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Published: June 12th 2018
“Life is short and the world is wide.” - Anonymous
When I was young my mother used to put me into my crib at nights. Like most kids I was tucked up safe however unlike other little ones I wouldn’t sleep but stay awake for hours staring at the shapes of my baby mobile. Not crying, not wanting to cause a disturbance or desiring attention. Just happy staring into the distance stuck in a place halfway between consciousness and dream world. I am still like that today, close to bedtime there is no sleep unless I can delve into a book to take me away for a moment. However this practice now extends past the night and into the light of day. Constantly staring into the distance playing with ideas in my mind, not bored, not depressed just content with myself and thoughts. This is actually one of the wonders of being a traveller; you have the gift of time. Constantly stuck in weird places, waiting for things to happen; this time is ripe for wondering. For when in work mode one is constantly fighting between the two mindsets of being "online & alert” and being free to wonder. As
a solo backpacker you are almost always alone, maybe not physically but definitely mentally for a large tracts of the day. Language, culture and customs barriers prevent too much indepth discussion for any length of time. So alone you are, free to explore the wide world of your mind; this is one of the undocumented joys of travelling. Now onto a tiny sliver of a country, Benin. Benin “A ship in a harbor is safe, but thats not what ships are built for.” - John A. Shedd
I only know two things about Benin a) its small and b) its the birthplace of voodoo. The plan in my head Is to only use the major city Cotonou as a quick stopover point, a place to get a few Visas and then get out of Dodge. Now as with most grand plans they are normally only grand in your head, the minute they are stress tested they normally crumble or at best mutate to something different. This was the case with Benin however firstly a history lesson.
Benin was part of a major empire, much larger than its current size today would imply. 350 years ago the
Kingdom of Dahomey spanned from present day Benin, into Togo and into parts of Nigeria. It was made up of multiple principalities where each king pledged to leave his successor more land than he inherited. This was normally achieved by war and by selling slaves to colonial powers. For more than a century 10,000 slaves per year were shipped from Southern Dahomey to the America’s. However as the slave trade weakened and finally outlawed the kings grasp on power evaportated and France colonised Dahomey. When independence came in 1960 the economy collapsed and over the next decade it saw four military coups and a mind bending nine changes in government. Unlike other Western African countries it does not have the benefit (or the curse) of abundant natural resources, to get out of this predicament another way was needed. This path came in the form of socialism. In the 1970s the then ruler Colonel Mathieu embraced Marxist-Leninist ideology, aligned the country to China and changed its name to Benin (he informed his country of this change over the radio in 1975). Fast forward to the early 1990s and with the economy in tatters France sends Benin a lifeline, drop socialism and
accept our aid. They accepted. Nothing like paying people off to switch their ideologies.
Ok so back to my plan in Benin. With the thought of making this country just a quick break I head into the Cameroon embassy to get my Visa. They only speak french but from my primitive language skills I make out the words “150 euros” and “4 days express option”. Wow this is the most expensive visa in Africa and at 4 days is also one of the longest wait times. I stare at the lady, she looks at me back with eyes saying "im sorry, nothing I can do". Its a bitter blow to pay that much (just over 250 NZ dollars) for a country I would only be in for a week in but more so having to wait so long. Now as leaving quickly is not an option I book out my hotel room for 5 days total and settle in for the long haul. This is just one of those things when traveling, in a great many situations you cannot accurately make plans of where you are going to be. This is especially true for a place like Africa, things
are always fluid, changing. For those that know me being extremely well prepared and planned out is not just something that I do, it is who I am. Here all the best plans are laid to waste which kills me. So I have to embrace more of the chaos to get around successfully and ensure you have lots of contingency days up your sleave. Just like when planning projects at work I ask how long will this take, ok lets double it just in case. This is Africa planning 101.
Voodoo. For many, the word ‘Voodoo’ conjures up images of magical dolls with pins stuck in them to inflict pain on one’s enemies and the resurrection of the dead as zombies. These images are the result of the misrepresentation of Voodoo by popular culture, and do not accurately represent Voodoo as understood by its practitioners. Voodoo teaches belief in a supreme being called Bondye, an unknowable and uninvolved creator god. Believers worship many spirits (called loa), each one of whom is responsible for a specific domain or part of life. So, for example, if you are a farmer you might give praise and offerings to the spirit of agriculture;
if you are suffering from unrequited love, you would praise or leave offerings for Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love and so on. In addition to helping (or impeding) human affairs, loa can also manifest themselves by possessing the bodies of their worshipers which is where things get a bit more crazy. In Benin it is even one of the main recognized religions. So for a more indepth view I head to the Dangkong market and slide off to the Fetish section. Yes thats right there is an entire section dedicated to the fetish. Here my guide shows off every single type of body and animal part around. Sheep head, dog head, horse head, human skull. Tongue, check, toenails, hair; you name it and they have it. My guide is perplexed when I question the validity of such things and he is not the only one. I swear hordes of people are just popping down to the fetish section for a concoction made from lambs testicles just like they were heading down to the local shops for milk.
With still a few more days left till my visa is ready I head to the floating villages of Ganvie. This
floating village is in the middle of a lake and supports 30,000 people. Unlike other floating villages that I have seen this one is not for the tourists but purely for local life (Venice anyone). It is a hive of just normal goings on, with a market, schools and even a mosque. The village was built originally to protect the Tofinu people from slave hunters, time has moved on but their way of life still remains intact. I am lucky enough to grab a boat with a bunch of plucky Nigerians whom work for a charity that helps provide clean drinking water to those below the poverty line (https://www.onedrop.org/en/). They are bringing the concept to Benin and so the boat trip was a promotional tour. Next minute I am in their videos and photos promoting the products, just generally acting the fool. Clean water is not a given here in Africa. All water that comes out of the tap is considered unsafe, so water must be bought from bottles or in the case of the locals in little bags. Even the water taken from streams and lakes are considered unsafe and thousands die every year due to tainted water. As
a westerner this has always unsettled me. For me the basic right of drinking water from the tap is unquestionable but it is something that the locals just do not know. So they buy thousands of little 500ml bags of water every year at a cost to their pocket and a cost to the environment. The onedrop product can be added to water out of tap or stream and renders it safe to drink. It is incredibly cost effective and could save countless lives. So I spend the rest of the day with them, Nigerians are hilarious as I will come to gather shortly and as the sun sets it is back to Cotonou ready to collect my Visa tomorrow and make my way to the border crossing. Nigeria “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michener
So with my Cameroon visa in hand I head for the crazy border crossing with Nigeria. I had heard that the border crossing on the coast was chaos so I decided for an alternative about 100kms north of Cotonou to avoid the mayhem. Didn’t
matter, it was nuts as well however this as I will learn is just part of the Nigerian experience where you either soak up the craziness or let it drag you to the bottom. Now time to get that entrance stamp.
My chosen crossing from Benin to Nigeria is in the town of Igaghani. As always my approach with borders is to get there early in the morning when the number of people is low. A bit counterintuitive but when there is less people there is less corruption. I think it’s in the craziness that confuses people and leaves them open to bribes (and affords other people the opportunity to not say anything). However that is not true here for as I pass out of Benin I get a full brick wall on the Nigeria side and there is no one here, in fact it’s dead empty. There are no less than 10 checking stations within the immigration building each manned with someone. You basically start at station one and work your way though. I got stuck at station one. Here the health inspector states my vaccination card is invalid after my doctor applied white out to it and
we proceed to have a half hour argument. He attempts to steal my card and then another massive disagreement with me raising my voice. He’s threatening to have me arrested and take me to court. In the end he finally hands it back, he didn’t want money, maybe he wanted to mess with me or maybe I over-reacted. At about station four a scooter tries to run the border and the guards grab him and they all get shot off down the road; didn’t see them or the guard again. This continues on for the next 2 hours, endless questions and repeating the same answers. Near the end my temper has been and gone and now I got nothing left. Well scoot I haven’t even stepped foot in the country yet.
After the border nightmare I thought things might calm down, oh no my friend you are mistaken. The hour long drive to the major junction town of Owede and a different form of crazy. This time over the course of 40kms there are about 30 checkpoints each with guys holding large sticks. As you approach they will pull you over and they just harass you, this time for
money, bribes etc. if you don’t pull over they wack your car with their poles. At first the stops look very legitimate but as we get deeper in there are just people waving sticks, no uniforms; just getting in on the action I think. It’s this type of behavior that I will see more of, Nigeria the race of hustlers. As we approach Owede the true scale of the country unfolds, it is literally one big massive unbroken town. As far as the eye can see I just see development, no trees or grass or fields; just people and so much noise. Cars, people, traffic you name it, it’s like someone is just yelling in my ear constantly; imagine living here. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa with just over 195 million souls all jammed in there trying to just survive. Most live in the south for due to the growing Islamic extremists threat in the north (Boko Haram) it is not deemed safe up there anymore. Nigeria is literally full and is cracking at the seams. Many other populous nations try to build up. Nigeria builds out placing pressure on everything from housing space to land to
grow food and the people that ultimately get swamped are the poor. I get into Owede and people are onto me like vultures wanting to feed, they are offering me everything and anything. Instantly I am on my guard and walk away but there are just more over there. I start going a bit crazy and start getting angry again but my energy fades. I sit down to take a time out, what is this crazy place.
Awakening from my brief respite I manage to hop onto my last ride of the day to the town of Abeokuta. Am jammed in the back seat of a car with 3 other people and a child, it is so squashed. However part way into the ride we all start talking and I get my first marriage proposal of the trip. Next minute I am laughing my head off, they are all making fun of themselves and me and I cannot help but giggle. With all this hilarity the next 4 hours are gone in an instant and we arrive at Abeokuta and before too long I am tucking into a dish of oily Chicken Yassa chuckling to myself when reminiscing about
the events of the day.
Nigeria is a country that has long been in turmoil. In the 11th century Islam came to the area and in the 15th century Christianity to the south. By the 1850s Britain came to town officially and colonised Nigeria up to its independence in 1960. What followed was years of bloody coups and a major civil war. The Biafra War raged from 1967-1970 and was fought when a collective people called the Igbo attempted to break away from Nigeria and form its own republic in the east. It is estimated that almost 2million Igbo people lost their lives during this conflict mostly through starvation. The surrender of its army in 1970 however didn’t solve the problem and there is still a cultural divide there to this day. Since then the republic has been reformed another 3 times due to army takeovers with the 4th republic finally being formed in 1999. This peace has lasted to this day however is laced with issues still in the Biafra area and of course in the north where Bako harem continues his ramage.
After my first day of full Nigerian onslaught I awake on my second to
climb the sacred rock of Abeokuta. This was an old hideout for the locals when the armies of Benin came to raid the area. Since it’s a Sunday i get the whole place to myself. Of course it’s closed but that’s nothing a few dollars for the guard won’t fix and the view from the top is well worth the investment. Upon descending I get my 2nd marriage proposal, this time from a pineapple seller. Next thing I have her singing to me at the top of her lungs as large crowds start to gather. Now all in the name of embracing the quirks locals rather than bolting I decide to tell her that I cannot marry her because I said yes already to different pineapple seller. Roars of laughter from the crowd, she’s starts laughing and next minute I am on my way to the Lagos bus station with my sliced fresh pineapple and people cheering me on. Ok so if you can’t beat em; join em.
The capital Lagos is a crazy place. They say the population is 21million but thats a gross underestimation I think. There are people everywhere, sound, smells; this is the Mumbai of
Africa if not worse. The traffic is some of the crasiest I have ever seen (took me 4 hours to go 22kms) and around every street corner people are trying to hustle you; it is relentless. This is a by product of having too many people jammed into a country, fighting for space; fighting to live. These people have to eat and to many I am a rich white man so they try something on. Now I’m not talking about things like robbery, it’s just that people are constantly trying scam you, sell you everything and anything and heaven forbid you need a taxi. This happens everywhere and I have to fight against myself to not get angry at people. It’s tough when you feel you are being attacked it’s a fight or flight reaction and you always perceive the worst even if the people want to genuinely help. Relaxing in these situations is the only way to make it easier. When resisting that ingrained reaction and instead simply talking with them or making a joke one gets that bit closer to understanding their situation. Suffice to say it’s much less stressful as well.
Upon checking into my hotel
in the upmarket suberb of VIctoria Island I set to work checking out the famous art collections of the area. If there is one thing that Nigerians definitely are is creatively talented. In dance, film, print, and visual art they are uniquely gifted. Nollywood is the worlds 2nd largest producer of films after Bollywood. Here they produce over 2500 films locally every year. Sure they are not going to win any academy awards but that’s the Nigerian way, made on a budget cheaply, cheerfully, loudly but above all else quickly. It’s funny because they usually involve a heap of guns, noise and for some reason clergyman gangsters. From the literature side Nigeria has some of the most acclaimed writers in Africa but it’s from a visual art standpoint I get to witness their talents with a trip to the local dealers. The Lekki art market is down a horrible road that you have to use a motorbike to access due to its sprawling mud. Here there are no less than 50 practicing artists all spinning up works. I am no specialist but these canvas paintings were beautiful in amoungst the run down buildings, water damage and clay. My guide laughs
when I say that if this was in my country these works would be in a temperature controlled building or gallery! From here I head to an actual gallery where it’s supposed to be temperature controlled but the powers out and they’ve just run out of gas for the generator. No matter I just laugh it off with the curator sitting in the darkness for a guy to head to the service station and 10mins later all is revealed. The Nike art gallery is 5 floors of floor to ceiling works of art, all for sale. Again no expert but I believe these beautiful pieces are worth much more than the price tag states. I just want to buy the lot and spend a few hours traversing the floors. Worse thing however is that I am the only visitor here, actually great for me; bad for Nigerian artists. All the talent and enthusiasm in the world, no one to sell to.
After my trip to satisfy my creative soul I head to feast on good food. With a few tough few weeks on the road to get to have a hamburger and fries is a godsend. I dine at
a famous Victoria island restaurant and the gap between rich and poor becomes clearer. The restaurant is very expensive and that point is illustrated by the scores of rich local businessmen and expats feasting over a long alcohol laden lunch. This is in direct comparison to the markets where I had just been where people were living in the mud asking for change. Now this gap is not unlike other countries in Africa however the difference here is due to the population size there are literally millions living below the poverty line without a way forward. Unlike India that has hope through a reviving middle class, here there are only two class: rich or poor; there is no middle. For in Nigeria it’s either you have or you don’t and as there are no stepping stones to make the jump for those born poor it is almost impossible. It’s from this angle that I start to see and understand why locals are this bullish and act the way they do. They are only trying to survive in a country where the odds are stacked against you and no one cares about your success or the next man. For when poor
your only way out is to either hustle and do it well or you don’t eat.
For me Nigeria and Nigerians get a somewhat unfair bad wrap especially from travelers. I had been told by others to quickly get out of there with your shirt intact. For many of these types of people they had been once bitten, twice shy. Once people get burnt they sometimes attempt to try to avoid the locals altogether. They stay in gated hotels, travel by private taxi not the local bus and eat only in squeaky clean places. I do actually understand this as it happens to me too however it also to a degree misses the point of traveling. To shut out means you miss out on the uniqueness that is that country; good or bad. For Nigerians are most definitely hustling for a living, they are naturally pushy and enthusiastic which can scare people away but this is their only way to live. There are way too many of them here so it is the loudest or most aggressive that gets to the front of the food line. Now I start to see why they are the way that they are.
I also develop a newfound respect for the way they can just put up with hell and just laugh things off. By understanding their situation a bit better and lessening my brick wall exterior I really start to enjoy myself. The people are hilarious, noisy and full of zest. Sure life is tough here, you have to fight everyday for everything but you can also laugh... and watch some terrible movies. This is why you cannot reject the local customs, because you will miss the point of why you travel in the first place; to experience a different life in someone else’s shoes. Even for a little bit. It is through this jump where one might learn something for real. Who knows maybe even alter yourself for the better in the process. Now that is thought worth steering the ship away from the harbor for.
To finish off I leave you with a quote from the late Anthony Bourdain, someone whom has influenced my travel life:
"Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."
Thanks for reading. Next up I head to the lush country of Cameroon and prepare to leave west Africa into Gabon.
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