New York City. The Big Apple. No place evokes “America” as this city. Its neighbourhoods and places—Manhattan, Brooklyn, 5th Avenue, the Empire State Building—are as well-known as our backyards, the simpler places where we have spent our own lives. In that alternative universe where everyone is American, “New York” furnishes the imaginary. I was excited to see that NYC was the final stop for our IVLP to study the United States elections. I looked forward to seeing the city of New York.
New York started paying its dividends early when we approached La Guardia by air, flying over water. I got off a few shots of a bridge. I think it was the Manhattan Bridge. We were met by a bus driven by a guy called Mike and made our way to Manhattan. We arrived late in the evening and got to the business of settling down.
I love cities that can be walked, reasonably flat cities have an attraction to me. Nairobi is one of such. New York is another. We stayed at 31st Street on Madison Avenue.
I decided to go out at about 8 p.m., to walk around a bit and get a lay of the land. I walked to 34th Street where I found a small Chinese restaurant. I had the trusty choice of fried rice and chicken. Years of travel have yielded the knowledge that the two sure items for the Nigeria-attuned palette abroad are fried rice, however made by whichever Asian country, and Spaghetti Bolognaise.
I crossed to 5th Avenue and walked all the way to 41st Street before looping back, buying some yoghurt and chicken wings on the way. Honest opinion, I did not like the city that first night. For the same reasons I do not like Lagos. The too many people and too many tall buildings imposed a sense of disquiet.
We held meetings at the US delegation to the United Nations the next day with people from the UN as well as from the State Department, a recap of our programme. The Delegation is located opposite the UN Building itself. I got a better sense of the city in daylight and found myself loving it. There is an infectious energy in New York which exists, in disfigured form, in other cities. It is inimitable. I found myself in the pulse of it. It is in the yellow taxis making their way through perfectly gridded streets between wide avenues displaying the idea of a “city block”. It is in the workers manipulating a payload atop a high building with a crane… they, including a woman, in hard hats, looking up to the sky. It is in the neon signs of open businesses and the people coming in and out to service so many so many restaurants offering everything from junk food to more pricey fare. It is having a view of the Empire State building just outside your window.
I fell in love with New York the night we went to see The Lion King, showing at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway. The somewhat heavily laden 5th Avenue of that first night was replaced by colour and dazzle. The performance itself was extraordinary and I remain grateful to the State Department for the tickets. The sets, the singing, the choreography was top notch and I found myself wondering—why can’t we have this in Nigeria? Why not? We can. All 1700 of us that night were touched by Simba’s story. In my childhood, the motto had been “Hakuna Matata!” In my adulthood, it is “Wakanda Forever!”
The Lion King was a trip to nostalgia. Nostalgia is not bitter when you’ve gone farther, further, higher. Even when there is so much more to do.
The IVLP closed and I prepared to return to my country. I was tired from all the walking I had done—Washington DC, Maryland, Miami, Colorado and NYC—but I was filled with a sense of… magic?
But, not really, not magic. It was a sense of the miraculous. The difference between magic and miracle is the supernatural agency, for which fatalism and a lack of imagination suffice often than not, that magic demands. Miracles are a different thing entirely. A miracle is the product of systems that work well and improve themselves, learn from their experience through institutional (and technical) memory. It is the grid of New York and the Builders of Eero Saarinen’s vision figuring out how to build the Gateway Arch. It is the CIA, the NSA, the NYPD, the State Department and systems imagined into being and given life to bring about certain ends. It is the Wright brothers pioneering flight at Devil Kill Hills in 1908, and NASA sending a man up to the moon fifty years later. It is a united states of fifty countries federated into one, which has lasted two hundred and fifty years. It is the seamless, everyday business of election at various levels that harnesses the will of common people into potent power—the authority and legitimacy of the government of a superpower.
These are not magic. These are in fact miracles wrought by the minds of men.
And this is the essence of my three weeks in America. Axiomatics.
- The United States is a land of miracles.
- A miracle is a product of an intelligently designed system.
- Systems can (and are) designed by humans.
- Africans are human.
- Africa can be a land of miracles too.
Once again. I thank the US State Department, the US Mission in Nigeria, and the team at World Learning for my IVLP experience. It is hard to speak of the last three weeks without speaking in superlatives. Let’s just say I do not think I would have gotten this breadth and scope of America if I had merely gone to one spot or five of that country for tourism.
I appreciate all the experts and regular people who talked to our group, from professors to farmers, for going out of their ways to share an experience.
Lastly, I especially thank our “minders”, the translators—Eric Goze, Chelsea Rosendale, Miguel Garcia and Meredith Rogers—who were with us each day. The best. And, best wishes.