Phone Calls

I never liked making phone calls dating back to the days of “party lines”.  “Could you get off the line, Mrs. Kuiper, I need to make a call?” If you needed to break in, you better have had good reason, because no doubt she’d be listening in after she “hung up.”  To be fair, my folks weren’t talkers by phone, they were of the age which implied you wouldn’t just “chew the rag” but you’d call if there were an important message. Quiet people, they had disdain for chit/chat. So from my earliest use of the phone,  the common first response was: “what’s wrong?”.

Much later but still without the common use of cell phones, I found myself in   Oshugbo Nigeria,  It was 1992. Though  I had wanted my wife and daughter with me,  my wife strongly vetoed that notion. Our daughter was only18 months old.  It was agreed that our daughter wasn’t quite travel-ready, My wife did, though, unequivocally think I should make the trip and had given her blessing.  At the end of my 3 month stay, we would meet in the middle.  (Vienna. Became the city of choice somewhere in the middle).  

Sponsored by the U.S.Information Agency, I had a snared payed travel to Obafemi Awolowo University in northwest Nigeria.  Shall I describe the typical phone call from there?  It was scheduled and placed by the Osun phone company, to be made from their office, who insisted that their employee would monitor the entire call.    Length allowed, 3 minutes, very expensive.  Speaking over a crackling line we were inevitably cut off before the time had passed.  Not much could be said other than:  “I’m fine, miss you, love you, weather stinks.” As an alternative to this, I would write letters which could be sent by delivered courier, on a loud motorcycle, and after being handed off would take a week to get to the U.S

Nigeria was under the rule of dictator Ibrahim Babangida, and its political conditions were fragile.  Having lost an election, he declared it invalid.   No students to be allowed on campus;  they would demonstrate.   If the students were kept away,  Babandiga might be able to continue his grip on the country.

I was appointed visiting faculty to be housed on the grounds of the guarded 13,000 acre campus.  I would join faculty who were mostly also living on campus.   Directly upon arrival was forced to form new plans.  If the students were kept away I could at least try to interview colleagues in my field, take advantage of research available in the campus library, and spend my time writing.  Knowing phone conversation to be impossible, I would try to make appointments for meetings.    Progress was made.  After about a month,  I got the word….(via telegram.)  U.S. government can’t guarantee safety.   Strongly suggest you leave the country in the next 24 hours.  

They had given me 24 hours to make the 280 kilometers to Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.  (This drive takes around four hours, though longer when the highway is partially blockaded as it was by bonfires).  Can you imagine trying to make the phone call to report that you were making a warm exit out of Nigeria? 

After making it to the airport, I was booked on the next flight out for London.   Yet another ugly phone call. What would I say?  “I’m going to get out of Nigeria.  When I do, I’ll call you.  Love you!  Weather stinks.”

There were flames licking up the side of the wheel well as we wove through sporadic, ugly, burning tires along the highway.  I felt relieved when there was a Nigerian army sergeant, “riding shotgun” in the bulletproofed government Chevrolet Suburban the U.S. had furnished for our final dash from the Lagos embassy compound to Murtulla Mohammed Airport.  I was equally lucky to be have a C.I.A. guy assigned to move me, bags and all through to departure.

Safe in London, I must admit I loved for once making a phone call.   “Hey darling, Nigeria’s in flames, they ordered me out.  Long story!  What say we meet in Vienna two months early?  Get your folks to baby-sit?  Weather might be cool, but nice.

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