There was this summer I was billed to travel and a cousin of mine asked that I should help chaperon his 14-year-old daughter.
I had never met his daughter until a few days before we left Lagos; call it the God factor if you like, but I felt a need to visit my cousin four days before we traveled just to meet the girl.
I usually would have said, ‘Ok, bring your daughter to the airport on the set date.’
But something urged me to see her before the day we were meant to travel…that turned out to be my saving grace in the events that unraveled afterwards.
When I met my cousin’s daughter, Leah, I found that she was born by another woman, not my cousin’s wife; someone he had an affair with.
The girl had only just been introduced to my cousin, her father, a few weeks before our travel date and she was meant to go meet her grandmother, who lived in the UK.
What of Leah’s mother?
Well, I never met her, I was told she passed a few months earlier after a so called brief illness; which was why her people or maybe it was even Leah who demanded to meet her father before going to spend time with her grandma, whom I had never met too.
Kind of convoluted, right? But Good thing I went that day.
Drama began when we landed at Heathrow and we went for screening at immigration. We landed at about 10.30am and my sister was meant to pick us up at the airport from where we were to take Leah straight to her grandma before heading to my sister’s home.
Now, you know the long queue where border security checks your papers before letting you in? Leah was in front of me on the line and because I had declared that Leah was under my charge, and like I told you, she was 14years so at the immigration desk, after a few questions and looking at her passport, I saw that she was suddenly separated from me.
They took her to one office while I waited in the arrival hall, wondering what was going on…oh yes, I was cleared but she wasn’t and I couldn’t leave the airport without her, so…
I could see them through the glass windows as they were talking to her, she would look at me, then turn talk to them.
I told you earlier that I knew nothing about Leah, apart from what I told you earlier. For instance, I didn’t even know her mother’s name, where Leah went to school, where she lived in Abuja with her mum before she passed, so many details I didn’t know because my duty was simply to escort this child from Nigeria to London, make sure she arrives at her grandma’s place safe.
I had the grandma’s address and phone number. And because she hadn’t been cleared by immigration, I hadn’t called to say we had landed, though she was aware we would land at 10.30am.
About 45mins later, after I had asked about three times why they were delaying us, I was ushered into another office, ostensibly to wait while they checked Leah’s papers…but when I got up after sitting for over 30minutes again, I saw my luggage had been brought in by the officials and I could see them going through my stuff; you know there are glass walls and glass windows, so basically I could see but not hear what was being said.
As for me, since I had no contraband in my luggage, I had nothing to worry about. I also saw Leah’s bags and luggage were being inspected; that was when I began to worry. I mean, I don’t know who packed her bags, did someone give her a suspicious package, I mean those were things I didn’t ask about nor checked. She was a kid but you never know maybe someone gave her something, in short, that was when I began to panic…what if?
It was my turn to be grilled, they called me into another office after many times of asking what exactly they were looking for and them telling me to ‘please be patient.’
I was being grilled about Leah. Who she was to me? why was she travelling with me? Why didn’t her parent give me a letter? I showed them her grandma’s phone and address and asked them to call her, they didn’t. They asked me where I worked, how much I earned, they searched my phone, my diary, facebook, instagram, my….everything.
By this time, we had spent well over three or more hours and I was beginning to get angry because I just felt they were fishing.
They asked me to comport myself. I cooled down again. This is not Nigeria where you can flex.
They went through virtually every detail in my phone, whatsapp messages, my replies, images, videos, and they were asking me questions on each of these…all the way.
Thankfully, I don’t even save some of these whatsapp videos sent on group platforms, especially those that look like children are being abused, I always delete fast, many times I don’t open them once I see someone has passed a negative comment on such videos.
In the course of the interviews, I learnt they thought I was trafficking Leah!
Apparently too, she was grilled about me and of course she knew little about me beyond the fact that I was her father’s cousin, you get the scenario?
Five hours, six hours, seven…since my phone had been taken from me, I couldn’t even call my sister to tell her what was going on. I knew she would be worried, getting to the airport, not finding us and needing to report to work later that day.
You know in the abroad people don’t mess with their jobs, so she couldn’t just report sick.
I was worried about many things, Leah’s grandma would also know we had arrived, there would have been calls from London to Nigeria and back over our disappearance.
After many hours, and answering several seemingly mundane questions, I was moved into another room. I met with one other Nigerian in the room amd there were two Pakistanis, I think or maybe they were Indians.
We just greeted one another and everybody just sat looking worried.
After sometime, two other Nigerians were brought into the room. They began to talk, that was when I knew I was in hot soup. It was from these newcomers that I learned that all of us in the room were either going to be deported back to our countries or jailed as in my own case.
Me, jail? Even deportation was out of question, for what na?
I began to shout and demand for a senior officer; they told me to keep quiet, I said keep quiet for what? I had been accused of something I was not guilty of and you want me to keep quiet? I demanded for a senior officer, whom I thought would at least be more understanding of my situation, they still didn’t call my sister, Leah’s grandma and because I had no access to my phone, I began to raise my voice really loud…oyibo people don’t like people who raise their voices.
Meanwhile, my sister had got to the airport, waited, called me, checked the flight we were meant to be in, confirmed it arrived and that indeed, I was listed as a passenger so was Leah and yet we couldn’t be found. After about an hour, she found where we were but couldn’t wait so she went and reported to work but called a friend who worked with Border security.
He was a Nigerian, an egbon in a senior post. It was this uncle, who though wasn’t on duty that day, that came to the airport, enquired and eventually found us…this was around 8pm in the evening.
The uncle called Leah’s grandma, she came to the airport, identified her grand-daughter and corroborated my story…mother dying, Leah meeting her father, father asking me to chaperone her to the UK and delivering her safely to her grandma. Same thing I had been telling them all day.
My sister of course also came, said same thing…that was how we were finally released o. I was so tired, so exhausted, I just asked for my luggage and followed my sister home while Leah’s grandma took her grand-daughter home. Going forward, I will not even carry pin for anybody!
(Series written and edited by Peju Akande and based on true stories)