by Hauwa Gambo
This surreal piece was published by the New York Times this morning about the experience of travelling in Nigeria.
As the writer notes, us impassive Nigerian travellers are truly living “on the edge of catastrophe.”
he ordeal of flying in Nigeria begins with the chaotic crowds waving wads of cash who surround ticket agents in sweltering terminals lacking air-conditioning.
Then comes the surge toward the overwhelmed clerk who handles check-in.
Getting onto the plane itself can seem to be an accomplishment, given the lack of audible announcements, working signboards or uniformed employees with knowledge of just how long the inevitable delay will last.
But it is only when a passenger is settled into the aging jetliner that the real adventure begins.
Air travel here can be a routine experience, but one that exists on the edge of catastrophe, as the plane crash last week in Lagos underscored. How a shiny airliner full of successful Nigerians – all week news reports detailed the accomplishments of various high-ranking civil servants and ingenious entrepreneurs – ended up a mass of charred wreckage in the mud of a working-class neighborhood pointed up the worst nightmares of every traveler in this country so full of both dynamism and dysfunction.
Decades back, planes crashed so regularly that many Nigerians stuck to the dangerous roads to get from here to, say, Abuja or Port Harcourt or Kano. But the government closed the airlines of rogue operators and warned the rest that shortcuts were not allowed. The reputation of the country’s aviation industry improved, experts say, to the point that United States officials in 2010 gave Nigeria’s carriers Category 1 status, the highest safety endorsement.
Then the crash on June 3 of a Dana Air flight from Abuja, the capital, which killed all 153 people aboard as well as an unknown number of people on the ground, raised all the questions again. The anxiety surrounding Nigerian air travel continued on Friday night, when the runway lights failed at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, forcing the diversion of some flights and leaving passengers stranded.
On a recent morning at Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, a pilot for a leading Nigerian carrier opened up about his fears. He will not board his company’s aging Boeing 737s, he said, because they are not maintained properly. Maintenance, he said, is a joke. Safety inspectors have been bribed, he asserted. Pilots have engaged in eccentric behavior in the cockpit, jeopardizing the lives of passengers, he said. Finished with his indictment, the pilot left to fly his plane.
To be sure, an overwhelming majority of flights in Nigeria, as anywhere else, begin and end without noticeable incident, even if pilots seem to announce incorrect destinations regularly. Apart from the discomfort – old planes, some pushing 30 years old, jammed with seats and haunted by the odors of decades of bad meals – they are like flights anywhere. And yet every now and again, they stand out.
A plane for a major Nigerian carrier was approaching Lagos at the end of a recent all-night international flight. The city came into view – the warren of streets near the airport was below – and the plane seemed to be descending. Suddenly the view changed.
The plane was flying over fields and swamps. The city receded into the distance. Yet the weather was perfect. The plane was no longer, it seemed, approaching Lagos. After a few minutes, the captain’s voice came over the intercom: “Ah, distinguished ladies and gentlemen” – this is how Nigerian pilots address passengers – “I’m sorry, but I’ve missed my landing. I’m going to have to try again.”
The plane became very quiet. The flight attendants were frozen in their seats, their faces immobile. After 10 minutes, the pilot tried again, and the plane landed without incident.
On a recent domestic flight – again involving a major carrier – the small jet hit heavy turbulence. It went on and on, the plane bouncing up and down, minutes turning into a quarter-hour and a half-hour.
The pilot’s voice came over the intercom – but not to give information about the flight. To sing. In a cracked and wheezy baritone, the (evidently) aged pilot began to intone an improvised ditty in praise of his own carrier: “Oh, I love to fly Air Nigeria! Air Nigeria is the best!”
The plane bounced up and down, and the captain sang.
Eventually the jet landed at its provincial destination. The passengers, almost all Nigerians, disembarked, impassive and silent. They appeared to be used to these ordinary experiences that edge near – uncomfortably close – to the extraordinary.