Marriages and children were to be preserved

Adapted from a piece written for Trevor Clark to include in his anthology ‘Was it only yesterday: the last generation of Nigeria’s Turawa’. Trevor asked me to summarise in 50 words what it meant to be a child in the colonial days, an impossible challenge.


Marriages and children were to be preserved, marriages from lengthy separations, children from the white kids’ grave.

Offspring, once bred, could be parked care of great-aunt, or home for colonial orphans.

Then there was change, heat dust and dysentery were the welcome price for family reunion, until…until it was time for a seven-year-old to grow up.

At home, pink gins were served among wicker chairs and evening chatter. But boarding school meant frozen milk, icy dorms, chilblains and the cut of the cane. Weekly letters sustained the sentence.

At last…time-out. There was elation at the airport, ‘Passengers for Tripoli, Kano, Lagos and Accra – follow the blue lights.’

In the bush on tour, beneath the Milky Way, I was only a raffia fence from the roar of a lion. One day, at Government House, father became ‘His Excellency’, and mother was a glimpse of long white gloves and the swish of satin as she rushed to meet guests.

My friends were the servants, Ali and Alkali: they told me magical stories, taught me pidgin and Hausa. Now all is distant memories, books, pictures, photos, dusty files and letters from illustrious visitors.

Lagos touchdown, 3rd May 2010

Curiously, it was after a perfect touch-down by the British Airways 747 that the rush to the overhead lockers began. This was despite the cabin steward’s emphatic request to remain seated.  First one passenger had stood up and then others quickly followed as hand baggage and clothing were hurriedly pulled down and children were gathered. Down the aisle, between some curtains, I glimpsed families in the vibrant colours and patterns of traditional Nigerian dress as yet more passengers prepared to leave from the cabin ahead. Once the initial chaos had subsided, my neighbour folded away the laptop and papers that had occupied her for much the flight and leaned across, smiling broadly. ‘We Nigerians  must always be prepared’. She was amused by my bewilderment. ‘The first person to hurry may know something, so we must hurry too.’ As it turned out there was no emergency, unless it was the prospect of getting through the notorious customs and immigration at Murtala Muhammad International – and that was an obstacle course for which I was well prepared to wait.

Once the aircraft finally came to rest and the engines were shut down the few remaining passengers began to stir. It had been a long time since I had last stood on Nigerian soil. In fact the interval between this and my last visit would coincide almost exactly with Nigeria’s 50 years as an independent country. I had left as a young teenager, ready to move on to my own new world and to put those early years behind me.  Within a few years  I had married and begun a career in medicine before later travelling to many other parts of the world. Now, a few decades on,  there was a grown up family of our own, some of whom were living once again in Nigeria. They had offered me accommodation in Lagos and local knowledge and contacts in the North, often a dangerous place to visit. it made for a unique opportunity to discover something of contemporary Nigeria. But now I also wanted to try to understand the past, the story of my own early life and that of my parents.

As I slowly collected my belongings I reflected on the class system of modern air travel. Fifty years ago it had been a single tourist class for the ‘milk runs’, the special flights for children travelling out on holiday from UK boarding schools.  Our parents had been administrators, teachers, doctors, vets, forestry officers and engineers. They had all been dedicated to the cause of Nigerian independence in an empire very much at sunset. Now after half a century, the routine of multiple airline classes seemed to match the extravagance and waste of the modern world. In any case the London-Lagos route is said to be the world’s most expensive in terms of pounds sterling per mile travelled, so in that sense it’s really all luxury travel.

There were still signs of repose as we filed out of our cabin in ‘world traveller plus’. In the subdued lighting of ‘world club class’, rugs and pillows were scattered, blinds were still closed and seats were reclined to the horizontal. They had travelled in some comfort. Meanwhile, my friend with the laptop had already discovered why I was visiting Nigeria. ‘This is where the diplomats and business executives travel,’ she was eager to tell me. ‘Also there are people who have been in hospital in the UK – and last week we had loads of teenagers on Easter holiday from their boarding schools.’ Now that was an irony of the new age,  as several of these Nigerian kids would have been pupils at my old school.  ‘There are even more of them travelling in first class,’ she added. First class and  the upper deck, the ulitmate comfort zone, were discreetly and even more luxuriously out of sight.

The  man ahead of me  was a natty dresser – chinos, blue shirt, linen jacket, tablet computer in hand. He had been listening and joined the conversation.’ I’ve been away a long time too – I’m British-Nigerian,’ he explained. ‘I stupidly put ‘journalist’ on my visa application and its taken months to process – terrible.’ But then, as we approached the main exit of the aircraft, he abruptly  turned around to face all the remaining passengers. ‘Welcome to Nigeria,’ he announced with a broad smile. ‘The most difficult country in the world to enter.’