Christmas nightmare: My trip home to Nigeria

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I was going home to Ibadan, Nigeria, for Christmas my senior year in college.

The plan was to go from San Francisco to Minneapolis, to Chicago, to Frankfurt to Lagos. The plane was late leaving Chicago, so I missed my connection in Frankfurt. At the transfer desk, I was told all flights to Lagos that day were fully booked but they would keep trying. If they couldn’t find a flight out that day there was one the next day out of Stockholm. I asked them to send a cable to my mother at the airport even though I knew she would never get it. I knew my mother would have gone down to Lagos from Ibadan by car the night before and stayed at the guesthouse near the airport but I didn’t know the telephone number or the address. I figured I would just have to play it by ear.


I finally got a UTA flight out of Paris at midnight that was supposed to arrive in Lagos at 6:30 the next morning. UTA was the second largest international French airline (Union des Transports Aériens). It was absorbed into Air France in 1990. I usually tried to avoid UTA because the pilots tended to get a little wild sometimes, but I had no choice. Charles de Gaulle Airport was one of the strangest airports I had ever seen. There were all these “pods” at the end of long hallways with super “modern” lounges. It took some doing to find my gate but I made it to the plane on time and settled in.


Looking around I noticed I was in the middle of several schoolgirls dressed in uniforms. They were French girls mostly between the ages of 7 and 10. They were on their way home from boarding school. I immediately bonded with them and became their unofficial “mother”. In those days the flight attendants were almost always rude to children and teenagers. They focused their time and energy on the businessmen so it was always nice to find an adult ally on the plane. My French was pretty rusty but we managed to communicate pretty well. Maybe it was the common boarding school bond.

As we approached Lagos airport, it was pitch black and I thought there was probably a blackout, which was a common occurrence. We came in for a landing and at the last possible moment the pilot pulled out of it and we circled around. He came on the loud speaker and said that there was dense fog in Lagos and he was having trouble seeing but he would make another attempt. We made three attempts and all three times he pulled out at the last minute. Finally he said we were running low on fuel and since the plane was scheduled to go to Ghana anyway we would go there and wait for the fog to lift.

As you may or may not know, there was no such thing as fog in Lagos. What the pilot saw was the Harmattan. Every year around Christmas time the winds blow south off of the Sahara desert and the air becomes thick with sand. That is what he saw — sand — not fog.

The girls around me were confused and a little worried but when they found out we were going directly to Ghana their spirits lifted. Accra was their final destination.

After spending several hours in Ghana, we returned to Lagos and landed about ten in the morning. The concept of queuing or standing in line in Nigeria was totally alien. When arriving at the Lagos airport, the procedure was to literally run for the first desk, which was Passport Control, and push to the front of the line. After reaching the desk, which was up on a platform, everyone waved his or her passport in the air trying to get the Official’s attention while standing in the stifling heat (no air conditioning, of course). People everywhere jockeyed for position, in a crushing crowd. From there, the next stop was a similar situation at the Health Control desk, to check for proper vaccinations. My brother came in once, without having had his shots, and he spent a good two hours in the back room talking his way out of it. From there the next stop was the third circle of hell: luggage. There were always a million young boys wanting to help carry the bags and of course wanting a ‘dash’ (tip) for it. There wasn’t any kind of fancy, mechanized conveyor belt. There was just a long line of steel rollers and after they were full, bags just got piled behind the counter.

I had been traveling over 24 hours with no sleep and I was feeling pretty fearless. How much worse could it get? I gathered up my bags and deflected the luggage carriers, smiled at the customs officials who white chalked my luggage, and headed for the door. As I walked through it there was the usual lewd-sounding murmuring of “taxi? taxi?” to which I gave an appalled “No!” and elbowed my way through the crowd that hovered around the gate.

As I came through, I looked around and there was my father’s driver. He saw me right away and motioned to me. After that, he chased after my mother who was on her way out of the airport. Since I had not showed up on the flight I was supposed to, she had met every plane from Europe but had decided that there was no way I would ever get on a UTA flight and thus had abandoned the idea of meeting that particular plane. Fortunately, I made it through customs before she left the airport and was able to catch her. It all turned out all right and we immediately hit the road, up country for Ibadan. It was 85 miles to Ibadan and I think the best time I ever made was four hours. If there was an accident it could take twice that.

I enjoyed my time in Africa over the holidays. It was so vibrant. I was coming from California which was a very warm, alive place but Nigeria and its tropical climate was so intense, it impressed me more than before. I felt as if I could actually see the plants growing and flowering. I was glad to be in Africa and glad to be alive.