The last three flights out of Heathrow were at 10.35pm on Monday, and I was on one of them, boarding a packed 747. I was one of only about a dozen whites travelling to Abuja, but being in a minority turned out to be an advantage at Nigerian immigration. The queues for people with Nigerian passports were huge, but I only had to pause briefly behind a Swiss, an Indian, an argumentative Irishman (who complained that the Indian had pushed in), and two Brits. So I slipped through seamlessly, with my shiny new (unnecessary) yellow fever certificate and international certificate of polio immunisation.
It was 4.30am when I emerged from the terminal building to be greeted by a scent reminiscent of a sauna and that wonderful tropical night sound – a cacophony of crickets. There was no throng of expectant relatives and taxi touts. People waited across the road. There were three impressively tall, statuesque men spectacularly dressed in richly colourful robes and turbans. They stood out from the t-shirt and jeans wearers.
Some of the waiting men held various signs that were difficult to make out in the half light of the drop-off zone so I stepped across the road to take a closer look. There was a chap with a big red cross on his t-shirt, two held signs saying CRS. One read ‘Welcome Mrs Ejembi’. There didn’t seem to be anyone to meet me. Perhaps sensing my uncertainty, one of the Brits from the flight paused as he strode across to be greeted by a local driver. ‘You OK?’
‘Thanks – I’m being met.’ I said, wondering if that was true. Normally I would have patiently waited but didn’t want to be the last to leave the airport in what felt like a totally female-free zone.
I phoned the number I had for Andrew and my slight deafness, an intermittent signal, and a strong Nigerian accent meant a tangled but eventually reassuring conversation. A little later, I spotted a short chap with a well-used VSO sign and James introduced himself with a wide smile. 'You are welcome.' I heard for the first of many times.
He drove us at breakneck speed, weaving and swerving through a short monsoon to Gwarinpa, the largest estate in the whole of Africa, James informed me, and a salubrious corner of Abuja where a lot of international charities have their headquarters.
James mentioned that up until a year ago there had been some security problems in Abuja, but not now. ‘What men with guns on the street?’ I asked, wanting him to elaborate.
‘No, nothing like that – just Boko Haram. The Army has better control these days… But things are still tense. There are road-blocks every one-one mile… There have been some bombs but those were not Boko Haram. These were people with different things to say.’
Entering the grand-looking Hotel Inerconnect involved a check under the car with a mirror on a stick – for bombs. Walking through a doorway-shaped airport-style metal detector, my computer set off the alarm but the guy on security check must have decided I didn’t look like a jihadist and smiled another huge welcome to Nigeria.