The Nigerian Airport Experience. Dash

I had originally been scheduled to leave Abuja for Port Harcourt, about an hour South of the nation’s capital on the coast, but arrived at the somewhat discombobulating counter experience – crowds of folks, some guys either baggage handlers or touts or both, airlines (About 1/2 dozen domestic carriers) ,distinguished by limp popup banners and nothing else (No flat screen displays) in a dimly lit area. Remarkably I found a counter agent who generated a boarding pass tagged my bag and followed a guy (Tout? Handler?) to a spot where he ceremoniously handed the bag off to another semi-non-official looking guy who ran it through a scanner and made it disappear.

I stopped to get a cup of tea at a sad, empty food stand but the power wasn’t working so I settled for a lukewarm Coke, served with a studied lack of care by a gal dozing behind the counter. It was then I realized I had left my laptop in the hotel, a good half an hour away. The lost electronics gods were with me – the maid had found and returned the machine (worth about her annual salary), the hotel had it and because of the flight delay, I had time to go back and fetch it. My driver was pumped that he would get two additional fares out of the day so the stars were aligning in all sorts of ways.

I made it back to the airport with said laptop – pretty much my whole life in that silicon, plastic and metal box – was pressed for some “Dash” (I declined) by the security guys at the entrance and got to the waiting room with a couple of hours to spare. The ticket counter for my airline was cordoned off and the staff were having a motivational talk and prayer with a safety vested supervisor. Additional security theater to get into the waiting area – how can that heavy lidded guy possibly maintain focus on a continuous stream of X ray images of bags that pass through his scanner, let alone have any idea what the smudged black and white images mean?

It turned out that the waiting room was for all domestic flights leaving Abuja – a dozen that afternoon – and it had only one exit to the tarmac. No additional information displayed anywhere. People seemed quite content – no one was agitated – so I figured this has to be a process that you figure out by reading social cues. Folks are very well dressed, some of the men in super colorful cotton print suits, hats and sunglasses.

Every now and then a flight, airline and destination would be announced over a crackly, high volume loudspeaker in a muffled voice and a crowd would form at the gate, get patted down, have boarding passes examined and walk out to their plane. It was all very orderly in a unknowing kind of way.

Every 45 minutes I would randomly ask people who looked like they might know (Passengers, folks wearing safety vests, guys carrying clipboards) to sample the general feeling about when my flight would leave. Nothing clear, often looks of bemusement. It was now 6 hours past my original flight time and into the evening so I bought a package of plain cookies for dinner which I scarfed in short order, generating a flurry of crumbs. I find plain biscuits satisfying to consume, especially in significant quantities.

All of a sudden the loudspeaker blurted to life and as best I could tell my flight was called; I joined the very well ordered line (No Indian scrum forming here.), underwent more security theater, had my ticket taken and then started a long walk to the airplane. In surveying the ground crew prepping the machine for the flight I meditated on the quality of local service and maintenance and the probability of falling out of the sky because someone forgot to replace a washer or nut or seal, adding to this meditation some thoughts about Boeing’s casual regard for FAA regulations and its incompetence building software (It was a Boeing machine) and thought “Inshallah” (As God wills it) as I settled into my seat and the crew readied for takeoff.

When we landed an hour later in Accra, I thought “God don butta my bread” (Nigerian pidgin English for God has answered my prayers.) And indeed He has.


Dash is Nigerian pidgin English – an amazingly rich riff on the spoken language – for a gift or sometimes a bribe. And one can morph from one to the other pretty easily. I had several instances where folks checking my ticket or identification at Nigerian airports smiled broadly and asked me if I had something for them; I feigned old bald white obtuseness and carried on. The following quote from this blog from Brown University is a solid summary of how Dash works.

One of the most common informal transactions in Nigeria is the ‘dash.’ A dash, as it is called in Nigerian English and Pidgin English, may be a gift or a bribe; indeed its ambiguity is part of its function. The wide spectrum of circumstances in which it occurs and the range of meanings associated with it attest to the complexity of the social work it does. In its most benign occurrence, to give someone a dash is to offer a present, with no strings attached. In this form, a dash is even more generous than a gift, because it is given with no expectation of reciprocity. Most gifts, as Marcel Mauss (1925) famously showed, come with obligations. The giver creates a social relationship with the recipient that is not easily forsaken. In contrast, in some cases when Nigerians speak of a dash, they refer to a present given freely. A passerby might dash money to a beggar; a man might dash children a soccer ball. Because so many gifts come with obligations, a dash of this sort is especially welcome.

I Liked this sign


  1. Jane Allan says

    So interesting, Hugh. Amazing that they actually leave the airport, albeit,six hour late. Loved your description of scarfing down the cookies! I, too, like the sign!

  2. Donna Friesen says

    What an amazing story! Only you could remain optimistic under such circumstances that you would actually make it!—laptop and all!
    Keep these updates coming Hugh! I love reading them! You are a writer!!

    • Thanks Donna, I enjoy writing about things I see / experience.

      • It is weird what a blind spot we have about this history isn’t it?

      • Chidinma Oke says

        Nigeria is such a place where anything is possible! You made a very vivid picture of the happenings of a topical Nigerian airport. It made me remember when I went home in 2019 December only you could see signs everywhere and yet you had to ask about your flight, lol.

  3. Love the “Dash” and your feigned obtuseness

    • I learned feigned obtuseness raising teenagers and now find it useful in mandy situations.

      • Thanks Hugh. I was taken aback the first time i realized i had to *dash* to a standing unarmed security, for taking a picture near a building. I loudly asked him if it was his father’s property and he walked away dejected. . Great piece of writing.

  4. carol woods says

    thank you. will use the Dash term now that I know it!

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