Last night was a little unusual for me. Instead of sitting up until midnight, checking my emails and social media updates, or reading for inspiration, or even trying to beat the evil genius that controls all the best words in the Scrabble game on my iPad, I was sleeping. Not just any sleep, but the sleep born out of deep frustration. The one that shuts down all the negative thoughts going round in your head; the one that promises that everything will be better when you wake up.
It had been one of those days that knocked all my hope, optimism and enthusiasm sideways, and left me feeling flat. I got home around 6pm, stripped off my suit, kicked off my shoes and lay staring at nothing in particular, as the golden light faded between the blinds. I prayed that sleep would come quickly; to silence the voices of irritation and disappointment, and to restore my faith.
For those readers who know me well, this morose condition will come as a surprise; a rare moment of weakness, when I can’t see the brighter side of anything. It’s rare but every few months it happens – and I let it happen, knowing that I’ll bounce right back. So, what could possibly cause this pothole on my otherwise silky-smooth emotional highway of life? And how does it grow to become a crater that threatens to engulf me, at least for a few self-indulgent hours?
Okay, enough of the drama. It’s time for me to introduce you to the one thing that can reduce me to this comatose state – it’s called a Naija Day. I coined the phrase about four years ago, when I needed something to describe that one day when absolutely nothing seems to work. And since the experience was unique to my time in Nigeria, it was the perfect shorthand. Some of my friends have heard me use the term and can get annoyed by the negative connotations of their beloved country. So, to all of my Nigerian readers, let me apologise in advance – it’s just my way of having fun and making light of the dysfunction in the society. And, besides, if you’ve grown up with these inconveniences all your life, my experience may seem to be an overreaction.
During my first year of consulting in Nigeria, I stayed at the Presidential Lodge in Calabar. The grander side of the compound was reserved for visiting governors, senators and the president himself. I would spend a week or two on the other side, with the consultants, investors and lesser dignitaries. It wasn’t fancy but it was comfortable, safe and quiet, and the food was good. When I started to live in the city full-time, I continued to make the lodge my home away from home; but it couldn’t last.
I found a house, paid two years’ rent in advance (yep, that’s how it works here) and started buying furniture and other home comforts. Six months later, I was still at the lodge. One day, it occurred to me that I was scared; scared to death of leaving because now I would have to face what one friend called ‘the real Nigeria’. By that, he meant the Nigeria where you have to generate your own electricity, pump your own water, shop for food without a decent supermarket and employ your own gateman, cook, cleaner, etc. I could handle most of it but providing my own utilities seemed a bit daunting.
I asked lots of questions and learned about generators, inverters, UPS, stabilisers, boreholes, overhead tanks – everything I needed to survive in ‘the real Nigeria’, a world away from the Presidential Lodge, but just 10 minutes down the road. Apart from a few minor mishaps, I thought I was doing quite well, until one day it happened. I woke up one rainy morning, completely unaware that I was about to experience one of THOSE days.
First, there was no electricity. No problem, just put on the gen. The gen won’t start. Maybe it needs fuel. Oh, my neighbour had borrowed my petrol because, according to him, I always had more than enough. That’s okay, I have enough hot water, let me grab a shower and get out of here. No water.
“Okon,” I shouted at the gateman, “there’s no water.”
Okon looked bemused. “No sah, no wata sah.”
“Why is there no water,” I asked.
“No light to pump it, sah,” he replied
“I know that, Okon, but we always use Mr Bassey’s big gen to pump. What’s happened?”
“No wyah, sah,” said Okon, a faint and very annoying smile curling his lip.
“Oh, for God’s sake!”
To cut a long story short, our wire that connected the borehole pump at the front of the compound with the generator in the back yard, was not ours at all. It was borrowed from ‘one man down the road’ who had decided to reclaim it. Luckily, an electrician had just finished working in one of the apartments, so I despatched him and Okon to buy wire to make the connection. When they returned, they got to work while I waited anxiously for my shower. The wire was too short to reach and they went back twice before they got enough to finish the job.
While I was waiting, I noticed all my neighbours heading out to work and smelling sweet! What treachery was this? Was I the only one without water? By now, my PA had arrived for a lift to the office and she was giggling at my indignation. Patiently, she explained why I was the only one waiting to have a bath. “Everyone else has buckets of water stored – they’re always prepared. It’s only you that insists on a power shower.” It was a valuable lesson, one that would be reinforced throughout the day.
And what a day it was. The mobile telecoms network, MTN, was down, so I couldn’t make calls, send texts or use BBM. The office wi-fi was down for some other reason. The office generator had broken down and it was stifling hot inside our building. And so it went on. I learned from days like that and found new and ingenious ways of insuring against disaster – a backup for the backup; a Plan B, C and D.
And yet, with all of that insurance against having a bad day, yesterday still happened. I won’t bore you with the details but I was deeply disappointed. I retreated from my airless office, the result of not having air-conditioning for two days running, and was welcomed by a feebly rotating fan at home, powered by an inverter whose batteries were depleted by the 48-hour blackout. With the ongoing fuel shortage, I decided not to use the remaining few litres in the generator. My dinner was a bit suspect after 10 hours in a warm fridge. You get the picture.
I woke up in darkness and searched for any device that would display the time. 10.40pm. My Naija Day was almost over. I checked my phone and saw the bank alert showing that money, owed since December 2014, had finally hit my account. It wasn’t enough but it was more than I had at the beginning of the day. I thought about everything that had happened and knew that it could be a lot worse. I considered all the people that have a Naija Day every day and still manage to smile.
That’s when it hit me. My worst days are someone else’s best days. I have the resources to come up with plans A-D. So what if they occasionally fail? These Naija Days have taught me patience, humility, resourcefulness and gratitude. I can escape to London or Kingston for a dose of convenience, efficiency and order, whenever it gets too much. And, deep down, I have this knowing that these Naija Days are preparing me for the next phase of my life, when who knows what tests will come.
“Ah, those Naija Days,” I will say, “they were the making of me.”