By Morak Babajide-Alabi
In the basement of the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue in London, I waited patiently to be called forward. I glanced at the enclosure to see how the staffs were faring considering the number of people in the hall waiting to be attended to. There is no doubt they were overstretched but they seemed to have accepted this as what they have to wake up to every working day.
Earlier I had indulged myself in a cup of black coffee, which now I realised was a bad idea, as the urge to take a pee became strong. From the corner of my eyes, I spotted the toilet on the far side of the hall and I gingerly made my way through the lazy stretched out legs.
Just as I was about to open the door marked “Men”, two well-dressed ladies walked out casually. I stepped back and wondered why they had not used the “Women” toilet. As I stood there confused, another woman barged past me and straight into the “Men” toilet. I looked up and saw a notice “Men and Women Toilet”. I understand now – probably the “Women” toilet was out of use.
I walked in and there were two other women loitering in the toilet. I cared less, as I continued towards the open urinary to ease myself. They did not appear to care either, as they carried on as if I was not there. To say the condition of the toilets was appalling is, to say the least. It was an old and poorly maintained enclosure, with water dripping everywhere. In comparison, the public toilets at the Victoria Station enjoy more tenderly love and care than these here.
I walked back to my standing position only to realise my number was still far away from being called. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I decided to explore the “back office” of the Nigeria House. I strolled past the dusty vending machine into another room that looked like an extension of the waiting room.
There was really nothing to see here, except a fair weathered sofa, which seemed to serve no purpose, The room next to this was unoccupied as well, with a row of tables on the left side and a few cobwebs here and there. I stepped back into the hallway and to a door on my right. The cardboard with the word “Canteen” handwritten on it gave the clue where I was heading to. The doorway looked dingy, but who cares? I was determined to go into the “canteen”.
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Is this what the Nigeria High Commission, London has to offer? I double checked again to be sure I had not stepped into another building. The arrangement of a few tables and chairs took me back in time to the “bukas” (local restaurants) in Agege, Lagos State. In one corner of this poorly lit room was the service point, with “coolers” and a microwave oven and a refrigerator that could have been bought from Ladipo Market.
The friendly lady at the service point noticed my uneasiness and in a deep Yoruba-accented voice, called out “we have pounded yam, egusi soup, jollof rice, fried rice and assorted meats and fish”. My tummy rumbled and was about to step forward to request a “taste” when the sudden “hard” cries of a baby from a corner of the room brought me back to reality. I looked towards the direction and discovered that the mother was trying to change the baby’s diaper right there. I lost my appetite.
Dejectedly and highly disappointed, I hastened out, but with a summation that the back room of the commission waiting hall was unorganised, dirty and bleak. I was now looking forward to going upstairs, not mainly for what I came for, but to see the infrastructures there. I was more preoccupied with the state of the building than the services provided.
Just in time, my number came up and I approached the “cage” with the sign “Visa Application”. The smile of the staff inside the cage warmed my heart as he stretched out his hand to take my documents. After a few checks and notes taken, I was told to take a seat (again) and wait to be called upstairs for the biometrics capture.
It was indeed a brief wait as my number came up pretty soon. As I proceeded I noticed that the staircase had become rowdier with many people loitering around. I heard the security man politely “begging” people to move away, but his voice was muffled. I shook my head and wondered if the commission had ever heard about “crowd management” before. I pushed and shoved as I made my way upstairs, dreaming of an early exit.
It was a fallacy. Immediately I managed myself to the doorway of the Biometric/Collection Waiting Room, my heart sank. The sea of heads of forlorn-looking individuals that confronted me gave me chills while I concluded it was “sleep time”. Luckily, there were more seating spaces upstairs than in the basement.
For a good view of happenings in the room, I walked into the dark side of the hall where the lightings overhead were burnt out. As I settled down, I did not miss the array of clocks hanging over the receptionist desk. I guessed they were meant to show us, the applicants, the times across five geographical locations of the world. I looked up to view the time and I realised three of the clocks were reporting wrong times. Thank God the Nigeria and UK times were accurate.
Give it to the staff at the high commission, their demeanour, despite the limitations were infectious. As I settled down, trying to catch up with news from Nigeria as being relayed on the screen in the hall, a middle-aged member of staff came in. “Hello! Hello!” he shouted to get everyone’s attention. “We are sorry, we have lost contact (meaning internet connection) with Abuja (Nigeria) now, so there is a ten-minute delay, but we are hoping the services will be restored very soon.” I, along many in the hall, was surprised and impressed, as this was not something you’d hear in a Nigerian setting, no matter what part of the world it is.
Not long after the services were restored, my number came up to have my biometrics captured. I walked into a very small tight office, with little or no room to manoeuvre considering the number of applicants in there. Once your number came up, you would think you were walking to have it done. But it was another wrong reasoning, as we all crammed into the room, and stood on each other’s toes while waiting to be called forward by the immigration staff.
I looked at the staff and pitied them.They were clearly working in uncomfortable spaces and beyond their capacity. The stream of people coming into the room increased. I was called up and within a few minutes, sat in front of this young staff, my details were captured and he was clearly eager to get me off the seat. I did not mind though, as he had handed me my collection slip. There was no room for any customer service or niceties. No, the number must be pushed through.