On the Road A Nigerian’s Field Guide to Survival in Positano
We pass other boats and, from each one, there is the double-take, a stare. Two boats full of only black people is apparently a rare sight.
Enjoyment is a place and the road to it is very narrow. It snakes through tunnels, over hills, and into a magnificent cliff overlooking the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Its cobbled streets greet you with the smell of lemons. Its vibrantly colored walls droop with bougainvillea.
In early July, unified by a common love for one friend turning the big forty, fifty friends and family make a trip to Positano, a village we have never heard of before. It takes months and months of preparation, making our WhatsApp group buzz. Of all the stuff—random and important which creep up to mess up well laid out plans for the big day, like finding the right hotel central enough in peak season—the simple function of being Nigerian, with Nigerian passports, is perhaps the most agonizing.
Our arrival is not devoid of all the casualties that come with travel. We experience all. From visas that arrive barely hours to flight time, to luggage that doesn’t arrive from a connection in Istanbul, to a scary illness that has the birthday girl weighing the option of canceling her party or calling an air ambulance to fly one of us to London.
Naples is our entry point. The bulk of us arrive over a twelve-hour period in groups of six to eight and split the outrageous taxi fares to Positano into decent prices for each. My group, which includes my chatty four-year-old daughter, throw words at our taxi driver when he finally arrives much later than promised. I hear myself say: Oga, wetin happen since naa? No matter where I am—whether at home in Lagos, or in London where I live—my Nigerian tongue instinctively speaks Pidgin English in moments of apprehension. It is part rebuke and part concern.
The driver speaks no word of English, speak less of Nigerian English. We struggle to understand him, so we bounce loose words between each other, exaggerating our gesticulations. It’s all coming out in a mash of adulterated French and Yoruba.
“Ci vu plait bags lo si taxi.”
“Please, let’s get the bags to the taxi.”
It is obvious that we have arrived in a country trooping with tourists. There are Chinese and Australians and Arabs. You don’t need to look for the Americans, easily recognizable by the arrogance with which they disembark the aircraft, as if it is their father’s property and they have gracefully shared it with us children of dust. Then, there’s that Kardashian drawl you can pick out in their speech as they whine about everything.
“I’m literally boiling .” “It’s so hooooot .” “Oh my gosh, I’m starrrrrving .”
Besides us, there are hardly any other Africans. Of course.
“We nor de go on holiday,” someone remarks in conversation the next day. “Africans don’t do holidays.”
The birthday girl has packed every day leading to the birthday ceremony full of activity. And so we are sailing to Capri in two luxury boats, meters apart, whistling instructions noisily across even though we can’t hear each other. We pass other boats and, from each one, there is the double-take, a stare—sometimes brazen, sometimes coy. Two boats full of only black people is apparently a rare sight.
“But we go on holiday like others.” I say this in my head, unable to add to our conversations on deck because I can feel seasickness gnawing at my throat. I think about it again as I try to find a bathroom. “Maybe we don’t go because we are not allowed.”
Photograph courtesy of the author
By whatever standard the strength of a passport is ranked, the Nigerian passport has never made it anywhere remarkable enough to be coveted by anyone. Bile in its color and purpose, it has continued to decline, since 2006, from the sixty-second spot on the Henley and partners ranking —climbing a few spots in 2016–17—and now ranked ninety-fifth in 2019. This brings the total number of countries you can access on a Nigerian passport to forty-six; thirty-six of which are within the borders of Africa. At least fifteen require visa on arrival.
In 2017, Africa’s wealthiest man, Aliko Dangote, lamented that he needed thirty-eight visas to effectively move around the continent. For citizens who can afford the ever-increasing cost of visas, traveling within Africa is still a chore; there are no easy connecting flights and a trip from Lagos to Nairobi is likely to cost more than going all the way to Dubai.
Unfortunately, the sight of our green passport in home offices around the world disallows even legitimate reasons for travel, from holidays to work conferences and school admissions. It is as if a stench follows it and recoiling from it is the most natural reaction. A stench informed by a lack of agreement between us and other countries. A stench further aggravated by a few who get granted visitor visas but decide to overstay their welcome.
The reality is that living as Nigerian is tough—and has been for the longest time—such that, for every generation since independence, there is a sizeable chunk who have abandoned ship and left. Today, there is an exodus happening in far greater number than the country has known and it is happening both legitimately and not .
It is not surprising that the bulk of us on both boats have arrived in Positano not as Nigerians, but as dual citizens of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and even South Africa. At the very least, as residency permit holders.
On that first night, we stand in awe of Positano, the picturesque village, and the magnificence of all the houses, stacked high like Lego blocks on an almost-straight cliff that has the sea sprawling at its feet like a giant blanket. A tiled domed church sits in the center of the structure of Positano as an anchor point. Tourists troop in. We don’t. The sight is similar to what you’d find in Nigeria, a largely religious country, with a Christian half that troops into massive church buildings every day of the week to raise up prayers like, “Grant me my visa, God,” and “God, connect me with my destiny helper,” as follow-up request.
Perhaps we should have taken these prayers a little more seriously in the weeks leading up to our trip because those who don’t make it to Positano due to visa constraints—despite applying more than six weeks to travel date—are those who only carry Nigerian passports.
Photograph courtesy of the author
It is sad in monumental ways to be deprived of a right to travel. To be stripped of an opportunity to let down your hair and have a good time because your passport isn’t convincing enough. It feels like being robbed. Like not being trusted. No matter the buffer your social class or job gives, you will always need to know someone who knows another someone who can help pull strings to get the most basic things—like your passport out of a visa office in good enough time to head to the airport, possibly on a motorbike.
This is why those destiny-helper prayers are important. This is why, in the frustrating wait for better, religion is the hill that being Nigerian will make you die on.
Enthusiasm is perhaps to the Italians what enjoyment is to Nigerians. Enthusiasm in speech; the delicate use of hands for emphasis. Enthusiasm for kids; unsolicited kisses for Bambino. Where Londoners avert your gaze and stare at you and your pretty dress from the corners of their eyes, the Italians tell you that you are wearing a pretty dress, that you are a bellissima signora, then look to the next available Italian to confirm this important detail.
This enthusiasm follows with food too. The Italians serve up meals in a manner befitting royalty, excess entrées running into five-courses. In this millennial age, where relationships are formed over torturous diets and meal plans and militant Whole 30, our party group is having none of that. Our bonding comes from the need to eat. To let the flavor of new things burst in our mouths. There is the spreading of legs, backs hunched over unfamiliar food and eyes that glisten with excitement, rejecting an unnecessary war with food and our bodies.
There are olives, cheese, nuts, ham, pesto, and mozzarella. Something light to introduce the tummy to the explosion that is coming. There are meatballs, chopped tomatoes and basil on sourdough, mussels, clams, shrimps coated in something I don’t know but eat five of. All of these still merely the appetizer. I hardly have space for the remaining five meals coming. Pasta/pizza meal, fish meal, vegetable meal, grill/burger meal (with fries), decadent dessert, and a shot of limoncello to let the mixture in our bellies settle into the corners of our bodies, like cake batter filling the corners of a pan.
We treat every chance we get walking around Positano as if it is our last opportunity to soak in the sights. Despite the tedious flights of stairs you must climb to get just about anywhere, Positano is the most enchanting place, straight out of a fantasy book.
The sound of motorbikes weaving past cars dangerously is a common sight. It doesn’t help that this meandering is happening on sharp cornered roads that look like the devil’s elbow. It is odd, but familiar. That audacity of a two-wheeled thing next to a four-wheeled thing is common in Nigeria—Lagos, especially. It is an action that says, no matter what you ride, we are all in this suffer head together. Bikes are a leisurely mode of transportation in Positano. In Nigeria, they are the means to augmenting your one-dollar-a-day income so that hunger does not strangle you and your children in sleep.
It is sad in monumental ways to be deprived of a right to travel. It feels like being robbed. Like not being trusted.
There isn’t much in terms of car parking restriction in Nigeria as there is in Britain, for instance. So there’s the privilege of driving everywhere, through busy Lagos markets, finishing a whole week’s shopping from the seat of your car. Leg shuffling between accelerator and brake as money and groceries exchange hands. Vegetables here, plantains there, chicken and drinks next, accompanied by a side of painful chit-chat and complaint. About the economy, about poor health, about kidnappings, about being swindled off life savings by internet fraudsters, popularly known as ‘yahoo boys.’
It is because of these fraudsters swindling both foreigners and countrymen that international online shopping is largely inaccessible when paying with Nigerian cards. Generalizations exist about Nigeria(ns) abroad because of these boys, between us and some governments. It is because of these generalizations that an official can sit in a chair inside an embassy and decide that a middle-class Nigerian going all the way to a small village in Italy on holiday is suspicious. More than we let on, the epiphany of this sad situation exposes a sad point where for the broad spectrum of life events from vulnerable to joyous, new births to graduations, where community should ideally be your lighthouse, your country can be a let-down in the most distressing of ways.
Thankfully, if only tales of gloom follow our survival experience as Nigerians, our music at least exits the borders without hassle. In Positano, we shun everything else for our own. We graciously provide our own music in a flash drive and help Italians experience the life transforming power of Nigerian music. It is through our music that we are able to own space, introducing everyone, from crew members to restaurant staff to random people on the beach, to the befitting dance moves. The enthusiasm for it is heart-warming and our music is accepted wholeheartedly, an acceptance we don’t even realize we desperately need. We forget—albeit temporarily—that it is a sad situation to not be trusted.
One afternoon, as children squeal in delight, building sandcastles on the Arienzo private beach, we take over a water Zumba session with Nigerian music. The beach is pebbled, the black stones nearly a deterrent to our energetic dance, but we bring our A-game still. We explore everything in the Nigerian book of dance— zanku-shoki-skelewu-azonto —in sync with big waves coming for our backs and crashing at our feet.
The enthusiasm of the Italians recognizes the Nigerian need for continuous enjoyment. Shortly after, they bring us a live band to come wow us, to match our energy. Five men playing the accordion, trumpet, contrabass, a giant tambourine, and singing in a language we do not understand. We dance. The only thing missing is the flamboyance of money being splayed on foreheads, like a real Lagos party. We are like a perfect couple vibing off each other, us and the Italians. Expressing both connection and separation, like a bridge and water. Something I imagine these bilateral agreements between us and other governments should look like.
Photograph courtesy of the author
Our days in Positano are extensive. Our nights are just as loud. We know that we need to be on time for the boat the next day, but midnight is still too early for bed. It doesn’t help that the village remains largely awake. It is like a mini-Lagos. Cars and motorbikes are forced to slow down the one narrow street as they compete for space with hundreds of tourist feet shuffling to and from the beach. Tourists swatting mosquitoes make us laugh. For us Nigerians, the mosquitoes in Italy don’t bother us. They are the posh variant, the Harvard-bred ones. Though they are bigger, they don’t cause malaria. And so, the bite is nothing.
In the current Nigerian economy, as in the last five to ten years, Nigerian youths are seeking immigration refuge elsewhere in droves. Hope, no matter how hankering, how longingly it fills you, is a thing that eventually dissipates, especially after years of it arriving every election year in rice bags and brown Manila envelopes; the color of promise and fail. Hope expires, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It takes the desperate rinsing of yourself and everything you own, fitting what’s left into one suitcase to go and start afresh in Canada, in Australia, in Germany, for it to feel like you can exhale again gently, through your mouth. A new starting line. A better fighting chance.
“All countries have their own issues,” say most older citizens (whose generation receive the blame for the rot in Nigeria), by way of candid advice to the younger ones.
However, it is not that anyone is so irrational as to want to leave the comfort of the spicy food that shaped their childhood, or to exchange sunny weather for pizza and sub-zero degrees. It is not that anyone wants to intentionally go back to being financially and socially worse off, borrowing land and language all over again; a recolonization. It is that people don’t want to die. All countries have their issues and mosquitos, but the opportunity to choose the breed that won’t cause malaria is not “running away.” It is survival.
For every activity planned for the trip, we need a boat to get us there. By day three, we are the known large group that gravitates to the Marina Grande beach waterfront before eleven in the morning. We are unmissable in shiny skin, slathered with copious amounts of sunscreen, sunshades and large hats, as if we all don’t come from a country that averages thirty degrees year round. Tourists sneak behind us to blend themselves into our group photos. We cannot decide if this is mischief or wonder or drunkenness. The summer sun in Italy is relentless, avenging something. We attack dehydration. Bottles and bottles of water exchange hands so that no one suddenly faints from enjoyment. By day four, we are all spectacularly sunburned.
At the main birthday dinner, I stay off the pasta course, as I don’t like Italy’s very hyped pasta as much as I had hoped. Unlike everything else, it tastes uncomfortably bland. Bland to the extent that I prefer my own recipe, which I don’t even eat. I am not oblivious to the fact that it tastes bland to me because we Nigerians are used to spicing up even borrowed meals. So that even when the recipe says ‘add tomato and basil with a sprinkle of parmesan,’ we add mixed peppers, Maggi cube, thyme, sweetcorn, peas, and possibly even sardines.
Photograph courtesy of the author
Living in London means that I am raising a child whose history of home is a lot leaner and, by extension, whose palate does not fully accommodate the spices of my own childhood. Every time, she will more than likely choose pizza over moimoi, no matter how much sweat and soul goes into preparing it. She says as much to her dad on our way out of Italy, after we spend our last euros buying three scoops of gelato each, just before boarding.
They call us for boarding priority, but we can’t even be bothered because we are savoring every last bit of Italy. She has had pizza every single day of the trip, including our extended time in Rome, except breakfast. I laugh at the mischievous smile with which she attacks the waiter at any restaurant whenever they bring the menu. “I already know what I want. Pizza and sparkling water, please.”
I watch the delight she eats it with—tomato sauce smeared all over, the taste of cheese robust in her mouth, chewy and stringy; she can make a zipline of mozzarella to as far as her hands can stretch. One scoop of divine gelato as dessert and a satisfying smacking of lips after completion.
“The Italians have the best food in the whole world.”
“Oh yeah,” her father says, over the engine roar as the plane prepares for take-off, smiling back at her.
“For real, daddy,” she responds, eyes white and wide like dinner plates. “For reeeaaal.”
I think to myself that, just maybe, a leaner palate is a small price to pay for survival.