The bitter tears shed when I compare my trip from home to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport and from London’s Heathrow to my flat.
March 1, 2006 15 Comments
Back to the African Bullets & Honey monster after more than a month away from its ravenous hunger. I only got back to London early this morning after a month in Nairobi. Allow me to once again – because I believe I have blogged about this before – give you a glimpse of the inevitable culture shock that I always have when I compare the trip from our Nairobi home to Jomo Kenyatta Airport and then from Heathrow to my London apartment.
Nairobi 28th February:
Flight leaving at 23:25 meaning that I am meant to check in at 21.25 latest. But of course I only leave the house at 21.15 in a two-car convoy carrying friend, sister and mother – well three cars when you include my other buddy meeting us at the airport. This little posse is not only an outpouring of love; the airport trip to the middle class Kenyan, since the economic hard times of the 1990s, is like a confirmation that an escape route exists to hope, to a rebirth, a fresh start. The first time you are escorted to it, there are tears of sorrow at your departure, others of envy at the supposedly better life you will have abroad. We get to the airport at 21.45 and spend the next 15 minutes or so chatting by the curbside and saying repeated goodbyes that are interrupted by some comment. Then the hugs, the misty eyes (none by yours truly; I am a tear-less ninja except when it is time to blog when I shed with the sheer frustration caused by the AB&H monster’s cruel hold of me) and the final shouted goodbyes. Naturally, being the African-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder, I hate flying British Airways and avoid it whenever I can. Not this time though, revolutionary principles must after all yield to cheap internet fares. Imagine my surprise – and disappointment – when with my teeth bared to attack any sign of British condescension, the manager instead decides to upgrade me to premium economy. Next stop: the friendly immigration officer who admonishes me not to stay ‘out there’ too long. After a cup of java coffee and a slice of carrot cake, I move to my seat next to a development consultant who (I swear this) spends the eight hours of the flight reading a long, hair-pullingly boring development report. He must be worth every penny, that poor SOB. But this is a story for another day…
London 1st March:
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain, thank you for flying British Airways.’
‘London today is quite cold, under zero degrees.’
‘We hope you have enjoyed our service and that you will enjoy your stay (you poor suckers hahahahahahaha…)’
THE IMMIGRATION INTERVIEW:
‘Where are you from?’ (peering intently at old stamps and visas. You are one of them: the illegal immigrant, the African with a behind crammed with ecstasy…or at least cocaine or heroin.)
‘What do you do here?’
‘I am a student’
‘What? Did you say war, like fighting?’
‘Yes, I study how to yank out immigration eyeballs with the peace sign…I bet you always thought the sign (as in ‘peace dude’) was … like, um, peaceful. Right? Well let me tell you something you poor, 5.30AM African harassing, passport caressing, squinty eyed, nose picking-with finger-that-then-touches-my-passport-photo-bureaucrat, the peace sign is kung fu for the eye-stab move. Bet you didn’t know that. And yes, I have no intention of remaining in your country forever when there is a three-car convoy filled with beery people waiting to pick me up at JKA.’
I wish that is what I had said because the European IMMIGRATION INTERVIEW is an absurd, hypocrisy by a west that speaks the talk of open boundaries to goods and capital when it cannot stand the same for people. The 21st century meeting point between African Livingstones and Lugards and Europe’s petty gate-keeping chiefs. Just beyond the immigration officer’s shoulder are little offices which if you ever have the misfortune of visiting always have a scared looking African seated patiently awaiting some grim fate. You don’t make conversation since it is clear to both of you that the other is a criminal and must be consorted with. But I digress.
‘How long were you away?’
‘Too briefly, I wish it had been forever.’
‘When does your doctoral course end?’
‘When the sun burns itself out; when the hens come home to roost; when the Fat Woman sings; just a moment before the grim reaper strikes me down; (sobbing) why must you ask such hurtful questions?’
Illegal Nigerian Taxi Driver at Arrivals Terminal:
‘Taxi? Looking for taxi?’ (whispered with averted gaze that immediately pulls you into the kind of conspiracy that the IMMIGRATION OFFICER suspected you of being mixed up in.)
‘Yes. I want to go to Elephant and Castle. How much will it be?’
‘Forty pounds alone, thirty pounds if you wait for me to pick up another passenger.’
(I realise why this negotiation always discomfits me: it feels like I am a john trying to pick up a prostitute so – not that I would know what that is all about by the way.)
As I stand trying to decide whether this is a better deal than lugging two large suitcases up and down stairways, seating for an hour in a cold tube train and the ten minutes walk from the station to my door, another taxi driver sidles up to me, trying not to be noticed by the first one who is shouting into his mobile phone.
‘Where are you going?’ he asks ‘I will be cheap, cheap.’
‘Elephant and Castle’
‘Ok, thirty five pounds. We go?’
‘Sure, but only for thirty’
‘Fine, fine. Go to that elevator there and I will meet you inside. Don’t tell him that you are coming with me.’
Struck by guilt, reeling from the cold, bumping shoulders with angry looking people who never meet your eye and lugging my massive bags, I limp after him to the taxi. A traitor and a cheat within 30 minutes of getting to London, and feeling what a john must feel: tawdry, embarrassed and broke.
The ride takes an hour in traffic and I read a newspaper whose headline announces that the European Union has just introduced legislation that kids as old as eleven will have to be in car safety seats or fines of upto £500 can be levied on the driver. I have arrived. Back to the fire.