It’s the worst nightmare ever. You arrive in a strange city. And at the airport, you are waiting for your luggage to arrive. Tensed with anxiety, you are standing there, amidst the crowd of travellers just touching down Helsinki from London and from all around the world.
Weary travellers filled with tension and anxiety. Travellers suffering from a sickness called jet lag. Travellers who have had to wade through the labyrinths of a complex airport with an underground train from which you alight, then you follow the illuminated arrows on screens pointing to direction after direction, until you finally get to the point of luggage retrieval below.
Down there, every eye is fixed on the conveyor belt as it slowly moves round and round with all manner of luggage conveyed from the belly of the plane. This is one ritual most travellers love to hate: the ritual of having to wait endlessly for your luggage. The longer the wait, the more prolonged the agony. As you sight your bag arriving on the conveyor belt, a bright smile of recognition lights up the face. But you could be wrong. Your smile could be short-lived because travelling bags often look similar and confusing—particularly black bags. Like Ford cars of those days, most travelling bags come in black. To make identification easy, some travellers go for red, brown, grey or any colour other than black or tie a ribbon on the bag.
On this cold, misty morning, I am at the airport in Helsinki, waiting for my luggage to arrive. I had gone to attend the annual congress of the International Press Institute (IPI). Don’t ask me where the hell is Helsinki? Helsinki gives me a sinking feeling. It is a place located in one of those far-flung corners of the earth, not far from the old Soviet Union. With a good telescope and a good eye, you could probably see the Soviet Union from the windows of Helsinki. My biggest regret is not joining the other journalists who went on a train ride to St. Petersburg, the beautiful Russian city built by Peter the Great, a city that is so important that it has been put on the World Heritage list.
For now, it’s Helsinki and not St. Petersburg that is on my mind. Helsinki, the city that enjoys 19 hours of daylight in summer, such that midnight is just like daylight in Africa. Everywhere is so bright that even at midnight you are still struggling to catch sleep. You are disorientated because you are used to sleeping only when night falls and everywhere is dark. It is not easy programming your mind to sleep when the night is still day. For 30 minutes or so, the conveyor belt had been spinning. Yet I couldn’t find my luggage. My eyes started getting dizzy as I watched the conveyor belt go round and round and coming back with no good news. Eventually, the machine stopped. And the only two people left gazing and wondering what had happened to their luggage were the two Nigerian journalists standing mouth agape. My own case was made worse: I was wearing jeans, whereas my colleague was at least in suit. He was better armed to face the cruel cold of Helsinki. In situations like this, you can trust Dimgba Igwe’s sharp tongue as he lashed me.
“Mike, you are the worst dressed man in this airport,” he said. “How can you be wearing jeans? How can you enter the conference hall dressed like a mechanic?”
“What’s wrong with wearing jeans?” I replied. “This is the Western world, man. It’s a jeans world. Everybody wears jeans. I am not odd.”
As we were lamenting our situation, a lady, a Finair official came to our rescue, observing that we had lost our luggage. She was very apologetic. Like a reporter, she started asking questions: “What is the colour of your missing luggage? Can you describe it? What’s the name of your hotel? What’s the phone number? I can assure you we would get you your bags. There are many flights to Helsinki from London. I appreciate your worries. Things like this do happen from time to time.”
As we answered her questions, she jotted things down in a notebook. She handed us two bags containing “first aid” kits. Inside the bags were underwear, shaving kits, toothbrush, toothpaste and a T-shirt with Finair name and logo. Naturally, I was angry. My anger was justified. I could now understand why Naomi Campbell went mad and threw tantrums at the airport when she couldn’t find her luggage at the point of arrival. I was equally mad but a voice inside me was saying: “What if this had happened in Nigeria? Would anybody attend to you? Would anybody care? Would you even find your luggage eventually?”
Outside the airport, I was shivering like a man on death row. I was out there in the cold without a jacket, without any cover. I was at the mercy of the wintry cold. I was filled with regrets. As the taxi sped to our hotel, I still had the time to enjoy the vegetation—the trees of Finland from which the best newsprints in the world are made. Immediately after checking into the Crowne Plaza Helsinki, we took a cab to the shopping centre to shop for new clothing: new shirts, new sweaters, new suits and new overall jackets to fight the bitter cold. We were plunged into expenses we never planned for. All because of our missing luggage.
One man who came to our rescue was friend and big brother, Mallam Ismaila Isa Funtua, a constant fixture at such annual gathering of journalists from all over the world. He is the man at the extreme right, next to Dimgba Igwe, both of them now gone. On hearing about our missing luggage, Isa Funtua called us to his hotel room and handed each of us a bundle of green American notes. I cannot forget this generous man who saw my friendship with Dimgba as the model of what friendship among Nigerians from different tribes should be. A year before the Helsinki Congress, IPI honoured Ismaila Isa Funtua in Belgrade with a “Lifetime Fellowship” for his “many services to IPI” and to the cause of free press and free society. Each time he stood up at IPI forums and proudly introduced himself as “Ismaila Isa of Nigeria”, he spoke with a strong voice that is authoritative and knowledgeable in defence of Nigeria, a country where he once served as the Minister of Water Resources in the Second Republic.
In less than 12 hours, our bags had been returned to our hotel rooms with everything intact. I might have lost my luggage temporarily, but in Finland, I discovered the music of Jean Sibelius, one of the world’s greatest classical composers and my favourite. I visited his shrine in Helsinki.
When my friend Dimgba Igwe died nearly five years ago, Mallam Ismaila Isa was the one consoling and preaching to me about the ephemerality of life and the fact that we are all passengers in transit, waiting to fly away. He surely had his faults like any of us, but overall, he was a good man who deserves a good, goodbye from me. Goodbye, my good friends gone! As Bob Marley would sing: “Good friends we have lost, along the way…In this great future, you can’t forget your past…Everything is gonna be alright…Don’t shed no tears.” At 68, on July 23, I thank God for giving me life and the strength to carry on as a journalist and corporate biographer capturing and preserving the past, present and the future.