Happy new month,” my caller from Nigeria said a tad solicitously last Saturday.
“Happy new month to you too,” I responded perfunctorily, while trying to figure out the caller’s identity
“Happy last month of the year sir,” the caller said in a tone solicitous still but more emphatic.
Then, I got it.
It is December, the month of Christmas, of goodwill to all men and women as enjoined by Christian scripture. It is the time of Father Christmas, the time of family, town and clan reunions and all kinds of anniversaries, weddings and burials, a season of giving and receiving – the former more than the latter.
A time of interstate and international travel to show the gleaming SUV and other blessings of sojourn in Lagos and abroad to the village folk; a time to “warm” new houses, take new brides and take new titles, etc, etc.
Sadly, like everything else, Christmas is no longer what it used to be.
I remember the scenes at the check-in counter in New York of the national carrier Nigeria Airways, unfortunately no longer with us, at this time of year. To call those scenes riotous would be courteous. The place was a combat zone, bar the shooting. Whenever you saw an unusually large police detachment at the airport, you knew that a Nigeria Airways flight was set to depart.
Passengers and touts, at least four abreast, spilled on to the street, pushing and shoving and jostling and shouting and cursing; they shook their fists at frazzled airline staff who dared to insist that their oversize baggage could not pass for hand luggage and must be paid for accordingly.
I distinctly recall a young man who wanted to board the plane with a Christmas tree with all the lights and bells and whistles, insisting that he had settled for only one hand luggage when he was entitled to two and deserved to be treated with respect.
The plane finally took off some three hours after its scheduled time. As it cruised over the Long Island, the friendly and reassuring voice of Captain Bara Allwell-Brown welcomed all on board, apologized for the delay and announced that there would be a refueling stop at Robertsville Airport in Monrovia, Liberia.
In the spirit of Christmas, what with passengers taking home presents to loved ones, the plane had to shed 15 tons of fuel to accommodate excess freight, he said. The refueling stop stretch arrival time by no more than two hours.
Nigeria Airways is no more. Attempts to revive it have gulped hundreds of millions of Naira, with nary a trial taxiing down the runway to show for it. I gather that flying out of Atlanta or Dallas to New York is not the most pleasant experience, but I bet it is almost a picnic compared with flying out of New York in those good-bad old days of Nigeria Airways.
Christmas, as I was saying, is no longer what it used to be, especially if you are travelling by road. In almost every case, it is a painful, scary and unnerving trip, and you would probably have to spend the first two or three days of your arrival nursing your bumps and bruises and digestive system to recovery. But that is probably the easy part.
No longer can you take your safety for granted. Not when headed out, not when returning, and not while visiting. You have to keep a sharp lookout for kidnappers and their agents, and may even have to arm yourself or engage armed help.
Here are some helpful hints for the road, furnished gratis in the spirit of the season by the boss of one of the leading kidnapping syndicates: Don’t post pictures of your new limousines or latest acquisitions on Facebook.
Don’t spread pictures of your lavish parties all over the newspapers and the internet.
Don’t post a video of the opening of your palatial home all over the place.
Operatives of the syndicate being preliminary fieldwork by scouring the neighbourhood and the internet for tell-tale pictures wealthy persons taking new brides or giving away their daughters in marriage, burying a parent again 23 years later, and in the process flinging N1,000 banknotes or ten-dollar bills or bundles thereof into the crowd.
Confirmation follows. The process is usually rigorous. You don’t want to take in a poseur, or even worse, a flunkey. It would be a waste of time and effort, and a blight on the profession, to take in someone who might have to be given financial assistance to find his way back to the village.
So, beware, holiday-maker.
Those who are forever yearning for the good old times will no doubt be consoled that one thing has remained unchanged. Christmas is still the season of fakes and faking, or the faking season, since there is always so much taking place anyway.
Fake merchandise is already everywhere, with fake bargains to suit every pocket. Fake rice, laced with granular plastic. Fake apples. Fake wines. Fake cakes. Fake beef. Fake poultry parts. Fake cooking oil. Fake tomato puree. Fake honey. Fake table salt. Even fake toothpicks.
Fake designer apparel, fake designer watches, handbags, shoes, jewelry, and what have you.
What has changed perhaps is that the art of faking has now advanced to the point that the most practised eye or the best calibrated instrument can no longer separate the fake from the original.
But the merchants are never as solicitous as the automotive spare-parts dealers at Ladipo Market, Lagos, who cheerfully volunteer the price of an original as against the price of a fake, and assures you as just as cheerfully that they carry only originals when you tell you would rather settle for the fake, and with their hand on their hearts assure you that they don’t know and have never heard of any shops that sell fake parts.
The closure of Nigeria’s official land borders to curb smuggling has reduced the inflow of merchandise to a trickle while, paradoxically, boosting customs revenues to new heights, apparently decongesting the ports to allow for speedier collection of custom. For the Federal Government, it is a win-win outcome.
But since smuggling is carried out for the most part through unofficial routes which are beyond government control, closing the official borders may not curb it to the extent desired. Closing the border may have the opposite effect of sharpening the appetite for consumer goods that have vanished from the markets as well and of course the propensity for to fake them.
But all this is in the realm of theory.
Just remember that, even without the border closures, Christmas is the season for fake stuff.
Take especial care extra when buying wines, body lotion, cologne, and other bottled products. Check them for scratches and crushed crowns. Make sure the labels are not photocopies. Apply the lotion or cologne to a tiny portion of your face or body for a start. If it doesn’t burn your skin, you can be sure that it is not at first blush harmful, not that it is the real stuff.
If the wine doesn’t scorch your tongue or throat, you can proceed to have a judicious sip, hoping that it will not your gastronomy.
The internet, I need hardly add, is just as accommodating to fake news as it is to fake merchandise. You cannot touch or feel or smell the stuff on offer. It is some consolation that you can return it and get your money back. But even with the more reputable marketers, it can be a hassle. With the shadowy ones who prowl the internet and bury the merchandize in reams of fine print, the process is guaranteed to be traumatic.
Since we are dealing with a highly dynamic situation, his cannot be the last word on the matter. An update is in already in the works.
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