London life/Lagos life
With all honesty I truly appreciate all my parents did for me and my little brother (who eventually came along) when we lived abroad. I do realize that a lot of my intellectual growth and ability to understand my surroundings came from the exposure I had when I was young. Minimal in comparison to many other kids my age, but adequate enough that I knew what was right from wrong on my own without really needing anybody to explain why some things were socially incorrect and socially acceptable.
Broad water farm estate in Tottenham, London was where we lived. It’s the kind of estate that makes one feel like a statistic. Just one of the almost 20 thousand flats, considered low cost housing. Can’t be too sure if there were that many flats but one thing I do know is there were at least 20 flats per floor in a 10 floor building, with about 10 other buildings with varying numbers of floors. And I doubt there was ever really an empty flat.
My mother eventually told me when I grew older that she was on a waiting list for the place we lived for over 6 months. Apparently, the focus of the town council (or local government) was to provide working , single mothers with housing. There were therefore very few spaces to be found after the council had provided the homes for that particular demographic.
What else can I remember?
It was always freezing in London! Or wet as a dogs nose!
Unlike Lagos, there were very few reasons to buy light clothing. In fact, even if you did get to buy any new clothes, you probably couldn’t show it off, since there was almost always a coat or long jacket or anorak on top of it.
My favorite coat actually earned me a nickname. It was long, very red and had a hood on it with shiny buttons. It was probably inevitable that I be called red riding hood. Jokes like, “aren’t you afraid of the wolf in that coat?” and “here comes the big bad wolf boo!”, just came from every kid in school and there was just never anything I could do about it.
Why not just ask my parents for a new coat? Why should I? There wasn’t anything wrong with this one. Well, that’s if u didn’t count a medium sized iron burn at the bottom back flap. Apart from that, it kept me warm and had a nice little hook that fit on my own clothes hook at school.
Contrary to what most kids say at that age, I loved school most of the time. It was so interesting to be around so many different cultures of the other kids in my classes. My teachers were nice. Well, nice ENOUGH I guess. There was always something new to read, color, draw, spell, talk about…
It’s so hard to describe how much emotion that runs through me when I think of what a sweet and sour childhood I had in Broad-Water Farm Infant And Junior School.
“TEE-TEE, come away from the bushes …quickly dear…you know your not supposed to be picking berries during play time…go try the climbing frame or a skipping rope,” Mrs Jenny Smith, would warn.
Not that it did any good. During the summer days there were always ripe blackberry bushes on the edge of the school grounds. Some increadibly juicy, bright red and deep purple berries, so rare, that I actually never saw them at the green grocers (a shop that only sells fruit and vegetables).
Instinctively, I grabbed three or four more berries and stuffed them in my trouser pockets. “Yes miss, ” I chanted before running off towards tuck shop. The only place I could really ever spend my pocket money (which wasn’t ever really that much).
In fact I never really got any pocket money. I was in habit of checking the bottom of the sofas at home, usually full of great amounts of change from pockets of visitors and my parents. In fact sometimes id stay up late until after a guest had just left and sneak into the living-room just to check if anything was caught in the thieving sofas grasp.
So I lined up behind the shortest queue behind the Jelly Beans and mini packs of Quavers, instinctively pulling down on my favorite sweater sleaves. Gosh it was chilly that day.
What I didn’t realize was that I had also lined up behind the class bully. Andrew. He wasn’t even as tall as I was, but for some reason he just liked to pick on me at a slightest chance. This time I was just in the wrong place…at a very wrong time.
The tuck shop line was very long at this time of the day and there were a limited amount of crisps left on the shelf. I wanted those. And so did everybody else.
“GET A MOVE ON THEN, THE CRISPS ARE ALMOST GONE. I DON’T WANT TO HIT PUBERTY HERE YOU KNOW! ” Some ghastly person announced. The response to that was obvious. Absolute chaos!
I was slowly getting crushed between grubby fingers kids all gunning for that last packet if crisps. I suddenly knew how sardines felt when they were being canned. I probably had three or four heels, stepping on each of my feet and I suddenly couldn’t move.
I was suddenly shoved backwards by someone who was apparently very strong. “DON’T PUSH ME!” I heard , as the wind was pushed out of me.
“I didn’t! ” squeaked my small, breathless voice. Its actually very possible that he didn’t here me. Although, it’s more likely that his small Jamaican frame didn’t even bother to listen. Next thing I knew, there were “patwa” words of abuse flying through the air and my small sense of survival working fast. I tried to make a quick getaway before he threw stones at me, or WORSE, spat at me. The crisps could always wait till tomorrow.
I was almost out of the rushing crowd of kids, waving out their paper money at the two overwhelmed shopkeepers. I eventually looked bac to see Andrew still quite far away from me, not even making any move to come closer. His look was smug and crafty. Little did I know that Andrew didn’t even need to run after me, as he easily could have.
I suddenly felt just abit colder than usual. What could that boy be up to? I didn’t slow my pace and honestly felt a chill go up and down my spine. I looked back one more time, still not stopping but noticing some other kids smirking at me. Some were beginning to giggle and point at me.
I looked down, something seemed to be trailing after me… I looked at what Andrew was holding. A pink piece of string, that was surprisingly bright against his dirty fingers!
My sweater! No wonder I felt cold! My woolen sweater sleave had been pulled apart by the beast! The long string of wool that used to be my sweater, was currently being pulled by his dirty fingers, further reducing what was left of the sweater, line by line to a pile of wool.
A whole sleave was gone in ten seconds. By the time his friends joined in I was in half a sweater in the next 15.
”Stoppit Andrew! Why are you always so MEAN? ”, I yell. He and is cronies just laughed their heads off.
“MISS SMITH! MISS SMITH! LOOK WHAT ANDREW DID TO MY SWEATER” I yelled. Miss Smith swiftly walked around the crowd to where I was. Then she looked at Andrew, who had dropped the wool and was facing front in the miraculously straight, calm queue at the tuck shop.
“Andrew is this true? ” she asked, more out of protocol, than for real need of an answer.
“Miss I didn’t do nothing. Why does everyone blame me when something happens! Its not my fault if she was wearing a cheap Marks and Spencer’s!“, he moaned seconds later. Drawling the words “Marks and Spencer’s” as though my parents had shopped for my sweater at a flea market or Salvation Army.
Miss Smith gave me a pitiful look, most likely torn between which “British style” punishment should be given to such a child, for such an un orthodox offence. ”buckle up Tee Tee” she said to me, with a weak smile. And took my hand to guide me away from the territory. “two weeks detention Andrew, and you will face the wall through out the next class!”
Nice! This was the worst punishment ever heard of at our school.
For this reason, I had no idea what punishment was, until I got to Lagos.
* * * *
It was SO hot!
I felt like I had just finished running a race…I could hardly catch my breath. Wait a minute, what breath? I’m talking as if the air actually felt cool enough to breath in. I don’t think I had ever sweat like this before. My clothes were clinging to my skin like someone had thrown a bucket of water at me.
I looked around my surroundings felt harsh and tense. Everyone else at the airport seemed to be comfortable with the sweat and dust and lord the smell!
I stepped carefully out of the Muritala Mohammed Airport with hope that maybe there was just something wrong with the ventilation system. This was because I had just learned a new word. Or should I say an acronym? Anyhow, this word was used about 3 times during our 45 minute wait for our luggage. We stood at a pair of double doors for about 10 minutes, since it was apparently an automatic door, that wasn’t working because of something called N.E.P.A. When the doors finally opened there a lot of hissing in the air and murmurs from other disembarked passengers.
“WELCOME TO NIGERIA.!!”
I was intrigued by this word NEPA. Little did I know that I would soon become as frustrated by what they represented, as every other person who has experienced the frequent loss of power in Nigeria. I had no idea that the electricity I had taken for granted in the UK, was rationed without generosity in Lagos. It has in fact become on of the ways citizens plan their evenings.
For instance, if for any reason you did not use the electricity while you had it, to iron your school uniform or work clothes, or blend pepper for the stew, just accept that you would wear rumpled clothes and eat rice and palm oil that night.
The drive for the airport was nerve racking at best. Never in my entire life, had I seen so many black people in one place and any point I time. The taxi smelt of something foul, I discovered later that it was dried fish or eja kika, that had most likely been the most previous passengers of the vehicle. So my already stifled breathing had become almost asthmatic. I began to hyper ventilate, in my nervousness. So I tried to focus on something else.
While we were at the airport, my dad came up to us with his elder sister (my aunt) to welcome us. Despite the cold looks my mum and dad gave each other, he hugged my brother and I in tears. I had only ever seen my dad cry when we heard his mother (my grandmother), had passed. He wept loudly and said some things in Yoruba that I have never fully understood, till date. He looked larger, not as slim and fit as he was when I last saw him. He was much darker and his voice was not as sharp as it had been. In a word, dull is what he seemed.
Mama Gbenga was our first host. The eldest sibling of the family, she was the motherly sort, with 4 grown kids of her own, with youngest in secondary school. They lived in a place called Onike in Yaba. It was quite a drive through Lagos streets. The cab rattled at every pothole and the radio blared out some Fuji like music. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the music sounded like static, or the static was interfering with the sound. Something that looked like an old metal hanger had been used as an antenna, and also contributed to the constant rattle that was the streets of Lagos. And it didn’t really end when we got the ground floor flat.
The place looked cozy but small. Cramped with all sorts of furniture that had no real tones or theme one could identify. Dust catchers, ornaments, books and a fragile looking TV stand, are all I can really remember right now. But then here was a very noisy fan that seemed to be circulating humid air all over the main living room. Still sleepy and uncomfortable, I sat on the nearest sofa, pulled my brother close, and curled up next to him and fell into an unsettled sleep that was mostly filled with episodic dreams and slight consciousness of people around the flat trying to haul our mangled luggage into the place. I can the last thought that went through my mind, before I slept off. Would I ever see my beloved London again? Would I ever get used to this heat and noise and discomforting smell of Lagos?