I’ve spent the first half of this year in and out of Nigeria. To explain my Nigeria experience in one sentence would be that it’s full of drama, chaos & colour – there are people everywhere! I think of the busy streets of Lagos, the extreme hot temperatures, the ”yellow cabs” (it’s not just in New York you know :)) packed with people moving whilst the door is still open, the many bikes dodging traffic with one or two passengers on the back holding on tightly to the biker for their dear lives, the passionate way Nigerians express themselves when they talk that’s always misinterpreted as aggressive – from a distance, every discussion seems like a heated debate . I’d spent two months in Lagos and had somehow learnt to understand things as they were.
Travelling to the North of Nigeria, I found myself in another world all together. A complete contrast to the fast and busy streets of Lagos. Kaduna, much calmer, slower and still very cultural and religious. In Kaduna it’s normal to see goats roaming the streets like stray dogs, or a shepherd heading the cattle. Mind you, it’s still a city and there are rural areas too. Kaduna is the capital city of Kaduna State.
Despite their post election violence, the curfews and soldiers who are spotted everywhere, not forgetting the warnings I received from the friends who I’d made in Lagos about the “people in the North”, I felt quite at peace in Kaduna. I call this insanity on my part. I’m convinced, that I’d lost my senses all together whilst I was there. It’s the only explanation I can give for my ironic use of the word “peace”. Perhaps it’s because, it was truly at that point that I gave in and accepted that I’d have to live by faith, as it was all I had to keep me going.
This is my account of Kaduna:
After a few hours of flight delays in Lagos MM2 Airport, we board on the plane, and just before switching off my mobile, I send a text message to my contact in Kaduna informing him that I’ve boarded and about to take off.
I see a text message from him : ” I think we should reschedule your flight to the next day as there are curfews in this area and I will not be able to pick you up.”
To my absolute horror, thinking to myself ” could this guy not have told me this earlier, that there are curfews in his part of town?”, I respond with the message telling him we’ve already boarded. He then informs me that he would organise someone from the Airport for me.
Arriving on the other side. I receive a call from the guy who has been organised and he advises me to look for him, giving me a description on what he is wearing – a green jacket top, in my mind thinking are you the only green-top wearing person? I’ve always said that this is just one of the things I find to be the craziest of all in this whole traveling business, in that we truly put our faith in strangers we don’t know . The first relationship we make in a new country is always with your driver/ the guy picking you up at the airport. And as always – I say a silent prayer it is the right person picking me up. Who’s to say that this is not some psychotic individual who’s perhaps overheard the arrangements and is posing as my designated driver? You just never know. These are the times where you can only hope for the best. Crazy right? Well I still do it, so clearly I’ve accepted things as they are. This is how most people travel alone to new countries . As a solo traveler you must get over your “Stranger Phobia “or else you’ll never make it. Ok I haven’t quite overcome it yet, I am stranger-phobic – I wouldn’t call it xenophobia (which it is by dictionary definition), It’s not in the same sense as the Xenophobia we’ve experienced recently in South Africa. Mine is purely that feeling of shyness and unknowing, anxiety or scrutiny in social situations until I know someone a little better and this could be in any situation, work, home, church, it doesn’t have to be a person from another country. It’s merely a mild case of paranoia for people or places I don’t know and I’ve just found a ways to manage it. You’d never say I’m shy ;).
I digress – back to my Kaduna account.I hurry to get my bag from the only luggage carousel in Kaduna Airport, ignoring a funny vibrating sensation from my luggage bag, I rush out to find a guy wearing a green top. I suppose this is how blind dates work, I think to myself. I don’t find him – he finds me. His jacket is not green either, its rather a fluorescent yellow – but I don’t to argue. After short, hasty introductions, he tells me that the driver of the taxi that had been organised for me had happily met up with relatives and decided to take them instead and that there were no more taxis.
So there I am, thousands of kilometers away from home, stranded. But Fluorescent Leo, my super hero does not give up.
He manages to negotiate with the last taxi who already had passengers to squeeze me in. Although the passengers seem unhappy with this – speaking in their local language, I can only decipher their infamous “click/sucking sounds “of disgruntlement. Squashed in the back seat, I clumsily thank Fluorescent Leo, say my goodbyes and I’m off to the next survivor challenge.
The Taxi, Curfews, Soldiers..
Although they did not seem happy to be sharing their taxi with me, I was grateful to see that my passengers were female – but more especially that they looked like a family. There were two women in the car, one who looked like she was in her late 30s early 40s, carrying an infant in her arms and taking up a lot of space with her full figure, and a younger one who I suspected was either her elder daughter or perhaps a nanny, slightly smaller in size than the first woman.
Feeling a little vulnerable, my presence intrusive and yet grateful to the passengers who had generously accepted to be in this uncomfortable position, my tiny body slightly lopsided, only managing to have one side of my bum-cheek surface area fully touching the car seat, I quickly switched on my well learnt and practiced Traveler Survivor Trick (TST) for Stranger-phobic people like myself.
TST No.1: When feeling lost and vulnerable in a strange city, greet with a deep but confident voice.
So I greeted. Although I have to say, at the time, somehow my deep confident voice had betrayed me, replacing itself with a squeaky, mousy sound – TST No.1 Not executed quite as planned. They did greet back though, I console myself.
TST No.2: If it’s a woman, always find something nice to complement on or something that will let her talk about her & remove the focus off you. So I wondered if I should say something, ask a question about the baby, mothers love talking about their babies! But I was too tired to care and decided that the greeting would have to suffice for the day. So we drove off in silence – I was happy with the silence.
Little did I know that the baby would be our “salvation” along the way. We had disobeyed the curfew rules and the soldiers along the road made a point to let us know of their disapproval. We were stopped three times along the way. They’d asked to see our identity cards. The bigger woman would produce her ID card and then say that the other was her daughter. She explained why she was late and somehow before I could show them my foreigners passport, which I purposefully delayed getting out of my bag in fear of what could happen, they would let us go. Their reason? She had a baby.
Now you need to understand, for someone who has only heard/read/watched post election violence stories on the news broadcasts, for someone who has never been stopped or harassed by law enforcement ( I’m a post apartheid generation South African), I had started panicking, getting flash backs of experiences I never had.
I imagined the worst, although it was known that kidnapping of foreign workers for ransom had become booming business in Nigeria, I was aware that this was more in Port Harcourt, South west of Nigeria and related to oil miners. Also, unless I uttered a word or showed my passport, I could easily pass a local. But I cannot describe to you how my mind started going through all my personal files – suddenly that annoying life policy advert vivid in my memory, wondering how bad it would be for my mother to have to be flown all the way to Nigeria, to identify my body or if it was ever going to be found. Wondering if this was it for me, my life ending in Nigeria and that, that’s all my life would be reduced to: “She dedicated all her life to work”. What would they write on my granite tomb stone: “She worked herself to death!” Oh no!
Death is inevitable. I’ve made peace with that. The only thing I’ve always hoped for is that my death be not an inconvenience to those I love and care for. And having to identify my body in Nigeria, would certainly count as an inconvenience.
I updated my FB status like I was going crazy. In my mind, if I was going to go down like this, I didn’t want it becoming a mystery. I wanted the truth out. That was my justification.
After being stopped three times by militants, we finally arrived at the first destination. Dropping the woman and her family off, the driver refused to drive further. He had concluded that the only reason we were able to reach that point was because of the baby and in no way was he going to continue driving. He said to me my hotel was way too far.
So there I was, just past 10 pm, in some dodgy place in North of Nigeria, foreign, lost and homeless. Haaibo! In my mind there’s was not point in calling anyone. At that moment I couldn’t trust anyone to do anything right – after all I had trusted them to manage my arrangements and this is where I was. So my natural instincts kicked in, to take control and try handle this best way I could.
I looked to the woman for help. At that time I felt as if she were my only hope.
She was staying at some hostel for the evening – apparently there for a training session she’d come for, that would take place the next. She couldn’t provide me shelter as she was with her baby and her daughter. But she was kind. She tried to arrange with the security guard shelter for me.
I was told that I’d have to try a lodge around the area. They convinced the driver to take me there. And then we were faced with another predicament. My luggage bag was vibrating. The driver refused to put it back in his car. I could see the fear in his eyes. In that state you lose all your common senses, suddenly I imagined a bomb plant in my bag – this didn’t make sense at all, as it was still tightly wrapped in that plastic wrap used at airports. Split seconds after questioning my logic, I remembered that I had an electric toothbrush which may have switched on somewhere mistakenly. So now the challenge was to try very hard to compose myself and not to laugh, my sense of humour was still intact clearly. I began explaining the best way I could, that my toothbrush was battery operated and had switched on. He found it hard to believe, I guessed he’d never heard of or seen an electric toothbrush. I naughtily wondered if it would have been easier telling him that it was a ” pleasure toy” – but Kaduna being such a religious state, I knew that was not going to sound funny at all and besides, there was still serious issues to resolve – I kept my humour to myself. Somehow I was able to convince him that all was safe and so we were back on the road like a Joseph and Mary trying to find shelter for the night, but all the “Inns” were full. Ok, there was only one ” lodge”-like looking place in the area, and it was closed, no one would open the door.
I didn’t sleep in a barn, nor was there a baby in a manger that night. But I did sleep.
We returned to the hostel, where the security guard offered a spare room to me. Apparently there had been one other person who had not arrived that night. The guard also offered me his cellphone number to call in case I ran into any problems. So I spent my first night in Kaduna, in a man’s hostel, in the mercy of strangers, who in my opinion, were sincerely generous people, seeking to help a stranger out with no expectations.
Ubuntu in Nigeria
In all that drama and chaos, I found a warm heart in the people of Nigeria. I had heard of this before from other Nigerians , that the common Nigerian, will always do his very best to protect a foreigner. That even though they can be hostile to one another, somehow they always find a way to protect a foreigner. To them, foreigners are visitors and a visitor needs to feel welcome.
I had heard this before and now I was living testimony of it.
This is why I say, somewhere along the way, I’d lost all my senses. Because despite everything that happened that first night, I somehow found myself at peace with my stay in Kaduna. Of course there were a few other hurdles, like the bad state of the first hotel I had been booked into, or the really disgusting sanitation I found in the office/warehouse I had been assigned to or the time we took a road trip to Jos , Plateau State and for two days I found myself freshening up with bottled water as there was no bath water in the Jos hotel I was staying in. But by that time, with a less than a week before returning home, I had learnt to live with the circumstances.
I found myself grateful. Grateful for where I come from. Grateful for a God who made His presence felt in time of panic and put me in the right circumstances to get the help I needed – I was grateful for the first taxi driver that had left me and chosen to take his relatives home instead. I ended up sharing a taxi with the woman who had a child – I have a deep belief this saved me.
What this trip did for me was force me to review the choices I’d made. I was confronted with the truth that this is the choice I’d made and if I wanted things to be different I’d need to make different choices. I blamed no one for what had happened. I accepted that when you are out there on your own, you really ARE ON YOUR OWN.It was either I accepted that and moved on or I changed my choices. I also acknowledged that my trips had not always been like this and perhaps this was merely unique to Nigeria. I’d been stranded at airports, felt vulnerable and questioned my safety more than once in my Nigerian trips. It was also in Nigeria where lodging had become a challenge, not because there weren’t any good hotels in the area, but because the hosts would rather cut costs than ensure descent living or sanitation. But in the midst of it all, I also encountered goodness in people. I was welcomed by strangers who offered me assistance without expectations.
It is in Nigeria where I truly questioned my African pride and revived my interest to seek knowledge and understanding on what Africa truly is about. It is also in Nigeria where I grew a real hunger to get involved in my own country to ensure that we never have to go through what many African states have gone through.
My experience of Nigeria has truly left me with such a dichotomy of emotions and I’m grateful for it all.