By Nnimmo Bassey.
Travelling in West Africa is an expensive affair. These days, with the outbreak of Ebola, you don’t want to even tell anyone you are going anywhere in the region. But here was I heading to Bamako, Mali, on assignment for the Right Livelihood Award Foundation. And to add to the tension, I was flying on ASKY airline. As you well know, it was these guys that ferried an Ebola patient into Nigeria and placed the nation on medical emergency. The trip was long set and no virus would deflect it.
Check in started a mere 2 hours to departure time. That was the first surprise, considering that this was an international flight. Many airport workers wore gloves and masked their mouths and noses. Fear is in the air. Should I buy a plastic sheet to cover my seat on the plane? Would anyone make contact once we are seated?
Security checks were preceded by having our temperature gauged with a laser thermometer. That was no problem. I tried to have the laser aimed at my hand, but I kept gesticulating while striking a conversation with the health officer and, since my hand wouldn’t keep steady, she decided to aim the laser gun at my head instead. I wasn’t shaking my head too much, so that worked.
Boarding the ASKY aircraft at the airport in Lagos was uneventful except for the fact that the flight was delayed by one hour – with no apologies given. Or perhaps I was too preoccupied with looking at the silent folks to hear one. Everyone was silent. It was eerie. What happened to the boisterous Nigerians? It was a short 30 minutes affair to Lome, Togo. Once in the transit hall, ground staff were on hand to hand out boarding passes for our flight to Bamako.
Getting through security checks at Lome was easier than in Lagos where you have to kick off your shoes, belts etc and remove your laptop and other electronic gear from your bag. At Lome there was no need for taking off your shoes or belts or even laptops from your bag. Guys with jackets had to peel those off, by the way. At Lagos I placed my wallet in a tray along with my phone, passport and newspaper. As soon as I got through the body pat I dashed for my wallet and that caught the security guy’s attention. Why was I so quick to pick my wallet from the tray? Today was Friday, would I not help him have a good weekend? Talk of security of the pocket!
No such drama at Lome. But wait. The queue through to security was hydra-headed but somehow we managed to squeeze through the narrow door one traveller at a time. Boarding was announced on time. We happily jumped unto the bus. Then the waiting began. The bus moved a few metres and stopped. The wait was long, mostly because we did not expect it. After about ten minutes on the spot some passengers began to grumble. Since I don’t speak more than a few words of French, I was content to hold my peace.
We moved to the aircraft and waited again for a few minutes. Then it became clear to me why all the delay. Some technical crew were changing one of the rear tyres of the aircraft. They turned the screws first with gloved hands, then with some mechanical device. We watched this from inside the bus in silent bemusement. Twenty minutes after we had boarded I could see the team, led by a young lady, still kicking, shaking and doing other things to ascertain that the tyre was properly fitted. All this time sweat dripped from my face, not because of fear or fever, but because the air conditioning system of the aircraft was either not switched yet or was simply not working. And to think that one of the precautionary measures against the spread of Ebola is to avoid a touch of another person’s bodily fluids including sweat!
As we prepared to take off for the one hour, forty-five minutes flight, my mind stayed on the tyre.
Take off was smooth and after all the drama we were a mere 20 minutes off the mark. As I write this, the aircraft has began to cool, but a few hands are still poking at the vents.
Bamako used to be a mere 2 hours direct trip from Lagos when a Nigerian airline plied the route. These days you have to fly to Lome or Accra to catch a connecting flight. Going with my itinerary is still somewhat manageable because the actual flight time adds up to just two hours fifteen minutes. On return, however, we will have to fly from Bamako to Ouagadougou and from there to Lome and to Lagos. We will depart Bamako at 8:45 am and get to Lagos at 4:30 pm! With the Ebola scare some travelers consider flying to Paris and jetting down to Bamako from there. What a life!
Well, as you could guess, the seat belt sign has been switched off by now and refreshments may soon be served. I am hunched in a standard window seat after failing to secure an exit row seat and typing these words keeps me from thinking of the cramped position. Except for the lady in front of me deciding to recline her seat to catch a snooze.
Here comes the cabin crew wearing an adorable smile. What has she got to offer? She has a sanitizer in hand and happily dispenses droplets of the soothing fluid on our palms. The fear of Ebola has taught everyone to avoid handshakes, embraces and even patting on the back. At the Lagos airport and everywhere you turn people are sanitizing their palms. Business must be brisk for sellers of this product. Yes, I bought one before boarding at Lagos. Shake my hand? No problem. I would just have to turn somewhere and discretely get the ‘sanity’ balm into my palms.
Here comes the cabin crew with lunch. What would I have, they asked in French? Chicken, I answered in English. Well, I got a fish dish. I must learn this language, I told myself. The lunch was good. My confession.
Later, as we pierced through the brilliant clouds in our descent into Bamako I beheld the simmering waters of River Niger. I couldn’t help thinking of how bastardized the Delta at which this beautiful water empties into the Atlantic has become, no thanks to crude oil exploitation. Then my mind went back to the back tyre as it would be the first to hit the tarmac. Soon. Did it go well?
Happily. The landing was so smooth some passengers yelped and clapped. At the arrival hall, the queue to the medical health screening point starts right at the entrance door. We get to place our feet on marked spots on the floor, facing two guys manning laser temperature gauges. Computer monitors facing us declares whether our body temperature is acceptable. All this before we get to the immigration desk.
Hopefully I will get to tell you how the return trip will be.