Life’s invincible barriers

Posted by News Express | 20 November 2021 | 569 times

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Just as the plane was about to land, we were given the customary landing cards. I looked at mine. It was in Arabic. I smiled to myself. This was an international flight so a landing card in Arabic made no sense to me. Confidently, I put it inside the pages of my passport, so sure that one of the beautiful hostesses would inquire and possibly fill it. None did. We disembarked and proceeded towards immigration. An official took a look at my passport and the unfilled landing card and put me to one side while people walked briskly past me. It suddenly occurred to me that nobody else was in my predicament.  This was when I started getting apprehensive. And afraid.

This was in 1978 and I had just landed in Muhammad Gadhafi’s Libya as part of my professional tour of the Middle East. We had landed in Benghazi and were supposed to complete the immigration procedures there before taking a local flight to Tripoli which was my destination. It was also where our embassy was and where our diplomats would be waiting. So in effect, I was alone and vulnerable in Benghazi. After a while, a couple of uniformed men approached me and spoke in rapid Arabic. I muttered the word ‘English’. They moved away angrily. This shouldn’t be happening in an International Airport I thought. But it was happening. Then one official approached me and asked for my card in decent English. He started to fill it. By this time, the desk had almost emptied. He explained to me that I had to hurry up otherwise I would miss my connecting flight. My hands were shaking as I collected my stamped passport. I felt like an alien. A black man in a crowd of white, unfriendly people. Worse, I couldn’t be heard if I tried because of the language barrier. A uniformed man pointed to the gate. At the gate, another uniformed man looked at my ticket and pointed to a plane which was admitting about the last passenger. He said ‘run’. I did. You can imagine a young, black man with a hand luggage running towards a plane. I could have been a terrorist. I didn’t go far before I was surrounded by uniformed men. I showed them my passport and ticket and gesticulated wildly at the plane. One of them told me calmly in English that I was breeching security. He explained that it was a local flight and another one would be along within the hour. They firmly but politely led me back to the airport building. I worried about my luggage which was flying ahead of me. I worried about what would happen if our embassy guys didn’t see me on the flight. Would they wait? I also had time to ponder how things would have been very different if I had taken the Arabic landing card more seriously. Or better, if I could speak Arabic. Insisting on Arabic everywhere was probably Gadhafi’s show of defiance towards the West. I was to see a lot of that during my one week stay in Libya.

Language is one of the invincible barriers we all face. None knows how to play the game more that the French. Many French people speak English. But they can play dump when it suits them. Not that I blame them. If they can learn English, why can’t the English speaking also learn French? I was to witness this invisible barrier again on the same Middle East trip. This time, it was a double whammy. Algeria is a French speaking country – perhaps more French than France. It was also in 1978, a deeply racist country. Algerians had always felt more European than African. The result is that it never fully belonged to either. So I was confronted by both racial and language barriers in Algiers. I felt like a pariah as I got to the arrival lounge. Worse, I felt invincible as people virtually ignored me as if I was not there. Those I approached gave a nonchalant ‘I don’t speak English’ and moved quickly away. Again, I thank God for our diplomats who were there for me.

To be fair, we all unconsciously erect invincible barriers against those who don’t speak our language and literally open our hearts to those who do. But it’s not a very pleasant experience when you are on the other side. These days, I have learnt to send our cleaner who is a Northerner to the fruit sellers because she gets a better bargain. More importantly, she gets fresher, sweeter fruits. I was once close to a particular Minister from Kano during the Shagari Government. At a point, he probably got tired of translating to me when people around him spoke Hausa and asked me to go and learn the language. Although he said it in jest, maybe I should have listened to him. I have friends whose careers leapfrogged because they could speak Hausa. Besides, the more languages you can speak, the more invincible barriers you can break. I once felt a deep kinship with someone who spoke Yoruba to me in a faraway Asian country.

The social media was awash recently with the story of a Muslim who escaped death by a whisker at the collapsed 21-storey building because he was denied employment on account of his religion. The uproar was as if being denied a job on account of religion is a new phenomenon. It is not. Neither is it peculiar to one faith. Religion, like language, has always been an invincible barrier. People instinctively feel more trusting of a stranger who is of the same faith. This is probably less so in Yorubaland where inter-religious marriages have blurred the lines. But even then, it exists among strong adherents as we just found out. And those who carry religion to their work place as many do these days, will take the Monday morning services – or Friday Jumat services – into consideration when hiring a new staff. It is unfortunate, but it happens. I once knew an otherwise astute administrator who became very trusting of Pentecostal worshipers soon after he became one. Until he became burnt several times. Heroes and villains are common to all languages, religions and races. So is humanity.   

I believe these invincible barriers like gender, language, religion, and race are indulgences we allow ourselves because they don’t matter at critical moments. Nobody asks for the language, or the religion or the race of a pilot before they board a plane and commit their lives to his skill. Or of a doctor whose scalpel could kill or save them. We just found, to our collective grief at the collapse of the Ikoyi tower, that buildings like nations, are erected by skill and not by religion.

•Muyiwa Adetiba, is a veteran journalist and publisher. He can be reached via

Source: News Express

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