Uzokwe's Searchlight

Monday, January 23, 2017

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, P.E



Chatting with the young man that wanted me to buy a winter jacket

he next morning, we caught a taxi to Tejuoso market in Surulere Lagos. Our mission to Tejuoso was twofold: We wanted to check out the market to see what kind of wares they carry. We also wanted to meet the tailors that make traditional outfits for my wife and I. They have stalls in Tejuoso. Through an intermediary in Nigeria, we sent our measurements to them and they have been making Nigerian outfits for us since. Because they did not take the measurements themselves, though, sometimes the clothes fail to fit to a T. So we resolved to see the tailors physically and have them take our measurements themselves.

I must pause to note that Nigerian traditional clothing designers and makers have elevated the art to an unprecedented level. Just like Nigerian musicians and comedians, they have also taken clothing design across international boundaries. You see their designs in the United States, you see them in Britain, in Australia, in South Africa, in China! Some of the designs leave me speechless! Caftans, “resource control”, safari, aso ebi and the likes. Simply awesome. When I had my book signing here in the United States in 2015, some of my American guests would not stop talking about the magnificence of the Nigerian attires especially the female ones. I therefore use this medium to salute and encourage the designers and makers. They create employment for many, raise cultural awareness and most of all, make Nigerians proud. I am determined to continue to do my part to patronize and uplift the designers and tailors that make these clothing.

Back to our ride to Tejuoso, I must confess that all the roadways we traversed from Mobolaji Bank Anthony way to the market seemed reasonably clean. It did not take long to see why. Lagos state street cleaners sweep the streets and remove thrash. You can see them laboring in the hot sun to keep up with Nigerians that recklessly drop soda cans, plastic bottles, banana peels and likes on the road. My message to Nigerians is that if there are people you should give tips, these men and women laboring to clean the streets you make dirty deserve your tips. I will hazard a guess that they are not paid much. I commend Lagos state government, though, for this. But this effort must not only be concentrated in visible and affluent areas of Lagos. Places like Ajegunle and portions of Surulere that have been neglected for long because they are not strategically located or populated by affluent Nigerians deserve the unvarnished attention of the State. The residents live in and also pay taxes in Lagos.

As we alighted from the taxi at the Tejuoso market, the sound of “Oga buy this…, madam buy that…” filled the air as hawkers came hustling around us. One of the hawkers specifically followed me. “Oga buy winter jacket now”, he said. I was flabbergasted! The temperature was already about 89 degrees and rising and the young man wanted me to buy winter jacket? Turning towards the young man, I said, “I am headed to Nnewi, why would I need a winter jacket?” “Oga, but you go use am when you travel back”, he said smiling. I stopped and faced him, smiling back I said light-heartedly: “What makes you think I am flying back anywhere?”. “ E dey for your body now”, he said. I pointed at my brother-in-law who was walking in front and said: “he is the one that will be flying back not me” “No, na you oga”, he said. I have always said that Nigerians are very resilient. In spite of the sweltering heat this young man was under, in spite of the profuse perspiration induced by periodic bouts of fifty-meter dash, chasing after moving vehicles to sell his wares, he was very cheerful. I talked to him for a while before departing.

We went in to Tejuoso proper. It is now an ultra-modern built-up market complex. It had ample ground floor parking garage (not a lot of patronage in the garage though), toilet facilities, elevators and even escalators. The elevators and escalators looked like they had been out of commission for a long time. I am guessing it is because of epileptic power supply. The market stalls were not as populated as I had expected. Many stalls were closed. A lot of hawkers seemed to prefer doing their business outside, along the streets, than inside the building. Someone later said that the cost of the stalls was very exorbitant and that may be a factor in its sparse population.

We spent a couple of days in Lagos, visiting friends and family. They were gracious in hosting us. I thank them from the bottom of my heart. Orji and Funmi, Chike and wife, Nonso, Elochukwu and others. Daalu nu - Thank You.

My wife and I had confirmed flight tickets for Arik air to Abuja. The plan was to fly to Abuja, spend two days visiting friends and then fly down to Asaba and onward to Nnewi on the 21st of December. We wanted to be in Nnewi in good time to get the Xmas celebration underway with family. I started having misgivings about Arik air when we visited my cousin while in Lagos. As soon as we mentioned that we were going to Abuja on Arik flight, he and his wife advised that we should have used another airline because Arik had no good customer service. The airline was said to cancel flights all the time, did not pay their staff and lacked a good maintenance culture. I then remembered that even before I left United States, the publicity secretary for APC in Lagos state, Joe Igbokwe, had narrated his ordeal with the same Arik when he wanted to fly to Abuja from Lagos. I had thought that Arik’s problem was a fleeting one and moreover the ticket was purchased on our behalf by someone. I was concerned but hoped for the best.

Our flight from Lagos to Abuja on the 19th of December was to depart at 11:00am. We got to the airport around 10:00am and I was convinced that passengers would have started the boarding process. But from the time we arrived to about ten minutes to eleven, there was no announcement about Arik flight to Abuja. The waiting lounge was crowded and very warm. It seemed like all the seats had been taken and people were just milling around everywhere. After more time passed and still no word about the fate of our flight, I began to feel that we were about to face the same plight that many before us had complained about - Arik cancelled flight. I became very disappointed but instead of just sitting there, I decided to do something.

I walked towards an Arik kiosk and asked two young girls sitting behind the kiosk what the status of the flight was. They seemed oblivious and even uninterested in what was happening around them. One of them even acted like I was disturbing them. The other one just said nonchalantly that she did not know what the status of the flight was and resumed fiddling with her phone. I figured that they were lower level staff and did not fully understand the concept of customer service. I decided to take things further.

I walked to the front of the Arik counter where passengers were supposed to be lining up for check-in. A young lady in her 30s, very well dressed in what seemed like Arik Air business suit, was directing people to move their luggage around. “Excuse me ma’am”, I said politely. She continued to do what she was doing without turning. I was not sure if she was ignoring me or just did not hear me because of the hustle bustle around and attendant noise. “Excuse me ma’am”, I said again, this time louder. She cast a furtive glance in my direction and then said perfunctorily, “Yes?”. I could tell that it was not her pleasure to attend to a passenger but I ignored her demeanor and proceeded: “I am scheduled for the 11:00 am Arik flight to Abuja and am trying to find out the status of the flight. “When we get the information, we will announce it”, she said. It was more than 20 minutes after the flight should have departed yet she did not feel an obligation to be empathetic or somewhat customer-friendly. “This flight should have departed more than 20 minutes ago but you have not even called for boarding and there is no information for passengers”, I said . She had now bent back over and resumed what she was doing while muttering under her breadth that when information becomes available, they would announce it. I was taken aback. “This is unfortunate”, I said. “Do you know that as I speak, there is a petition against this airline and if the airline shuts down, you will lose your job?” This statement really got her attention. She stood back upright, took one step back away from me and waving her left hand said: “let’s not even go there, I will let you know when we get the info”. At this juncture, I remembered that someone said that Arik was owing their workers about 7 months of salary. The empathetic side of me kicked in. If this lady is being owed 7 months of salary, may be her action, in a weird way, can be excused. The anger that was already welling up in me dissipated some.

“Can I speak to a manager?”, I asked her. Without hesitation, she called on another younger employee and asked him to lead me to their manager. I was surprised that they opened a hitherto cordoned off area and asked me to follow the young man. I followed and meanwhile, other passengers were standing aimlessly on the left side. At the end of the line, I found myself standing face to face with the manager. She was clutching a cell phone and wearing a brownish business suit or so it looked. Once I took a step toward her, she flashed a broad and frankly customer-friendly smile. I was temporarily disarmed because I had already prepared myself to constitute a nuisance if she failed to provide a good answer. Still wearing the smile on her face, she said “yes, what can I do for you?”. “I am an Arik passenger for the 11 am flight to Abuja and this plane was supposed to leave more than 30 minutes ago but there is no single information about it.” She said nothing but still with a generally friendly demeanor, she dialed her cell phone and after a few seconds, I heard her ask if the aircraft had reloaded. Then she listened for a while. After the discussion, she turned to me. With a type of politeness that is often lacking in people that serve the public in Nigeria, she said, “the aircraft will be here soon and we will announce soon”. I must confess that because of her politeness, I did not question any further and just said “thank you”. The point, though, is that the fact that she did something by making a call and finding out whether the aircraft was re-loading, was better information than just saying we will tell you when we know. This is a lesson for Nigerians who serve in public. You can go a long way by being polite to customers. In Nigeria, it seems like public servants only become polite and customer-friendly when they expect something from you. And in such cases, they overdo it to the point of servility which then becomes annoying. Immigration and custom people do that a lot. Some hotel staff do that too.

Before heading back to where my wife and brother-in-law were waiting, I detoured into the rest room. A few people were standing around in the rest room, waiting for the rest room stalls, about 3 of them, to become vacant. The three were all occupied at that moment. Then my attention was drawn to a young man of no more than 25 years standing in front of the middle stall door as if he was almost hugging it. Periodically, he would knock on the door of one of the stalls and you will hear a faint “yes” sound coming from the stall occupant. At first, I thought to myself that the young man must be really pressed and that was why he was persistently knocking on the stall door to alert the occupants that he was waiting. It turned out that the restroom was actually his office! Yes, his office! He was the restroom attendant. He was mentally timing every occupant in the stall and whenever it seemed like someone was overstaying, he would knock on the door as a reminder to the person that he was overstaying. I did not like that at all. In fact, I found it disgusting. Just then, someone came out of one of the stalls and this same young man, able-bodied and all, picked up a jar of liquid soap from the sink, asked the man that just came out of the restroom to put out his palm and then he squirted liquid soap into his hands. The guy proceeded to wash his hands in the sink. Just when I thought he had done it all, he took a step into the stall that just became empty, flushed it, cleaned the seat before allowing the next person to go in.

Why could the guy not just have a set time when he goes in, cleans the rest room and leaves? Why does he have to “live” in the rest room and wait patrons hands and feet in the toilet of all places? He may as well just help the patrons “do their thing and wipe them down” too. I condemn that type of job description. It is demeaning to any human and must be revised. After what I saw, I no longer had the urge to hang around but I was itching to ask the young man if he was just being overzealous in expectation of tips or if that was really his job description. I changed my mind because I did not want him to misunderstand me. When I went out, I told my wife and brother-in-law about what I saw. To my surprise and almost chagrin, they just found it funny but not outrageous. I can understand my brother in law not finding it outrageous because he lives in Nigeria and sees this all the time. But I wanted to say to my wife, “Even you Anthonia?”

Not long after, a call came through the public-address system. Abuja-bound Arik air was checking in passengers. Later, we were seated in a Boeing 737 aircraft. Before long, the pilot revved up the engine and lifted off.

I had heard many stories of how turbulent flights from Lagos to Abuja usually were so I prepared my mind. To my pleasant surprise, the flight was one of the smoothest I had ever boarded anywhere. At the arrival hall, I walked over to a ground transportation kiosk and a lady asked where we were going and I told here. “N5,000 to Sheraton hotel”, she said. I figured that there was no room for haggling so we boarded and later were fully checked into Sheraton Abuja. It hit me that Sheraton has security scanning equipment through which all bags, phones and the likes pass right from the entrance door. And then all patrons have to go through what seemed like back-scatter x-ray scanners. I am one of those that never complain about security measures that ensure the safety of people. Current security exigencies have made this measures necessary. I welcomed it and patiently submitted myself and my bags for screening.

In the evening, my friend and school roommate, Chuks, graciously picked up my wife and I and for the next three or four hours he gave us an unforgettable tour of the capital city of Nigeria by night. And yes, to round things up for the night, he took us to fish joint where we had a very delicious and huge fish meal. More than 35 years ago, I shared the same room at the university of Nigeria with Chuks. Here we were, back together again, even if for just two days. He was a great guy then and 35 years later, he is still the great guy I knew. We remain indebted to himfor the tour. Chuba daalu. I use this time to also thank my former classmate, Emele, for his hospitality too. He made it possible for me to speak to more than six of my former class mates at the university of Nigeria over the phone. It was very nostalgic and joyful for me.

Abuja is beautiful. Beautifully-designed and well-appointed buildings (commercial and residential), dot the landscape. Landmark buildings like the central bank looked spectacular at night. We went to the various districts, Maitama, Asokoro, Wuse, etal while Chuks pointed out the bridges that marked the demarcating boundaries between each district. I kept thinking to myself that Nigeria’s capital city could compete with any capital city in the world from what I could see. We also had another tour during the day the next day that gave me the opportunity to better see the lay of the land. The roads are well laid out and solidly macadamized. I have some technical comments about architectural layout and erosion and sedimentation but I will save that for the technical part of my commentary series coming later.

We had just retired to the hotel, after the tour, when I got a heart-sinking WhatsApp message. The staff of the airline that was supposed to take us to Asaba on the 21st were on strike. We turned on the TV but could not immediately confirm that. It was the next day that the whole thing started crystallizing. Arik Air staff were on strike and flights emanating from Lagos were being canceled. The staff were protesting non-payment of salaries. Soon, we heard that all Arik flights from Abuja to Asaba were also being cancelled. So the prospect of spending our Xmas in Abuja because of absence of transportation began to loom large. While I liked Abuja, it was not something I wanted in my wildest imagination. For me, Xmas would not be Xmas if I did not spend it in Nnewi.

Continued from Part 1

Abuja - The famous rock in the background

Abuja has its share of street hawkers


Arriving Sheraton Hotel Abuja

My Nigerian tailor takes my measurement

Street Cleaner along Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way- Lagos

Street hawkers besiege motorists along a street in Lagos

Tejuoso market building seen from the street

Tejuoso market- Not sure why many stalls seemed unoccupied or closed and car garage half empty

Tejuoso Market- People seemed to relish hawking their wares along the road

Urinals at Tejuoso Market