Cliff Missen

|| Our Arrival in Kano ||

October 17th, 1998

We’ve been here for two weeks and already it’s starting to feel like home. Yesterday I drove home from work, contemplating a vexing computer problem, and soon found myself in our driveway without once marveling at the beauty of Jos or cringing at the recklessness of the life along the road...

Our introduction to Nigeria was stark and wonderful. We flew into Kano on KLM airlines. Compared to Northwest’s cross-Atlantic accommodations, KLM’s planes were spacious and the flight crew cheerful and generous. Michael and Jacob spent 15 minutes in the pilot’s cabin, watching the great dunes of the Sahara roll by below and we plied them with yogurt and water in our last minutes of life in a Western venue. As we descended onto the airstrip, we were met by a uniquely African retinue of men lugging machetes, women donning head loads, and children with bundles of stick atop their heads standing alongside the runway. Shielding their eyes from the sun’s glare, they watched as the great silver bird, whose mechanisms and interiors they would never understand, roared its triumph over the air.

Minutes later we emerged from our cocoon of modernity into the bright African sunlight. Given, my experience in Liberia, my lungs and senses were ready for the blast of heady scents and heavy air. I watched the boys to see their reaction. They had raced from the plane ahead of us and when we caught up to them, standing at the open door atop the stairway, they were surveying the perimeter with the keen expectation of a child at the entrance to a theme park. They were unfettered by the assault on their senses. I knew then: we were in the right place at the right time. We pleaded with them to stay close to us and to hold onto their bags at all costs.

Outside, the airport was littered with broken airships, rusting conveyances, and buildings with faded paint and broken edges. Inside, the terminal was dark and noisy. The concrete walls were dinghy and smoke stained. The ceiling was low, dark, and falling apart in many places. Single florescent bulbs burned, almost vainly, from a half dozen corners. One ceiling fan amongst dozens turned at a ferocious speed. The windows onto the airstrip had long since lost their transparency to the smoke, dust, and insect-ladened spider webs. We drew the kids close and begged them not to wander.

Yet the building contained a vibrancy I find difficult to locate outside of Africa. The disembarking passengers pressed into a noisy clutch against the single plywood and steel barred immigration booth. Men and women in several types of uniforms wandered around us asking to see our papers and passing our credentials forward. In the clamor I distinctly heard a half dozen languages, mostly spoken in exaggerated volume and pitch. Over the waist high wooden wall that separated the passengers from their greeters, people wailed welcomes, urged instructions for expediting customs, or called full-throatedly for their party. I saw two people holding signs that read, "Missen." One was a tall, white, elderly, almost mid-Westernly man. The other a smallish, black, intense Nigerian. The white man stood aloof and confident, holding his sign high and looking above and beyond the writhing crowd. The Nigerian scanned the scattering of tall, white noisy Europeans fiercely. His eyes met mine and his face broke into a radiant smile before he bent into a surprising bow. I took his extended hand and we greeted each other effusively. He was from the university and others were watching for the packages, he said. He then motioned back to the immigration queue and urged me to move through it quickly. I caught the eye of the white man. He smiled warmly and gave a small, understated nod. I returned to the melee.

Carolyn was standing alone with all of our carry-on bags piled around her. I looked for the boys and found them in a far corner near the opaque light from the window, bent animatedly over the corpse of a large green grasshopper, kicking it into action with the tips of their shoes.

A boy’s world is complete with a compatriot and a dead bug.

We had brought 34 large boxes – eight of which were our personal belongings and the rest filled with computers, software, and books.

When the boxes started pouring into the baggage claim area the half dozen representatives from the University of Jos sprung into action. Some worked with the baggage handlers to insure that our boxes were stacked somewhat carefully into a single pile. We counted and recounted boxes. The simple math seemed to stump everyone.

The white man who greeted us introduced himself. He was with a local mission group and his primary responsibility was assisting travelers with negotiating their way past customs. He was calm and amiable and entirely comfortable in the hubbub. No one, it seemed, paid him much attention.

The other expeditors attached themselves to various customs agents. In every corner, it seems, I saw a customs agent and an expeditor negotiating before a curious flock of baggage handlers, junior customs agents, and onlookers. Occasionally one agent would approach another and, like a wrestling tag team, they would switch expeditors and restart negotiations. Every so often one of the junior officers would detach from his or her group and approach me in search of documents or receipts which had long ago been handed over to one customs agent or another. At one point we were asked to open a couple of boxes for inspection. Styrofoam peanuts scattered across the floor as the customs agent dug into the first box. She pulled the first object out of its plastic wrapper. It was a used 5.25-inch floppy disk drive. She held it high and turned it over and over in the air. She looked at me for an explanation. I started to explain that it was an outdated but occasionally useful component for storing data on a magnetic disk. One of the university expeditors blurted forcefully, "Computer." The agent accepted this and returned the drive to the box.

In the midst of all this Jake and Michael waxed between rapture and boredom. The pile of computer boxes made an excellent climbing device until nervous parents and anxious baggage handlers shooed them away. They played bumper cars with their roll-on overnight cases until one hard crash caused a telescoping handle to collapse painfully on a set of fingers and Dad crossly intervened. Despite mom’s way-too-healthy snack bars and water bottles, they loudly bemoaned their starvation and thirst between bouts of wide-eyed fascination and petty sibling battles.

In the end I’m sure money passed hands somewhere, but I did not see it. It was determined, in large public voices, that all the equipment we brought was used (not actually true) and therefore exempt from duties. It took some time for all the customs agents to agree to this, but eventually we were given the signal to go.

Now it fell to us to dole the boxes out evenly to all of the porters who had wheeled in their carts to assist us out of the airport. Never mind that we could easily have made it out on half as many carts. There were twenty-six porters and each needed to play their part – they all had families to feed. The boxes were distributed and we formed a long line and paraded through the airport, with me assigned to bring up the rear and watch for stray boxes.

We ate at Kano’s premiere Chinese restaurant that first night (one of the few places where expatriates can eat without worrying about dysentery) and then settled into our first sleep at a mission guesthouse. Jacob and Michael were delighted when introduced to the ubiquitous bottled "minerals" (what Nigerians call soft drinks) as well as local taxis with no seatbelts, loud underbody rattles, and doors which open spontaneously. They protested when we asked them to sleep on a mattress on the floor of the guesthouse, but they were too tired to sustain their disagreement and soon fell asleep beneath the weak current of coolness from the window air conditioner.

The next morning Jacob disappeared as we prepared for breakfast. Michael, Carolyn and I frantically scoured the compound for him, forgetting, for the moment, all the admonitions from both Nigerians and expatiates that Nigeria was as kid-friendly a place as we were ever going to find.

Jake, it turns out, had befriended some children a few houses south and was near the cookhouse in the back yard watching the kids catch chickens while their mother prepared breakfast over a fire. Jake, and just about everyone else in the vicinity, seemed confused about our anxiety.

Later, as were leaving the dining hall after, breakfast, Jacob and I encountered a petty trader selling tourist trinkets just outside the door. Jake became enamored with a small pipe made from some sort of animal skin. He asked the trader, "How much?"

The trader smiled wryly. "How much do you want to pay?" He asked in a richly toned Nigerian accent, giving us a toothless grin. Not understanding both the words and the sentiment, Jacob turned to me for translation.

"He wants to know how much you’d be willing to pay," I explained. "Every time you buy something here you need to negotiate a price."

Jake returned his gaze to the old man. "I’ll give you five dollars," he stated confidently.

The old man smiled. Five dollars was a very good week’s worth of wages.

I grinned and shrugged towards the trader. "I’m sorry," I said, "we are not buying today."

Jake protested loudly and dramatically as I dragged him off for a little father/son talk.

OO  Our Jos Experience Home Page

OO  The Jos Project Home Page

OO   Internetworks in International Development

OO  The University of Iowa

1998 by Cliff Missen