealous security paradoxically coupled with an almost complete absence of order, the seeming multitudes of people outside the airport building chattering and yelling, trying to get the attention of their people in the airport, or trying to sell stuff, or steal stuff, or just general hustle jetlagged flyers. Add to all that the pouring rain, and I was pretty damn shell-shocked.

I managed to get all my luggage and two porters to wheel the stuff behind me as I fought my way through the almshouse. “My brother” comes to me and reminds me that he’s going to “take care” of me, and I have to admit that this time he actually delivered. He went to the mean-looking “I-wear-sunglasses-inside-the-building-at-night” cadre of Customs officers and told them to go easy on me because I’m his brother. They let me through with only token harassment after “my brother” told them that I was going to “take care” of them all.

By this time I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to spot my dad in the crowd (though I was a bit taken aback by how much older and smaller he looked). I started to tell him about “my brother” but it turns out that I didn’t have to, since “my brother” had followed me outside anyway and was already regaling my father with accounts of how well he had taken care of me.

Dad pointed me to get to the car with the driver while he discussed with “my brother” how he would be taken care of in gratitude for taking care of me. For some reason, the driver had parked the car directly under one of the water gutters on the roof of the building, so it was a bit like standing under Niagara Falls I as I struggled to jam all my stuff into the vehicle.

The porters were getting soaked too, and they wanted to be paid so they could get out of the rain. It’s often hard for me to gauge how much to pay people for minor services like this because labour is really cheap in this country… I mean, almost inhumanly cheap by American standards. Like, before I left the States, my mom told me to tip the porters at the airport N50 each. Of course, my mom is also notoriously cheap and it just seemed weird to me to pay grown-ass men who bust their asses what amounts to less than 50 cents apiece.

Anyway, I didn’t have any Nigerian currency to pay them with and my dad was still talking with “my brother.” I fished into my pocket to see what I had for American money: a ten and two George Washingtons. I gave each of them one dollar. They looked at me like I had just announced that I had slept with their mom and she was a lousy lay to boot. “ONE DOLLAR?” one of them cried out in shock. The other one almost gave the money back to me and started walking off in disgust.

“Na all I dey hold o” I explained.

“Why don’t you give us that ten dollars to share?”

“Ummm… Because five dollars each is a pretty big tip even in America. Okay, let’s wait for my dad to come back and he’ll pay you.”

So we wait. And wait. And wait.

And get wetter. And wetter. And wetter.

Finally, I just relented and gave the guys the ten… Whatever, I just wanted to get out into the car out of the rain. I know I probably had a few more singles in my wallet, but frankly I didn’t feel too comfortable pulling out my wallet in the middle of that mayhem.

When my dad finally came back, he asked me where the porters went. I told him I paid them and they left.

“How much did you pay them?” he asked.

I told him.

“ARE YOU CRAZY? I just gave those Customs officers 2000 naira to share!” (That’s less than 20 dollars, yo)

“Oh well. Whatever. I just want to get out here. Can we leave, please?”

Welcome to Nigeria.

Hurry up and Wait

It took like 3 hours to get to the house because of the traffic. Usually this trip would be 25 minutes tops, but the rain has caused the already messed-up road to become completely un-navigable in anything short of a rowboat. Good thing I didn’t try to go straight to Calabar, but what this means is that we won’t be able to go to Aba tonight. Which means that we have to go tomorrow morning. Which means that I’ll get to Calabar even later than I thought I would. I call the guys to tell them and they’re pretty cool about it. They say they’re reviewing the tapes from the day’s casting call and they’re looking pretty good. Great… I can’t wait to see them.

I fall asleep in the midst of mud and heavy petrol fumes and I have a weird dream about Europeans re-colonizing Africa and fixing this damn road.

When we finally get to the crib, I have some dinner and watch (half of) a Nigerian movie called Free Giver starring Zack Orji and Genevive Nnaji and directed by Tchidi Chikere. Only reason I’m mentioning this is because this film had probably the best cinematography I’ve ever seen in a Nigerian movie. I’m not saying it was Gordon Willis or anything but there was a degree of “modeling” in this use of light and shade that is rare in Nollywood and it was clear that a good deal of attention was paid to the placement of colour on the screen, the careful application of depth of field and creative camera angles. Props to director of photography John Osemeka… I was quite impressed and inspired.

The reason I only watched half the movie? You guessed it: NEPA (the Nigerian Electric Power Authority, or as they are more popularly known “Never Expect Power Always”) did what NEPA do.

Welcome to Nigeria.

I repacked in the dark and tried (in vain) to get some sleep in preparation for the 6 am trip to Aba the next morning.

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