She stood in the line with other would-be passengers and had several pieces of luggage surrounding her. Suddenly, there was a peal of strident and annoying music from somewhere on her person and she deftly reached into the folds of her skirt without losing hold of the child on her back and retrieved a flashing mobile phone. Without missing a beat, she shouted to the obviously half-deaf person on the other end of her phone “Helloooooooo????”
I stared in amazement as this woman, obviously my countrywoman, made a show of herself at terminal E of Charles De Gaulle Airport, France. She continued her phone conversation in very loud Yoruba, drawing looks of disdain from people around her. By the time she got to the front desk with three over-stuffed shopping bags (otherwise known as Ghana-must-go) and a bulging hand luggage that looked so heavy that a market porter would refuse to carry on their head, all eyes were firmly on her. Sure enough, before I could say ‘wey dem?’, she was asked to step aside for further questioning.
Some Nigerians who frequently travel abroad have tales of perceived victimization by immigration and customs officials at international airports. They think it is due to racism or by their failure to fly first class. This might be so. However, what some people fail to realise is that it is sometimes caused by their own actions in public spaces such as airports.
Here is how we can avoid unwanted attention at airports and other public spaces
Firstly, do not dress to stand out in the crowd. This simply means if you are travelling to Europe for example, dress like a European. A smart casual look usually says to immigration: Upwardly mobile middle class man/lady on a working/holiday trip. Do not over do it, though. No ill-fitting three piece suits which cut your nicely-rounded tummy into four different sections, one section per button. If you look uncomfortable in your clothes customs might suspect you are a drug mule who has something hidden in unmentionable places.
Don’t have three mobile phones, a laptop and ipad all on show at the same time. They don’t fool anyone. Nigerians are not known to be workaholics so the pretence of having to work on all your devices etc during the flight is usually not believed. You won’t be upgraded to Business class and you may be pulled aside for questioning because you might be a terrorist and the phones, your trigger devices.
We all know that the weather in Europe is nowhere near as hot as we are used to in Nigeria. However, the relative cold is no excuse to dress in so many layers of different coloured clothes that one ends up looking like a Calabar masquerade. Not only could you scare some of the very young children on the flight, you may be pulled aside, suspected of hiding explosive devises or even a small child under those layers of clothes.
Have the correct travel papers. If you are stopping over en-route to your destination, check that you have extra permits, if needed. I know we all want cheap tickets, but ensure your travel agent doesn’t sell you a ticket which entitles you to the horrors of a 38hour trip from Lagos to London. This usually means you will be stopping over in another country, say Turkey, for at least 25 hours. There, you will be confined to the airport building and you will have to sit/sleep on the airport’s uncomfortable metal seats with no opportunity to have a wash. You will be treated like a tramp by airport officials and fellow passengers, you will probably smell like one and your body will ache badly by the time you reach your destination.
Ladies should refrain from carrying any quantity of strong-smelling cooking condiments sold at Ketu market. Believe it or not, there are places in the UK where Nigerians buy dried pepper, iru (locust bean paste), snails, dried fish, dried prawns etc. If you do, be prepared to be embarrassed and detained while your luggage is searched and scattered by sniffer-dogs and customs officials.
Desist from embarrassing the whole nation on your return trip to Nigeria by packing several rolls of toilet paper in your hand luggage. Seriously, is this really necessary? I actually saw a woman do this on a flight a few years ago. I was mortified when the overhead compartment sprang open and several rolls of tissue tumbled out. The cabin crew had to chase the tissue rolls as they bounced down the aisle. Why make foreigners think that we have just discovered the pleasures of toilet roll and possibly the toilet itself, as opposed to the famed ‘bush attack’?
Mothers should limit the length, weight and quantity of hair extensions, beads and weird stuff that get attached to little girls’ heads when making plane journeys. Why do you think some kids cry all through the flight? Because they can’t rest their tired little heads on the seats! The crying draws negative attention and people think you are into child abuse.
While not everyone is as energetic, vivacious and expressive as Nigerians, it is also good to remember that there are certain things that are not acceptable in polite society. There is very little we can do to prevent other nations from labelling us as being ‘fantastically corrupt’ but we can at least show the world that we are as well-mannered as the next person, one airport at a time.
PS: Don’t shout ‘do you know who I am’? at officials when being questioned at airports. It doesn’t work once you are outside Nigeria, even if you adopt a fake English accent!