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Going to London in the Most Hostile Winter in 30 Years

“The weather forecast for London today is three degrees centigrade,” my daughter would announce from beside the television set in the living room, after catching…

“The weather forecast for London today is three degrees centigrade,” my daughter would announce from beside the television set in the living room, after catching a glimpse of it before it disappears from the Sky News screen. Abigail took it upon herself as a routine every morning to monitor and proclaim the weather report on the cable news television channels.  It was not only the temperature in London that was being monitored. Every soul in my house tampered with my rising fear of the frosty atmosphere in the West, and my crafty daughter was not left out.

As she proclaimed the weather report on Sky News, Abigail waited breathlessly for me to grieve over the fate that lurked on the streets of London where I would to spend two weeks. Snow fall. Ice blocked streets. Clouded skies. Smoke oozing out of the mouths of pedestrians that walked on the streets of European cities as they shielded their bodies from the damning cold with layers of winter wears. These images beclouded imagination as I plotted my attack against the cold arm of winter in the United Kingdom.

I listened to multiple counsels from colleagues who had had first-hand experience of winter. Again, I did not despise my loved ones who demonstrated their affection or pity for me by throwing assorted protective wears at me as their own share in my soon-to-come predicament.  My heart quaked like my life hung by a thread as I sorted out my wears for the trip. The weather man on Sky News announced a four degree centigrade. An improved climatic condition, but I did not fathom what it meant to my skin, and, perhaps, my bones. My first trip to London was about seven years earlier, in summer. Though it was hailed as the best bargain from the climate, I still recalled how I perpetually put on my woolen cardigan as a constant inner wear and swathe it with my double-breasted jacket, equally thick enough to draw sweat from my skin in the scorching, sultry Abuja temperature. The temperature in that summer was put at about 12 degree centigrade; it was considered the best time to explore London, but I had to dress to fit in relatively thick clothes.  

Monday, January 25, 2010. After struggling through the needle-like hole connoting the security screening at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, I was frightened by the stratum of wears in which many London-bound passengers at the departure lounge of British Airways flight clothed themselves. Long and thick winter coats, like those worn by cowboy actors in action movies, leather jackets, hand gloves, double trousers,  scarves around the neck, all creating an absolute cover for the body from head to toes. Most of the passengers were so compactly dressed that I found my heart in my boot when I put my own best plan to tackle the cold on the scale of the outfit of the majority of the passengers. Everyone kept to himself, but there was an unspoken undercurrent of apprehension at the weather, with the exception of the BA crew who were engrossed in an admixture of chitchat and poise that goes with experience.

The six-hour flight from Abuja to Heathrow airport in London was as swift as brisk walk. I had initially planned to devour, at least, 200 pages of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol in between the time we filed into the aircraft and the period we would alight at the London airport. Again, I disappointed myself and sulked in my self-guilt. The number of pages I read was not up to 10. During those six hours, my attention was split among several activities.  I monitored the distance the aircraft had covered, with focus on the latitude, the altitude, the temperature outside and the temperature at the destination, and the remaining hours to be covered before we arrived in London.  I so dutifully kept an eye on these features that I noticed the distance markers on air in the journey to London:  The aircraft flew across the Sahara Desert, through Kano, North Africa, Spain, the Mediterranean Sea, France and landed in London.  My plan to read The Lost Symbol during six hours to appease my conscience failed. I was feeling very awful that I had been unable to turn the compelling pages to its very last in spite of the fact that The Lost Symbol begged for my attention at home, in the car, and in the office. The only time I punctuated my religious monitoring of the flight was the minutes I took off to watch Cry Freedom, the story of Steve Biko, the charismatic South Africa activist who was murdered by the apartheid police in South Africa because of what was perceived as a the threatening phenomenon in his Black Consciousness Movement. As I watched the 159-minute movie directed by British Richard Attenborough, I got an insight into what it can be for an individual to pursue a cause. The intimidation. The brutality. The schemes and abuse of language. The fusion of all this was bare during the apartheid era in South Africa, and I can’t remember any parallel to it in Nigeria, except from the tales we have heard about the persecution of activists of the defunct Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) in the 1960s. Cry Freedom ended with a long list of anti-apartheid activists who died while in police custody, with an adjoining column that gave the apartheid police’s own causes of death. Some of them included self-strangulation, falling from stair cases, and suicidal hangings. The police did not admit to any extra-judicial killing, even in the face of glaring evidence that most of those who died were murdered while in police custody.

I had not recovered from the shock I experienced after watching Cry Freedom when the aircraft began to make its descent to Heathrow. I felt a kind of irritation in my eyes as my eyeballs clashed with the sunray above the clouds outside. There was a contradiction, I thought. If the weather forecasts were true, why should sunray be so sharp and piercing in an arctic, freezing atmosphere? I was encouraged by what I saw. But my joy was only for a moment. As the plane tore through the thick clouds, giving us the privilege of viewing the beautiful city of London, the sunray disappeared. It gave way to a dry and dull sight, as if the cloud had gathered for a downpour. I stole a glance at the screen. The outside temperature had dropped to three degrees. Passengers in the aircraft began to fortify themselves, as we marched into the uncertain condition outside.

The freezing weather defied my three-layer wear, but that was not the most embarrassing. As I alighted from the aircraft, the cold breeze rushed into my eyes. I was dazed. I nearly missed a step on the staircase as I attended to my bleary eyes. As I struggled with my eyes and hand luggage, my fingers were freezing, almost becoming numb. I was no longer feeling the handle of my bag. But that was just the beginning. Every part of my body was at the mercy of the cold, including my skull. I was afraid. We took quick strides into the waiting bus to be driven from the tarmac to the arrival hall. I felt greatly relieved, but at the same time apprehensive at what awaited me after that brief period. Even in my predicament, I pitied another traveller who queued up in front of me at the UK Border Agency counter. He wore a light kaftan through which I could see his body. While others fortified their bodies with thick clothes, this man was so insensitively bare that he wore bathroom slippers from the continent of Africa to Europe.

The Nigerian-turned-Belgian citizen cab driver who took us from Heathrow airport to our hotel in Westminster, London didn’t have to scratch his head to find a topic that would interest us.

“We are living on a very lucky continent in Africa,” he began. “Africa is blessed with one of the best climates in the world.” He jiggled and as if he was brandishing his set of teeth, parted his lips for an unnecessarily long period before he continued to make his remarks.

 “You are very lucky. If you were in London two weeks ago…there was snowfall. The temperature was minus…”  I could imagine what he wanted to communicate to us because one of my old school mates was said to have collapsed at a bus stop in London last December as a result of the extreme weather. She had literally lived in Kano all her life, a city in which the average temperature is about 30 degrees centigrade. Leaving such a hot city for London which was at below zero temperature was deadly.

We didn’t waste much time in our hotel rooms before we went scouting for appropriate winter wears. Apart from Bello who was adequately prepared, the rest of us were vulnerable to the cold. Abdulkareem, himself a Londoner, was to lead the way to Indian shops where he reeled out the British names for various kinds of winter wears as we made our purchases. He led us to a shop owned by an old Indian where the significant feature was his street-wise sales-minded wife. The old woman talked us into buying assorted winter materials as she could, in a split second, dived into a corner, pulled them out and explained their texture, durability and capacity to withstand the harsh weather.  After choosing what we thought we needed, the Indian shop owner asked us a question.

“Which country are you from?” He asked as if the question was very vital to his business.

“Nigeria,” we chorused.

“Oh, Nigeria!” he exclaimed. “I lived in Nigeria for a long time in the 1970s and 1980s. I lived in Ibadan and Lagos. I had a very big shop in Ibadan, but I was duped. I left it in the control of a Nigeria business associate who sold everything in the shop and ran away with my money. I was not wise. I was foolish to have trusted the man so much. I lost everything, and I learnt a bitter lesson. It was after that bitter lesson that I returned to London to open this shop…”

I felt culpable for an offence I knew nothing about. I thought my colleagues also felt uncomfortable that barely two hours of our arrival in London, we would encounter a foreigner who had had a bitter experience in Nigeria.

“Hard luck,” one of us consoled him.

“Ok. Not to bother,” the old Indian remarked. “All that is behind us now… Oh, Nigeria…” he added, like a man relieving a sweet memory of a beautiful past. “Nigeria is such a great country. It has a huge population, with lots of mineral resources. Nigeria had great potentials; a very beautiful country. The people are very friendly; very warm and accommodating…” Then he turned to add in a low voice. “But corruption is too much. Yes. Corruption is too much in Nigeria. Your government officials steal too much money and that is why you are suffering in that country. If you people can deal with corruption, Nigeria will be great…”

As we filed out of the shop I felt ashamed like a thief who had been caught in the act. I thought it was not wise to begin to introduce ourselves as Nigerians to just anybody. You will never know who had been hurt by the ills that have defaced the country. I would not subscribe to the idea of identifying myself as a Ghanaian or South African, but introducing myself as a Nigerian sent a negative signal to one’s audience.

We retired to our hotel rooms immediately after our first sample of London food for dinner. I was alarmed at what I had to pay for my first dinner in the United Kingdom. I had to pre-pay £7 for chips, rice and chicken. But it was not enough. I had to order for extra rice and paid an additional £3. As I stood at the cashier’s counter to pay for my meal, I did a quick mental arithmetic: £10 multiplied by N253 gave me N2,530 for a dinner! I felt unease. But we had to live with this high cost of feeding for 13 days.

As I tuned the television channel to Sky News, I was hit by a news item: an Ethiopian airline plane had crashed shortly after takeoff from Beirut, Lebanon that morning. The Boeing 737 which was bound for Addis Ababa had 90 passengers and crew on board. All of them perished. The Sky News camera captured the debris of the aircraft on the high sea where it had crashed, juxtaposing them with the agony on the faces of the loved ones of the victims from London, Beirut and Addis Ababa. Though they were hundreds of miles apart, the people were united in anguish.

The plane had taken off from Beirut that morning, and five minutes after, it disappeared from the radar screen, only to be discovered hours later that it had crashed as a result of bad weather! I saw a dejected man lamenting that there had been thunderstorm in Lebanon those few days and the best thing the airline should to have done was to delay the flight. Ethiopian airline claimed the plane was fit to embark on the flight and all that, but…

At that moment, I said a little thanksgiving prayer to God for granting us a safe flight to London.

I woke up the next morning to listen to the weather forecast. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) weatherman was predicting about three degrees centigrade. “You need your scarf and hat; you need your hand gloves if you are in London today. It’s a little bit colder than it was yesterday. It will be a pretty cloudy sky. Central London will be colder, and towards afternoon the temperature will rise by…”

I drew the curtain covering my window. It was looking as dark as it would be at 4:00am in Nigeria, but it was already 7:00am in London and 8:00am in Nigeria. I could hear the hooting sound of cars on the streets, an evidence of much activity, but the visibility was still very low. It was difficult to clearly spot anything being done about a hundred metres away, but the city was already awake. It was a daily dilemma that we had to live and get used to in the next 13 days. But one cannot get used to it by any means. And the evidence was not far-fetched. Everyone on the street of London made haste as if he was running away from a crisis point to a place of safety. Every corner one turned to, one finds sticks of cigarette stuck between the lips of ladies and gentlemen, everyone pulling the smoke and puffing it into the cold, cloudy air. It was not out of order, it seemed, to smoke on the streets of London, no thanks to the cold weather. Even those of us who did not handle sticks of cigarette could be termed as smokers as well. The kind of smoky air that oozed out of our mouths whenever we spoke could give us away as culpable. Not to worry. This is cold, cloudy London.

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