It was also a Wednesday, and it was the 26th of September. Most people celebrate 5th, 10th, 20th, even 21st anniversaries; today, I’m celebrating same day/date.
In 1990, on Wednesday 26 September, I woke up, packed, went to Lagos and boarded a BA flight to London Gatwick (it was Gatwick those days, it’s Heathrow now) arriving at about 6 AM on Thursday morning. On the Wednesday, I’d made a hectic dash through Lagos, saying goodbye to my friends. In the UK, I took the Gatwick express to Victoria, paid a short visit to the Royal National Institute for the Blind, (It’s now Royal National Institute of Blind People and the London offices have moved from Great Portland Street to Judd Street) and boarded a train from Euston station to Lancaster. I’d thought I’d be in Lancaster for about a year, but that was 22 years ago, and several houses, two degrees and several courses later, I’m still here.
But much has changed, apart from the obvious that I’ve grown older. I was thinking about it, while thanking God this morning. The first major change was that in December, Mrs Thatcher ceased being prime minister. I remember speaking to a friend then. She gave me an idea of the significance of the event when she said that any child who was born as Mrs Thatcher took office would by then have been in secondary school. Amazing! Unmatched since. In January of the next year, the Baltic states began their independence struggle from the Soviet Union, and by summer 1991, the USSR was succeeded by the Russian Federation and all the other constituent states.
I’d come to study for a masters in international relations and strategic studies. In a purely academic sense, one could say I benefitted from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in that it gave me my dissertation topic and Ph.D research interest. But the world has now moved on from Iraq, what with Neighbouring Syria and Iran seizing the limelight.
There have been other changes too, in domestic life in the UK. Perhaps these are not as noticed by most UK citizens who were born here, and had no reference point to judge the changes. Let’s not focus on the less tangible ones, those are probably based on opinion and are therefore controversial. Let’s try the ones we can observe. My first train journey from Euston to Lancaster took exactly 3 hours and 1 minute, from 11:25 AM to 2:26 PM. By the middle of the 90s, the journey was closer to 3 hours and 30 minutes. Now, it’s 2 hours and 30, thanks to the high speed railtracks, new rolling stock and all the things that government praises privatisation for. However, if I recall, with my young person’s railcard, the ticket cost £23.75; with the same card, it’s now £55.20. The cost of stamps has also gone up, creeping from 21p (I think) to 60p (I think, since I don’t post many letters these days).
Fortunately, not all prices have gone up. In those days, there was only one way to call Nigeria, using BT. The competitor, Mercury wouldn’t let you call Nigeria. I thought the service was cheaper, so I bought a Mercury phone card and went to a Mercury phone booth, but couldn’t get through. So I called their operator and they said I couldn’t make the call. They didn’t even offer me a refund, even though I didn’t need the card for anything else. There was no Mercury phone booth in Lancaster university. But I digress. The BT call cost £1.14 during off peak times and £1.34 a minute during peak periods. Now, I can call Nigeria for 1p a minute (to the few landlines) and 5p to a Nigerian mobile, if I use the right phone card or get one of the few sim cards designed for international phone calls.
Things have changed in Nigeria too. The roads are much worse than when I left, and that’s not just my imagination. The currency has undergone an interesting transformation. When I left Nigeria, £1 cost 18 naira. When I got back in December 1991, it had become £1 to N25; but after the events of June 12 1993, £1 started to fetch N250. I remember coming to Nigeria in November 1993 for my dad’s 60th birthday. My brother talked about N1000 and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Just 3 years earlier, that would have been unheard of for someone of his age. Yet, everyone was talking like that.
In 1990, I came on a British Council scholarship. I think most Nigerians who studied in Lancaster were on one scholarship or another. There were probably about 10 of us. Now, there are loads more Nigerians, and they’re coming with their own or their parents’ money. There are probably 50 Nigerians now in Lancaster uni, but universities like Coventry, Portsmouth and several of the London ones boast hundreds. More than that, the only other Nigerians outside campus were doctors … not anymore. In Lancaster, there are workers of all categories; some stayed over from studying at the uni, others moved from London, or even straight from Nigeria.
I’m struggling to remember the shy young man who stepped off the aircraft at Gatwick. What would he be thinking? I’d been to London before, but never ventured beyond the London underground routes. I can only remember shops and hotels from pre1990 days. Not anymore. I know London well, even though I live in Lancaster. In fact, I’ll be there again this weekend for the national day of prayer. I’ve met so many friends in the UK now, I think I’m a little more confident about the country than when I first came here. I’ve done wonderful things I never thought I’d do, skiing, abseiling, even train travel.
I still remember my first experience of cross country travel in 1990. I was travelling with a gentleman from the British Council who was there to ensure I was safely delivered to the disability officer of the uni. The Lancaster university disability official took me to my room, showed me round and asked if I needed something. So we went to the shops and I asked for toothpaste. She started to read; first the list of toothpastes, then the various types, anti tartar, whitening, etc. At the end of the process, I was as confused as when she started.
I could keep writing, but I want to send this off before midnight. I’m boarding the plane now, being assisted to a seat by the air hostess. I’ve said my goodbyes and I’m wondering how I will manage on my first trip abroad without my parents. I was about to hit 23 years. Now, travelling alone is the only way I do it.
Thank you Lord for everything, for the transformation of the past 22 years. Thank you for what you’ve taught me, how you’ve protected me and … just for everything.
Because, it was coming to Lancaster that shaped my faith. I learned a lot from the first few weeks, before I made friends, when I only had my Bible for company. I’d never had a full Bible before, but my auntie had bought the new testament on cassette (yes, cassette) as a goodbye present, and I read through it in my first few weeks in Lancaster. God bless her.
And if you’ve read through this, I wonder what you’re thinking too. Maybe it’s revived some memories, maybe you’re just thinking, What’s caused all this nostalgia. I’m thanking God.