About 30 years ago, I slept at the Murtala Muhammed Airport for four days.
No, I was not a homeless vagabond. I had bought the Nigeria Airways ticket to fly to the United States for a one-year sabbatical leave.
But when I arrived at the airport, I realized that my ticket was not honored, though I had bought it legitimately.
Whenever a plane was about to leave Lagos for New York, the NA officials posted a manifest list, and my name was not there.
They would ask me to wait for the next list. This drama of “Your name is not yet listed, wait for the next manifest list” continued for four days.
I couldn’t leave the airport and return home because I lived in Ile Ife, and had bid my people goodbye for one year. They all expected I would be in NY already.
I was therefore forced to sleep by the door of the NA office at the airport, waiting for the release of the manifest list with my name on it.
I was not alone. There were hundreds of stranded passengers like me there—men, women, young, old, tall, short, thin fat—all sorts of people.
The Murtala Mohamed Airport was different then than what we have now. There were no security officers. People drifted in and out in their hundreds. It was rowdy. There was no order of any sort.
Food hawkers milled among the crowd of the stranded passengers like me, selling sandwiches, puff-puff, moin-moin, gala, meat pie, hamburgers, even rice and dodo. People hawked sodas such as Cocacola, Fanta, Sprite and malt drinks.
The interior of the airport was packed like the Oyingbo market. There were also pickpockets and other fraudsters pulling fast tricks on unsuspecting victims.
I was hesitant to buy anything. I had changed all my naira to dollars at the rate of one dollar to three naira. But if I wanted to change my dollar back to naira, I could only collect ONE NAIRA FOR MY DOLLAR at the airport, which would be a loss.
I was desperate when I got hungry. But someone was willing to give me two naira for a dollar, so I changed two dollars. I bought some moin-moin and coke.
The guys who helped me to change my money said I had no hope of traveling unless I was willing to bribe someone.
I was adamant. I wasn’t going to bribe anybody. It was my right to fly out, after all, I had paid for my ticket.
By day four, I lost hope of traveling out. I used my handbag as my pillow and reclined on the floor, to take a nap.
The young woman who slept a couple of feet away from me was also napping, snoring loudly. I asked her earlier, and she said she had been there for almost a week.
She said she was ready at that point to accept the offer of a Nigeria Airways official who wanted sex in exchange for helping her to get on the manifest list.
For how long I had been asleep I couldn’t tell, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes. It was Segun Odegbami, the famous international soccer star, who played for the Green Eagles. I thought I was dreaming.
I had met him through a friend, Tunde Fagbenle, and we had shared drinks at Fagbenle’s house in Lagos a couple of times.
I couldn’t refer to him as my friend, and I didn’t even know he would recognize me or remember my name. I was a fat nobody next to a big star like him, someone for whom Ebenezer Obey had waxed an album, with the chorus, “It is a gooooal, Odegbami,” a bestselling song throughout Nigeria.
When I opened my eyes and it was him, I wanted to close my eyes back, thinking I was just dreaming.
But he spoke to me. “Moyo, what are you doing on the floor here?”
I quickly sat up, wiped my eyes, and smiled at him. I narrated my story.
He shook his head, and said with a sigh, “That’s Nigeria Airways for you. I came to see someone off to London, and as I was leaving I happened to see you.”
“Na so we see am o,” I told him.
“Where is your ticket?”
I dipped my hand inside the pocket of my agbada, made out of new Ankara textiles. It had doubled as my daywear and my pajamas for four days. I retrieved the ticket and gave it to him.
He said, “Excuse me for a minute. Let me go and talk with them.”
Then he went inside the Nigeria Airways office, and within minutes he was back, with two young men.
“Moyo, are you ready to go now,” Odegbami said, “because a flight is leaving in about fifteen minutes.”
I didn’t need to say yes. My eyes said it all.
The two young men picked up my luggage. Odegbami gave me a hug and wished me bon voyage.
The two young men led the way with my luggage—just a suitcase and my hand luggage. They took me to the back of the airport, and there was a Peugeot 505 waiting for us.
They loaded my luggage in the boot and drove me down the tarmac to the huge aircraft about half a mile away.
From a persona non grata, I instantly transformed into a VIP, driven on the tarmac like a departing president.
Nobody checked my luggage for any contraband. Everything was loaded directly on the plane and I was given the luggage tags.
I walked to my seat and sank into it. I couldn’t help but notice that the plane was less than half full.
There were empty seats everywhere when the plane took off. Yet, there were scores of people waiting at the airport, denied their right to fly, after paying their fares.
I remembered the poor woman snoring next to me on the floor at the airport. Tears began to fall from my eyes.
“If they ever see me again in that godforsaken country,” I swore silently, “they should cut off my head.”
Moyo Okediji is Art History Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, USA.
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