Nigeria is not meant for tourists. From the moment I applied for the expensive ($112) visa, I should have figured that out. Sometimes it felt like they did not *want* people to visit.
I had visited the southern city of Port Harcourt before, when I lived on Logos II. Mostly what I remembered from that visit was a hard, aggressive culture. I cried after my first day in country, after one too many encounters with people trying to exert their authority.
I quickly recall the image of thin, muscled men stealing burlap bags of rice from a neighboring Pakistani container ship while shirtless others unloaded rice in the front. When the robbers were spotted, the Pakistani officers lashed the robbers whip-thin sticks, before handing them over to the other hired men, who beat them with bare fists. I saw one man’s arm jerk out of his shoulder socket as the crowd pulled him off the back of the ship.
During that visit, I visited an orphanage for babies born with AIDS. I never left the first room I entered. Inside, 3 scrawny babies lay in rickety cribs. The staff had told us all we could do was hold , comfort and pray for them. I wasn’t afraid of infection, but I was afraid I might injure their frail bones when I pulled them from the crib. It took a moment, but soon I had one of the fragile beings against my chest. For the next hour, I rotated between the three, holding them, singing to them, knowing they had little time left on earth.
So I had mixed feelings about Nigeria. But I knew that the north is vastly different from the south, and I looked forward to experiencing the contrast. Particularly, because I knew this time we were meeting local friends, and I could really experience the culture. We planned on visiting three large cities in the north: Kano, Jos and Kaduna.
Our arrival at the airport in Kano was like plunging into ice water. We were tired, it was hot, it was the middle of the night. There seemed to be about 10 men hovering around the customs desk, asking questions. Two Asian men were in line in front of us. They looked like they were coming to work for a foreign company. The official spat questions at them, to which they could only shake their heads. They spoke no English. I’m not sure how they ever got out of immigration. Thankfully we did, and our friends were waiting.
That the north is dominated by Muslims became immediately clear outside customs. Two veiled women stood by the door. Men in Muslim kufis (or a turban hat, similar to a Jewish skullcap) and loose, long white tops (galabiyya) mingled in the sandy parking lot.
And that was the beginning of the adventure. Our hosts took good care of us. We rode all over town in rented, falling apart cars, amazed by all the motorcycle taxis. The dust in the air was incredible at this time of year. It blows off the Sahara and turns everything a dusky gray. After just a few minutes outside, everyone’s eyelashes were tinged with dust. It was hard to breathe.
I remembered this from last time, but I’m sure the thing that would stick out to first-time visitors is all the people who carry guns. On the road to Jos we must have stopped 4 or 5 times at check points. Armed soldiers peered inside each vehicle before waving us on. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but I got a few surprised faces when they saw a white person sitting in a car full of Africans. Only one guy said, “Hello, whitey!”
We felt pretty safe, but this isn’t an area where I’d feel comfortable visiting on my own. I had the feeling that if something happened to us, it might take quite a while for the authorities to find out about it, if even they were trustworthy. The night manager at the hotel in Kano hassled us a little. Apparently he didn’t like that we were running around with our heads uncovered.
As I said before, the Muslim presence is strong in the north. In Kano, where the Islamic Emir of the region lives, green road signs with Islamic sayings peppered medians and street corners. We saw hundreds of mosques dotting city skylines and anchoring small villages. Five times a day, clusters of men gathered on the side of the road or in the mosques to wash with plastic teapots before prayer. Women and young girls wore pastel colored veils reaching their fingertips pinned around their faces. Even children’s school uniforms required a head scarf for the girls.
Some cities have curfews in place, to help defray the religious violence that continually erupts throughout the northern states. A riot occurred in one city just eight days before we visited. We heard many sobering accounts of people who lived through horrific acts of violence at the hands of their neighbors. And yet, they continue to coexist, with tension simmering beneath the surface of daily life.
Americans often hear a lot about corruption and internet scams in Nigeria. Internet cafes are everywhere. I can certainly image the youth who are paid to sit in a cafe all day long sending out suspicious emails. I didn’t see much bribery going on (former president Olusegun Obasanjo made a campaign promise to crack down on corruption). At one checkpoint on the way out of Jos, however, we got pulled over by men in civilian clothing holding various home-made weapons and guns.
Our driver had a conversation back and forth with a man at the window, while another man stood in front of the car, ready to thow a nail-embedded board under the tire if we drove off before they were ready to let us go. I had no idea what they were talking about, since it was in Hausa. There was a lot of our driver shaking his head “no,” and the other man insisting on something. The conversation ended when our driver reached under the emergency brake and handed the man some naira (local currency).
As a side note, the friend who went with me is from Zimbabwe, but hasn’t been back in about 10 years. When she left Zimbabwe, Harare was a modern metropolis. All that has changed under Mugabe’s leadership, of course. But my friend was surprised at how different Nigeria was from the modern Zimbabwe she remembered, though several people told us northern Nigeria is less advanced than the south. She’s afraid when she goes back, that everything will have deteriorated.
We both have to admit we weren’t big fans of the food. The funniest part was when she asked was a certain dish in a restaurant. The waiter agreed to get some from the kitchen to show her. He came back a few minutes later and said, “The kitchen says you are Nigerian and should know what it looks like, so they refuse to show it to you.” Just because she looks like them! We had to crack up at that.
I had fun surreptitiously watching the “fancy” business men in the hotel restaurant eat. They had on their finest Islamic-style clothing with an embroidered overlay. One man took off his kufi, set it on the table, and proceeded to talk on his iphone, ignoring the two men with him. (They have iphones in Nigeria?) The food arrived, along with metal bowl of water on a sort of plant-stand contraption next to the table. He rinsed his hands with the water in the bowl before breaking off a lump of pounded yam and scooping up bits of his meal. The pounded yam is thick and white, about the consistency of play-doh. What was funny was watching such a fancy man eat with his hands, but that’s how they do it. Our friend swore to us food tastes better that way, but I still wasn’t going for it.
We had a few hours in Kano at the end our our journey before our plane left, so we took a short drive to the old city and looked at the emir’s palace. The old British embassy near the emir’s palace testifies to the vestiges of colonialism.
Just before we left, my friends surprised us with our very own Nigeria outfits. It was perfect for me, because I had just complained that I wished I had taken the time to buy fabric and have an outfit made. So there is me, in authentic Nigerian dress, with our wonderful friends who made the visit truly memorable.