There’s so much to say about my trip to Nigeria that I hardly know where to begin or end. Okay, I’ll jump right into the middle.
I was in a car — in bumper to bumper traffic, on a bridge to Lagos Island from Lagos Mainland — when I realized that the petrol fumes coming through the air-conditioning vent were actually burning the end of my nose.
Considering that we’d gone 10 kilometers in two hours, and still had 10 kilometers to go, I demanded that we turn back and skip the trip to the market. The “we” being our Nigerian higher education consultant and two other representatives from U.A.E. institutions who had come to West Africa to recruit students.
However, we had to get to the end of the bridge first before we could turn around. Our driver suggested that we try the market in that nearby neighborhood instead of the one I’d read about in my Lonely Planet Guidebook.
“Five minutes from here,” he said, which was his stock response to every request about time and distance.
An hour later, we arrived in a place that sent shivers down my spine. The kind of place strewn with human suffering and open sewage. The kind of place where bombs might go off and people might go missing. The kind of place that led me to put a bag over my head — to hide my blonde hair, my femaleness and my American-ness because there wasn’t another person like me amongst the shoppers.
I’ve been in boatloads of dubious situations in my life overseas, but I can’t readily recall feeling as vulnerable anywhere in the world as I did in that moment. I refused to leave the vehicle, as did my Arab friends. I know we offended our Nigerian host, but in this case gut instincts took precedence over good manners.
Back at my hotel a few hours later — yeah, same traffic on the way back — I ordered room-service spaghetti and a vat of sparkling water. I took a long bath and rubbed Benadryl all over my nose which was bleeding from the chemical burn I’d received in the car. I blow dried my hair only to find that it had turned a soft green from the water. I turned on the tv only to see two horrendous things had happened during my stint in Nigeria: the shooting of 17 students at a high school in South Florida; and, the bombing of 18 in a market in northern Nigeria.
I suppose that’s really all you need to know of my trip. And this, too, I suppose: I met with some students about coming to the UAE to study. I went on a radio station to talk about higher education in the UAE. I bought a few souvenirs in the hotel gift shop. I changed my ticket and flew home a day early.
Since returning to Ajman, I’ve left the green tint in my hair instead of running right to the hair salon for a re-do. Do I actually want to remember what I’d hoped I’d soon forget?
My fear, in the here and now, is that the Parkland students and the Nigerian bombing victims (and those missing female Nigerian students) will be lost to wave after wave of news cycles. At least my green hair is proof of their lasting impression on me.