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Shifting Sands

Posts tagged Expatriate

There but for the Grace of God go I…

I don’t know how many times I heard that phrase from my Mum as a kid growing up in Western Australia during the 1970’s, but it was a lot. It is different to Schadenfreud, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. As a child, I assumed the phrase meant I should never be smug about my personal achievements, attributes or circumstances because all it took was a twist of fate (or the cold hand of God) to take it all away.

If fate had taken a different turn, I could have been the girl who turned up to school every day in dirty clothes with nothing for lunch. Or the boy born with paralysed legs who had to walk with crutches, dragging his feet through the sand in the playground so he could hang out with his friends. Another chum, Emilio, died tragically of a brain tumour at the age of 10. We had an assembly for his Italian immigrant parents where we sang ABBA songs- he was a huge ABBA fan. I remember being upset by his horrible death and  grateful I was still alive and healthy.

Western societies seem to have lost this sense of the vagaries of fate, which means sometimes we are not as kind to each other was we should be. It is almost as though we blame others for their misfortune and resent tax money paying for others’ medical care, unemployment benefits, subsidised housing or whatever.

My young cleaner here in Lagos is under no illusions about the capricious nature of fate. Last week Angie mentioned she was saving to buy herself a bed. I assumed she didn’t have a bed, which concerned me as she has some health issues that require her to at least have a decent mattress. Therefore, I showed her the spare bed we keep in our BQ (servant’s quarters) and said she could have it. Western style beds and mattresses are expensive in Nigeria and she greeted my offer with a nod and stunned silence. My husband agreed and arranged to have someone from his work move the bed to her apartment later that week.

Meanwhile, the poor girl seemed enormously stressed. Her English is not great and she struggles with my Australian accent so I didn’t know the cause of her anxiety (something about the bed) and couldn’t reassure her much. Eventually, I realised she was certain something would happen to prevent her taking ownership of the bed. Perhaps the security people at the gate wouldn’t let it leave the compound.  Maybe the contractors would refuse to move the bed for her- a lowly cleaner. Or she had misunderstood us and we didn’t mean for her to have the bed at all. In fact, even when the contractors turned up to move the bed and take it to her apartment, she was still waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. I realised she simply couldn’t believe her luck and was certain something would go wrong. She has the bed now and is delighted.

On reflection, I realised Angie is no different to most Lagosians I have met during the last 2 years. Even middle class Nigerian friends live with the uncertainty that only those raised in a politically unstable, poor nation can understand. Security is an illusion that can be destroyed by an unpopular election result, the rise of a terror group or economic downturn. Callous fate rather than personal endeavour, plays a greater role in the lives of citizens in developing nations than it does for those of us born in more stable places. A personal misfortune such as injury, illness or bereavement can completely shatter any chance of a decent life, given the lack of social services. My hope for Nigeria as we head into the elections is that Nigeria’s fate will turn in a more positive direction than it has over the past year.

Lagos Apartment Complex

Lagos Apartment Complex

My husband and I have lived in Lagos for 18 months. When I say Lagos, I mean one of the “islands” where most of the expatriates live – Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Banana Island. Every company has different security arrangements but most require their employees to use Mopol (mobile police) as an escort if they have any reason to visit the mainland.

Unlike most of the world’s police, the police in Nigeria can be hired to escort cars (mostly SUV’s) if it is deemed necessary. Mopol units are small trucks with flashing lights, armed men and very loud horns. They follow behind, making sure everyone knows you are important and therefore worth kidnapping or robbing. Having said that, the traffic on the islands is so congested it would be impossible for kidnappers or armed robbers to make much of a getaway during daylight hours. For this reason, most ex-pats are advised by their security people to be home by 10pm, as criminal activity escalates after dark. If you do succumb to the lure of Lagos nightlife and stay out late, expect to be stopped by police at various checkpoints. Try not to make eye contact and look busy on your phone or something. These checkpoints can be a hassle.

You will probably not be able to drive yourself. My husband’s company provides us with a car and our own driver. He picks my husband up for work in the morning and drives him anywhere he needs to go during the day. If I need to go anywhere, I arrange to have the driver pick me up later or I go in to the office with my husband. Even if I want to visit a friend within walking distance of my apartment, I still need to use the car. We are not supposed to walk anywhere alone in Nigeria. It’s a bit of a drag.

Where I live on Ikoyi it’s possible to pay a fee of $140 (each) which will gives residents a pass that allows access to a gated “safe” area on Banana Island. The enthusiastically guarded entrance is just outside our apartment complex. It’s not possible to sneak in without a pass, although we gave it a pretty good shot! Some of my friends have paid and assure me it’s a pleasant walk along the lagoon. We’ll probably get around to it eventually, but paying a fee to walk in our own neighborhood rankles a little, particularly as anyone can enter the area by boat via the lagoon. The lagoon was a favorite place for bandits in the past but we have been assured it’s now safe. So far, so good.

When you finally move into your secure apartment, you will feel extremely secure. In fact, I believe I know how Presidents, Royalty and the Kardashians feel. If one of my friends from the apartment complex across the road wants to drop in for coffee, she must announce herself at the security gate. One of the guards will then ring my apartment to see if I’m expecting a visitor. Eventually after greeting several security guards along the way, she will arrive at my apartment block, press the intercom button and I will let her in. It’s worse for the young girl who comes to help with the ironing. She gets searched on her way in and out at the security post. If I give her gifts of food or clothing I need to write a dated, signed note listing the various items. If I leave anything off the list the security people ring me.

These security arrangements may seem over the top but they reflect the fact that Nigeria has a large population of people who live in poverty (around $3 a day) so petty and more serious crime is a daily reality.

The sad fact, however, is that the poor are far more likely to be victims of crime in Nigeria than expatriates.

*The photograph above is of my apartment building in Ikoyi.