It was a slightly chilly evening after a hard day of veteran journalist Dan Mason’s really eye-opening training on online journalism at the Thomson Foundation Summer convergence course on Chancery Lane, London.
The body was tired but the throat was parched, and one had to make the quick choice of which of the two needed an urgent attention. “Two pints please!” I would later tell the friendly bar lady at the Freemason Arms tavern just few metres from our accommodation on Drury Lane in Central London.
A friend from South Africa, an Indian-looking bloke (but without the accent and head gesture we see all the time in Bollywood movies), needed some fresh air. “Gosh, it’s stuffy in there!” said the man who sometimes proudly announces himself as third-generation South African.
With glass in hands outside the Freemason Arms, two pairs of African eyes observed with bemused curiosity as Londoners passed by with their accustomed angry, ‘no-swagger, ‘I-am-chasing-something’ way of walking.
“Gosh, I miss Africa where ladies walk with slight sway of the hips and look at you when they pass by,” my ‘Southy’ friend said.
Conversation went back and forth on various subjects: Indian professionals going back to South Africa; homelessness in the city of London; what the training was going to change in the careers of participants and so on.
Joined by another pub patron who needed fresh air, an aerospace engineer from Manchester, Those parents lived in Kenya in the 60s, the conversation extended to the really expensive cost of living in London.
Then, along came a Rasta. “Can you spare me some change, mates?” The black man with heavy, dirty dreadlocks spoke in English devoid of any tribal coloration that could be associated with Africa. His words were fast and so was his right hand which instantaneously shot forward expectantly.
As the man from Manchester dug his hand into his pockets to get some coins, a strange thing happened.
“Booda, e joo (Brother, please) I just need some change,” the homeless Rasta spoke in Yoruba, my native language! Maybe it was just my drink-sodden brain playing tricks on me. It simply can’t be!
“Se omo Nigeria le yin ni? (Are you from Nigeria?) “Yes, I am from Lagos. I was born there but left the place long ago,” Rasta replied in perfect Yoruba.
Rasta’s name is actually Deji Omolaja. It turned out that he was born in the Apapa area of Lagos and left Nigeria in 1975, or so he claimed.
“I am homeless here and that’s why I couldn’t get married. I have no family here.
“I left Nigeria and came to Britain to study business management at a polytechnic. I became like this because I searched for job but couldn’t get anything much. I did security job once. Please, I only need your help,” Omolaja said.
In many parts of Nigeria, travelling abroad for better life is still seen as a great achievement, even when there is nothing to live on in the foreign land. Of course, as the saying goes, it as if the grass is always greener at the other side.
Paved with gold
When I was young, travelling abroad was almost the height of achievement. London was an ‘oyinbo’ land paved with gold, a lot of less-informed Nigerians still see it as so. But it’s less than 10 days since I got to this great city and I cannot count how many times I have heard an oyinbo (whiteman) tourist say, “This city is expensive! I cannot live here.”
Omolaja’s case is a surprising paradox, though. One would probably never understand the circumstances that have brought him to his present state. But his is a dark symbol of many lives that have simply wasted on the altar of seeking better life outside their seemingly depressing home countries.
So far, it is clear that London is a beautiful city, but not paved with gold. It is paved with a lot of sweat, and the numerous cigarette butts I see on the sidewalks.
This blogpost has also been published in tfsummer14.wordpress.com.