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Sunday – Bloody hell, I’m going to Nigeria

January 15, 2006

Bloody hell, I’m flying to Nigeria tonight. This has all come up unexpectedly – a WaterAid photo trip planned for the past six months. Vinny, one of the web guys, and Duncan in corporate fundraising are supposed to be going with Suzanne, a professional photographer, to visit various water and sanitation projects, take photographs, do interviews, write up case studies. Last Tuesday Vinny broke his leg, so cannot travel. Last Thursday I was asked if I could go.

What a week. An emergency appointment last Friday with the private medical company we use that specialises in aid workers. I have a blood test and two armfuls of jabs in preparation for my trip. Yellow fever, rabies, Hep A, encephalitis, I lose track of how many inoculations I get, although I am provided with a medical passport I must take with me which records them all. Anti-malaria drugs are doled out to me. I leave, feeling like a proper world traveller, and make my way to the office, stopping en route at Boots to buy mosquito repellent, SP25 sun cream.

My department head warns me that I am going to see some distressing things, suggests various coping mechanisms, not least of which is to not feel overwhelmed, but to recognise that my being there will help to make a difference. He also flags something I hadn’t registered: I will be in the Muslim north and that means covering up, despite temperatures of 90 degrees plus. One of the items on my itinerary is a courtesy call on the Emir of Gumel. I do not have any of the right clothes.

The office provides me with a first aid kit, including diarrhoea medicine (I know I want to lose some weight this year, but this is not how I want to do it) and a mosquito net. The intrepid traveller mindset sets in again.

It is the wrong time of year to find the clothes I need. The sales are on, the shops desperate to off load hideous winter apparel. In desperation I buy three cotton men’s shirts. Back in Stoke Newington I luck out in a charity shop, find lightweight cotton trousers. In the second hand clothing store I buy more men’s cotton shirts. It’s not a bloody fashion shoot. I don’t care what I look like when I get there.

Monday we get a call from the company that normally sorts out all our visas. They’ve forgotten that the Nigerian high commission is closed for three days this week for Eid. Now the only chance I’ve got of getting a visa in time is if I go to the commission personally on Thursday. Normally visas take three working days, so I will have to throw myself on their mercy.

The High Commission opens at 9:30. I arrive at 9:40. The scene that greets me is pandemonium. Visa applications are supposed to be processed between 10:00 and noon, but the basement room, which also deals with passports and work permits, is already overflowing. I take a number, sit down, read my paper. When the blinds go up on the processing windows people immediately surge to the counters. Commission staff shout at them that they will be seen in turn when their numbers are called, that everyone must take a seat. This is somewhat optimistic as there are no seats left. The first number is called and I realise I have 66 places to go. The application seems to take about 20 minutes. There is no way I will be seen in the two hour period if each takes this long. I turn to a young man sitting beside me and voice this concern. No, he says (turns out he’s an old hand, a rep for one of the visa companies), they will stay open until everyone is dealt with. They just stop giving out numbers at noon. I go back to reading the paper. I’m beginning to feel as if I’ve already arrived in Nigeria. For one thing the lights keep flickering off. Whenever this happens the crowd cheers. Just like home, apparently.

Five hours later I am finally seen. I’ve got my passport and my application form and a letter from WaterAid Nigeria inviting me to visit. I’ve told colleagues that while I am prepared to beg in order to get the visa, I will draw the line at a blow job. The man behind the counter looks somewhat sympathetic which is a relief because, after five hours, even a blow job isn’t entirely out of the question. Will you be dealing with the press, he asks. I know instinctively that the correct answer is no and that is what I say. Despite potential stories I’ve already lined up. He nods, stamps a receipt and hands it to me. It is dated for tomorrow. I will get the visa. I leave feeling triumphant.

And now I’m packed, raring to go. Shame it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and my flight isn’t until 10:45 tonight.

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