Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed international airport pretty much runs like a little city or an African state. It’s a man eat man society. With the right attitude and footing – anyone can enter Murtala airport even if you are not traveling. I also figured a few weeks ago that you could enter Nigeria through Murtala airport without all your travel documents. I had forgotten my Yellow Fever card – and NO! I didn’t pay a bribe – I was genuinely apologetic and they let me go. Inside Murtala airport, you don’t always get the carts to pull your luggage for free – sometimes you have to pay for it. In other words, the rules at Murtala Muhammed international airport are flexible and can be broken.
Last week, Gidi Fest (where I have been working as their publicist for East Africa) sent me to the airport to pick a visiting artiste, who I ended up missing (story for another day) but a lot more happened that left me thinking about the power of an African woman or the mere image of one.
Before leaving for the airport, I am anxious as to what I am going to tell the airport officials to let me inside the Arrivals area because even though I am not supposed to enter that section, I will have to enter to meet the artiste. I know they can allow me in. I still don’t have the contact of the airport official handling the artistes from inside so I have to figure something out. While still at home calculating my moves before heading out, my friend Abi warns, “Be careful! Those officials are very notorious! For you – just hold your passport when you reach the Arrivals and insist that you just arrived.” I have already started speaking silently to myself just how I will do it when I arrive. Abi’s mum says, “No – you don’t have to lie! Just hold your passport and say the truth when you get there. Tell them you arrived in Lagos a few days ago and would like to get into the airport to get airtime for your MTN Line.” Ok that sounds effortless, I will try that, but “Mum it’s still a lie. I am not going to the airport to buy airtime” – I think to myself.
Abi’s Dad escorts me to the airport just to make sure he has handled the logistics of where Abi’s driver will drop and pick me. Yes! He’s come just for that, it can get crazy sometimes. “Anyiko, see this exact area? When you finish, call the driver to come pick you and come stand right here. Ok?” And with that he leaves us. I am now all by myself. It’s about 11.05 a.m. The plane lands at 11.25 a.m. I am happy that the atmosphere outside the airport is still as calm as on the day I arrived.
Read about my arrival here: Of Nairas, Naija Man and Awilo Longomba – Back to Lagos
Today the currency-exchange hawkers carrying dirty bills along the airport’s pathways aren’t as aggressive as usual but they still ask, “Madam want some Nairas or Dollar Change?”
There should only be one way out at the Arrivals terminal but when I arrive I see a crowd of people trying to force themselves into the Arrivals area. While some give up and leave, others seem to be presenting cases as to why they should be allowed in. The officers are quite strict. They are waving their hands in distress and yelling at the crowd to clear the area. I am standing at the end of the crowd, clutching onto my passport while replaying the stories we created in my head when I hear, “African woman! African woman! Move! Let her in!”
Two men quickly push me through the crowd and grab my handbag pushing it into the machine detector. I am shocked at the treatment and think that the men are trying to steal my laptop that is inside the bag. When they hand over my handbag on the other side, I am quick to peep in to make sure everything is intact. Everything is intact. They haven’t stolen anything. The two men approach me and one of them asks, “Are you just arriving or are you here to pick someone?” How wonderful! I don’t even have to lie. They lead me towards a café to sit down, after which they even check for me the status of the KQ flight. They are back to inform me that the plane just landed. As we start to converse, these men identify themselves as airport officials. They want to know my name, where I am from and have my number. One of the officer mutters to me in a matter-of-fact tone: “This African hair got you in.”
I felt special to have been accorded that kind of treatment only because of my African hair. That had me thinking a lot. It’s the little things like kinky African hair and head wraps or big things like African achievement, policies and the evils of corruption in governments that remind us of a strong Pan-Africanist spirit that exists between us all. This doesn’t necessarily reflect in our own countries on a day-to-day basis, as we sometimes feel that our triumphs and challenges are singular to our backgrounds unbeknownst to the fact that this is Africa and we are Africa. It’s the food of thought I’d still be offering, whether or not the thing on my head was big or short hair and wrapped in a big Ankara cloth.