Letters from Washington by Nduka Nwosu
We arrived here in the midst of preparations for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Unfortunately, I couldn’t visit you and Fineboy at school before heading for the airport. You should know by now the life of a reporter is like that of a soldier in combat uniform. We had a 48 hour notice to proceed to Washington and do a good coverage. As we got set, I remembered the former CNN war correspondent, Peter Arnett, who in 1991 took a combat position right inside a five star Baghdad hotel as the lights from Christmas trees (bombs) from the USA artillery and air force pounded Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army to submission. Well, I did promise you I was going to stay in touch regularly acquainting you with events here as they unfold. That of course happens to be my job.
The flight itself was smooth but that was after a tedious check-in process that left many passengers fatigued. Once the boarding was completed, Arik’s Airbus, Flight WT 107 was fun right down to John F Kennedy Airport (JFK). It was one flight that had perhaps 99.99 percent of Nigerians on board and I wondered if the foreigners in our midst were avoiding Arik because it is a relatively newcomer in the market. Somebody complained the meal was not indigenous enough but again serving a non-continental dish such as banga soup with starch, may not even be acceptable by Nigerians themselves, I think. One sad aspect of the flight was that passengers were not offered a pack for their toiletries at least tooth brush and paste to refresh the mouth. For the economy passengers who are used to Arik, it was okay to anticipate this and make provision for it. What could it have cost Arik, the JJCs wondered, after a ticket fare of well over N300, 000.00 to offer such courtesy rather than leave those who respond to the act of patronage struggling with a breath that was most uncomfortable for a long trip? The Nigerian factor you may say.
Whatever the blame, the Arik boss Mr Michael Arumemi-Ikhide has made the old boys of Government College Ughelli proud. The ship named after Bob Hayes, is a salute to excellence of Nigeria’s first pilot and old boy of GCU. Once I was at a party of the old boys, Mr Arumemi-Ikhide showed up to make his donation in the rebuilding work of the college; N50 million dropped out of his mouth as the hall went deaf with a rending uproar; photo journalists made a futile chase of him down the aisle at Sheraton Hotel. This was not another Moshood Abiola, the benevolent spirit of the pen club. Yet Arumemi-Ikhide remains the pride or is it the wings of Nigeria.
We touched down at JFK Airport early morning with a passenger screaming: “Alleluyah, praise the Lord;” the other passengers joined in rapturous applause, an unfamiliar gesture one comes across in the domestic routes; so one kept wondering why. May be because domestic routes are quite often a thankless gesture, and a less than an hour experience; but really does it make any difference? I think what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.
Back to JFK, its chilling cold winter welcomed Tokunbo and I as we made for the air train that took us across New York’s suburbs. Of particular interest is the neighbourhood known as Jamaica which the Diaspora descendants may have colonised long after slave trade. I was also meant to understand that some sections of the great city including Brooklyn and Bronx are crime prone and many of our kinsmen are domiciled there because rents are relatively cheap.
A latter trip to Jamaica was even more revealing. We had stopped by on our way to the UN to see the NAN correspondent who lives in the exclusive suburb known as Queens. What did we see as we pulled out of the sub-way? A long queue of Danfo buses loading their passengers ready to drive down to Okokomaiko and Ajegunle, you would imagine. Even the Jamaica sub-way bathrooms (convenience) left a stinking sight to behold. But Seyi, Toks wife, had warned me of the culture clash that virtually threw me back home. Around the beautifully crafted vicinity, a contrast, to the decrepit environment presently assaulting the psyche, idle young men and women loitered around smoking whatever.
Down one of the shopping avenues, Abubakar from Guinea Conakry and Diallo from Guinea Bissau, who matter of fact, claimed they had lived in Ikeja, made their brisk business in such items as winter mufflers and hats as well as travelling bags. As we hurried to catch the New York transit train, a pretty young Latino mum with her little girl in the pram, pulled up to Toks and pleaded for $2. Toks politely warded her off and reminded me there were so many of such characters in America who have been ruined by coke. To complete the comedy of contrasts, a middle aged man shacked up in the chilly cold, was busy mixing his concoction of gin and herbal roots, the way it is done in Maroko, for early morning sojourners, to wash mouth and charge the blood. Is this New York or some other world, I wondered.
Maryland, I was educated, seems to be one place you can find a large population of the Yoruba community while Nigerians across all our ethnic divides, are largely populated in Newark, New Jersey and Texas. Yes, Tokunbo lives in New Jersey but shuttles between New York and Washington. As you know, my office is in New York but because Washington is the capital of this great nation as well as the abode of all the important institutions of governance, hosting annual meetings of such global institutions as the World Bank and the IMF, it is a regular place of work for reporters here and you will be hearing from me reporting from this height from my notebook.
New York happens to be the seat of business just like Lagos is to Nigeria while Washington is Abuja’s equivalent. Between Jamaica and Royal Gardens in Piscataway, I am inclined to choose the latter as my abode. Here you hardly come across the likes of Charity Bus Stop, Odu Eran, and Cemetry. It is Middlesex, Penn Station, Edison, Gill Lane, Burlington and Wallmart, Perth Amboy, Pleasant View Gardens. What a life! You are used to Mr Biggs back home and perhaps Macdonalds and KFC. There are so many other brands you must eventually grapple with as you prepare your trip down here. Applebee, White Castle and Red Lobster are a few examples.
New York welcomed us with a biting cold. The inauguration visitors had actually made train fares jump by well over 100 percent and we chose to go by road. As we made for the Megabus Bus Station, I told Toks I would rather discontinue with the arrangement and travel by rail. In less than 10 minutes, my lips had become so soft I thought they were about to fall off. I saw the beauty called Manhattan but failed to appreciate it even momentarily. Manhattan remains a story for another day. Well, as we walked down 34th Street, the intimidating vicinity of skyscrapers, Toks encouraged me to embrace a cold weather I am gradually getting used to. Once in Washington, we paid a visit to the head of the Nigerian Mission, Ambassador Ade Adefuye who introduced us to his key staff including his Counsellor and Immigration Minister, Ibidapo-Obe.
In spite of the cold which became frosty Thursday, travelling is big fun here while a good meal can cost you less than $10. The Chinese restaurant close to Royal Gardens, where Toks and his family live, is an unbelievably cheap but elegant eatery. With less than $5 for lunch and $7 for dinner, you have well over 20 varieties to choose from. I once saw a woman eating right from her plate while facing the buffet standing and replenishing same plate as she gobbled along greedily, less concerned about how you felt. But the other side of the coin is the weight problem; many American citizens have grown massive eating from a variety of good but cheap meals. Shopping, with its many promotional attractions is also exciting especially for women like Seyi, who with four year old Busola has made this relocation an exciting experience.
You will discover as you prepare your school’s excursion to Boston, that the American spirit of rewarding excellence with success starts right from the classroom. Many of the high school students, who witnessed the inauguration, are exuding great hope of a great and successful tomorrow just like this president and many that came before him, as well as men and women who set the ball rolling right from school. This is what is called the American dream, which Obama spoke so glowingly about. This calls for hard work, you must not forget. Remember what Pastor George keeps telling you that inspiration should be 30 percent while perspiration should be 70 percent.
I will continue to keep you posted but do not forget to take your studies seriously and make hay now that your sun is shining. Next week I will engage Fineboy on many issues affecting his generation from this side of the divide.