With an increasing frequency of more universal messages arriving to my ears, I feel a oneness and inherent belief that despite the whiteness of my skin, my source is here within the lands of Africa. In fact, colleagues of mine this past week even said as such; “are you sure you aren’t really African Miss?“
From this, it makes complete and natural sense that my mother should have made the difficult (yet well-worth it) efforts to meet hectic visa requirements and end up here in Africa beside me, albeit for only 10 days (due to her busy schedule and multitude of commitments). In the 1940s my grandfather was here in Nigeria, and some 70 years later, so now has been his daughter, beside her daughter in fact. She brought with her letters of people who loved my grandfather for his kindness, and she was able to see firsthand, what the difference is like for life here in comparison to wherever “there” may be.
In some ways, it was such a rushed time having her here, having only landed here myself some two weeks prior. Of course, the initial intention had been that she would have been beside me sharing my affair with Uganda. But come she did, regardless of where the “here” now was. Thankfully, due to my adaptations to African ways of living from my Ugandan time, I was able to adjust relatively quickly and speedily to my new surroundings, such that by the time she arrived, it was smooth enough for her and I had many things in place. I have not yet really traversed the lands, but I rapidly began to suss out the ways of them and be able to support my mum with the intense adjustments she had to make from being in the UK to being here in Nigeria.
It was truly a treasure to have someone I love come here and want to look, with their eyes, through my lens. To sample the sights and sounds that my words have been describing, and to begin to resonate with what it is these mean to me, in actual firsthand experience.
For me, I felt my heart re-expand the moment that I landed back on my beloved continent, yet at the same time I have been feeling it contract. There is much fear here about kidnap, especially of the “Owimbo” (or mzungu as I was formerly known, in Uganda). There are also masses of complaints of the infrastructure and prolonged waits in traffic due to deeply congested roads. I have felt like my freedom and my ability to breathe expansively through presence in the motherland has been dramatically cut off, and I have felt like I have been having walls close in all around me. My mother bore witness to this, as she saw me squirm and resist, become anxious and frustrated. Some of these facts are most definitely real, but some are also from deep-set fear, of stories as opposed to first-hand experiences. I have long since lived by the repeated internal mantra, “I can only die once”, and if I always lived within the restrictions of such worries, I would not have left the house when I lived in London when there were so many terrorist attacks, I would not have ever scuba-dived again despite having been temporarily paralysed from the Bends (DCI), I would not have boarded a plane in order to get to Australia to start a new life there two weeks after the Twin Towers attacks, I would not have traveled for even one day solo in Uganda…and I certainly would never have come here to Nigeria in the first place.
I am taking heed of the advice and caution, don’t get me wrong. Yet at the same time, the more I am told I cannot move around and engage with its people, its customs, and its lands, the more I feel like a part of me inside is dying from pain and sadness. Of course I will not put myself in unnecessarily dangerous situations and of course I am deeply thankful for all the care that is being brought to my feet for my well-being and safety. I am just in the midst of the quagmire right now, of ascertaining where the balance is.
Within this, was the confusion of where to take my mum during her visit, to ensure she enjoyed her stay, felt comfortable and safe, yet also felt she was able to sample even the tiniest of snippets of Nigerian life, as opposed to expat comfort and artificiality.
Therefore, an initial idea was to get to the beach, given that I am living on an island! The beautiful women that I live with (each in our own apartments but we share a building and mostly keep our doors unlocked, as we naturally flow in and out of each other’s homes for food, friendship and frivolity) were delighted when I said that I had wanted to do this with my mum for one of her first days here and together they quickly rallied around and created a whole day’s excursion in her honour. It became quite the military affair, to ensure all needs were catered for, enough food and drink would be taken, and all schedules could be accounted for. Nevertheless, after one day of arriving and recuperating, my mother was soon swept up in our plans and was on the local boat en route to Tarkwa Bay.
Not quite the paradiscial (is that a word or did I just make it up?) beach views that her and I have shared before, such as our time in Indonesia for my 30th, but beautiful in its own right nonetheless. Together we had our own demarcated area of the beach, with a BBQ for our freshly caught fish (alas not by own our hands but from that morning’s seafaring regardless), and a quick hop and a skip down to the delectably warm waters for a splash and a swim. Wood crafts were brought to our feet to admire and haggle for, fresh coconuts were offered for refreshments, and live guitar music was played to us, so that we could dance together barefoot on the sands as we enjoyed a cold beer and a warm sun.
A beautiful day.
Me, I opted for wanderings up and down the beach, wherein I made some new Nigerian friends, including one guy who boasted a fabulous rose-garland on his head and a sway to his step as he danced to his group’s music. I played with the beach children (some of whom were clearly homeless given their odour, but delightfully happy once they laughed, despite this). I tried to support a Nigerian man to teach his girlfriend to swim, and I learnt how to play “Ayo” with another friend, from one of the other hawkers on the beach. It was great, I really enjoyed it. And I loved being able to observe my mum from afar, sitting still for once (it feels like I hardly ever see her do this these days: I guess because we always have such limited times together, we are often on the go during these reunions), and being so easily loved by my new friends.
During the rest of my mum’s stay, we shared some time in the rather hazy/humid heat, enjoying time to talk and relax, as well as eat out a few times and make the most of sharing food together at home also, in between the days when I was of course at work and she was able to spend time catching up on her own commitments too.
It was a pleasure for me to host my mother in my classroom, wherein the children that I teach were bewildered and much amused by her presence, especially when I read them a selection of stories of “Don’t let the Pigeon…” wherein a rather cheeky pigeon tries to convince the reader that he should be allowed to do allsorts of grown-up activities through various methods of persuasion….including via the phrase, “But my mummy lets me do anything!” (I commented that of course this was much the same for me, and my children were utterly baffled and excited by this, especially when she winked at them and told them “Oh no I don’t!“) It was a hoot having her there and the children were confounded when she left, as to why I hadn’t managed to take her all the way home and then be back in school again for the very next day!
Of course, she does indeed let me do anything (!), as the great friend and mother that she has been to me. She knows I need to learn by my own ways and journeys, she knows that at times I will heed her advice and at others I will reject it. And the same works in return for her from me. I honour and value our relationship and I am greatly proud that she chose to be with me for this trip.
Happily I also made it possible for us to step outside of the concrete haven in which I find myself here on the islands, by arranging for us to visit the Lekki Conservation centre together. It reminded me of Entebbe Botanical Gardens in some ways, though it was by no means as expansive or as naturally wild as they are.
Upon arrival, I found myself frustrated that we were not allowed to traverse the wooden walkway through the trees by ourselves, but that we had to join the melee of a tourist crowd. However I bit my tongue as best I could, feeling simply so relieved to be back amongst some form of nature again. (I’m definitely not a city girl in the sense of enjoying buildings, shops, restaurants and a fast-pace of life). Without stopping to ask my mum, I paid for us to both go on Africa’s longest swing bridge (knowing that my mum has a fear of these but that she has been overcoming it magnificently over the years and that if I stopped to dwell on it with her for too long, it would become too present in her mind…) In hindsight, it wasn’t the best of choices for me in fact, as opposed to her, as I hadn’t considered how I would travel back down along the bridges after reaching the highest point; my knee brace did the best it could, but at one point I did freeze in sheer pain and felt like I was unable to take another step forwards as I swang in mid-air, on a sharp descent, level with the tops of the trees. That said, it was glorious to be above the hazy pregnant sky, to be level with a beautiful yellow-beaked hornbill, and to witness a gorgeous eagle sat looking back at me from the top branches.
Following on from this, we emerged into an open space that suddenly gave me the feeling of being Alice in Wonderland. Out of nowhere, I found myself looking for the mad hatter and swear I could hear the hollering of the Queen of Hearts on the breeze…Chess anyone?
Stunning kingfishers nose-dived from the air all around us, tilapia fish appeared in the man-made pool, and coy carp swam around the artificial lilypads floating above them in the murky, oil lined waters of their pond. After picnic-ing in the shade of the wooden huts, our “tour” group decided it was high-time that they left, so after scooping up their various children they rapidly left the grounds and disappeared back in the woodland. However, we had planned to be at the centre for the best part of a whole day and we had been so very much shepherded around up til this point, we found ourselves most pleased when we were now told we could go at our pace and move about as we chose.
Fantastic…as this turned out to be the most wonderful of blessings. Via a confusion with my car-share partner, we had become a little stranded at the centre and had a few extra hours to kill. Meaning I was able to snooze in the sun, my mum was able to mooch around and get mesmerised by the birds, but most importantly, we were able to return to the trees and get lost in time, playing with some 30 Tantallus monkeys. We had seen them on the way in, and a couple had already tried to play with me, reaching out to tap my hands and touch my arm. But here we were here, some hours later, stumbling across what can only be described as the Monkey Playground. They must’ve been able to sense that we were there to play, as anytime that any other humans appeared, they quite literally vanished without trace. As soon as it went back to being just us and them, we were surrounded.
I had one cheeky fellow sitting on my back, preening my hair. I had another take great joy in hurtling himself over my head and off over the side of the fence. Mum had various ones tapping her legs and high-fiving her too. Later I even ended up with a mother and babe in arms, using me as her protection from the ‘scary’ humans that kept turning up, walking over my arms and head anytime she was unsure of what around her. It was glorious.Oh and the various Nigerian visitors that passed us on the bridge, after witnessing this, were astounded and could not quite make head nor tail as to what these two peculiar owimbo women were doing, interacting with the terrifiying creatures!Honestly though, the monkeys had hands softer than my own and I was in my very own paradise.I think I could stay there forever…
Alas we of course needed to leave at some point, if only to prevent us from melting into the stickiness of the humid air that wrapped it’s grip around us and made the coldness of UK snow and frosts feel entirely unimaginable for us both.
Further African fun for us therefore was to share time spent in various local markets, sampling some Nigerian snacks, soaking up all the different colours, patterns and combinations of the Ankara materials (akin to the Kitenge materials in Uganda) and generally getting caught up in the hectic chaos that ensues in these places. My mum got to see me in my element as I chatted with the hawkers and stallholders, as I bartered and haggled and told them off for giving me high prices that I knew were just a try-it on, and as I tested out my most recently learnt Youruba and Pidgin phrases. I adore the wooden carvings that I see across Africa, and it was most fitting that on my mum’s last full day in Nigeria, I was able to secure her a reasonably priced fold-up wooden table, not too dissimilar to a set of 3 that I have grown up using, in my grandparents’ home, back from the time when my grandfather himself had lived here. It felt like a full circle had been met, and it made my heart sing for my mum. Or should I say, “mummy”, as this is how she became referred to, by strangers and familiars alike. And respectfully, wherever we went, if I made it known that this was who she was, great care was given towards her; a sign of cultural and world-wide honouring of the family ties that we all hold, I feel.
It is a strange time for me, here in Nigeria. I am more here for practicality’s sense than for my soaring traveller’s heart. Yet I know I am here for a reason and I know it was profound both for my mother and I, that she was to come here. I sense my granddad often whilst here, I feel I am hearing his thoughts at times. And I know that although there are sonnets singing inside my mind of whisperings from lands afar, I am in the right place. Finding out why. Working hard on not asking the question. Learning in every breath. And repeatedly telling myself, farabale, dia dia. (relax, little by little).
It seems like I have very little time here, to even just sit and be still, let alone to keep up with communications or commitments, and it feels like I am often in a rush or forgetful state. I trust that balance will land before me sooner rather than later, and that I will sing inwardly a lot louder than I have been doing for the past month or so. In the meantime, I will continue to practice my Youruba, I will continue to make new friends, and I will continue to keep saying yes. Even when part of my heart is fighting a definitive No.