News: The UD Travel Blog
Posted: 21 May 2013
Nigeria Discovery Tour
My first night in Lagos is spent negotiating a series of labyrinthine roads in the dark, on the way to a night club. Arrival into Murtala Mohammed Airport wasn’t as bad as I had expected – it was hot and sweaty, and the queue was too long, but the customs and immigration officials processed me fairly quickly and didn’t even find any ‘problems’ with my paperwork. The closest I got to having to give a bribe was when I presented my Yellow Fever certificate on the way out and the health inspector asked if I ‘had something’ for them, to which I replied no and walked on without so much as an objection in return. After all the horror stories of Lagos airport, it’s almost disappointing – but made for a much easier arrival, I have to say. Now, a few hours later we are on our way to one of Lagos’ – perhaps Africa’s – most legendary nightspots, the Afrika Shrine. The Shrine was the creation of Fela Kuti, the father of the Afrobeat movement, and home to some outrageous performances that, as well as his unconventional lifestyle (the man had 27 wives!), brought unwelcome attention from the authorities. Today Fela is dead, but the Shrine lives on, now run by his son, and is a hub for the Lagos music scene.
It’s in a decidedly dodgy part of town however, and as we pull up outside the street is full of people hanging around, eyeing the two white guys sticking out like sore thumbs. Inside is quiet though – there is no performance tonight and people sit at tables with large bottles of beer, or play pool by the side. Despite the large sign saying ‘Drugs are not allowed into the Shrine’ the air smells of marijuana smoke and joints are passed around between friends. Another sign reads ‘The Shrine is not a nightclub – it is where we worship our gods’. On one wall is an actual shrine, sort of, with images of Fela and small statues – it looks the sort of place one might make offerings. The people here are friendly and now that we’re inside don’t seem to take too much notice of us – we’re invited for a game of pool by some but the rest pretty much ignore us. Without music there seems little reason to stay too late though – and we are advised that if we don’t leave soon it will be safer to stay until the dawn than head out into the night, so we finish our beers and return to the hotel. And so goes my first evening in Nigeria.
The following morning we head out of the city, expecting to be stuck in traffic jams for hours. But thankfully the road is clear – it is Sunday – and it doesn’t take too much time until we leave Lagos behind. One of the first things that strikes me is the condition of the roads. I’m used to travelling on some fairly poor roads in this part of the world, but these are in an unusually good condition – fully tarmacced, and with a distinct lack of potholes. But then they have to be to cope with the traffic – we are accompanied by armies of trucks, many carrying petrol and belching out fumes, hurtling on to the cities beyond. People are everywhere and it’s not clear whether we’ve actually left Lagos or this is just a suburb, with shops and businesses lining the roads. Also flanking the roads are enormous amounts of plastic rubbish – the scourge of Africa – and fetid open drains into which one would never want to fall. At various intervals are giant billboards, most of them advertising some form of religious meetings, emblazoned with titles like ‘Arrows of the Mighty’ and ‘One True Vision’, with photos of smiling and suspiciously affluent looking pastors. And then there are the petrol stations. I have never seen so many – it seems as if every couple of hundred of metres there is another, and it’s difficult to see how any of them can be viable, most of them empty and without custom. These continue all the way to Ilorin, where we arrive in the early afternoon.
Ilorin is known within Nigeria as a centre for pottery, and we walk though backstreets to the potter’s quarter, where vessels are stacked up, centred around a makeshift kiln. Visiting is not a simple matter though – a middle aged woman accosts us and demands that we pay the equivalent of fifty euros to proceed further. The amount is outrageous – but with no concept of tourism here there is little idea of what is reasonable, and I suppose that in minds that think that all westerners are rich, this might seem okay. We negotiate for a while, but she doesn’t really budge, and so we walk around to another part of the quarter instead. Here a boy is selling dried frogs for food, perched on a tray on his head – they don’t look too appetising. The woman resurfaces, again demanding her fifty euros, but this time an English speaking woman steps in and helps, and we manage to have a chat with the people making pots and take a few photos – I suspect our purchase of a pot smoothes passage somewhat. From here we visit the cloth quarter, where men weave on cumbersome looking looms. They are wary of us being there too, and the explanation given is that recently a group of Chinese visitors came, copied their techniques, and now produce Chinese made cloth for the local market at a much lower cost. How accurate this is, is probably open to doubt. The threads stretch perhaps twenty metres or so to a loop in a dusty yard, which we step over to visit. The men are making gowns and caps to be worn for ceremonial occasions, brightly patterned and sometimes gaudy, working the looms not with their feet but with their hands. Nearby a group of children from the local Koranic school sit under a tree chanting verses, eyeing us curiously as wander around – perhaps the first westerners they’ve ever seen in their neighbourhood. It is clear already that tourists in Nigeria are a rare species.
As the sun sets we visit the central mosque then head to a bar, drinking beer and eating grilled meat while a James Bond film plays on the television. It seems an unlikely choice for Nigeria and is switched over half way through for premier league football from the UK, which holds the attention of the clientele a little more. Next to us a group of men pour their bottles of beer into a large jug and Euloge, our guide, explains that they do this to show friendship, all drinking from the same vessel. We stop for a couple of beers then retreat to the hotel where live music is being played at a volume that defies conversation. Women of dubious reputations dance and accost the male customers, ourselves included, but they are friendly enough once they work out we’re not buying. Thunder growls on the horizon, moving closer until the heavens open and the night effectively ends.
The morning sees us exploring the old quarter, through now muddy streets and avoiding the puddles that have accumulated overnight. Goats and chickens vie for space with barefooted children and motorbikes, and the scent of firewood hangs in the air – the smell of Africa. In one courtyard we are met with a curious sight, as a group of ten or so blind men sit on benches. It is explained to us that this is the court of the ‘king of the blind’ who fulfils a role of chieftaincy over those afflicted – he sits in finery that he cannot see, attended by men with eyes missing or the clouds of cataracts over their eyes. Children swarm us here, the young girls with their heads covered, just faces peeking out from their scarves – Ilorin forms the boundary between the Christian south and the Islamic north, and the religions mix here.
Islam does not hold dominance though, not just yet. Our next stop, on the way out of Ilorin, is at the house of what can probably be best described as a witch doctor. Mr Isaa Asipa is one of the best known in these parts, and the small room he ushers us into has certificates and pictures on the wall bearing witness to his qualifications. The room is small but on every surface are the accoutrements of his trade – cowrie shells, dried snakes and the like. It is rumoured that the president and his cabinet come here to consult, but despite associations with grandeur he is a friendly soul and explains the methods he uses to solve the problems for which people come to him. We get a demonstration of this when Euloge and our driver Shuaib request his assistance. It’s a little unclear what they are actually asking, but in Euloge’s case the solution involves eating a razor blade wrapped in a leaf – I don’t believe that the leaf actually contains a blade until he opens his mouth and shows me the tiny pieces of metal that he has just crunched between his teeth. For Shuaib, the remedy is even more bizarre and involves him and his brother taking hold of the front and back quarters of a dog while someone else machetes it in half. The advice seems to be taken fairly seriously and much detail is explained. I decline to ask any advice myself for fear of the answer and whatever gruesome solution it might entail.
From Ilorin we drive north, stopping first at a Mbororo village tucked away in the bush, where the women sport tattooed faces and seem to be mainly concerned with decorating calabashes for sale. And then we drive to Jebba, on the banks of the Niger. We stop for lunch then visit a very non-descript monument to Mungo Park, high on a hill and across some railway tracks. A couple of men accompany us – of course they want paying, and in return they can offer no information about the monument at all, which it takes us about a minute to see. The Niger is flowing slowly here, and it was on this river that Mungo Park lost his life – although apparently nowhere near Jebba, so the placing of a tall obelisk here seems to make little sense.
We continue, past numerous roadblocks manned by policemen. Despite their awful reputation they are very friendly and when my travelling companion Willy inadvertently videos a checkpoint, the worst we receive is a slight telling off and an admonition that it’s illegal to do so. We stop for the night at Kontagora, which seems like the end of the road, the town more dishevelled and lacking in modern buildings than those of the south, but home to a surprisingly decent hotel – for this part of the world.
In the morning we continue – Kontagora isn’t quite the end of the road, but the asphalt soon opens up with potholes and bad repair jobs, then turns to a dirt track. We’re on our way to the lands of the Kamberi, a traditional people that live well outside the mainstream of Nigeria and couldn’t be more different from the inhabitants of Lagos and the delta cities. They are one of Nigeria’s secrets – few people would conceive that a country this crowded, the economic powerhouse of West Africa, could still hold pockets of people living just as their ancestors, but this is what we hope to find. Our journey is first interrupted though by another roadblock, this time set up by the ‘Human Trafficking Division’. We’re not just stopped but asked to get out of the car, and policemen check our passports in a thatched shelter by the side of the road. They take an age to leaf through every page of our passports, and look rather serious, but it all finishes with a smile and best wishes for our trip, although I’m told off for taking a picture of an incredibly photogenic girl selling mangoes on the roadside. We drive on through the bush, reaching the ramshackle town of Genu just after lunch.
Genu is the main town of the Kamberi region, and we stop to pay our respects – and gain permission – to the emir, who happens to be away. His teenage son offers his services as a guide though, and after a bit of negotiation conducted under the shade of a tree he rounds up four motorbikes and drivers for us to explore deeper into the bush – cars will only go so far and as always, the more traditional communities are away from the roads. We head off, riding pillion on bumpy tracks and I think to myself that there’s not much more exciting than riding bikes into the African countryside – an exhilarating experience as the drivers negotiate dried up river beds and tree roots, following the faint tracks to head to a weekly market about 20km away. We pass women walking with large pots and calabashes on their shoulders, bare breasted and with lip piercings and tattooed faces. Some of the younger – and presumably more fashion conscious – women have painted red, blue and white teardrops on their faces and they all wear long necklaces of blue beads, with dangling earrings festooned with feathers or coloured stones. Fingernails are painted red, and most sport bright cloths tied around their heads. Their concession to the modern world is that instead of animal skins they wear printed cloths around their waists, but apart from that they seem to have taken few influences from modern Nigeria. We pass a man riding a camel, which surprises me until I think that we’re not so far from the start of the Sahel.
After a journey of about an hour, by which time my thighs are rather sore from straddling the passenger seat, we arrive at the market. Almost immediately we are crowded by people, welcoming us and wanting to shake our hands. The younger children stroke our white skin in amazement. The market is in full swing with both Mbororo and Kamberi people here – the women in traditional clothing, the men in more western styles, although many still have tattooed faces and similar earrings to the women. A few wear rather incongruous cowboy hats, procured from who knows where. The atmosphere is somewhat lubricated by the millet beer which is on sale here, distributed from vats on the ground tended by young women, who thrust a large calabash on us and urge us to drink. The women are shy and more than a little cautious, but their curiosity gets the better of them when we tentatively take a few photos, and they all want to see their pictures on screen. So does just about everyone else and so we take pictures of half the market it seems, who laugh when they see themselves – possibly for the first time – on our screens. Some of the children are not so brave though and cry when we approach, hiding behind their mothers’ legs. A group of men perform some sort of dance for us, which bizarrely involves one man hoeing the ground in front of him while another keeps removing his hat and replacing it. Some of the younger men have mobile phones and take pictures of us, and unlike some other situations where one can feel awkward about visiting a local community, this seems to have a far more egalitarian feel, a real sense of genuine cultural interaction – both of us interested in the other, not gawping at the locals but actually having fun and enjoying each other’s presence.
In the evening, back in Genu, we watch a televised football match in the village ‘cinema’ – a big room with a large television at one end and a minimal entry charge. Premier league football is obviously very popular here as the crowd seems to know the English players, shouting and cheering at the game. It’s how and deafening in here though, so we retreat outside before too long and chance across a Kamberi wedding, lit by a solitary fluorescent light and with much dancing, the women moving in a circle and waving their hands as they sing. That night we sleep in an abandoned compound on the outskirts of town, under the stars and with the barking of dogs in the distance to send us to sleep.
The next morning we strike off on our bikes into the bush once more, this time to visit a village of the Dukawa people, another ethnic group in the vicinity. When we get there we find that they are not as traditional as the Kamberi and the mystery as to why this might be is solved when a local missionary presents himself to us. He explains that he has been teaching them that it is sinful not to cover themselves, and a lively debate ensues about whether this is really serving their best interests. He is adamant that the Bible is the solution to their problems and won’t be swayed, and it seems rather sad that after centuries of tradition the Dukawa are starting to lose their ways. We offer to take a woman with an infected, and rather black, hand to the local hospital but her husband is off working in the fields and without his permission she will not come, instead preferring to rely on a local remedy which involves covering her hand in some sort of plaster crust. I notice that the emir’s son, who rides one of our bikes, has two thumbs on his left hand.
Back at Genu we drink spiced coffee under a wooden shelter and try to buy the beautifully decorated calabashes carried by a couple of the women, but they’re not selling. Children crowd round once more and then scatter if we so much as make a move in their direction – many of them will never have seen white people before, and understandably they are both curious and nervous.
We drive back to Kontagora, stopping at a village Koranic school where children write verses of the Koran on wooden tablets – Shuaib tries to explain why they learn to write on wood rather than paper but we don’t really understand. Closer to the town we encounter our first bad policeman, who addresses and rudely and seems to be looking for a problem. He makes us get out and open our bags, not sure what exactly he is trying to find, until his superior walks over and tells him off rather sharply for wasting our time. We check into a different hotel but it soon becomes apparent that it has no functioning water nor electricity and so in need of a shower we decamp rather quickly to the one we stayed in previously. In the evening we walk around the market, accessed through a warren of crumbling buildings where old men sit on steps, past gaggles of schoolgirls in bright yellow dresses who decline our requests for a photo. The market is crowded in the extreme with motorbikes wending their way through the people, and the stallholders and customers look at us in confusion, asking what we are doing there. It is clear as we get further into the market that taking photos would not be a good idea – there are just too many people that might object. At one point we spot a man with a dried hyena’s head slung over his shoulder as a bag. The day ends with some cold beers and grilled meat in an open air bar on the edge of town, watching the trucks belching fumes as they drive on the north.
From Kontagora we head to Minna, and within half an hour are stopped by another roadblock – this time manned by workers from the Transport Union. They place a plank with nails in it in front of the tyres as they try to extract money. On the other side of the road they attempt the same with another car but it speeds up as it approaches, sending them scattering for cover. Quickly they unscrew the number plates from our car and an argument ensues, Shuaib indignant and trying to get to the bottom of the matter. After some discussion they decide that he does not have the correct road tax sticker for carrying Europeans in his car – a spurious reason if ever I heard one – and we have to pay three thousand naira for them to replace the number plates.
Closer to Minna we stop by a village where women sit under a large tree, eating mangoes and making cloth. They explain that they have migrated here from Jos to find better agricultural land – a young woman speaks good English and translates our questions. We spend a good hour with them, chatting and taking pictures before moving on.
Minna, although a fairly large city, is not blessed with a good selection of hotels and at a lunch stop we get chatting to a young woman on her way to church, who offers to show us around the town and help us to find a few different places to stay. Two of the hotels are modern but have tiny rooms, and one of them has a chained monkey outside, so we feel we can’t really stay there. We settle on the government owned hotel, built in the seventies and not updated since. It is vast, with concrete corridors spreading in every direction, and we spend half an hour checking in and registering with the three different desks that they have. In the evening we eat at an open air restaurant with a selection of food stalls – the most comical of which has live catfish in a tank and a sign advertising their food which says ‘Point and Kill Fish’.
Moving on from Minna we drive past villages of the Gwari people, and stop at one with a vast collection of mud built granaries. We are initially challenged by a young man as to what we are doing there, but he soon becomes friendly and offers to be our guide, showing us around and explaining the customs of the village. Hidden towards the back of the houses is an old VW Beetle, the pride and joy of its owner who is very pleased to meet us – a man called Mr Wonda, with extremely wonky teeth, who tells us that he is one of the elders and exhorts us to take pictures of the tethered bull beside him. An old woman starts an impromptu dance in front of us, much to the amusement of the other villagers, and in another corner women thrash millet to store for the dry season.
Our new guide joins us on an excursion further into the bush and we drive past large fields of yams, each plant banked up with mounds of earth - the Gwari are responsible for most of the yam production in Nigeria. At another village we see old women with tattoed faces and torsos, the tattoos fading with age but still rather impressive. The tradition seems to be dying out though as we see no younger people with markings, which I can’t help feeling is rather a shame. The people here show us how they make pots, using tiny patterned cylinders to roll over the wet clay to imprint decorations. There is a missionary here as well but he seems to be a little more accepting of local ways, less strident than the one we met near Genu, and he tells us that he leaves the local customs alone, the youngsters choosing of their own volition to abandon the ways of their parents.
From here we move on, skirting the modern capital of Abuja but benefitting from the good roads that connect it with other cities. The scenery once again starts to become more verdant. The proximity of the capital means there are more roadblocks, and more serious ones at that, set up to protect against the Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram that plagues the far north of the country. As we drive past the sandbagged barricades we look up and see a soldier with a machine gun pointed at us, but he smiles and waves us on. Closer to Lokoja we get out of the car and walk over the bridge that spans the Niger river – it is much longer than we initially thought and takes us a good half hour to cross. When we get to the other side Euloge, who continued with the car to the other side, is being told off by a policeman for taking pictures of the bridge, but again it’s nothing too serious. We reach the city of Lokoja in the early evening and check into a hotel where the staff seem rather persistent in asking us to buy them beers.
Lokoja was once the colonial capital of northern Nigeria and in the morning we set out to see some of its British heritage. The former house of Lord Lugard, the first colonial governor, sits on stilts in a modest walled compound, now turned into a museum and displaying old photographs of former rulers, Nigerian and British alike. It is closed though and so first we have to locate the man with a key, who arrives by motorbike and shows us around. He also agrees to show us some of the other sites – a continual theme of this trip is how genuinely helpful ordinary Nigerian people are, going out of their way to show visitors around and expecting very little in return. We peek through the railings of the old European graveyard and visit the army church, with its metal plaques detailing the soldiers and missionaries who died servicing their country in Lokoja. The pastor there takes our photo with his iPad. We try to negotiate a boat ride on the Niger as well, which takes an age to find the right person responsible, and he then quotes us a price so outrageous that we have to decline, having wasted a good hour or so.
Moving on from Lokoja we are stopped in the town of Okene – Euloge was not wearing his seatbelt. As we wait on the side of the road we see numerous other cars breaking the same rule and can’t help but feel that we’ve caught the attention of the ‘road security patrol’ simply because we are European. The orange bibbed man checking us soon finds a ‘problem’ with Shuaib’s license and threatens to impound the car, informing us that we can only pay the fine at the bank, and the bank is closed for three days. It is clear what is needed here but a delicate dance ensues, Euloge politely questioning the man as to how he can ‘help us with our problem’. It would be a faux pas simply to offer a bribe – certain etiquette needs to be maintained. We get away with paying five thousand naira and as we drive off we see the guy arguing with his colleague, and suspect they are fighting over how to divide it between them. Okene is full of traffic jams, with incredibly loud music blaring out from roadside shops, and it is very hot – we are glad to get out of here.
We drive on past forests and plantations of bananas, well and truly back in the tropics now. At one small roadside settlement children offer bats and rats for the hungry motorist. As we approach Akure giant rocks flank the road, and we start to see the Afro-Brazilian buildings of the Yoruba. Akure is a surprise – it is by far the cleanest and most orderly town we have come across and Euloge explains that the governor of the region is hot on collecting taxes which he then uses to maintain the town, paying road sweepers and discouraging litter. It works – Akure is pleasant and welcoming, and we don’t see the mounds of rubbish that accumulate on wasteland in other parts of the country. Our final stop for the night is the small town of Idanre, thirty kilometres further, where we check into a pleasant hotel with a veranda overlooking flowering trees.
Idanre isn’t mentioned at all in the guidebook but it’s really not clear why. The scenery around here is spectacular, with enormous rock outcrops providing a pleasing backdrop to the rusting iron roofs of the town. The next morning we hike up into the hills to the older settlement, abandoned in the 1930s and hidden between the mountains and trees. After a climb of six hundred steps we reach the plateau, and explore an old courthouse, built of mud brick and complete with a cell and dock for the prisoner. It’s no surprise why people decided to live here – it is hidden from the lands below and would take a concerted effort to attack, but apparently with the onset of motor vehicles the inhabitants decided they were just too isolated and decamped en masse to the foot of the mountains. Eagles soar overhead and frogs leap into cool pools – this is a Nigeria far away from the bustling cities. We walk through groves of canna lilies to reach the palace of the Oba – king – which is empty but still used for sacred festivals each year. Around a courtyard stand perhaps forty carved pillars in the shape of humans, each one different, ancient but still relevant, and in one corner lies a large pile of animal skulls – we are told that a cow is sacrificed for each year of the Oba’s reign. There is no-one else here but I note with some disgust that some previous visitors have etched their names into the walls of the palace, an incredible sign of disrespect to the people who still hold this place dear. But it does not spoil the spell of this place, a small sanctuary of peace within the frenetic world beyond, and we spend a good hour here, poking about the rooms of the palace and picking mangoes from a nearby tree to eat.
After heading back to the hotel for lunch we drive on to Oshogbo, further into the heartlands of the Yoruba. Oshogbo is home to one of Nigeria’s two UNESCO sites, the sacred grove of Osun. In former times, groves within the forest were widely used as sacred places for the Yoruba but the practice began to die out with the introduction of Christianity and the modern world, until an Austrian sculptor came here in the 1960s. She worked with local sculptors to create giant statues of the Yoruba gods which now adorn a small patch of forest on the edge of the town, as a way of encouraging people to re-connect with their heritage, and result is rather bizarre. Misshapen deities stretch tortured arms into the sky, while carved rock faces peer out from the undergrowth. In the centre is what was once a palace, a one storey affair festooned with abstract murals, now fading but still with an air of magic about it. Sadly the site has not been as well maintained as it could be though – the story of Nigeria, I am coming to learn and several of the statues are in need of renovation. But the effect of seeing these rather odd figures in the forest, while monkeys scamper about in the trees overhead, is more than a little enchanting. It is not however helped by the obligatory guide that we have been assigned at the ticket office, who tells us little about the site other than the fact that it closes at four thirty and he wants to get home. We wander about the forest for quite some time, much to his dismay, breathing in the scent of flowers and walking over an old and rather decrepit suspension bridge above a chocolate brown river. On the way to the hotel we stop at a woodcarver’s workshop, where giant carvings are being worked on, each one he tells us specifically commissioned for a South African art collector. Others however are bought by local people and still used in the worship of their gods, and it seems that the ancient Yoruba beliefs are still strong here.
The next morning we explore the city and visit a shrine of the god Osun. Inside four women priestesses sit, ready to perform rituals – the eldest and most senior has a rather scary look to her, glaring at us in what I take to be a rather menacing way, but when she smiles I realise we’re okay. In the centre of the shrine sits an ancient carved deity which we are told is the god of chickenpox – it is painted red and clack and rather weathered, and its face matches that of the elder, stern and unforgiving. We ask for a blessing for the rest of our trip and a lengthy ceremony ensues. I whisper our request to a five hundred naira note – it is not the done thing to ask directly but the money acts as an intermediary between us and the priestesses. The eldest of the four – the high priestess, I take her to be – throws cowrie shells onto the ground and read the results, and the others chant a low, moaning song. It is dark in here, and more than a little hot, and it’s not so difficult to imagine the presence of spirits. In fact the atmosphere suddenly seems rather eerie and I wonder exactly what we are getting ourselves into. I’m not generally one for this sort of thing, having been raised in a fairly secular manner, but the more time I spend in Africa then the more power these types of traditional beliefs seem to have – there are perhaps things that we no longer know in our modern world. The outcome of the reading is that we must make a sacrifice, involving kola nuts, schnapps and a chicken, which are procured from the market while we sit outside in the cooler air. We are brought into a separate courtyard where the chanting begins again, and the four of us – Willy, Euloge, Shuaib and I – are each given the chicken to hold while we bow our heads for the prayers being made over us. Money is pressed to our foreheads as a blessing and the speed of the chanting intensifies. The chicken is decapitated over a shrine in the corner, its blood dripping onto the molten mass of wax and rock, and blood is smeared on our foreheads. We are exhorted to lick the blood from the neck, but while Euloge and Shuaib oblige, it’s too much for us Europeans and we decline. The elder takes the schnapps in her mouth and spits it over our heads, then we rub it into our hair. When it’s over we leave the women and return to the car – they will eat the chicken later and no doubt the rest of the schnapps won’t be wasted either. It’s a rather intense experience, and leaves a lasting impression.
From Oshogbo we drive to Ibadan, a vast sprawling city with few discernible landmarks and a street design that is almost impossible to negotiate. The streets are busy with vehicles and people and getting anywhere takes an age, but we make our way to the market and explore the section devoted to traditional beliefs, continuing our theme of the weird and wonderful religions of Nigeria. It’s not the best place for animal lovers it has to be said, with cages full of ducks and chickens ready for sacrifice, and various stalls with dried lizards and chameleons. Some sell kittens, which again will be used for sacrifice, their mournful eyes looking up through bars, and one of the stalls seems to be selling a gorilla hand. The people are mystified at our presence here – they ask Euloge what we are looking for when we fail to buy anything, and wonder just what problem these strange visitors have that the body parts and remedies on sale here will not cure. We struggle to find a hotel that night – the best hotel in the guidebook, perched on top of a hill overlooking the city, has only very expensive but poor value rooms which we decline, but eventually we chance upon a hidden gem with clean and modern rooms and a poolside bar, which fits the bill nicely.
The morning sees us in the National Museum, with its various Yoruba artefacts including war costumes, musical instruments and fetish statues. We are the only visitors here and the electricity is not working, so the guide shows us around by torchlight. From here we continue to Abeokuta, but it takes an age to exit Ibadan, its streets taking us in a confusing variety of directions, and even when we hit the expressway the city flanks the road for a good ten miles or so. Abeokuta is far more low key though, and is a visually much more impressive city – it holds the best collection of Afro-Brazilian architecture anywhere, the houses built by freed slaves coming back from the Americas, employed to build for wealthy traders and copying the style of their previous lands. Almost all are somewhat dilapidated, with fading pastel paint and rather uncared for, but the ornate doorways and window frames bear testament to a time when this must have been much more striking. We stop to explore one, the owners letting us in for a small fee, and at a nearby mosque strike up a conversation with a Muslim bookseller and his very pretty and somewhat flirtatious wife. The mosque reminds me of the one in Porto Novo in neighbouring Benin, looking more like a church than an Islamic building, painted burgundy with two tall towers at the front, resembling steeples rather than minarets. In a bar that evening we enjoy a couple of beers while a singer chants songs about the patrons to an unceasing beat that continues without stop for two hours or more. We are feted by the singer, singing about ‘Mr Jim from England’ and ‘Mr Willy from Spain’, and we slip a few notes into her hand. The drunk men at the next table keep trying to fix us up with local women, which becomes tiresome after a while, but are eventually stopped by a local chief who happens to be the bar owner, who buys an another drink and then promptly leaves, asking for nothing.
In the morning we climb the sacred Olumo Rock, once the hiding place of the local Egba people – a subdivision of the Yoruba – who sought refuges here during the Yoruba Wars of the 19th century. Despite the rock having holy connotations the local authorities have seen fit to build a rather hideous lift up one side of it, encased in concrete and spoiling the overall effect. In caves under the rock are mud walls, built by the original inhabitants, and hollows in the stone show where they ground millet. At the back lives a small community of worshippers, including an old woman who professes to be one hundred and twenty seven years old – a poster pinned to the side of her house proudly proclaims her age. Here we are obliged to pay homage in the form of five hundred naira before we continue. We climb metal steps through a gap in the rocks by baulk at the final ascent, which involves scrambling over granite made wet by the previous night’s rain – there are no handholds and a sheer drop of about fifty metres, and despite the guide’s claim that it is perfectly safe I can’t quite believe that no-one has died doing this. But from where we are the view is good enough, and we are shown the school in the distance that the former president Obasanjo once attended before we head back down.
After another stop in a fetish market – this one has a leopard skin for sale among other things, we drive on to the coast. Badagry was one of the most important slave ports in West Africa, the town hidden behind a large sandbank which meant that its presence was not noticed by the anti-slaving patrols of the British in the 19th century. We visit the ‘Brazilian Barracoon’, a collection of old slave cells which are now mostly inhabited by local people, with just two left as they once were. A rather too slick guide explains about the various implements and techniques used to control the slaves, and we stand in tiny cells which held forty people at a time, often for months on end, waiting for the ships to transport them to the New World. The compound was owned by a freed slave become slave trader, and there is a tomb for him in the courtyard – children run around, probably unaware of the history of the place. The chicks here are painted pink, apparently to confuse the hawks that swoop down for them, which seems to me rather odd but a little ingenious. Outside is a chained monkey, underneath a picture of a chained slave – when we point out the similarity in conditions to the owner he laughs at us, unable to comprehend that what he’s doing to the monkey is not too different to the treatment of slaves. Animals don’t have much value here.
Later we take a boat across the lagoon to the ‘Point of No Return’, the path the slaves walked to the beach to meet their fate. Halfway along is an old well l from which they took their last drink on African soil – the local legend is that the slave traders put something in the water to stupefy the slaves and make them easier to handle. At this point we have a fierce row with the ‘guide’, who tries to charge us about fifty times more for the boat than it actually cost, and he looks to be on the point of becoming aggressive, but both Willy and I are adamant, having been whispered the price by the teenage captain. This is the first time that we’ve had an argument with anyone over money here, and we attribute his pushy behaviour to the fact that Badagry is perhaps the only place in Nigeria that we’ve visited that has any semblance of a tourist circuit. At the end of the journey we pay him what we know to be a fair price, and leave him – but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, especially after having been treated so well by most people here.
After checking out an awful beach resort a few kilometres west, close to the border with Benin, we run into a series of roadblocks. Most are okay but at one we are accosted by officials from the Health Authority – it really does seem as if anyone can set up a roadblock here. They ask us for our vaccination certificates and I produce mine, but the middle aged man in uniform isn’t happy that it only has details of my Yellow Fever vaccination and nothing else. I try to explain that this is the only one that it’s necessary to produce a certificate for, but he’s not happy. However he soon forgets about me when it transpires that Willy has left his in the hotel, and threatens to quarantine him. Again, we do the dance and money changes hands – two thousand naira this time – and he smiles and waves us on. Unfortunately though, the roadblocks are all so close together that those in front have seen that we’ve been stopped and figure we’re an easy target, so we’re stopped next by some sort or road tax officials, who again purport to find a problem with Shuaib’s license. This time they confiscate it and write him a ticket, only to be torn up upon further payment. We’re stopped six times within a mile or so, and it’s hot, so by the time we get through the last we’re relieved to be on our way back to the hotel. Just as we think we’re free of problems though, a car swerves in front of us forcing us to brake and the driver gets out and yells at Shuaib for a good five minutes, looking more and more aggressive. Eventually he gets back into the car and we head back, in need of a beer. But not long after we arrive back in the hotel garden, four police pick ups scream into the car park, sirens blazing, and about ten armed police jump down – we are a little confused and probably a little paranoid after a difficult afternoon, but they give us a friendly nod and explain that they are just here as part of a ‘security patrol’. From the way they entered it seemed as if they were responding to an armed robbery, but apparently this is quite normal practice. We’re pleased when they leave though, and quickly order a second beer.
We drive back to Lagos the following morning, the traffic becoming more and more intense as we get closer. This is the final destination in Nigeria and I’m on my way to the airport. Nigeria is pretty far from being a normal tourist destination – the concept of tourism doesn’t really exist here – and so it’s a little rough around the edges in places and people just aren’t used to having western visitors outside the ex pat haunts of Lagos and some of the larger cities. But despite its awful international reputation, we’ve found the overwhelming majority of the people to be among the friendliest one would find anywhere, not tired of tourists but genuinely pleased to see others exploring their country. Perfect strangers have been pleased to guide us to places we might not otherwise have found, and we’ve been invited into village homes without a second though. Despite my mentions of the roadblocks, for the most part these have been more amusing than scary, as long as you have the right attitude, any problems that we’ve had along the way pale into insignificance when remembering the real and joyous sense of exploration that we’ve experienced. Nigeria isn’t about ticking off sights and visiting monuments – it’s an experience, more than most other countries, and a truly rewarding place to travel through. There is seldom a dull moment and most of the excitement and enjoyment comes from meeting its diverse inhabitants, far different from the conceptions that we may have in the west, filtered through negative news reports and scare stories. It’s not for everyone – and definitely not for first time visitors to Africa – but for those looking for something truly different, Nigeria fits the bill. And then some.