With all the talk of Nigeria in the news at the moment I recalled a work trip I took to Lagos way back in 1996. Here are some memories.
Nigeria was calling me. I had just been engrossed in Ben Okri’s book The Famished Road, a story of a spirit child living in the harshness of Nigerian villages. Then, out of the blue, I received phone calls from two, unconnected, female Nigerian management consultants asking me to go to Lagos and run courses for their businesses. The prospect immediately intrigued me. It felt like destiny and I had to go.
I’d written an article for the Journal of Management on Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping and memory skills and its application to professional life in an era of information overload. The management consultants, Tiwa and Udoka (I have changed the names), had never met one another but had both read my article and seen the potential of Mind Mapping as a tool for Nigerian professionals. I met them at a West End Hotel. I have to admit that the fact that they were women made me feel more comfortable with the project, especially as my mother was freaking out and telling me not to go. “It’s dangerous, darling. There’s crime and violence, mugging and corruption…”
But I felt in my gut that it would be ok and I have learnt since that if it feels right then I should do it. And so I went, ignoring those who warned me of the dangers. Later I heard some horrifying stories from a telecoms client whose engineers worked in Nigeria so, I have to admit, I have never returned, despite being invited again.
To appease my Mum, my clients reassured me that I would have a body guard during my visit. Moses, as he was called, would meet me off the BA flight and would take care of me. And so I boarded the flight to Lagos with a combined sense of trepidation and excitement at the adventure ahead. I was impressed by the beautiful tall Nigerian ladies on the plane, some of whom were in African colours and turbans. I was also aware of the sheer bulk physicality of the tall Western-besuited men.
Moses did meet me, though I hadn’t been expecting him to be carrying a gun. Nor had I realized that he would be able to come literally to the gangway of the plane rather than waiting in Arrivals. But connecting with him certainly did allay some of my concerns.
Moses took my passport and told me to wait for him, which I did amongst the hubbub of colourful locals claiming massive suitcases or huge tartan bags tied together with string. Whoever inspected my passport at Passport Control did not see me, so did not check whether my passport photo matched the person entering the country. Whether money changed hands to get me through I shall never know but soon Moses returned, picked up my bag and I was in. My client met me through customs.
We drove along pot-holed roads packed with street vendors selling mangoes, oranges, bananas and vegetables. Faces peered into our car, men banged on the window. I could see the rationale for Moses’ gun. My client took off her jewellery. I was relieved that I had decided not to wear any.
Tiwa had suggested that I should stay with her rather than in a hotel. She realized I would feel safer. We drove to her house in a good suburb. It sat behind high fences and she had guards who watched the gates. I had my own comfortable room and a shower room nearby. Tiwa was very careful about what I ate. She was a sophisticated woman whose daughter was at boarding school in England and she knew it would not serve her purpose to test my stomach with Nigerian fayre. So every evening her cook prepared simple chicken and boiled potatoes. It was a sensible precaution and I stayed well for four days out of five.
The course was at a hotel in the centre of Lagos. It was not luxurious but it was comfortable. I had a large number of delegates, all locals from banks, manufacturing and service industries based in Nigeria. They were charming, intelligent and open to learning. Remembering their names was not so easy – I had once won a competition at the World Memory Championship on remembering names and faces. However, remembering long unfamiliar Nigerian names was a real challenge.
They were a very lively group with a good sense of humour, so I had to work hard to help them to focus. Looking back on the photos I am amazed that I managed it – there I was, a small, short white woman in the room with some 25 extravert Nigerians, teaching them a skill that people in the UK and Europe can find left-field. Another trait I noticed was that when I spoke of win-win in customer relationships, which was an aspect of the course, they didn’t agree with the concept. How can this be a good thing when surely one should win and the other lose when one negotiates? I tried to explain that for long-term customer relationships win-win can be more effective than win-lose but I am not sure I succeeded in getting this across.
Many of the group had degrees, MBAs and postgraduate and professional qualifications. But they complained of the inadequacy of the infrastructure in Nigeria – the potholes in the road, the fact that the telephone system continuously broke down and that there were electricity blackouts. When I asked them whether they had travelled out of the country or come to the UK most of them replied that it was too expensive for them. I was saddened at their frustration at being trapped in their own environment.
And, almost without exception, they all asked me whether I was getting closer to God. I was rather taken aback by the question, knowing, as I did, that this was a country rife with corruption, crime and violence. But I replied that I hoped I was.
Menace was in the air on the journeys to and from the hotel and I was aware of some fairly shadowy looking men on the streets and heard some stories of muggings. The traffic was terrible and the driving worse with people holding their hand on their horns almost continuously. I was glad of Tiwa and of Moses and his gun.
On the last evening the other lady client, Udoka, kindly invited me for a traditional meal at her home. We were driven there and, having had a large three-course meal in the hotel as part of the course that day, I was not hungry. We were greeted by a huge table with many silver platters laid out as for a banquet. When I asked who was joining us Udoka replied that it was just for us. My heart sank. I knew that this dinner had been created in my honour and I also knew that I was going to find it difficult to do it justice. I am not good with hot spices and my stomach is sensitive to large quantities of vegetables.
We talked politely and Udoka’s mother briefly came to meet me. I knew this was an honour and tried to conquer my exhaustion and lack of hunger and eat as much as I could. As I lifted the silver platters I found, unfamiliar offerings. There was, I think, a yellow-coloured rice stew perhaps made with goat or chicken, soup possibly made with ogbono seeds, yam, amala, greens of many types. The quantities were enormous for three people. It was kind. I did my best and moved the food around my plate and tried to look as if I was enjoying it.
And that night I was ill. And the next day, the last day of the course, I was ill and had to excuse myself several times during the day. And when I got to the airport to catch my plane home, clutching my stomach and a handbag full of cash as my fee, I said goodbye to Moses who, this time, could only take me as far as the check-in desk. After that I was on my own with my churning tummy.
It was here that I began to feel truly vulnerable. I had lost my security system and worries flicked through my head. What if the plane had a problem? What if I became seriously ill? What if we were so delayed that we had to be put up in a hotel until it was fixed? Who would I call? What would I do?
I sat in departures and occasionally ran down to the ladies. When the BA air crew walked through the lounge to board the plane I caught the eye of a stewardess and I knew she understood how anxious I was and how much I was looking forward to leaving the country now. It had been fun, I had been welcomed and entertained but now I was tired, sick, and ready to go home.
We waited a little longer and then were called onto the plane. I can still feel the relief that I stepped walked into the Jumbo and I felt the BA carpet beneath my feet. A small touch and I knew I was on my way home. With my handbag full of cash close to my chest, I watched Lagos disappear from view and was relieved when we reached European airspace.
I left with great respect for my clients, the delegates and for the good will, humour and bright minds that remained there. Today, reading about the Nigerian economy, corruption, Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls of Chibok, I think of those warm people and hope that none of their daughters has been threatened.
And I am still endeavouring to get closer to God.
Names have been changed.