I planned to be in Lagos this Christmas. The season is called Detty December (as in “dirty”), and it’s a whirlwind of weddings, parties and concerts that go on till the early hours of the morning. The dress code is “slay queen” – dress to slay – and there’s only one rule: enjoyment. I booked my flight months in advance to avoid the price hikes that happen close to Christmas. I readied my outfits. I packed my sunscreen. And then, as of 7 December, the UK government put Nigeria on the red list. I was scheduled to fly the day before.
I sought counsel. My bolder friends encouraged me to travel because the rules might change before my return flight. My more cautious friends advised that I should only risk it if, in the event that the travel ban was not lifted, I was ready to pay £2,120 for hotel quarantine. I was not ready to pay £2,120. I postponed my trip.
So far, so pandemic. We’ve all had to cancel flights, weddings, graduations and birthday parties in the last two years. The cancellation was not the shock. It was my calm response to the shelving of a long-awaited holiday that surprised me.
The Chibundu of 2019 would have gone on a rant that started with my family and progressed to social media, where it would eventually burn out in a very long Twitter thread: 30 tweets minimum. I would have started with Boris Johnson, worked my way through the cabinet and finished with a diatribe against Covid itself. I would have railed against the double standards that turned African travellers into international pariahs when the Omicron variant was present in other countries around the world. Then I would have locked myself in my room for a week, sat in darkened silence and mourned my lost Detty December. Instead, I exchanged my ticket for a travel voucher and made new plans for Christmas.
It was the pandemic. The pandemic had made me more comfortable with uncertainty. I was willing to accept that things might not go according to plan, and that was all right, because as long as I was alive and in good health then I could make new plans. One of the side effects of a virus sweeping across the world and locking us down and separating me from my family in Nigeria was that I was growing this strange, wonderful emotional muscle called resilience.
Even though it has atrophied somewhat through my years of living in England, I grew up with resilience. My childhood was spent in 90s Nigeria, which meant military-rule Nigeria, which meant coups, dictatorships, fuel scarcity, labour strikes, social unrest and much more. You could wake up one morning and the president had changed.
And how did my parents cope with all this uncertainty? They planned for the future but they lived in the present. They realised that tomorrow was not guaranteed so they did not spend their days fretting about what might happen. They had enough foresight to make plans but they had enough flexibility to change them. They moved through life with a certain ease and grace that I in my 20s and 30s, living in a country with more political stability and economic opportunity, struggled to replicate.
There’s nothing wrong with planning. There is something harmful with believing that because you have planned something then it must be so. That is a prerogative that was formerly only attributed to the divine but is now the hubris of the western world. Those in Washington, London and Paris see western dominance, economic growth and excessive consumption stretching into the future for ever.
I look at my discarded plans from 2020, and I approach the future with more humility and flexibility. I look at the uncertainty of Brexit Britain, in particular the petrol shortage of the summer and the queues that lasted for hours. All this reminded me of petrol scarcities in Lagos. It reminded me that the fact I lived in relative ease and prosperity was not because I was better than anyone. It wasn’t because I was smarter or a better planner. It was simply time and chance. In the old days, people used to say: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
It could be you who is living in a country at war, forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back. It could be you crossing the Channel in a rubber dinghy, hoping that the coastguard won’t let you drown if you capsize. All of us, in the last two years, have faced enough uncertainty to show compassion to those fleeing instability. But will we learn? Will we learn?
In the end, Christmas in England was fine. There was no Burna Boy concert or Tems concerts. There were no red-carpet weddings or beach parties. I didn’t get to see my family in Nigeria but I saw my family in England: three nieces, two sisters, two brother-in-laws, one nephew, one cousin and one very special boyfriend. There was jollof rice and chicken; and even though somebody was too tired to fry the plantain, we made do without. It wasn’t my first plan. But I made a new plan, and life went on.
Chibundu Onuzo is a Nigerian novelist living in London.