When my Kenya Airways plane touched down in Lagos Nigeria at 3.30 in the afternoon, I peeped out of the tiny windows and smiled at the airport workers who were busy driving up and down the airport, ferrying luggage and all manner of things.
Finally, I had landed in Africa’s most populous Nation. I could finally put a tick next to Nigeria in my rumpled ‘Countries to Visit’ paper that I had written in December 1999 when the imminent arrival of a brand new millennium prompted unprecedented ambition in most humans.
DAVID BWAKALI. My name was scribbled on a blue sheet of cardboard paper that a stocky man was holding up. I saw it as soon as I emerged from the international arrivals section of the airport. It felt nice seeing my very own name. It was as if the name had preceded the person into Lagos and it was now welcoming the person to rejoin it.
‘How are you sir?!’ The man said enthusiastically, as if he was an old friend and not just a driver for Elo, sister to Akpezi, my UNEP boss’s husband.
I was in Nigeria for the sweetest assignment ever. Akpezi had requested me to write two biographies for her father and mother-in-law. So I was there to conduct a series of interviews that would give me sufficient raw material to work with. Imagine being paid to do two of your favourite things – travelling and writing. I couldn’t thank Akpezi enough for the opportunity.
Ekwe, the driver was wearing a spotless white shirt and well-pressed black trousers. He was clean shaven with grey patches peppering his well-trimmed hair. He could have been a bank manager on a Saturday evening. He was as eager to know more about Kenya as I was eager to know about the sights that were speeding by me as we drove to Elo’s house.
‘Are you a Yoruba?’ I asked him, thanks to that Kenyan habit of seeking to know people’s tribes.
‘How did you know?’ The furrows on his forehead signified surprise.
‘I am a prophet’ I answered with a serious face, belying the fact that I was joking.
The car slowed down slightly as Ekwe looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and reverence.
‘Just kidding,’ I said, triggering boisterous laughter from both of us before I explained to him that Yoruba and Igbo were the two most famous tribes in my part of the world, so I had just guessed.
‘Our President Olusegun Obasanjo is a Yoruba’ Ekwe said proudly.
He paused and let go a rather loud sneeze before continuing, ‘he is a good man.’
It was 2005 and President Obasanjo had been president since 1999. He ruled until 2007 when he made way for President Yar’Adua, a northerner who later died in office.
I was amused by the yellow color of public mini-buses that seemed to be all over the roads. Back home in Kenya, the larger public mini-buses don’t have a uniform colour and often compete to see which one will be the most colorful and outrageous.
After one hour of maneuvering through the honks, twists and turns of Lagos, Ekwe finally drove through the guarded gates of a lush neighborhood and into a large corner house whose gates opened as we approached.
‘You are welcome David!’ a jovial middle-aged woman said as soon as I alighted from the Toyota land-cruiser. As we embraced like old friends, she repeatedly told me to feel at home and asked me how Akpezi, her sister-in-law was fairing on back in Kenya.
This is what I like about Africa, I thought as I reveled in the warmth of instant friendship.
There is such a sense of family. A joie de vivre that can be felt in warm embraces like the one that Elo had just given me or the boisterous laughter that Ekwe had kept unleashing on the way from the airport, or the playful honks of public mini-bus drivers as they cajole customers, or the handshake of business deals in pubs, or the humming of a mother as she cooks pounded yam and fish for her family or even in the tears of a hungry and poor little boy who has been through the hell of Boko Haram and emerged on the other side traumatized yet energized to face another day.