How it all began
Do you know that almost surreal feeling, when you’ve been flying in the airplane for hours in a dark cabin, somehow you got used to the silence and pressure in the head, and something like a small buzzing in the background? Then the pilot announces that you have started descending to the city where you’re heading. The flight attendants kindly ask you to lift your window blinds and put your sit in upright position. You finally obey, before or after you’ve been warned, and you look through the window. Suddenly, after hours you’ve spent in the dark, you see the lights of the city. If the city under you is your hometown or the place you’ve already been, you are excitedly trying to connect the lights in the distance to the place or the monument in the city. If it is a new city you are landing in, you are curiously trying to decipher what are the places and lights you see.
The first time I landed in Nigeria, at Port Harcourt, a city of almost 2 million people, a port and commercial center, I had a feeling that I landed in complete darkness. The Air France aircraft parked on a small runway was surrounded by a palm tree forest that due to the lack of light looked spooky. While I was getting down the mobile staircase attached to the plane, I was hit by very humid, stuffy air. At the same moment, my entire body started sweating, and it was almost impossible to breathe. Together with my two Serbian colleagues and the rest of the passengers, all Nigerians, I was moving towards dimly lit something hundred meters away. Airport, I guessed.
I was almost right- it was a large white tent that represented airport terminal, dimly lit. It looked like it was in the middle of nowhere as it was surrounded by darkness. We were divided into two lines in front of two plastic counters that were at the entrance to the tent. Immigration- I figured. While trying to fight off swarming mosquitoes and get some oxygen, without any sign of warning the light went off. It seemed as someone flipped off the switch. We were now in complete darkness. The crowd simultaneously let out low tone roars and awes. People started whispering as if not to disturb something in the darkness and silence. Some strange fear was in the air. A couple of minutes later, the rumbling sound of the starting engine was heard in the distance and the light came on. What initially appeared like dimmed light at the terminal, now illuminated like a sunrise.
Finally our turn at immigration. Two uniformed immigration officers took my passport along with the passports of my two colleagues. Then they asked us for vaccination cards, also called yellow fever cards. We quickly submitted them. They started closely examining our passports and vaccination cards for several minutes, all whilst having a hush conversation in their local language. Finally, one of them, a woman, informed us that there is a problem with our vaccination card. She stated that according to Nigerian law we can only enter the country after more than two weeks have passed since we got our yellow fever shots, and today was exactly two weeks. One of my colleagues started arguing with them, trying to convince them that they are not right, and my second colleague joined the fray. I was observing the incident from the side, and the thought going through my head was that we were warned on numerous occasions that some Nigerians if provided the opportunity, will try everything to frustrate us in order to extort money. Concerned, I frantically looked around for Kelvin, a Nigerian man that recruited and traveled with us from Paris and waved my hand motioning him to come closer for rescue. After he heard what was going on, he started shouting at the two immigration officers in the same local language. A few seconds later, the Officers appeared remorseful and apologetic as they released our passports and yellow cards to Kelvin.
Kelvin then led us inside the tent terminal, explaining how this is a very common occurrence at the airports; that some immigration officers like to frustrate and intimidate foreigners, especially the first time visitors, in a desperate effort to extort money. Then he warned us not to give any “dash” money to anyone especially government officials. As we were walking through the tent airport terminal, I could not help but notice that everyone was staring at us. We were the only three white persons at the airport. Even though I travel often, and I’ve been stared at on many occasions for many different reasons, I cannot say I wasn’t a little uncomfortable that literally everyone there, men, women, and children, would not stop staring at us even for a second.
We approached the group of passengers standing in the area demarcated with a line marker. Soon, in the absence of a motorized luggage carrousel -several Nigerians porters started manually delivering suitcases. Immediately Passengers started scrambling, pushing and shoving each other, shouting and fighting to identify and retrieve their suitcases. From the back, non-uniformed young boys, I supposed porters were shouting, offering us carts and help with our suitcases, and no matter how many times we said no, more were encroaching and persisting. I pondered to myself, how I have never seen or experienced such a chaotic atmosphere in my entire life. After we managed to retrieve our luggage, we headed out the tent on the opposite side. Various people were very aggressively trying to get as close to us to offer taxi, hotel, hawking items or just shouting words in the local language that by the laugh of other men in their groups I suspected were not polite. Finally, we emerged away from the crowd, from unpleasant stares, shouts, and Kelvin waved at the man standing next to a huge, bulletproof Land Cruiser. Three men approached us hurriedly, took our suitcases, and Kelvin led us with another man and one policeman armed with an AK-47 rattle to a bulletproof Land Cruiser directing us to enter.
Three of us entered the backseat, while Kelvin sat in the front passenger seat next to the driver who was already seated in the vehicle. It was then I realized that two police pick-up trucks and another police bus full of armed policemen were escorting us in a convoy. I felt a bit uncomfortable and I voiced my concerns to Kelvin. I wanted to know the reason behind the battalion of police escorting us. Kelvin said that he will explain everything once we arrive at our destination which was about 3 hours away. We started our journey on what they called expressway that only head two lanes total, one in opposite direction. The asphalted part of the expressway was only a few kilometers long, with deep, wide and frequent potholes forcing us to drive at maximum 20 km/h; soon the dilapidated expressway turned into the red mud expressway. During this late night escapade, there were no street lights and the road was surrounded by what appeared to be a thick rain forest on both sides. Every hundred meters there was random fire lit next to the expressway and I couldn’t understand why. Very seldom you could see a small portacabin or an empty market stand beside the road or a group of people just sitting next to the fire. Every one or two kilometers we would slow down because of the police checkpoint. I came to realize that they were not stopping us since we were being escorted by a battalion of policemen. We have been driving for almost three hours due to the bad roads and limited visibility to the city called Owerri, the capital of Imo State, one of the 36 states in Nigeria.
After one hour of bad roads, pitch darkness and unexplainable sights on the expressway, I could not help but wonder- where am I, and what on earth am I doing here?