The U.S has a fascinating history – of discovery, of hope, of repression, of slavery, of war, of freedom, of global ascent, of material progress and development as well as of hypocrisy and double standard. It all began with the much-celebrated Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus. Columbus was a dreamer and modern U.S. is characterized by the ‘American Dream’. Columbus tried for many years to convince his patrons that he could attain the riches of the East by sailing westwards and he would not slip off the edge of the earth. He eventually received the support of Queen Isabella of Spain and set to sail in his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Though he was set for India, he discovered a New World, wrongly assuming initially that it was India he reached on October 12, 1492. On that day, he and his crew sighted land after several months of voyage and disembarked in the island of San Salvador in present day Bahamas.
Journalists regale us of how their profession had changed over time invoking the name of Columbus: it took six months to report back to Queen Isabella that Columbus had stumbled on America instead of India; it took two weeks for the news of the death of Admiral Lord Nelson aboard Victory after the Battle of Trafalfgar in 1805 to reach the Admiralty in London. Now, news in presented to the world as it is happening, at the spur of the moment.
Other explorers poured in after Columbus with merchandise and African Slaves. By 1504, the New World was christened America, after Amerigo Vespucci. The Pilgrims, the Puritan separatists also fled religious persecution in Plymouth, England and 103 of them eventually landed safely on December, 26, 1620. The British authorities came to colonize the new world being created. Slaves were suppressed, native Americans that some called American Indians were systematically annihilated and there were revolts climaxing in the so-called War of Independence. A Declaration of Independence (from Britain) was made on July 4, 1776.
Endowed successively with focused, good and efficient leaders, America weathered the storms of unrest, wars – including its own civil war - and emerged what is it today, the sole world superpower, an octopus country that generates extreme reactions: the most beloved and the most despised; the most advanced (techno-scientifically, economically, etc.) and the most depraved (morally); the most popular, yet the most controversial. The US I was arriving in would strike me as a perfect blending of concatenating contradictions: sample, a country where you are free to pursue happiness and you are still bound by many laws, enforced with admirable efficiency; a country that cherishes its freedom and liberty but still invades and occupies other countries, violating their freedom and liberty. America, their dear America, here I come.
The US comprises 50 states (48 contiguous and non-contiguous states of Alaska and Hawaii). There are still outlying areas, de facto American, of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and the US Virgin Island. The states and their epithets are alphabetically Alabama (“Heart of Dixie; Camellia State”), Alaska (“The Frontier State”), Arizona (“Grand Canyon State”), Arkansas (“The Natural State; The Razorback State”), California (“Golden State”), Colorado (“Centennial State”), Connecticut (“Constitution State; Nutmeg State”), Delaware (“First State; Diamond State”), Florida (“Sunshine State”), Georgia (“Empire State of the South; Peace State”), Hawai’I (“Aloha State”), Idaho (“Gem State”), Illinois (“Prairie State”), Indiana (“Hoosier State”), Iowa (“Hawkeye State”), Kansas (“Sunflower State”), Kentucky (“Bluegrass State”), Lousiana (“Pelican State”), Maine (“Pine Tree State”), Maryland (“Old Line State; Free State”), Massachusetts (“Bay State; Old Colony”), Michigan (“Great Lakes State, Wolverine State”), Minnesota (“North Star State; Gopher State”), Mississippi (“Magnolia State”), Missouri (“Show Me State”), Montana (“Treasure State”), Nebraska (“Cornhusker State”), Nevada (“Sagebrush State; Battle Born State; Silver State”), New Hampshire (“Granite State”), New Jersey (“Garden State”), New Mexico (“Land of Enchantment”), New York (“Empire State”), North Carolina (“Tar Heel State; Old North State”), North Dakota (“ Peace Garden State”), Ohio (“Buckeye State”), Oklahoma (“Sooner State”), Oregon (“Beaver State”), Pennsylvania (“Keystone State”), Rhode Island (“Little Rhody; Ocean State”), South Carolina (“Palmetto State”), South Dakota (“Coyote State; Mount Rushmore State”), Tennessee (“Volunteer State”), Texas (”Lone Star State”), Utah (“Beehive State”), Vermont (“Green Mountain State”), Virginia (“Old Dominion”), Washington (“Evergreen State”), West Virginia (“Mountain State”), Wisconsin (“Badger State’) and Wyoming (“Equality State; Cowboy State”),
As the Yoruba say, it is he who has not been to someone else’s father’s farm that would boast that no farm is bigger than that of his father. If we say Nigeria is big, the giant of Africa, the bigness is relative. Nigeria is smaller in size than two big states of the U.S. combined. It is only when you pick a big state like California and a small one like Wisconsin and merge them that you would have about the size of Nigeria…
Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is massive. At the time of my arrival, it was the second busiest airport in all of the US, after Hatfield Atlanta (ATL). A year earlier (and this can be confirmed from Encarta Encyclopaedia or elsewhere) it was the busiest in the whole world with over 72 million passengers passing through it in 2000. It was really a New World that I stepped into right from the airport. I followed the traffic of fellow passengers and I was soon at the baggage claim area. Everybody was busy, everyone was working; there was no idle moment. I waited as bags and baggage were being dropped on a rolling machine that would keep on circumnavigating with the bags. I later found mine – we had departed from Lagos. I surveyed my environment and beheld the ingenuity of man. How did they construct such an enormous edifice? ORD is a city within walls!
Holding my two bags on both hands, I joined the queue. There were officers at cubicles who would determine the entrants’ statuses. There were three possibilities at those points: one could be admitted into the US (that is everybody’s wish), one could be denied entry and flown back to wherever one was coming from on the next available flight and one could be detained, subjected to harrowing interrogations where anything could happen. It came to my turn and I stood before the indifferent looking lady: she was neither friendly nor hostile, she was just formal. I gave her my passport and she scanned it. She detached the attached envelope. I had known it would be detached. I was instructed to put my thumb on the machine, it was more of an order than a request. A red light drifted below the glass and my right thumb print was taken. The process was done on the left thumb too. She took my picture with the camera or webcam attached to her computer. She looked at my papers and seemed to have satisfied herself. She looked up at me and blushed, returning my passport and a stamped card that I would keep with me.
“This is your first time in the US, uh?” she broke her silence.
“Yes,” I replied indifferently.
“Are you excited?”
“Yes. Very excited”, I knew what she would love to hear.
Even though I was excited, I was at that point in no mood of letting anyone know my feeling but I still found myself playing along. You couldn’t be sure until you were sure.
“Congratulations. Welcome to the US” she smiled at me and called “next”. I left her front, reciprocating her smile and still joined a short queue. The customs were checking the contents of passengers’ luggage. Which kind wahala be dis?
The officers were firm and friendly at the same time. They tried to be as courteous as they could while making sure they did their duties conscientiously.
“Hi, what I have you got inside?” An officer asked while lifting my bag. I had opened it. It had been padlocked throughout the journey.
“My clothes, my books, foot wears, beads – such stuff.”
“You’ve any meat? Beef, fried chicken?”
“Any drugs?” To him, medicine is drug.
He ran my bag over the machine. The computer would show images of its content and the bag emerged at the other end – no problem. He made me pass through a security door – everyone must pass through it – and there was no incident. Five or six meters away from there after a revolving door, friends, families and relations were waiting for their passengers to emerge from the customs area. As I was walking out of the customs people, I was surveying the faces looking for my University sign.
A man was holding up a piece of paper on which “Governors State University” was inscribed. He had also zeroed down on me and as I moved closer to him, he called “Mahfouz”, I nodded and we embraced. Without wasting time, he took my big bag after a futile protest on my part. How would an elderly person carry my bag for me? He shoulder-carried it and I followed him outside the airport complex. I looked at the man’s face again. Yes, it was Professor Roger K. Oden, black, fiftyish, bespectacled, smartly dressed and likeable. I had thought he would be much older than he looked on the University website, having obtained his Ph.D in 1977. The Dean of the College and a Professor/Dean of more than twenty years waited for several minutes to receive me. And he shoulder-carried my bag out of the airport, imagine! This is a New World indeed – for a Nigerian.
A grey-coloured Lincoln Navigator reversed to where we were. The chauffeur opened the trunk (this was America, the trunk is the booth) and we put my bags inside. I had my passport in my hand. Professor Oden and I sat at the back. He introduced me to his driver and the fellow grunted his greetings in his thickly accented Black English now called ‘Ebonics’! We journeyed southwards. He engaged me in a long chat and we were soon talking as if we had known each other before. Dr. Oden was a fast speaker and he unrepentantly maintained his African-American accent, which I had to be straining my ears to understand. On some occasions, he would ask me what he said indirectly to ensure that I was getting what he was saying. He had years of experience relating with English as a second /foreign language speakers and had known their difficulties in understanding American English.
“Hey man, how was ya flight?”
“It was very fine”
“This is Chicago, the city that works. Governors is a few miles ahead. I’m taking you to your residence”.
“Thank you sir. It’s nice to meet you”.
He had tossed two newspapers of the day at me, The New York Times and the bulky Chicago Sun-Times of the day. I picked the first paper and started skimming through. I was half-listening to him, half-reading. He told me my Tanzanian colleague, January, had arrived and the one from Oman would be arriving later that day. He would have to come back and meet him too. He had bought a nice-looking doughnut and a loaf of chocolate bread or what looked like it. He’d been so thoughtful enough to know that I would need food. He would receive calls often and his wireless ear-piece fitted him and made him look guyish, a typical Yankee.
After some forty minutes of driving, leaving the colourful city and spectacular buildings into the quiet boroughs of well-trimmed flowers and grasses and trees that endowed the place with grace and green, the car parked before a house, it had ‘241’ tag. That was our house. He pressed the door-bell again and again and there was no answer. Two old men, and an old woman soon came to join us. They told me that my colleague had gone to the campus and he had the key with him. Dr. Oden gave me the papers and my snacks and excused himself so that he would be able to meet the third person, Abdullah from Oman.
One of the two old men offered to take me to his house pending the arrival of my colleague. He was Stanley Moore, a retired school teacher, short, a bit bent, soft-spoken, slow-speaking and friendly disposed. I assumed that what I was told that Americans are most friendly to be a myth; yet, I was finding it compellingly true. These first impressions from these people were dispelling my inner resentment, shaped by the theatrics of the New World Disorder in which America is the main character. Mr. Stanley Moore’s place was more than two hundred meters away. I wouldn’t mind a walk; I had been sitting in the planes for the past day. I was advised to put my bigger bag at the back of the house, casually. I felt I should carry it along with me but I noticed the sincerity of the suggestion. My bag would be secure even in front of the house. I put it in front of the back door to the house. I just padlocked it and followed him.
The Moores’ house is modest. The living room is moderately furnished. The floor is polished though it is wooden. The dining area towards the other exit has shelves containing hundreds of books on diverse objects. There was another small dining table for two persons at the other side of the living room. I sat on the sofa and was looking at the books, journals and other periodicals under the centre table. Mr. Moore was fixing a light lunch of salad and carrots and some pasta for me. There was Foreign Affairs, a journal; there was National Geographic, a magazine, and there were newspapers.
A small newspaper caught my fancy. I found its name interesting and inviting: Phoenix. Phoenix is my departmental student journal. The National Association of English Language and Literature Students (NASELL), University of Ilorin Chapter to which I had been a staff adviser for some years, up till the time I left, publishes it as annual journal.
Indeed, my first article as a student was published in the Phoenix about a decade ago. And as a matter of fact, most Nigerian journalists and lecturers that graduated from my department had had a stint with the Phoenix either in its editorial board or as contributors during their undergraduate days. When I was appointed to edit the Phoenix and the Humanist, the Faculty of Arts student journal at the same time in 1998, I offered to take up the latter though, I was still a major contributor to the former eventually. So, I picked Phoenix up, and below its masthead is Governors State University Students Newspaper: What a coincidence, I imagined, my departmental student journal back home bears the same name with my university student newspaper in the US.
I flipped it open and scanned through. A short column caught my attention in that latest (August) edition of the paper. It reported the appointment of an Acting Dean who took over from Professor Roger Oden, former Dean. I found it a bit unsettling for no reason and I registered the information within. My supervisor who I met about an hour ago was no longer the Dean: my letter of award made me know he was the Dean. I gained something and I left the cushion chair for the small dining table where I ate the cold food prepared by Mr. Moore.
We sat together and we talked as we were eating. I was told as a child not to talk while eating but Americans talk a lot while they eat, I began to observe. His wife, a frail slender woman with a mass of silver hair soon came in. She extended her hand as her husband introduced me to her and went to get me some drink. The only drink I would stick to was orange juice as well as water, of course. They asked me if I wanted anything and I grabbed the chance to tell them I needed to phone home, my wife specifically, that I arrived the U.S. safely (and not taken to Guantanamo Bay; as we had joked before I left home about the unpredictability of the contemporary world and the might is right syndrome goading the American global hegemony).
I dialed her GSM number. The phone rang but I couldn’t hear her voice clearly. I only told her the essence: I arrived safely, praise be to Allah. Back in Nigeria, she only heard me faintly and she was bothered: anything wrong somewhere? You couldn’t be so sure until you were so sure. To me, I had communicated my safe arrival; she would inform family and friends that I didn’t crash en-route. To her, as she didn’t hear me well, she was confused.