We have made it to Nigeria. It is a much different place than the other countries we have visited. We’re experiencing plenty of those things that make Africa such a fascinating and unique experience but this country is offering a few new challenges as well. There is a much different energy here.
Have you ever considered what your reaction might be if you were to get up in the morning and find men toting AK-47s in your kitchen? I don’t expect that it’s odd for me to admit that I hadn’t.
Greg’s reaction was to offer a friendly “How ya goin’, Mate?” Which didn’t seem get much of a response out of them.
I heard Phil say “ Good morning” and then refuse to honor one of the men’s request for “hot water”, that is, gin. “Gotta wait until at least, 7:30 am, my friend.” This raises another question: Which is the best choice: deny a man with a firearm something he asks you for or assist in his inebriation? I think Phil made the right decision.
I reacted by pulling my sleep mask back over my eyes, rolling over, and groaning to Gavin, “ Please don’t let them want to talk to us. Please don’t let them want to talk to us. I can’t do it. It’s too early in the morning for a small talk! I’m still in my pajamas.”
Lena emerged from her tent and was swiftly approached by one of them. I hadn’t been paying attention to the beginning of the conversation but he caught my ear when I heard the man say “…I will marry you.”
Lena did what would be considered to be the logical thing and refused. She explained that she didn’t love (let alone know) him and that marriage was a complicated thing. I feared for her. This could have been the beginning of a long and frustrating argument that would go around in circles for God knows how long. Lena did what most would consider the logical thing….. but unfortunately African logic tends to work differently than the logic we know.
It took me a while after I had arrived in Africa to figure out what the best approach is to unsolicited marriage proposals. Traditionally, in Africa, the husband-to-be and his family give the parents of the bride-to-be something of value in exchange for their daughter, usually camels or cattle. Maybe a few goats as well if she’s an extra special lady. The response that worked for me when I was a single woman, when I couldn’t just pull up my “husband” and say “Sorry, Dude, yer too late.” is to tell the man that you are flattered, but your father is already negotiating your dowry with a man back in America (or whatever your home country). They had sent you away on a bit of a holiday so you couldn’t interfere with the process (as us troublesome American women are apt to do).
At this point it is likely that the suitor would say that he would like to negotiate with your father as well. In essence, that he would like to start a bidding war with the other man. He would enquire about the nature of the dowry. You would respond by telling him that the at this point the settlement included a lifetime membership to an exclusive golf club and several bottles of 250 year old whisky for your father, a brand new luxury car for your mother, and an agreement to take over all pending and future debts as the result of your terrible, terrible shopping addiction. Most of the time, they’ll take a second look at you and decide that you’re probably not really worth it. For the especially persistent, as a last ditch effort, you confide in them that, sadly, you are barren. Children are off the “To-Do” list. This sends nearly all the rest of them running.
Lucky for Lena, the rifle-bearing Romeo was probably still recovering from a big night before and wasn’t too determined.
Sarah came upon a similar situation later that day. This one I hadn’t ever dealt with: a man asked Sarah to become his second wife. Contrary to what you would expect, the idea was enthusiastically supported by this man’s first wife. A likeable woman and much harder to say “No” to than her husband. Still, Sarah had to decline.
But I digress.
The men with the Automatic Kalashnakovs were supposedly there as our security guards. We had decided to camp at a roadside church our first night in Nigeria. It was right next to a police check point, so the cops agreed to keep an eye on us. These guys surveying our camp were the replacements for the night crew and they were just checking us out since we were a bit of a curiosity. As we’ve been informed many times, tourists are a rarity in Nigeria. Go figure.
We were quite comfortable with this set-up. Quite comfortable until, as we were sipping our tea and buttering our toast, there were gunshots. One of these officers was shooting at passing cars! There were a few vehicles that refused to stop at the checkpoint. These were the ones getting shot at. I don’t know if he was aiming for the cars’ tires or for the road just in front of the vehicle but that is where they were hitting. We could only speculate as to whether this was protocol or the result of too much palm wine. Either way, in response to these actions, our 8am departure was suddenly pushed forward to about 7:30am. Nobody had to say it, we all just finished up our coffee and packed up camp a little quicker than usual.
One could understand why the drivers wouldn’t want to stop. Along this stretch of road there had been over a dozen police stops in about 150km, some within view of each other! I’m talking less than a kilometer apart. A few of them demanded to inspect all 24 passports…twice. I think we all appreciate safety and security but, really, this seemed over-zealous.
Between hear-say, snippets in guide books, and government travel advisories, you get the idea that Nigeria’s highways are rife with armed bandits. I can confirm this. However, these highwaymen seemed less hostile than we are led to believe, wore uniforms, and threatened us not with violence but with jail time. Nigeria’s police are ….. and I know I’m not really supposed to use the C-word, but I have to: Corrupt!
You get this all across Africa but never have I seen it as bad as here. We got harassed mercilessly. Every stop where we weren’t asked outright to hand over some cash we were accused some traffic violation or infraction of one sort or another. This in a place where it is apparently perfectly acceptable to drive a lorry with a shattered windshield or a cattle truck with 40 bovid in the back and 30 humans hanging off the side going 120kph down the highway. You may even occasionally see a cattle truck with a shattered windshield and similar cargo. We would be told that if we paid a fine, we could go on our way. Funny, that. We always refused to pay a fine.
“You will have to arrest me then, if I have broken the law.” Gavin would respond defiantly, “We have no money to pay the fine.”
This always threw them. They didn’t expect Gav to call their bluff. They couldn’t really arrest any of us for the things we were being charged with. They would try another angle, maybe reduce the “fee” a bit.
Gav would hold firm, “I have told you. We have no money. The last police officer took it all.”
After several minutes and a bit of whispering between fellow officers, they would reluctantly send us off, us smiling and waving and wishing them a good day.
We got pulled over by one group of men who said they represented the traffic authority. We did not have the proper insurance label on our windshield. We would have to pay.
“Only 60,000 Naira.” The man in the very unofficial looking vest told us. That’s about $400 which is roughly $400 more than we were willing to give this guy.
A lot of insurance companies in Africa issue dated, round, adhesive disks that you stick on your windscreen to show that you have current insurance. The man pointed to what he assumed was ours.
“This one does not work in Nigeria. You must buy one from us or they will not allow you on the roads. There are many, many other checks and they will not let you through.” This after we had already driven a few hundred kilometers through the country. “ 60,000 is my discount price for you. You cannot get it at one of the other checkpoints.”
He pointed to the circular thing again. “I know this one. It will work in other countries but not in Nigeria. You must pay.”
Gav did his usual “We have no-money” routine. He told them we had 3000 Naira but we needed that to buy food for all the passengers. Suddenly the cost of that insurance dropped by 57,000 Naira. Gav negotiated further, emphasizing that we needed to buy dinner. After handing over 500 Naira, the road block was removed and we were allowed to carry on. Those other road blocks that the man promised us we would not get through without his sticker never materialized.
I got to thinking about this. I was confused. I couldn’t remember us having one of those stickers and couldn’t figure out what the guy had been pointing at. I inspected at our next stop. I regret ever getting on Gav’s case for leaving trash on the dashboard. The “insurance sticker” that the man claimed he recognized was the leftovers from our lunch: the round lid off a Manchurian brand Cup-O-Noodles. Hot and spicy beef flavor.
The fun continued.
That morning we passed through the town of Ibadan. This was not our intention. We were following two large scaled maps, a Garmin sat-nav, and notes from a previous driver. All seemed to fail us. I’m sure you know that feeling when you’re convinced you’ve taken a wrong turn without actually having any concrete proof that you aren’t where you’re supposed to be. Gav and I shared that feeling. We put our faith in the sat-nav. The sat-nav betrayed us.
The Nuvi led us down what may have once been a major thoroughfare but had at some point since the creation of the “Garmin Nigeria Street Maps Series” had turned into a market with a narrow path in the middle. It would allow the cars of only the most skilled drivers to emerge unscathed and only the most negligent drivers to emerge with whatever sanity they had to begin with intact. Gav maneuvered slowly down the track. This would have been fine had it not been “Drug Yourself into Insanity” Day in Ibadan. It must have been. There were too many crazed individuals completely off their face at 11am for it not to have been some kind of national holiday. Me and Gav got to help them celebrate as they all seemed to be magnetically drawn to the cab of the truck.
Most of the guys in the back were having a great time. The locals didn’t know what to think of us. The guys in the back were waving and getting smiles and waves back. Up front, men were trying to open the doors and were hanging off the wing mirrors. Some were trying to smash the windows and the wing mirrors.
One man came to our rescue. He appeared to be as crazy as the others. He said that he was “Working for God”. Had George W. Bush not used the same excuse for his presidency, perhaps I would have been less skeptical of him. He needed to convince me. This man started punching cars and hitting men with sticks in order to clear a path for the truck. At first this seemed a bit heavy handed. After a few minutes it was obvious that it was absolutely necessary.
The situation was tense. It was quite possibly the scariest experience I have had in Africa. I’ve found myself in an open vehicle at night surrounded by a pride of hungry, hunting lions, and an injured and enraged Cape buffalo bull. The detour through Ibadan shot this out of the water in terms fear factor.
Turns out our man may have been working for God after all. This apparent lunatic got us out of a seemingly impossible situation. He beat off would-be bad guys. He got cars and trucks out of our way. He accompanied us out of the narrow street all the way to the expressway, hanging off the mirror the entire time, even when we reached speeds of up to 40kmph.
With his guidance and Gav’s expert skills at the wheel the only damage done involves the potential life expectancy of me and Gav. I think we may have lost a couple years as a result of that ordeal.
We spent the next couple days traveling to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. It was slow going thanks to dreadful roads, a very confused sat-nav, and police stop after police stop, We spent one night in a gas station and the other within the grounds of a catholic mission, sitting around the camp stoves reflecting and laughing over the chaos of the day.
Finally we arrived in Abuja, the capital city, on Sunday. The Sheraton Hotel is our haven. They’re letting us camp in their employee parking lot. We’ll be here for a week. In between the missions of securing our Angolan and Cameroonian visas and getting extra passport pages for the Americans, we may get some R & R by the pool in the air conditioned lobby. If all goes well, in less than a week we’ll be headed south to Cameroon where we intend to tackle the infamous logging road!