guest blog: home, again / yomi sode
“The instructions were simple.
‘At the point of arrival, look for your representative. They will be waiting for you as you leave the plane and accompany you through immigration to avoid any wahala1. Once you go through immigration, your driver will be waiting for you outside to take you to the hotel.’
Three hours into my flight with three hours to go and I’m a mixed bag of emotions. A selection of films ready to watch, Danez Smith’s new collection of poems waiting to be read, and Ray BLK’s album loaded up for me to listen to.
My anxieties knocked the focus out of all of them.
I am in Nigeria, via an invite from British Council Nigeria to read at the 2017 Lagos International Poetry Festival alongside Theresa Lola, Ruth Sutoye & Caleb Femi in this quirky import tagged “The Londoners are Coming”, a loaded canon that carries its pros and cons.
I left Nigeria for the first time in 1992, only returning in 2013 and now, here I am again, going back home, to read poems – feeling very much like a stranger. I remember mum’s silent reaction when I told her about my booking. She never had the ‘Lawyer, Doctor, Engineer’ prophecy, but she didn’t think it would be poetry. She felt proud and worried at the same time, almost asking if she could accompany me as my bodyguard or something. Her not joining me on this trip back was for the best.
I’m at Murtala Muhammed International Airport – I couldn’t look more fresh. Ripe for the picking. Sexy trim, cross-branding Nike tracksuit with Adidas creps like a badman. Walking out of the plane, I receive my first call.
“Sorry, I’ve got some bad news, there’s no rep to meet you at the airport.”
I end the call, flip through a variety of emotions and think to myself: This is the part where you grow up. I’m on my own.
Stage one: Immigration.
Man at desk holds my passports and asks where I’m coming from like he is not holding that information in his hand. He proceeds to put his rifle down and whip his left arm behind the desk like he’s about to Milly Rock and says, “400 Naira”. I pay him two.
Stage two: Baggage claim.
“Don’t talk to anyone other than your rep and your driver.” Only issue is, I don’t know what either of them look like. The Londoner in me is projecting the loudest. For every “Hello Sah, you are welcome” swinging my way, I engage back, which translates to “I require help”. After the second time of being lured in, I learn my lesson.
Stage three: Collecting tag.
By this stage I am out of my depth and I don’t know what’s happening. Three men are now following me because I reek of utter anxiety and confusion. ‘Collecting tag’ is when staff match your luggage to your ticket and take the tag from you. I’m a fish out of water, unprepared, alone listening to the men mock me in Yoruba – grabbing my suitcase from different angles tips me over the edge. “Fi mi silẹ!2” I shout. One by one they back up.
Stage four: Exit.
The walk to the exit is less stressful. The automatic doors opened and immediately I’m faced with the heat of Nigeria. I’m home, again. Now comes the onslaught of taxi drivers hissing my way. My three BV’s are back trying their best to finesse money from me. I find my driver. We leave.
There is little room for Mr Nice Guy here. Being polite? Sure, but nice all the way? Forget about it! I remember a friend sharing a story regarding him and his cousin. He explains that after he purchased a sweet in the shop he says thank you to the man. His cousin soon responds, “why are you thanking him? He should be thanking you”. There is a level of assertiveness one has to carry with themselves in Nigeria. Many a time have I heard my mum on the phone to insurance or her local council saying, “I am not angry, this is my voice” and in several situations here, innately I find myself either locating my backbone or warming the baritone in my throat. The survival guide to not being taken for a mug comes with no manual, just learned experiences. This assertiveness is not rude, it is direct and to the point. I’m understanding that this manner in the UK is often misinterpreted, reacted to and termed “aggressive” when it comes from a Black face.
My knowledge of the Nigerian literary scene outside of the household names i.e. Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka to name a few, is slim. Aside from prepping to read poems, I am also anxious regarding the knowledge I have of Nigeria. Doing shoki3 is one thing but can I engage in the politics, the economic struggles, the talks of Nigerian writers and their contributions? I can’t claim a home I know little about, so this booking was more of an exploration for me; a relearning.
I meet, dine and share the stage with amazing people and poets that I can now proudly call ọrẹ4 i.e Chineze Onuoha, Anike Alli-Hakeem, Efe Paul Azino, Titilope Sonuga, Wana Udobang, Romeo Oriogun, Dike Chukwumerije – the list goes on. Interestingly enough, the debate of ‘page vs stage’ is greater in Nigeria. Poets are introduced as page poets or spoken word poets, producing HOT poems but slight chuckles at the thought that both worlds can meet, that art is still art irrespective of the platform in which it’s showcased. Poets for stage worry about the layout of their work on the page, poets on the page worry about how they perform on a stage. One thing I find interesting is the open forum to critique each other’s work at open mic nights. Post the reader’s performance; the floor is open to criticism or comment. The poet doesn’t respond within this process. I wonder whether this could happen in the UK? I laugh at the thought, too many egos!
If you happen to be on my instagram, you will notice that my aim is to showcase a Nigeria that is vibrant, fun and affluent. I am searching for palm trees and poundo5 that’s served in elaborate forms, and I find both. I find barbers, supermarkets, gyms, museums, Wi-Fi, clubs – I find them all (including Big Shaq, one can’t escape Big Shaq). I attend ArtX Lagos, a yearly exhibition of work by various artists from the continent. Amazing work for people to see and buy. The clubs indulge me in some shisha, I jokingly asked if they had any Jollof-flavoured. The playlist ranged from Davido, to Rick Astley, Lionel Richie and I kid you not – the Macarena!
Between the melting pot of hustle, two-hour traffic and unrelentingly busy London/NYC-like Lagos; and countryside, calm, little-to-no-horns LA like Abuja, I still get tight when surrounded by majority non-Black people within my Black landscape. I walk through the mall, sit in restaurants on odd days and can’t help but notice the amount of white and Chinese people living in Nigeria. Occupation: NGO’s, mainly. I always question the intention when I spot these things, I wonder how many carry God complexes wherever they go, lives they touch etc. I stay in two hotels; on both occasions I listen to old white men speaking to Nigerian women staff with little respect.
“Clumsy, ain’t you?”
“Shake your booty”.
I listen to one of the men say, “I live in Stockwell”, as if describing a stop on a Monopoly Board. I get in an argument with the same man because it’s easier for me to blend in Nigeria until I open my mouth and they hear me speak. The staff find themselves between many rocks and hard places. “They are white, and maybe racist, but they pay well and I have a job to keep”, the manager tells me. “I advise my staff to take acting lessons so they can learn how to smile when they feel to spit instead”.
The Londoners have arrived and I wear majority traditional clothing for the best part of my stay. I am often asked where my jeans and Nikes are, They expect me to wear England, I tell them that I wear that everyday. I’m home, this is what I want to wear. Some don’t want to see this – a reflection of themselves.
THE LONDONERS ARE COMING! I love the organisers and their creative input into the title. Initially I feel the separation, but it brings up rich discussions and room for bonding. I truly appreciated that.
A poet joked that I bring shame on poets because I seldom drink beer. I laugh, but also understand that that I am on their turf. One has to be ready for the bout to prove themselves.
I am introduced to the stage, I have the same tense feeling I had on the plane like this is it, all the hype, the audience clap and whoop and boom – NEPA strikes! The power goes. The only light that can be seen is from my tablet. What an anti-climax.
‘This is the part where you grow up.’
I feel less pressure in trying to be that poet from London from that point on. For every shade thrown at me about my Yoruba, I flung it back; even in getting the tones wrong. I out-chopped many when it came down to swallowing food and I reassured them that we listen to Afrobeats in the UK.
I started this process on my own. Had I been with Mum, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to join this community and see a Nigeria I’d want to introduce my son to.
When I arrived, I was introduced as Yomi Sode from London. As I leave, I’m known as Yomi Sode, from Ibadan.”
2 Leave me alone
3 A Nigerian dance
5 Pounded yam; a Nigerian dish made from yam flour