My heart jumps into my tummy. I look around. Everyone on board seems unbothered except these two innocent kids, sitting next to me with their mom, probably in her forties. They grip her hands – one of the boys so uneasy that he throws-up. A few minutes ago, the captain had made the regular announcements, and added, “Please fasten your seatbelts, the airplane will take off in approximately ten minutes; once again, you are welcome onboard. Thank you.”
13 August 2017: It is a day I have been waiting for like an expectant mother. I’m on board a flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Djougou Airport in the Benin Republic in West Africa. No layover-time. Immigration officers are hovering around the airport, like sniffing dogs. Different officers asking the same questions in different ways. Finally, I’m done with them. Lucky me! My seat is just next to the window. I imagine how beautiful the sight of the universe would be through a bird’s eye view.
Five rows behind me is Hasan, who I met at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. He happens to be an international student like me. He got admitted to Texas A&M University and is coming to the United States for the first time. At intervals, he walks up and says to me in Nigerian broken English:
“O boy, how far?”
This is a regular slang that asks how you are doing rather than the distance to a place.
“No bad,” I reply, implying everything is all right.
Of course, I know he wants to hear more than just that, but I’m not much of a talker. When I can’t come up with anything else, I ask him questions about his girlfriend who was at the airport with his family to bid him farewell as he embarked on his trip to the land of the Yankees. He had a thousand words to say about her.
Six thousand feet above sea level.
My goodness! It’s 2 am West African time. We’ve flown five hours non-stop and still, about five more hours to go. I smile as I think of my mom. She must have said the rosary a million times for the safety of my journey. Perhaps, my entire family joined her. Random thoughts come to my mind. I pull my phone, and the first thing to pop up is the picture of my father’s compound in my hometown of Ngwoma Obube. I took this picture about a month ago for no specific reason. Right now, it’s no longer just a picture. It’s a priceless piece of virtual reality.
I never had the time before now to notice all details in this picture. The nicely trimmed isora flowers are like a fence in the front of the compound, giving it a calm shield from the prying eyes of passersby. The entire compound is about 4500 square-meters and my father’s 1970’s brick bungalow is right in the center. Two other houses, both under construction, are positioned left and right of my father’s home. Beautiful. I gaze at the picture more keenly and whisper to myself: “This is the house that built me.”
I recall how I would meet my friends in the market square on holiday evenings and talk about some “good-nothings” over a well extracted African palm wine. I know I will miss this. The market square in Ngwoma Obube is always buzzing with activity, especially on Sunday evenings, when folks gather in the square in the center of the village. While a group of only women drinking beer and smoking openly is unusual, it is common to see a mix of men and women at a table drinking and having a good time together.
Ngwoma, “The City Home” as it is known in my country, is a small town with a big mind. Legend has it that a man named “Ngwoma” from which the community descended was the youngest and strongest of his brothers. He was affluent. No wonder he settled close to the river to aid his farming business. The community is not wanting in talent. Just for the record: Ngwoma is located in the state of Imo, which was created on February 3, 1976 out of the old East Central State of Nigeria. This was made possible by the influence of a then-prominent Nigerian politician, Late Chief S.E. Onukogu, who also happened to be the traditional ruler of the community at that time.
With about 300 inhabitants. Ngwoma is separated from the next village (Emii) by the Onumurukwa River, which forms a border between the two communities. In the good old days, virtually everyone drank from this river without having to clean and filter the water. It was said to have natural purity and was believed to have divine healing powers. Growing up in this setting automatically makes you a good swimmer, but I was especially good. “Shark in the river” is a title I earned from my peers because of my swimming prowess.
I feel blessed to a member this community.
“Is this your first time in the United States?” the customs official asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
Where are you going to precisely? Who is picking you up? The questions go on and on.
At last! I am cleared at the port of entry. I grab my luggage, and head straight to the arrival hall. As I walk, I look up and read a signboard with the words: “Welcome to Newark International Airport.”
Oh! My phone won’t connect to the internet. How do I reach my uncle Ernest? He promised to be here on time, so I don’t feel stranded on my arrival. The craziest thing is that everyone I see seems to be talking and moving very fast. Surprisingly, he creeps up on me from behind. Thank goodness!
“Uncle Ernest!” I yell in excitement.
“Congratulations and welcome to United States, Kizito,’’ he says.