Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego

Because of how compact it looks from the outside, I tend to forget that the Murtala Muhammed International Airport is a maze. You only need to take one wrong turn to end up in an unlabelled corridor with buzzing fluorescent lights phasing in and out, ominous rumbling from the depths of the building, and water dripping from the ceiling. I made my way through, sticking close to but careful not to touch the clammy walls.
I climbed up two flights of stairs to a dead end, backtracked listening for noise until I came upon a female Customs Officer whose presence was announced by a rustling sound that grew in intensity until she materialised from a hidden side door holding a flashlight. She swung the beam both ways before chugging down the corridor past me, her scowl making it clear she wasn’t there to answer questions. I followed her, trotting at a safe distance.

The sign had said ‘Port Health’ with a jagged arrow pointing down a dark hallway, but the paper was torn at the edges and the tape holding it brown with age and after I got lost and tried to return to that starting point, the sign was missing, and I could have sworn the lights were not flickering this much before.

She turned twice. First, at a sealed-off door with a glass front. The interior of that office looking like an abandoned radio station. Dust motes dancing in dim light, dark switchboards and microphones on a long desk. I hurried to catch up with her as she turned the second time, descending down a circular stairway into a marginally better lit space. She clicked off her torch and cut through a crowd huddled around the entrance to the Port Health office.
The airport health centre was the same cream colour as all government offices, with dark green or grey highlighting around the door frame. Inside were five nurses, two per table behind mounds of files and one at the entrance issuing instructions.
“First you line up to get the injection and take a number. When we call your number, you bring your passport with one thousand naira inside. We will use that to fill out your yellow card. If you are in a hurry to catch a flight, let us know before we start.”
I get on the queue and roll up my sleeve for the vaccine. When it gets to her turn, the grandma in front of me starts flapping her fingers and snivelling.
“Nurse, is it going to be painful? Eeesh, nurse, tell me the truth, I am afraid.”
To which the nurse says: “Get out of here and stop wasting everybody’s time. Next person!”
Then she turns to me and sticks me in my right arm before I can ready myself.

The pain is a flash and then it is gone. I take a number and stumble back out. My head is either real woozy or imaginary woozy. Antibodies are floating in my bloodstream. No one likes needles but some people can suppress their aversion long enough to take injections.
Grandma is taking hers now. “Ah ah, nurse, why didn’t you just say something before? It’s not that bad.” She continues talking to the waiting crowd like they’ve appointed her speaker of the scared people. “They should be nicer to those of us older people who are a little bit worried about taking injections. It is not as if we are children.”

We are holding cotton buds to our arms in a mass quenelle salute, like we brushed dirt off our shoulders and accidentally smudged it into our white tees.

Grandma is still talking. She is stuck in that loop where a person embarrasses themselves in public and they keep talking to try to dissipate the feeling. My body is floaty.
Once, I was on a bus and when the conductor turned to collect the fare and asked where I was going, I noticed he was missing the top joints of the four fingers on his right hand, hacked off in an accident or some other misfortune. I stammered, swallowed hard, attempted to recover, and sputtered out my destination. When I thought about it later, I wasn’t sure if I stammered because I was surprised by the incomplete fingers or because I was uncertain about where I was going. Yes, I was going to work but I was taking an unfamiliar route.
At that point, sitting on the bus, I contemplated striking up a conversation with the conductor so he would know it wasn’t because of the fingers. I could crack jokes and when he softened, I would say, “I’m totally cool with the fingers, bro, some of my best friends are lepers.” He would throw his head back and laugh long, holding his heaving belly with his stumps, then he would extend his hand to give me a fist bump.

It took an act of great will to muzzle myself that day.

Someone is getting up from the chair closest to the door so grandma can sit in it. I am light-headed, I should sit down. I am number four and nanobots are swimming in my system.
I am thinking all this when a man joins the group. He is escorted by two airport officials, both shorter than him. One of the officials pushes through the crowd to go into the Port Health office. The other one stays with the man on the outskirts of the vaccinated crowd. I glance up at his face. He is a head taller than everyone else. He has no facial hair and the close-cut hair on his head is grey. His eyes are tiny in his head and sharp. His cheekbones are like his eyes, rock-hard, carved in his face. Grandma is chattering in the background. I realize that I know him and because he is wearing a white tracksuit, I know exactly from where.

I am leaning against the wall. The boy standing beside me has been on with his blackberry the whole time. He nudges me. “That man looks familiar. Do you know who he is?”
I nod and start to hyperventilate.
He leans into my face and whispers, “Who?”
I say, “Carl Lewis,” and my vision goes blurry.

The boy straightens up and goes back to his phone. He punches buttons, hums to himself, stretches the phone out to me. It is a Google search on Carl Lewis with his image on the right side of the screen.
“You’re right,” he says.
My hands are shaking. A tear unbeckoned squeezes itself out of my eye.

Carl Lewis was the first man to run 100 metres under 10 seconds (fine print included). The question then was, if man continues to get better, how fast can humans go?
His long jump record is over 29 feet and third in the world. The story goes that when his father died in ’87, Carl Lewis buried his 100m gold medal from 1984 with him and told his mom, “Don’t worry, I’ll win another one,” which he did in ’88. He won his first gold at 23 and his last at the age of 35. He was picking up gold medals at international competitions for twelve years.
He was voted Sportsman of the Century by the International Olympic Committee.
He competed in the ’84, ’88, ’92 and ’96 Olympics at a time when running was something we took seriously. Everyone knew the fastest child on each street and the fastest overall on the estate. You knew the fastest student in your school and the fastest teacher. And every Olympics, you ignored all the other sports and waited for the short sprints and relays because Nigeria always made a showing. Not quite winning, but not losing either; our green suits flailing somewhere in the middle, still enough to make you feel proud.
When I was at the age when everything seemed possible, Carl Lewis was the best on earth at something that wasn’t debatable: How fast can you run and how far can you jump. It was, in my mind, as close to a superhero as you can get.

Blackberry boy is nudging me again. “You should talk to him. Ask him for a picture or something. If it was me, I would ask.”

There is a Japanese anime series called Afro Samurai–which was notable because the English voice of the main character is done by Samuel L. Jackson–and it revolves around the concept of headbands. In the Afro Samurai world, the best fighter in the world wears the Number One headband, and lives in luxury in a mansion at the top of a mountain. It is the ultimate goal to get that headband, its wearer possesses great powers and gets everything he wants.
But the only way to get the Number One headband is to defeat the current wearer in combat and according to the rules, he can only be challenged by the person with the Number Two headband.

The second most powerful man in the world wears the Number Two headband. There are no perks to being Number Two. He is constantly harassed by people who want the headband so they can fight for the Number One position. If he goes into a town, everyone knows he is there. They swarm his location trying to stop him, to pick fights, to poison him. Opportunists linger around him looking to steal the headband.

It is a hectic life, but it is how I imagined Carl Lewis lives.
Like there should be a website ‘Where is Carl Lewis dot com’ and people can log in to see where he is at any moment. Or an app, the Carl Lewis tracker that tells you: You are currently 9,380 kilometres from Carl Lewis.

Like he should not be here in this dungeon debating Nigerian immigration on whether or not he needs shots because Superman cannot catch a cold and Thor could never get tetanus.

Like he should just pick up his bag and jump out of this tiny airport in one bound. Because he could and because he is dressed for it.

But he doesn’t.
He is fifty-two. His handlers argue with the nurses a bit more. Carl Lewis checks his watch. Ten seconds pass. He mumbles something to the man beside him. Then with his lips pressed together, he picks up his luggage and struggles up the stairs with it.

Slice

Bidemi Lajide was cheating on his wife of seven years. I should state that upfront so you do not think this is a mystery story. I should also mention that he will get caught so there isn’t any suspense about that either.

This evening, Mr Lajide is at home in the living room watching football. He has pulled the centre table close and stretched both feet on it. The match was played earlier today and he already knows the score, which is why he can kick back and watch calmly like this. His wife can be heard rummaging around in the corridor that leads to the bedroom. She comes out in a flurry of quick movements and enters the kitchen where she continues her noisy undefined activity. He is now on the phone: “Hello, I am watching the game. I know, see how our boys are messing up. If it was me I will not even wait, I will fire that coach immediately.”

At halftime, Mr Lajide gets up with considerable effort. Wheezing, he nudges the centre table with his knee and lumbers to the toilet leaving a deep dent in the couch and his phone on the table. His wife, Moji, comes in from the kitchen with a rag. She dusts the side tables and the shelf that holds the television. Her wrapper comes loose as she bends to clean. She turns to the centre table by the couch. She clears the table, picking the phone up and pauses for a moment, phone in one hand while she tucks in the edge of her wrapper with the other hand.

This is when Bidemi comes back from the toilet. He stops at the entrance to the sitting room and seeing his wife through the swaying bead curtain holding his phone with an irritated look on her face, he assumes that she has seen something on the phone to upset her.

Nine months earlier, Moji Lajide had talked about starting a business. It began on the day she ran into her friend, Bimbo, from secondary school. After the initial greeting, even though nobody asked her, Bimbo had said, “Ah, I am doing business now o.” She flashed the rings on her fingers and continued to give unsolicited information. “I go to Dubai, China, India, anywhere we have contacts.”
And as they stood there by the road catching up, counting off countries on fingers, Moji thought that if someone passing looked at them, the person would not believe they were ex-classmates. The person would think Bimbo was her madam.

They parted without taking each other’s numbers. Moji returned home that day with determination borne of the certainty you can do something better than someone else. She wasn’t impressed by the jewellery, she said when she told her sister. She didn’t care that much about travelling, she said when she told the other clerk at work. Really, how hard was it to do business, sef.

She talked about starting business about a hundred times that first day, about seventy times the second day, and only about thirty times on the third day. But there was a wedding that weekend that she’d bought aso-ebi for and by the time Monday rolled around, other things occupied her mind.
So when her husband surprised her with seed money for the business, she couldn’t remember why she had been so intent on it.

She held on to the money for weeks, unwrapping it and counting every few days, annoyed at being put into this situation where she had to follow up on her talk, until one of the girls at the salon mentioned a man running a QuikInvest shop. Give him one thousand, she said, and after a month he will give you back one-five. If you want, invest the one thousand five hundred, he will give you three thousand.
The hairdresser said, “They are using internet. It is foreign trading. If you don’t believe, try small first. If it doesn’t work, at least you will know.” Moji shook her head and made a scoffing noise in her throat. When her weave was done, she got up and inspected it turning in the mirror. Satisfied, she paid the girl, and as she waited for the change, she looked in the mirror again, patted her new hair and said, “And give me that man’s number.”

She put in five thousand and got seven-five after a month. She took it out, pocketed the profit, and put in the entire hundred thousand. The QuikInvest man said, “This one will take more time, so you must exercise patience.” Then he asked if she had more friends who wanted to invest. He kept calling and texting her to remind her to recommend her friends. Each time, she would take the call in private, speaking in a low voice. “Yes. I’ve heard. I will tell them.” Afterwards, she would clear her call log and delete his text messages even though she had saved his name as ‘Oga Tailor’.

The months for the hundred thousand had passed, but for the last week, the man’s phone had been off. His shop was locked and the sign outside had been taken down. Moji went to the salon where the girl was sitting in the corner with swollen eyes. When the hairdresser saw Moji, she started crying again. The story that came out between sobs was about her mother’s pension and how could she face the people she had told to invest in the man. Moji rushed out of the salon. She went home and started furious cleaning. She washed the bathrooms, mopped the floors, and scrubbed the buckets. She swept the corridor, brushed the cobwebs high in the corners. In the kitchen, she wiped down the cooker. She exposed the dank interior of the cabinet underneath the sink and cleared out the junk that had accumulated there.

She moved to the living room, dusted the side tables and was holding her husband’s phone, absentmindedly tucking in her wrapper, trying to remember if she had saved any of the text messages from the investor when Bidemi stormed in shouting at her about checking his phone, and respect my privacy this and privacy that.

Interlude

I like talking to people who do what you do. In my head, I assume you can read my mind and have me all figured out.

I imagine that around you, I will have to wear a foil hat to shield myself from the probing rays emanating from your mind. So I think about a lot of random things to keep you on your toes, to keep you from latching on to any one thought in my head.

Sometimes sitting across from you, I think jokes to myself, and chuckle. You look at me and pretend to be puzzled, but I know you hear the jokes as clear as if I had said them out loud. I only wonder how you’re able to keep from bursting out laughing because that was a really funny joke I just thought about.

What I talk about when I talk about hating running

About a week ago, I stumbled upon ads for the Nike We Run Lagos 2013 10km run. Against my better judgement, I registered for it on Monday and was thrilled when I got a rejection notification. “Applications are now closed,” it said. “We will keep you updated about the race next year.” 
I hadn’t run in a while, but I estimated that if I had gotten in, I could squeeze in three runs between Monday and race day on Saturday. I was glad I didn’t have to face those foolish optimistic calculations.

On Wednesday, I woke up to an email from the We Run Lagos committee saying I was confirmed for the race. 
Surely they meant not confirmed. It would be ludicrous for anyone to expect me to run on two days’ notice. I was all set to assume it was a mistake and not go but all the reasons I wanted to do it in the first place returned to me. To be on the bridge along the marina watching the sunrise reflected in the water and feel a pleasant breeze blowing across the harbour with seagulls above chasing each other gliding and banking on warm air currents.

I don’t know where I was fantasising about, but it wasn’t Lagos. On race day by six in the morning, the sun was fully formed in the centre of the sky far above the horizon and already too bright to be stared at. Even before the race started, as I picked up my gear and walked to the starting point, the illusions I had melted in the heat.

If you’re out in Lagos on weekend mornings, you’ll pass many identical groups of football players jogging together on the expressways. They are always miles away from any obvious fields, singing and chanting as they exercise.
They must have all skipped their football games that morning because they were all at the race. It was me and two thousand wiry men. People who are members of three or four local teams, who played one full match in the morning, one in the evening, and practised in the hot afternoon. Fatigue was an alien concept to them.

They weren’t stretching, they weren’t pacing nervously like I was or conserving energy. They were bunched up under the Nike start banner singing along with music from the DJ booth and performing choreographed dance moves. They were carrying backpacks, cleats, juggling soccer balls back and forth between themselves, like the ten kilometres was a minor interruption they would sort out quickly before going to do some real work. 
One of them was on his phone, he was keeping a soccer ball in the air by bouncing it off his thighs, shoulders, head, and chest. When the race started, he kicked the ball ahead in front of him and ran after it in a full sprint without interrupting his call. 
I watched him and his teammates dash off, leaving me standing at the line.

Running, like any other ordeal, is manageable if you know how long it will last. A person can grit their teeth and survive most distances as long as they know how much is left and can pace themselves counting down steadily to the end. 
I’d assumed I could do it here using kilometre markers or if those didn’t exist, the water-points along the route. I would watch for the distance left and adjust depending on how I felt at the different points in the race. 

I rounded the first bend at Onikan stadium and climbed up the bridge overlooking the marina. And right there at the top of the bridge, not a hundred steps from the starting point was the first water stop. I had barely finished the water distributed at the beginning. 

This water stop–like all the others, I would find out–did not have a distance marker on it showing how far along the race it was, but if I had to estimate, I would say the water stops were at 0.6km, 2km, then nothing until 8.5km, and 9km. Their irregular spacing was a mind game. Sure I had moved forward, but by how much?

In mid-stride, between gasps, I tried asking the event coordinators at the water-point, “How far? How far have we gone?” Instead of answering, they thrust water bottles in my face yelling, “You can do it! You’re almost there!” which didn’t make sense at the first stop since I could still see the beginning. 

We ran past CMS, past the cathedral and over the motorpark, past Leventis. We were still on the island and I was already winded. At the second water stop, the same thing: “You can do it! You’re almost there!” 
I shouted back at the woman, “Liar!” and smacked the bottle out of her hand.

I stopped paying attention to the water and ran aimlessly, chasing the river of red race shirts ahead. I tried to gauge how much time had passed using the position of the sun and innate skills from my ancestors but the sun just sat there inches above me breathing fire. 
The Marina bridge sloped down into Ebute Ero, then climbed back up into Eko Bridge to cross the lagoon to the mainland. At this point, it became difficult to keep my head up, so I let it dangle and stuck to a sluggish but methodical pace. People passed me, the sound of their footsteps building from behind as they caught up then fading away as they ran on.

If someone had asked me before: How many times do you think you go uphill when you cross the bridge from the island to the mainland? I would have said smugly, it’s a bridge so you go uphill one time on one side then downhill on the other side. That would have been incorrect. The Eko bridge is a series of undulating hills. Fifty is my current guestimate. Each hill chomped chunks of my stamina.
Sweat spewed from my face like a sprinkler. My calves were the immobile marble support pillars of a grand hall. I couldn’t remember lifting them up but I would feel them clang back down. 

Somewhere in that long waterless middle, I heard hooting and hollering then scattered applause. Unable to turn my bobbing head, I listened. I couldn’t hear footsteps approaching but everyone was staring at something past me. The clapping grew louder. People were pointing. 

Someone in the roadside crowd said, “Ah! Look at this small boy.”
At my elbow, a child appeared. He was no more than six or seven years old. His tiny shoulders were squared, his fists locked, knees high, on his feet he wore those Baby Gap toddler tennis shoes with velcro flaps. He came in low in my field of vision and a second later was several paces ahead of me. Then he was gone over the next hump in the bridge, his little legs galloping on the wave of applause. I couldn’t have been more surprised if the kid was riding a unicorn. I gave him a weak groan of support.

The next time I opened my eyes I saw a stadium’s tall floodlights in the distance perched over the mainland. The bridge curved slightly and the stadium was hidden behind the abandoned NITEL building. When I emerged from the shadow of the building, the stadium was further away. I was perplexed. 
I blinked several times to clear my eyes and checked again. I saw that there were two stadiums. Surulere has two separate sports facilities which are only a block apart but that block was the difference between finishing and shame. My heart sank. Even without asking, I knew we were going to the one that was farther away.

I willed myself to run faster. I would send a message to my legs to move, and it was like mailing something by NiPost. Sometimes the letter would go through taking ten times as long as it should, sometimes it would bounce back, sometimes the message would get lost in transit and the legs would shudder feebly.

The bridge stretched on. We had crossed the lagoon but the bridge wouldn’t end. It kept going over land. Past Iddo, past Costain, all the while finding reasons to still be uphill. 

I descended the bridge sometime on Monday morning by my estimation. On the exit ramp, there was a guy wearing a race t-shirt strolling, eating gala. I ran past him. My first overtake!
He waited until I had gotten a few metres away, then he ran, flap flap flap, past me. He stopped ahead of me and started to walk.
Maintaining my painful pace, I passed him again. Second overtake. I was jogging so slow, I could hear him casually dragging his feet behind me. screee screee screee.
Once I got far enough, flap flap flap, he took off running again. Ran past me, stopped in front and continued walking.

O Lord. 
I noticed then that the reason he was making that flapping sound was because he was wearing slippers. 
The dude was walking in slippers at the end of a 10K and he had managed to remain ahead of me the entire time and was now giving me trouble.
There was a sound coming from my chest like water gurgling through a blocked pipe. The sweat that had pooled on my forehead seeped salt into my eyes. I couldn’t take it any more.

The next time I overtook him, I cursed. “If you stop in front of me one more time, I swear I will kill you.” 
He didn’t wait long this time. He chuckled and ran in a wide circle around me.  
I reached for him, but my arms did not move. My fists made ineffectual clenching motions at my sides like a sleeping baby grasping an adult finger. 

He laughed all the way down the road. Har har flap flap. 

I stumbled into Surulere. A bored crowd milled about the barricades waiting to get their road back. I ran through them into the Teslim Balogun stadium. 

The finish banner hung over the oval track on the far side across from the entrance. I traversed the last two hundred metres in grim silence, crossed the line, then crawled onto the artificial turf in the middle of the field to die.

As I lay there, although I was certain I was too cynical to care, I felt an unexpected pride. Not at myself for completing the race, but at Lagos and the fact that the race–complete with closed roads, police escorts spurring you on, and area boys cheering–could happen here.
I am always quick to join in complaining about the lack of leisure options in Nigeria. It has been easier to do that than participate in the measly options available. I’ve skipped art exhibitions, comic book conventions, fashion shows, and book readings all while griping that there is nothing to do. With the availability of the internet and the millions of people here, you’d think there would be enough variety to cater to every quirk or interest. But I rarely feel that way. It is always only me.
Then there are days like that day when even running alone I feel like part of something larger. 
Lagos forces us into competition for space, for resources, for prestige, but everyone who runs wants the same thing: to finish. And people, even when they are competitive, want that for everyone who runs with them or anyone they see running, that they finish too.

It is an uncomplicated wish: 
I don’t know you, and might not like you, but I hope you finish too.