Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Kokkaburra! Gay my life has been

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I was tricked
I do not know who taught me the song but I remember singing it many times recapturing a sense of self in what was a foreign land of sorts.
How do I mean foreign land? I was tricked when my parents asked if I would like to go to Nigeria, they said nothing else about Nigeria to give me an idea of where we were going. I did not learn of the civil war that had just ended, at least not until I was leafing through the photographic diary (Nigeria. A decade of crises in pictures) of Peter Obe many years later.
However, they were excited, had packed up everything and we had gone to the docks to see our trunks of goods loaded on the ship. I thought it was the QE2, but it wasn't.
Us to float, goods to boat
We travelled in style, boarded a BOAC flight to Lagos, my mother heavily pregnant with my sister. There is a picture of that send-off party, many of those who smiled in the photograph and pinched my chubby cheeks in playful jest, now in the pantheon of the Great Beyond.
Style, it was because I first visited Gran Canaria amongst the seven Canary Islands in 2003 and toured the capital city of Las Palmas guided by my hotel host. Since then, I have taken time to visit Las Palmas at least twice on any visit to the island.
I then learnt that many Nigerians returning home from the UK, returned by ocean liner and always berthed at Las Palmas. I never had those childhood memories and then it became clear to me why people talked of Casablanca and Las Palmas with such longing of an exotic past never revisited again.
A very strange land
We landed in Lagos, I have no recall of the flight, I must have slept through it just as I do today if I find the comfort of a moving form of transport like a child being rocked away to sleep in a perambulator.
In the excitement of getting off the plane, I was momentarily lost and then made aware of the reality that I was in a foreign land, the place called Nigeria had noticeably more black people, I cried in my utter confusion as I was led back to my anxious parents.
I felt I did not belong there and many things I am usually reminded I said in the few days after our arrival showed I felt completely out of place and seriously threatened as a boy.
All the English world of school
We settled first in Kaduna, but it was not until we moved to Jos and I began to go to school at Corona School, Shamrock House that I began to reclaim my mixed identity of being English and Nigerian.
Our reading books, Janet and John were written by a New Zealander, I watched The Pied Piper by Canadians, I swotted on the revisionist history of the Americans and our Land Rover school bus was full of Britons. The song? Australian and how I ended up with the nickname of Yankee at home, I cannot tell, if I always say I am an English.
With words awry
I only knew one verse of which many words were wrong.
I sang:
Kookaburra sits on the oceans cliffs,
Merry, merrily on the bushes trees,
Laugh Kookaburra laugh Kookaburra,
Gay all life's must be.
When it should have been:
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree,
Merry, merry king of the bush is he,
Laugh Kookaburra laugh Kookaburra,
Gay your life must be.
But who was listening and how did Australians come about the literary construct of the second line? In a time when gay meant happy, full of joy, merry; light-hearted, carefree, I do wonder how gay my life has been and I laugh at the thought of how things have changed. [Etymology of gay.]
Now for the rest of it and there is nothing politically correct about it apart from the fact that we all sang it with glee.
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh, Kookaburra!
Gay your life must be
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Eating all the gum drops he can see
Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra!
Leave some there for me
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Counting all the monkeys he can see
Stop, Kookaburra! Stop, Kookaburra!
That's not a monkey that's me
Kookaburra sits on a rusty nail
Gets a boo-boo in his tail
Cry, Kookaburra! Cry, Kookaburra!
Oh how life can be
Courtesy of KIDiddles and written by Marion Sinclair (1932)


The spirit of hope powers life

The news I was expecting
It was a Friday, the day was taken off to attend to a critical and important matter, a visit to the clinic to receive results of tests I probably knew would be as expected.
I had chatted to my pastor about it, as he was already aware of other issues that I had confided in him and then I had told him, I was not afraid for what I might learn at the clinic.
When I was called in to see the nurse, he left to chat to a doctor and then returned with a printout, he announced the result and I having not brought a companion with me to hear the news, he became distraught and began to shed tears. I comforted him as he went through the protocols of telling me treatment and care options and support groups I could join to see me through these difficult times.
Finding a message of hope
He handed me a booklet that talked about the way people react when they receive such news, denial, anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, disappointment, shame, despair, defeat and discouragement made the list as I leafed through the booklet.
Then I said to him, this booklet is missing the most essential message anyone on the receiving end of this news needs, the message of hope. Everything appeared to look downhill with no upside, I was not going to go downhill with that news.
I did not have a feeling of despondency as I returned home, I wrote in the booklet hope and then I began to contemplate the rest of my life.
I lived my life
In that time, I earned a post-graduate diploma, went to places I never dreamt of visiting before, lived with plenty to spare, made and lost friends, found people to give a better message of hope beyond their circumstances, had cancer, lost everything, began to rebuild my life and today I was in hospital to see my consultant 15 years to the day I received a diagnosis of being HIV+.
That diagnosis was not the end of my life and definitely not the end of my story, it gave me a new challenge to live with both a sense of determination and vulnerability, accepting the fullness of my humanity and knowing that until the day I die, I am living and bless to live well.
Thankful for the love of life
Through these times, I have had friends stand with me, stand by me and stand for me, without them, I probably would not have seen beyond the news I received. Maybe, I should have accessed HIV treatment sooner than I did, but I cannot live in regret of that, we are where we are, fuelled by the hope that it gets better and whatever is thrown in our way is a hurdle to be negotiated.
That is where I am today, through it all, I am thankful and grateful, not so much to celebrate an anniversary, but to recognise that what at one time was a sure death sentence is simply now just one sentence in a long story of a life lived in the love for life.


Saturday, 16 September 2017

My Great British Railway Nightmare

Training my waking
On Friday morning, I got up to the sound of the alarm clock on my mobile phone, I had a train to catch as I had done thrice already this weekend. It was 5:00 AM.
I love trains, and whilst train travel can be both expensive and uncomfortable compared to similar train services on the western part of mainland Europe, there is still a fascination with journeys through the English countryside.
Vicariously, I have journeyed with Michael Portillo who as presenter of the BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys using Bradshaw's Guide, has given us a sense of the beauty, colour and history of Victorian United Kingdom, but there is a world of difference between leisurely travel at a time of your choosing and that which you are compelled to do as a commuter to work.
Where is my coach?
From Tuesday, I found myself making a daily journey from Liverpool Street Station to Norwich, a course of travel I grew accustomed to in the 1990s when I died in Ipswich for 2 years. I cannot after 20 years say I lived in Ipswich, it is such a strange place with even stranger people, but I digress.
Then, the railway franchise was run by an ancestor party of Greater Anglia Railways and they still do today. I booked advanced tickets for all my journeys meaning I had seat reservations whilst limited to boarding specific trains.
On my way out on Tuesday, with my ticket in hand, I sought the coach I had booked a seat on in vain. It transpired that the train had been shortened because the coach had developed a technical fault, so I was advised and consequently helped to an unreserved seat. Electric sockets to charge mobile phones or power laptops and tablets, even free wireless internet connectivity in all classes of travel if it works. How civilisation has conquered rail travel.
Where is the crew?
My return journey from Norwich was without event, I got back extremely exhausted. Before the sun rose, I was out again for my second day at work. My train scheduled for 6:25 AM appeared on the noticeboard for a departure from Platform 9 and I made my way to board the train.
Halfway along the platform, an illuminated sign for the platform indicated the train had been cancelled. Between leaving the main concourse and walking 200 yards down the platform they realised they did not have enough crew for a train journey of 110 minutes just 10 minutes before departure. Go figure!
Twenty years on Greater Anglia Railways was the lesser at impressing me with their service just as they failed to way back then. We boarded the next scheduled train that arrived in Norwich 20 minutes behind schedule with an excuse I cannot be bothered to remember. On my return, I boarded a later train and thankfully the train conductor did not notice my error, else I would have incurred a penalty fare, I not realising I had booked an earlier scheduled train.
When would we get home?
My travel on Thursday was without event with trains running on time, I would not term expected service praiseworthy but by the foregoing experience, it was noteworthy. Now, Friday, I left for work at 5:35 AM and I am still nowhere near home at 11:51 PM. We arrived 2 minutes ahead of schedule with the conductor announcing that unique achievement.
I boarded the 18:30 from Norwich and between Stowmarket and Ipswich the train ground to a halt, then the conductor announced on the Tannoy that there was a fire on the railway and that no trains could traverse either way. Another 15 minutes later we were told the train would only stop in Ipswich and then travel nonstop to Liverpool Street Station. Fat chance.
After another indeterminate time of silence, we learnt the fire brigade had discovered gas canisters at the site of the fire, it could well be that we had just, fortunately, avoided being victims of a terrorist attack. We live in precarious times.
The train eventually returned to Norwich where we plotted a different course back to London with a change of trains at Cambridge. I left home yesterday and I am yet to get back home. In 4 days of travel between London and Norwich, it has been a Great British Railway Nightmare that should never continue like this into next week. Just imagine. I rang the bell at just past 1:00 AM.


Friday, 15 September 2017

Thought Picnic: Sustained by the power of hope and somebody somewhere praying for me

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For when I die
Somebody somewhere is praying just for you, it is the only thing I can say considering I have not been praying that much for myself.
Uncanny as it seems, I was in conversation with my friend about people I had somewhat chosen to be my pallbearers if anything ever happened to me just over 5 years ago. I was at my lowest ebb, I had lost every material possession and all I had left was hope, the hope that things would turn for the better.
On the eve of my leaving the Netherlands after almost 13 years of sojourning there, I wrote to my six friends informing them of my decision to return to the UK. My Netherlands odyssey was over and the future was just out there without anything in the horizon.
I told them of my desire to be laid to rest in the place where I was born, I was however surprised that some read it as a sign of giving up, I had not, I was just aware of my vulnerability and not ready to deny that it loomed just as large as the inner strength that bore me on through my toughest hours.
Suddenly and uncannily
Of the six, one is sadly deceased and many of the others I have not maintained that much contact with, the vagaries of life usurping the ability to concentrate and contemplate. One of my friends I had not spoken to in years, I surmised he was fine and we left it at that.
The next day, my phone rang and guess who was calling me? The friend I had not spoken to in years. He apparently was praying at home and there he had the unction to call me, which he immediately did and we talked at length catching up of lost memories and current events. I thought in my mind, there is something going on outside of my control.
In another conversation with another close friend, we chatted about my search for new work which had been going on for weeks with my resources and reserves literally completely dwindled and bills piling up. Then weeks ago, I suggested to her that the job might just come suddenly, I just did not know when the suddenly would be.
The unexpected job offer
It was last Friday morning; my phone rang the person who called had just reviewed my LinkedIn profile and decided I was a good fit for the role he had in mind for me. It was an interesting short-term contract and within that conversation we had agreed on a rate before he offered to have their CTO call me for a chat.
When the CTO called, I was expecting an interview with trick questions and all the wily interrogation that constitutes interview processes nowadays. It was a discussion and it came down to basically understanding my kind of thinking and mindset as regards the role on offer.
As the conversation came to an end, I was expecting another set of interview hurdles, however, what I got was a job offer, straight to contract negotiations, the word of a gentleman and by Monday morning the deal was sealed to start on Tuesday. The same job had been offered by an agency a week before at such a paltry rate that I could not at all countenance.
Really running on empty
Then I had another little difficulty, but for the sustenance of my best friend, I was living from hand to mouth, I had already lost 7 kilogrammes and in terms had nothing left to take up the opportunity in a city far from home. The quest to recoup loans was getting nowhere that my only option was to borrow some money and then find a place to couch-surf for a week or two until some income came through.
I sometimes wonder how much stress and strain a person can endure in the quest for a modicum of means and independence. It does not get any easier, yet hope endures in ways that even astounds me, it all looks bad, and something whispers in me that all these encounters of misfortune and brushes with penury will not last.
A life of gratitude
It will all come good, it just needs a bit of time and the hope that the little one has can stretch to the time when there is no need to fear for limitations and lack.
I say, somebody somewhere is praying just for me, angels are falling over themselves with supply and friends are holding me up from falling to the ground. I am reminded daily that my life and existence is one to be thankful for with every sense of gratitude.
Even when I don't seem to have anything, nothing can stop me, something keeps me going and there is everything to live for. It remains the story I am glad to tell.


Friday, 8 September 2017

Thought Picnic: What I feared from childhood had dissolved into the reality of a lived life

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From the passing of George Michael
In December just around Christmas, I was staying with my friend in London when we heard the news on television that George Michael had been found dead.
I had always liked George Michael from after his Wham days and was saddened by the event. More pertinently, I was well aware of his struggles with revealing his sexuality, the international embarrassment that came with his importuning as a result of law enforcement personnel presenting as an agent provocateur to entrap men.
He consequently took that event and made a global hit of the episode with Outside. Whilst, I had never really been closeted about my sexuality, I’ve been out at work since in the 1990s in the various places I have worked in many countries, it was not until just a decade ago that I came out to one of my closest siblings.
Out in a rout
That revelation came with much distress on her part that when I was asked about it from another sibling, I was coy, even denying it. Meanwhile, for a while I had been badgered and harassed on many occasions in conversation with my parents about my marital status, some commentary and questions were just too difficult to address. I utilised the convenience of distance to avoid too much analysis of what I might be.
Besides, I was battling for another thing, my parents were in the UK in the 60s, and much as there was all the emancipation in social values, I could well remember that the worst thing you could say to anyone was, “You are a bugger.” With all the uses of bugger, the derogatory intent when deployed was complete in its contempt of the person so abused.
Learning to love me
It is hard enough coming out having seen the reactions of parents to that kind of revelation from basic disapproval, through being disinherited, sometimes thrown out of the home and in some societies, murder. This in somewhat emancipated societies, that somewhere between fear, shame and embarrassment, I felt there was no need for my parents to know anything about it. An acquaintance did suggest my stance was out of shame, though I decided not to take umbrage about that opinion.
Living in Europe, I had come from a time of being convulsed in guilt, being caught in liaisons that I could not defend and being a subject of blackmail that I refused to be subject to. I had come to accept who I was, made peace with the fact that I could live my life in comparison to an alternative life of the normal and the conformed, whatever that may be.
I am a gay man and with that comes all sorts of issues that one has to live with, in which I have found love, lasting friendships, extended periods of grief and a full awareness of the fact that I am just as human as any other.
I’m coming out, out, out
However, that December night, I told my friend, Funmi Iyanda that I was ready to put it all out there, if anyone was still in doubt or questioning about my sexuality, they should be left in no doubt about it. In countless blogs, you did not have to read between the lines to know some truths about me. Funmi then got to the task of writing this piece, she asked a few questions, sought some clarification and then just before she published the piece, she asked if I was fine with it.
I might have been a bit reticent, even considered informing my family about the possibility of this revelation going viral, but in the end, I decided, whatever comes of it is what comes of it, I had given the permission for it to go public from the hand of someone who had a huge following and we will deal with the consequences and the fallout if any.
I never expected the piece to have the reach it did when it was published on the 3rd of January, it got within the sight of people I never thought would encounter it, and not soon after, my siblings were reading of this issue and maybe even displeased with me about it. I had laid my bed on this matter and I was going to lie on it, come what may.
The letter arrived in the furthest post box
In the week that followed, I kept a low profile as messages of support and encouragement came from far and wide. I probably only encountered two negative reports in all, and I thought it would all die down soon afterwards. It did not, for months, people found the piece, read it and then contacted me.
Just about 3 weeks ago, a message appeared on my phone with an instruction to alter aspects of my life along with an acknowledgement of my having followed that instruction, at 51? At first, I smiled and then I crafted a 4-part response about certain other intimate details of my life that probably no one else knew. It was sent and I waited, unsure of what might come of it.
Then I received a response, the recipient of my message after recomposing the parts that were first read from the third part had gone into shock. The realisation that there was much more to the situation than the specific ordering to act in a particular way. The reaction and the response were understanding, sympathetic, compassionate and conciliatory, it gave me the courage to pick up the phone and call to talk.
We are, where we are
We were sorry that some things had happened in the past that probably could no more be corrected, the answers being sought in all sorts of places appeared to have been revealed in the response I gave that touched on some sad events in my childhood. I was encouraged to just be myself and live my life. I suppose my response and the suggestion that the piece to read fully had given some perspective to a difficult situation.
I could not have arranged for any of this to turn out as it did, but there is no greater freedom in acceptance of self and being accepted for who you are. When it came down to it, it was about humanity, understanding and possibly regret, but never to cease the need to communicate, what I feared from childhood had dissolved into the reality of a lived life. My father had learnt through that piece that I am gay.