Our plane landed in Mohammed Murtala International Airport* (Murtala Airport), Lagos in the late afternoon. The moment I stepped into the airport arrival terminal, I felt I had travelled through a time tunnel into another world which resembled my country Malaysia in the 1970s. Everything in the arrival terminal including the chairs and furniture looked a lot like the ones I used to see when I was a child. It immediately brought back some fond childhood memories. However, I was abruptly recalled to reality when we were greeted by a wave of hot air and a peculiar smell, the smell of heavy perspiration. Due to the faulty air conditioners in the arrival terminal, the entire enclosed area was hot, humid and uncomfortable. Passengers were tired from the long haul travel and the atmosphere at the arrival terminal was anything but friendly. Such a great contrast compared to Gatwick Airport in London where we boarded our flight to Nigeria.
My husband looked worried as the company’s Nigerian staff who was assigned to fetch us from the arrival terminal was not there. I pushed his worry aside. We would be able to handle the situation without the Nigerian staff. Besides, we had travelled to many places and had been to many airports especially my previous job which required me to do some travelling.
I was incredibly wrong. As we were walking towards the immigration counters, I was greatly shock. The situation at immigration counters was chaotic and as noisy as a market. There was no proper queue to the counter. There were just groups of passengers all over the place. We finally found what seems to be a queue and started to queue but our turn never came. Other passengers kept jumping the queue and even passengers from later arrival flights were in front of us. I was amazed at the quick transformation of some passengers who earlier knew how to queue at Gatwick airport but had suddenly and completely lost their ability to do so here. These passengers were rough in their manners and were at their worst behaviour. They behaved as if it was their absolute right to jump the queue and they were merely exercising it. I was utterly disgusted with their attitude and at the same time sad to see the ugly side of human mankind. At that very moment, I could not help but felt terribly homesick and missed the friendly and polite people of Malaysia.
The immigration officers were no better. They were far from helpful and only added insult to the injury. The unfriendly and arrogant immigration officers could not be bothered with the disordered crowd.
I noticed there were some passengers who did not have to queue. They would get clearance from the immigration as soon as someone made special arrangement for them with the immigration officers. Many groups of passengers including a group of young American students who arrived after us but got clearance before us were under such arrangement. After queuing for a long time, I became increasingly worried and wonder when would we ever got out of the airport as we were constantly pushed behind by passengers who arrived later than us and by these special arrangement passengers.
Feeling helpless and unfairly treated as well as suffering from jet leg and exhaustion due to the long travel and on top of all missing my baby daughter miserably, I plunged into despair. It suddenly came upon me that I was in a totally different world with entirely different people who had completely different ways of life. I found myself utterly out of place and unable to fit into the new environment. Being polite and courteous was not part of the norm here. It was the survival of the fittest. It was a rude awakening.
My new live as an expatriate wife in Africa started with such a huge disappointment. May be it was a mistake to give up my growing career, my beloved family members and friends whose precious friendships were built over the years and most of all to leave behind my dear baby daughter in the care of my mother in search for the life of an expatriate wife in Africa!
Just as I thought I had made the biggest mistake in my life and contemplating to book the next flight back to Malaysia, our Nigerian staff arrived. With the arrival of the Nigerian staff our pathetic plight took a 180 degree turn. Within few minutes, we were being ushered to the front of the queue and got clearance from the immigration. What a sudden turn of event! And with that sudden turn of event, all my earlier despair also evaporated into thin air. I surprised myself with my fast changing state of mind.
As we were leaving the immigration counter, a Singaporean middle age businessman of Indian race who earlier queued in front of us completely lost his control and started to hurl a string of angry curses at us. He could not stand being overtaken by us. I could understand his frustration because just a moment ago, I was somehow feeling like him. However, he was as quiet as a mouse when other Nigerian passengers jump his queue and he only went berserk and displayed his anger when overtaken by us, who were after all from the same region as him, Asia. Probably he knew Malaysians were friendly people and would not pick up a silly fight with him or he simply dared not take the risk of doing the same with the Nigerians. That man was just one of the many emotionally imbalance or disturbed people whom I would encounter here in the future.
Greatly upset by the man’s absurd behaviour, I wanted to get out from the airport as soon as I could. Outside the airport premise, I was surprise to see a great multitude of people standing behind a tall wire marsh fence shouting and yelling at the people who got out from the airport premise trying getting their attention. These people were taxi drivers or relatives of the plane passengers. Only the plane passengers were allowed in the airport premise.
The company driver took us from the airport to our apartment in GRA, Lagos. Although it was a short journey and was getting dark, I could see there were many old buildings built during the British Colonial time and most of them were not painted. The street was dimly lighted with a few street lights. I was told we were lucky as most of the time there were no electricity in this densely populated city of Lagos. The electric company, Nigerian Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was not providing electricity most of the time. Later, I got to know NEPA was better known by the public as Never Enough Power Authority. Finally, we arrived at our apartment. Feeling exhausted and traumatized by the airport experience, I soon felt deep asleep after dinner.
The new beginning of my life as an expatriate wife was far-off from my expectations. Nevertheless, it had humbled me and opened my eyes to see that there were many things out there that I did not know. I must admit I did not learn my life lessons in Nigeria immediately. It was through many trials and errors, pains and tears along with time I realized I had to learn new survival skills and most importantly to put on a new attitude. With the right attitude towards life in Africa as the foundation, many life lessons were built upon it.
I first impression of Nigeria and its people was bad as a result of the unpleasant airport experience but now I can gladly say that they have become the country and the people that I love deeply and close to my heart. Although life in Lagos, Nigeria was filled with steep learning curve, frustration, heartbreaking and harshness, I would not trade it for anything in the world for the wonderful life lessons the country and its people had bestowed upon me and which had greatly enriched my life.
* The Muhammed Murtala International Airport had since undergone major renovation and upgrading.