Archive for September 2007

Goodbye from London

September 16, 2007

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 16 Sep 2007

Last December, they brought some excitement to Isuofia, a town in Anambra State. They had visited home to celebrate Christmas; and often moved in a convoy of different exotic Jeeps. The type of business they do is questionable. But because ours is a society that worships wealth, people adored them. Some purportedly fell into ditches while admiring their cars. They are London residents. And the people call them London Boys.

Even some churches celebrated them. They made them chairmen, chairman’s supporters and members of the high table at bazaar sales. These boys raised millions of naira for the church. Some reportedly broke kola nuts with amounts of money running into seven digits.

Seeing their opulence, many young men salivated and vowed to do everything possible to come to London. In a piece entitled ‘Welcome to London,’ I had narrated the desperation of most Nigerians to migrate to the UK and other parts of the Western world to search for greener pastures. In the article, which actually introduced this column, I had also highlighted the advice a lot of friends and relatives gave me before I left Nigeria. In summary, the advice was, ‘Don’t come back to this country.’

As a relation of mine put it, “Find time to explore opportunities in Europe and elsewhere for back home is filled with pains and wretch…Today in Nigeria, Europe is synonymous with wealth. Let me see how far you can go in preaching, teaching and suggesting otherwise by the time you come back.”

Well, what has a beginning must have an end. It is time to say goodbye. But as I prepare to breathe the hot air of Lagos once again, certain fears run through my mind. The greatest of them is the state of our infrastructure. For instance, I have got used to typing straight on my computer in Cardiff. Of course, electricity supply is constant. But soon, I will be forced to go back to writing in long hands. Or what else do you do if you have a deadline and there is no electricity to type your work? Use the computer with lantern or candle? One can use generator quite alright. But for how long?

What of the roads? Is the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway fully okay? Can motorists easily drive through Okigwe to Nnewi Road now? I cannot ask about the one that leads to my street because that one may never be done up until the world ends. Thank God that the Transportation Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, passed through the Lagos-Benin Road the other day. Otherwise, she may never have known the state of that road. And she may never have instructed that the road be repaired. Perhaps, I can now travel to the East to see my parents, knowing that the road has received some attention.

Water? Hmn! I just pray the private borehole in my neighbourhood is still functioning. The one in my house stopped working for the umpteenth time shortly before I travelled. The pumping machine frequently broke down because of power fluctuations. We became weary of repairing and replacing it. I pray we continue to have constant supply of clean kerosene so that we can continue to boil our drinking water.

I also hope that miscreants won’t waylay me on the road as I move to my house. I won‘t mention armed robbers because, as some Christians will say, it‘s not my portion. Happily, the Lagos State Government has promised to deal decisively with them. The police authorities have also promised to fight them fire for fire. This reminds me of Tafa Balogun.

Let me not talk about public schools and hospitals. They may not be working efficiently. But we have enough alternatives in private institutions. Those who cannot afford highbrow hospitals, for instance, can make do with chemists and roadside nurses. I don‘t also think herbalists charge as much as orthodox medicine practitioners.

My major regret is that we don’t seem to have learnt any lesson from our past mistakes. Civilised nations are moving further up the moon. We seem to be running back to the Stone Age. Millions of Nigerians are starving. But our lawmakers revel in awarding contracts and jumbo allowances to themselves.

The scriptures say those who have will receive more in abundance. Those who don’t have, even the little they have will be taken away. The Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission seems to be confirming this. Recently, the commission reportedly jacked up the pay package of executive and judicial office holders. It also introduced hardship allowance and reviewed such sundry benefits as constituency, furniture and overseas trip allowances.

Ordinarily, I have no problem with this. But in a country raped by official corruption and profligacy; in a state where multiplicity of wrongs inflicted by maladministration have not been righted; in a nation which seems to be charting a new course in servant-leadership, frequently raising the pay package of leaders could be depressing to the citizens. In any case, who needs this hardship allowance more? The man who is enjoying the paraphernalia of office or the graduate who has roamed the streets for five years without any job?

On a lighter note, there are people who are eagerly awaiting my return. They have laid ambush for me. My dad called the other day. Being a knight of the Catholic Church, he wants me to buy him a sword. He said the one he had before had broken. My mum does not really make much demand. But she has informed me about the levies, which are becoming more frequent in the village these days. My siblings say the gifts my wife gave them when she came back from her own trip were wonderful. Mine, they expect, will be one in town.

Particularly interesting are the requests from my children. At various times, they have asked me to buy biscuit and ice cream for them. For Kosisochukwu, the singsong is, “Daddy, buy pencil and sharpener for me o!”

Some other relatives and friends have called. Some want me to buy mobile phones for them. Some want T-shirts. Some want London suits and shoes. Like the man who recently smuggled a monkey onto a flight at the LaGuardia Airport in New York by hiding it under his hat, I may have to smuggle myself into Nigeria. Or ask my employers to give me some hardship allowance.

This is why most Nigerians, who are trapped abroad, find it difficult to come back home. Societal expectations and demands are just too much. Only the London Boys, perhaps, can return anytime and even make a show of it. See you later.

Guide for intending students to the UK (2)

September 9, 2007

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 9 Sep 2007

In December last year, I entered into a one-year off-peak period contract with 02 (one of UK‘s mobile phone companies). The contract is £25 per month. Phone retailer, the Carphone Warehouse, had lured me into it with 1,000-minute per month free evening calls, free phone and free £20.01. Within the first one week, I made many calls to Nigeria, believing that they were free. By the time the bill came, I had incurred £75.26 just for the one week. This excluded the cost of the calling card normally used to make international calls.

I misfired. Instead of dialling 0207 London access number, which is free for 02 contract customers within the free network minutes, I dialled another access number. That was why they charged me. When I wanted to cancel the contract, Carphone Warehouse refused. They said I could only cancel it after three months, and that is if I took insurance cover, which was about £29.50 per quarter. I took the cover but later changed my mind and decided to maintain the contract. My thinking was that after six months, I would migrate to £15 contract as they made me understand.

In June, I went back to the Carphone Warehouse to effect this migration. They told me to contact 02 Customer Service. I did. But as the lady who attended to me put it, ”We don‘t have £15 contract. The minimum we have is £20, and that will give you only 20-minute free UK calls per month.” From 1,000 free minutes to 20 minutes, I exclaimed.

Out of anger, I told her to still effect the migration. But when I calmed down the following day and wanted to revert to the original position, they told me it would no longer be 1,000, but 750 free minutes. This is my current position. Recently, 02 introduced roaming for their customers. This means you can call any country from anywhere in the world with your mobile. Having made a few direct international calls that attracted jumbo bills, I have since learnt my lessons.

I cannot recommend any of the phone service providers. The type of service you should go for depends on the frequency of your calls. If you don‘t make much call, it may be better to go for pay-as-you-go service. This gives you full control over what you spend on phone calls. There are phone shops and Internet cafes where you can also make international calls at reasonable rates. The best bet is to shop around and take the one that gives you the best deal.

To avoid incurring much cost on phone calls, you may consider using more of emails. Some students have Internet connections in their rooms. Most classrooms and libraries are also connected. If you have a laptop, it will be good if you bring it because you will submit almost all your assignments type-written. Otherwise, there are enough computers in the classrooms and libraries. But nobody will do the typing for you.

One area of interest to most students is opening a bank account. Most schools have HSBC, Barclays and NatWest branches on campus. These banks have their advantages and disadvantages. While NatWest, for instance, charges no commission for opening a new account, Barclays and HSBC do. For HSBC, you pay either £5 per month or one charge of £50 when you open the account. For Barclays, you will be charged a £5 monthly fee if your bank balance drops below £2,000. The minimum amount required to open the Barclays account is £2,000. You can open with any amount in HSBC and NatWest. Cardiff University gave us a list of the services these three large banks provide for customers. If your university does a similar thing, that will be good. Otherwise, find out the current services and charges from the banks before you plunge in.

Many have written asking how easy it is to bring their families. My answer is: it depends on your pocket and lifestyle. For one, bringing your family will be more expensive. A single student needs about £700 per month to survive in the UK. This covers the cost of feeding, accommodation, leisure, travel, clothing and incidental expenses. For a family, this cost is almost double. Your kids, aged 5-16, can attend public schools free as long as they have student dependent visa. You may have childcare option for those under-five years, but this is expensive. The cost can be as much as £120 a week. You may wish to visit the websites of Daycare Trust at http://www.daycaretrust.org.uk or Child Care Link at http://www.childcarelink.gov.uk for further guidance. If your spouse is coming with you, things may be a bit better because he/she may be entitled to work and support the family.

As a full-time student on not less than 12-month course, you are also allowed to work for 20 hours a week during term time and any number of hours during holidays. Just register with job agencies when you arrive and keep checking if they have jobs. The minimum wage per hour is £5.35. With the influx of East European citizens into the UK, getting jobs is becoming a bit more difficult. If you are the type who feels too big to wash plates or serve in a restaurant, then wait until you arrive. Experience, they say, is the best teacher.

If you plan to visit other European countries for a holiday, it is better you start the process on time. I wanted to pay a short visit to Germany before I finally come back to Nigeria. I made a phone call, as required, to book an appointment for visa interview. The first date the recorded voice gave me was 22 September – one month from the date I made the call. The voice asked me to press 1 if the date was acceptable or 2 if I wanted a change. Feeling that the date was too far, I pressed 2 for a change. It extended it to 24 September. I pressed 2 again. It moved it to 26 September. It was when the date moved up to 27 September that I realised that this talking machine can only move forward. I stopped it then. By this time, I had spent over £25.

I am not too sure I am still going because those who are missing me at home want me back immediately. And each time I call these days, my children‘s refrain is, ”Daddy when are you coming back? We are missing you o!” I don‘t know if this is the handiwork of their mother. But then, that is another story entirely.

Feedback

Dear Casmir,

I saw your piece on ”Guide for intending students to the UK (1)” in the Sunday Punch of September 2. What a useful piece! Part of what I do at the British Council is to provide pre-departure briefings to Nigerians going to the UK for education. I did the last one for 2007 just last week, August 30, and if you had written this before then, I would have sought your permission to read the beautiful piece to the departing students.

Akin Alamu,

Education UK Partnership Manager,

British Council Nigeria,

akin.alamu@ng.britishcouncil.org

Guide for intending students to the UK (1)

September 2, 2007

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 2 Sep 2007

In my undergraduate days in the late 80’s, students had a slang called October rush. It had to do with clever moves by male students to woo new female undergraduates. The idea was to be the first to hook the beautiful girls before others could develop an interest. Then, universities used to start new sessions in October. And there was still some form of stability in the academic calendar. Today, I don’t know if they call it May, July or August rush.

Whatever, this is September, the month the new academic year starts in the UK; the month many Nigerian students will migrate to acquire British education. My concern here is not about wooing of girls. It is the rush by supermarkets, restaurants, mobile phone and sundry service providers to woo student customers in the United Kingdom. It is about some things you should beware of when you arrive this Queen’s land.

How time flies. It is almost one year since I came on an academic journey in Cardiff. Within this period, I have learnt some lessons. I had narrated most of them on this page. But because many intending students have made enquiries about life in the UK, I wish to restate some of them. My assumption is that you already have your visa or entry clearance.

The first thing you should note is that there is no need coming with many clothes. You may never wear half of them. What students wear here are mostly jeans and T-shirts. I came with a big travelling bag packed full with many trousers and shirts. Up until today, I never wore any of them. During winter, you wear winter jacket and other warm clothing. All this you can get cheap in some supermarkets such as Primark and Tesco. You can still bring some traditional dresses because you will need them during summer and for social outings. The key point here is to travel light. This is to avoid paying for excess baggage. You also need to give room for gifts and other items you will likely buy on your return trip.

As you prepare for your travel, there are certain documents you need to have in your hand luggage. Your passport with entry clearance or visa is one of them. You also need to have a copy of your chest X-ray report, an air ticket, an offer letter from your school and any other document relating to your travel and school enrolment. Immigration officials will demand these items at the airport in the UK. If you don’t have them, your journey will be delayed.

When you arrive in the UK, tread with caution. Immigration officials may single you out for thorough checking. Don’t quarrel with them. They are doing their job and may just want to be sure that you are not one of those drug couriers or advance fee fraudsters that have unfortunately soiled Nigeria’s image abroad.

Some schools provide free transport for new students from the airport to student houses on certain days. If your school provides such a service, it is advisable you plan your journey to fall within any of those days. It saves you money and travel headaches especially if you are a first time visitor. If such a service is not available, then look for a coach that shuttles your area. Some of them have their terminals at the airport. Just make enquiries at the information desk at the airport, they will give you directions. There are taxis, but you only patronise them if your destination is close to the airport. They can be very expensive.

Once you settle down, go and get two or three pots and food storage bows. Don’t bother about stoves. Your landlord would have already provided gas and electric cookers, including fridges and freezers. If you don’t know how to cook, begin to learn it now. It is far cheaper to cook than to patronise restaurants or fast food outlets. If you ask around, it is likely there are African shops where you can buy your local foodstuffs in your area. In Cardiff, African shops are on City Road. You will see such items as garri, yam, beans, rice and semolina. These items are slightly more expensive than local British food. So, it will be good if you could bring some foodstuffs from home. But avoid bringing meat and meat related products because they are banned. You will get meat cheaper in the UK. Just budget between £80 and £100 for feeding every month.

One thing you will notice as you arrive is that many companies will invade your school distributing leaflets and flyers advertising their products and services. Most shops and supermarkets give generous discounts to woo customers. Some will even sell certain items half price or 70 per cent off the original price. Some will urge you to buy one and take one free. But look well before you leap. It may be that the item they are giving you at half price is costlier than what you will get in some other shops. Note that you don’t haggle over prices here.

You can do window-shopping first before you determine what to buy and where to buy it. There are price tags on most goods so you don’t have to ask for the prices. Some big supermarkets like Marks and Spencer and Next can be expensive. But they usually do summer, winter, Christmas and clearance sales. Keep your ears open for these sales because prices will naturally come down. If you don’t have much money to spend on clothes, a charity shop is the place to be. They sell clean second-hand clothes at very cheap prices. You can find them almost at every city in the UK.

One area in which you need to exercise extreme care is in finding a suitable accommodation. Most universities offer accommodation to new students at reasonable rates. But instead of paying monthly, you may be required to pay on a quarterly basis. The type of accommodation you get depends on your choice and pocket. There are flats, en-suite and single bedroom apartments. You do not need a flat except your family is coming with you. The rent for a one-bedroom flat is between £350 and £400 per month. Going for en-suite means you desire some privacy because you will have your own toilet and bathroom. You can budget about £300 per month for this. If you are in a single study room, it means you will most likely share bathroom with others. This will cost you between £200 and £250 per month.

Bear in mind that these rates may be higher in London than in other UK cities. If you have any relation to squat with for a week or two, it may be better not to enter into any contract until you get to the UK. This gives you chance to scout around for cheaper alternatives within the private sector. If you don’t have anywhere to squat, please go with the university accommodation. It saves you a lot of headache. Also note that once you sign a contract for accommodation, it is very difficult to cancel it. You will be required to pay your rent until the end of the contract. Even when you relocate to another place, you are still liable to pay your rent unless you are able to find someone to replace you.