Travelogue ~ Coming back home: A journey to Nigeria (Part I) ~ Michal Musialowski

Dedicated to, Sule, Paul, Abraham, and all the sailors of humanity.


My journey to Nigeria began on a particularly cold Monday on the 4th of February 2019 at the airport of Hannover in Germany, surrounded by a thrilling feeling of happiness and a paralyzing excitement, which rendered the time and its passing a slowly paced torture. As a result of a long reflection on my journey, I have concluded that the best way of experiencing Nigeria was to come in contact with as less prejudices and prepackaged concepts about the country and its people as possible, and thus gain my own perspective and opinion about the surrounding reality. Thus, not surprisingly, the first time I have realized that Nigeria was preparing for a presidential election was when I saw the gigantic posters depicting the face of President Muhammadu Buhari at the airport in Abuja, the president in charge of the Nigerian government, nowadays and then, who at the time was running for reelection. 

To await me at the airport in Abuja, the dichotomous capital of the country, was at first a friendly wave of hot wind that spread the an unforgettable scent of blooming nature mixed with a note of petrol. As I have learned later, even tough the perfume of nature is dominant in Nigerian air, the scent of combusted gasoline is as well a common companion of any flaneur who strolls through the mazy streets of most Nigerian cities, especially the smaller ones. This is because, for multiple reasons connected, among others, to the incapacity and corruption of Nigerian ruling class, for most Nigerians the main source of electricity is a fuel driven generator with a name of a Chinese or Japanese company stamped on it, affectionately referred to as 'the gen.' 
Paul and I riding in a 'Keke Napep' in Nigeria. 
The second thing to await me at the airport was a brotherly embrace of Paul Liam, Nigerian poet and writer, who was asked by Prof. Egya Emmanuel Sule to be my host and guide during my six weeks period of stay in the country. Thanks to Paul’s inexhaustible patience and genuine friendship, I was able not only to avoid all the possible dangerous situations deriving from the high tension of the electoral period, but also to learn different perspectives on Nigerian reality and - as I realized after my return to Germany - to learn a lot also about myself. Paul’s guidance and outstanding sensibility allowed me to consider every step of my journey with consciousness and responsibility and, following the paths of Paul’s reality, to meet, listen to, and connect to many people. Since our first meeting and our long talks in the taxi directed to Lapai, I felt surrounded by a feeling of kindness and of belonging to (or reuniting with) a family. In both Prof. Sule and Paul Liam, I have found true friends who rendered my first travel to Nigeria an unforgettable experience. This is how Paul describes our meeting at the airport: 
Our meeting at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport was dramatic, and the ambience so genuine that an onlooker would think we had known each other all our lives. He clearly disarmed me with his affectionate conviviality of a cultured fellow. I had been trying to text him that I was outside waiting for him when I saw a six footer (not sure about his exact height) hurrying towards me with a wild smile and open arms spread in embrace. Of course, this act of familiarity took me off guard, it was after a long while that I realized it had been his own way of creating a psychological balance between us. He was a smart guy, I figured out independently. Being a student of Counselling Psychology, I understood where he was coming from and his predisposition to friendliness, he was a stranger and I was to be his guide, so by disarming me at our first meeting, he would have created a cordial ground for our soon to become brotherly relationship. I reckoned this guy must be brilliant and a nerd of some sort, and it turned out to be true. At that instant, the chemistry clicked, something inexplicable happened to me, to us, we connected as though we were brothers reuniting after a long separation. We hugged heartily and walked to the waiting vehicle and soon we were on our way out of the airport and into the city of Abuja. without delay, we began a conversation about politics, culture, literature and the forthcoming presidential elections in Nigeria, and politics in Europe. It would soon become clear from our conversation that politics in Italy and Nigeria share a lot of things in common, such as the elitist corruption and the impoverished state of the masses in a political equation of class clash. Our interaction was so natural that on our very first meeting and in less then an hour we had become just another pair of friends having a conversation in a taxi on the street of Africa's most populous nation's capital city. (“Towards a United Humanity”) 


From the airport we moved to Lapai to settle in at Prof. Egya’s residence at the university campus of the Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University (IBBUL). To await us there was Prof. Egya’s nephew, Abraham Sunday, a young medicine student who quickly became an inseparable part of our thus newly formed group of friends and late night talkers. Lapai is situated at the heart of the Niger State, which capital, Minna, lies 130 km away. With a population of about 110,127 inhabitants, Lapai is a small city in which the signs of capitalist globalization and neocolonialism are visible in the extreme polarization of wealth and the rusty Coca-Cola advertisement signs that hang next to posters that depict traditionally dressed political leaders. The city extends over an area of 3051 km2, but, because of particularly sharp security measures dictated by the University and the Immigration office, I was able to explore only a small part of it that surrounds the central city market and the two main commercial streets. 

My presence in Lapai as one of the few ‘white’ visitors in the tense political election period could have caused unnecessary tension; this is why my visits to the city were limited to daytime hours and to one visit a day, always under the constant guide of Paul and Abraham. Still because of the election, the University was on strike, fighting for major investments by the governments and better payment and working conditions for the staff. Despite this situation, Paul connected me with his fellow students and friends who decided to spend the election period in Lapai. Thus, even tough there were few students at the campus during this period, I was able to experience the city and learn its hidden stories and angles that underline the poetics of Nigerian poets, whose work and life were the subject of my research. 
In a warm handshake with Prof. Magaret Agu as Paul watch on.
At the time of my visit, Paul was working on the editing and publishing of his latest poetry collection, A Feast of Bones, and gave me the privilege to listen to his poetry from this and other collections that he read out, accompanied by a music of sounds of nature and deep silence of hot Nigerian nights. By sharing and reading our own poetry, we have learned to know each other more intimately and have enriched our long talks with a deeper dimension of dialogue. As a result of our conversations, we understood and experienced, empirically, the power that poetry has to cross borders of history, culture, and race. With this realization as a motor for our motivation, we have started to work on the idea of a literary event that would put Africa and the West in dialogue and serve as a forum for common reflection on our united humanity. After the little contribution I could give to the organization in form of a flyer, I have started my research on Nigerian poetry and the writing of a term paper on the same topic, while Paul was working on every aspect of the event and needed to charge his phone constantly, as the amount of phone calls he was making and receiving to advertise and organize it forced him to do . 

Charging the phone was not always easy. Due to the limited and inconstant public energy supply and the ongoing strike at the University, the electricity was available only for some hours during the day. After few days of learning how to adapt to this new condition, I have realized that, in the end, life without constant electricity supply (and the therein derived distractions like the TV) allowed more space for the enjoyment of the polyphony of sounds and perfumes of Lapai’s nature and those of the delicious food. Both Abraham and Paul did their best to make me try the variety and unique taste of Nigerian food, which they prepared with love. In the attempt to repay the debt of gratitude toward them for making me discover the Egusi soup with pounded yam, my favorite dish, I prepared miserable scrambled eggs with tomatoes and did my best to convince Abraham to try to eat the salad of tomatoes, cucumber, and onions daily, the best I could propose.
Eating pounded yam and egusi in the company of Paul and Aunty T. 
The Egusi soup is at the basis of Nigerian diet and is prepared with a very hot pepper powder, commonly called ‘pepe.’ The white people, called ‘oyibo’ in Nigerian pidgin English, are known for not being able to enjoy fully the Nigerian food because of the omnipresent pepe, and are mocked with pity and irony by Nigerians for their suffered relationship with this hot spice. I believe that Nigerian food represents an interesting metaphor of how Nigerian subtle irony towards the West is present in this little anecdote. For me, Egusi soup and pepe represented emblematic companions of my journey and I have decided to translate the refections stimulated by them into poetry. The poem, written at the Saftec hotel in Minna and entitled “Oyibo no go chop pepe” reads: 
While waiting for the storm to come,  to spice up my soup of dust

my fingernails turn yellow from the sins flavored with egusi  and pounded in different shades of white
No bread and wine but truth in a child’s sleepy eyes in a wasteland of lies Guilt:
a meretrice with rusty nails  as crown which feels like fresh pepe  in my mouth  perforating  guts
Oyibo no go chop pepe
I did, and died for the million flowers in the desert of power and politics of disguise
Now I merge with the naked sun  and know
Oyibo no chop pepe  for they prefer to remain  blind


When Paul and I were done with our work in Lapai, we decided to explore new horizons and move for ten days to Minna, the city where our literary event “Towards United Humanity: An Intercontinental Dialogue between Africa and Europe” was about to take place on March 2nd. During our ten days stay in the vibrant and chaotic capital of the Niger State, beside the preparation for the event, we explored the city and met a great number of poets and writers who collaborate through the literary association Minna Literary Circle, where Paul is a very active member. In this period, I have met revolutionary minded writers who believe that poetry can represent an effective voice in the political dialogue with the corrupted elite and a tool for personal and communitarian empowerment and catharsis, and have learned a lot from their unbreakable passion for literature and humanity. As Paul, they are fighting for the definition of their literary and social identity, and by doing so they inspire others to express themselves through literature. 
Guests after our event
The energy stemming from their works and stories of resistance has not only a subversive and revolutionary force, but it also effectively continues to change Nigerian society and to reconstruct in it a dimension of social reflection through the power of literature. The literary event “Towards United Humanity” has received a significant attention from the local media and hosted keynote speakers and audience from all over the country. Among other prominent guests, we had the honor to welcome to the event the Secretary for the Minister of Information, the founder of the Aunty Teresa Reads Foundation, Teresa Oyibo Ameh, and Dr. Emman Shehu, a literary organizer and poet. 

End of part I.

Michal Musialowski is a Polish poet and scholar. He lives in Hannover, Germany.