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Different worlds

Nigerian WomanIn economy class on our Virgin Airlines flight to London, our knees knocked against the seat before us. In the middle column of the plane, my daughter had the isle seat to my left, and I prayed that the seat to my right would remain empty. It wasn’t to be.

A short, well-rounded Nigerian woman in black trousers and a black, thickly padded winter coat edged towards our row. The young Nigerian lady in the isle seat stood up to let her pass. The woman clambered awkwardly to the seat next to me. She swung her big handbag around and plonked it in my lap, taking ownership of the armrest between us. She sighed and looked up at me from under the rim of her coat’s hood. A sprinkle of white hair and piercing black eyes suggested an age-wizened woman, but her smooth skin and open, innocent smile belonged to a younger girl. Her every move radiated a pungent smell of wood smoke, dust and dried palm leaves.

She turned to the young lady to her right and spoke a few rapid sentences in a language I could not identify.

‘Sorry, I don’t understand you,’ replied the young lady passing a mystified glance at me over the woman’s head. The young lady’s English was flawless, lilting in a soft version of the Nigerian-English accent. Her hair was elaborately braided in long locks tied back with a colourful scarf. The fabrics of her clothing were of Nigerian patterns but the style was fluid and stylish rather than the starched crispness of traditional fashion.

I wondered which of Nigeria’s 500+ languages the woman spoke. Surely, had it been one of the three major languages, Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba, the young lady would have recognised it and apologised for not speaking that specific language. The fact that the older woman did not seem to speak Pidgin made me think that she must come from a rural village away from the coast where Pidgin was a second if not first language to many people. How did she get on a plane to Europe?

The stewardess walked up the isle asking that everyone buckle up and put their bags at their feet.

My daughter and I were all ready to go. At 16, Michele has done this so many times that preparing for take-off is as normal a procedure as getting ready for bed. She was buckled up and plugged into her ipod, reading a book. To my right, the woman still hadn’t removed her bag from my lap. I tapped her gently on the arm and pointed at her bag then pointed at her feet. She smiled brightly at me but didn’t move. I smiled back and pointed at my bag under the seat in front of me. She took her bag and put it on her lap.

‘This is your bursar speaking…’

Bla bla. I knew the routine and what needed to happen before we took off. I gently took the large wooden handle of the woman’s oversized handbag, which felt nearly empty, and helped her lower it to the ground. Then I pointed to my seat belt. She watched me intently then shrugged. I fished around for the end of the buckle then pointed to her right side but still she didn’t move. I stretched around her, fishing for the other end of the buckle. Finally, I managed to nudge it out from under her bum. I slowly buckled it, showing her the ends and how they fit together. I gave her the thumbs up with a question mark on my face. She smiled and nodded.


I was on my way to the UK to bring my daughter to her boarding school. This event, bringing my first-born child, my gorgeous, nearly grown-up baby to this new chapter in her life, was a big event for us. Boarding schools are neither in my Canadian traditions nor my husband’s Dutch heritage. Although we were absolutely convinced that she was mentally and emotional ready for the move, we were well aware of the impact it would have on her life. She would go from being our little girl to independence and self-reliance; from being in warm and chaotic Africa to chilly, trim and orderly Kent; from the American to the British school systems and accents; from having her own room, double bed and private bathroom to sharing a room and bathroom and sleeping in a narrow single bed…

The engines roared as we rolled to the runway. The woman next to me started to sing. It was a sweet song, quite like a lullaby, not loud but distinct over the noise of the plane.  She beamed at me, as if the song was a gift. But I didn’t feel like dealing with her at that moment. I wanted to indulge in a fleeting moment of self-pity as I thought of how different my world would be without my daughter.

The plane started its sprint up the runway and the woman shut her eyes and her song turned into a chant: rapid monotonal repetition of distinct sentences. I put my hand on Michele’s thigh. It’s a habit – I like to have physical contact with my kids on take-off. Michele unplugged herself from her ipod and giggled, nodding towards the woman on my right.

‘It’s juju, Mom.’

Whether the woman was chanting juju charms or saying prayers, the effect was the same: she was calling the spirits of her faith to ensure a safe journey.

As the plane levelled out, her chanting stopped and she opened her eyes. She beamed at me and then at the lady on her right as if we should thank her for still being alive.

‘Where do you think she’s going, Mum?’

‘Don’t know, but I hope she’ll be met at the airport.’

Michele looked at the woman with concern.

‘I hope she can find her suitcase and way out,’ I added.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, I doubt she can read. At least there is no way she reads English.’

Michele plotted the path from the plane to the airport exit in her mind. ‘Man! She’ll have to follow the signs to ‘baggage pick up’ and ‘exit’.  How is she going to make it?’

‘She’ll surely ask for help.’

Michele looked dubious.

I patted her leg. ‘Look, she’s made it this far. I think she is very brave for taking the flight at all.’ Really, she didn’t seem that bothered about being in a totally foreign environment. In fact, she slept practically the whole way.

‘Well,’ Michele said as she fluffed her pillow and cuddled under her blanket. ‘I’d rather be me going to boarding school than her seeing London for the first time!’

One Response to “Different worlds”

  1. Lise Bergeron says:

    To be brave is to have faith. The world belongs to that woman.

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