Heads Down in the Delta

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Africa » Nigeria
June 24th 2009
Published: August 27th 2009
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Behind a driver in a floppy white hat, and in the company of about sixteen Nigerians and Beninois, we cruised into the huge country that had occupied our thoughts and governed our plans for some time now. It was no joyride, this first journey into Nigeria. The intense prayers led by passengers on every bus that we took (‘dear lord, protect us from the blood-sucking demons on the highway’) showed how every journey undertaken was laden with a certain sense of vulnerability and danger.
Smurf-hat had to pull the minibus over at every police check we came to, and we trooped off board to sweet-talk the officials, shuffle our way out of any bribes, and have our details entered again, and again, and again, in ledgers—the type of ledgers with mottled covers, and a box to write your school class in. These always have canvas binding, and are piled on top of one another, gathering dust and never read. We had seen these ledgers on hundreds of African desks.
The best way to deal with hints for bribes was to smile and make noises about ‘next time’, or have a little joke. In fact, we never paid a single bribe in Nigeria, despite what we had heard and read. (Not so for our various drivers, who seemed to be giving handouts every few kilometres. The road rule seemed to be that you drive as quick as you can, with your eyes forward, and you stop only when the police force you to.)
The police were often young and un-uniformed, and an intimidating sight at first, pushing out great slabs of wood covered in sharp nails to block our way. When older, smarter, uniformed police, scrutinising our passports with lofty seriousness, hinted for bribes, I found it even more galling. But with the exception of one sexist idiot near the Cameroon border, the Nigerian officials that we met were generally friendly types, fans of English football, and protectors of the road against criminal elements. Better to meet a cop with itchy palms than a mugger with a gun.
The passengers on our bus did not complain once about our presence holding them up, but all of us let out an alarmed cry when the boot popped open, and our bags shot out into the road. The thud, and crunch, and the collecting of the fallen baggage had me shaking my head and whispering to Seth, ‘that’s it for my Gameboy’...
We changed buses at Abeokuta, a town with such insane potholes that locals had filled some in themselves, and were collecting tips for their troubles. There was thick green forest along the roadside as soon as we left town, and I appreciatively watched it roll by until the colour of the sky beyond began to distract me. In seemingly no time, a pale Simpsons-blue sky became a charcoal-grey ominous haze. I nudged the narcoleptic Seth awake to see the drama of the grey cloak behind the palms, and quickly the light rain became torrential, a storm so dramatic I felt as though I’d necked a few absinthe. Lightning swung across the sky in great jagged swathes of blue-to-peach-to-white, and the hairs on my arms stood up. The streaks seemed to actually cross each other, which I’d never seen before. A silence fell over the passengers, and Seth looked both awake and disturbed. The storm leapt around us for what seemed an eternity. The boot of the bus had been crammed full, and tied in a semi-open position with ropes. Consequently, our bags—already bruised from their earlier fall—were now soaked. They were a sorry sight when we hauled them on our shoulders in Ibadan, running through the rain for a cab. It had been a mind-blowing day—one share-taxi, two motorbike rides, two minibuses, seven police checks, and one f***-off storm, and we had reached our first destination. Understandably we chose a hotel that was relatively fancy (the price tag hefty by local standards, not so much so from the European perspective) and it took our cabbie about an hour to get us there, through streets like small rivers, and narrow roads jammed with beeping wet traffic. It was worth splashing out—the hotel was anonymous, a flock of falcons lived on the roof, and our balcony looked out over a sea of banana-yellow buildings, their roofs terracotta-coloured, the city rising in little peaks (Ibadan means seven hills).
The Premier had a Chinese restaurant attached. There are few places in the world where I am happier than seated in a Chinese restaurant. The Golden Dragon was having some kind of refurbishment which meant that, though the kitchen was fully functioning, diners were requested to take tables upstairs in an empty neon nightclub, which smelled of stale beer. It was excellently surreal and seedy. Authentic jiaozi and my first cigarette in a month. ‘What a day’, said Seth, for the fourth time. We both had bags below our eyes that made us look like thugs (in Central Africa this would be a permanent look).
When applying for Nigerian visas—an angsty experience my previous blogs have dwelled on—you need an invitation from a Nigerian citizen, and the father of one of Seth’s work colleagues had very kindly obliged. We had hoped to meet and thank Professor Akande, while in his home town of Ibadan, and were really lucky that he, his wife (also a professor), and brother-in-law not only met with us, but showed us around the city, in particular Ibadan’s impressive university, where the Profs. had studied and later worked. They even invited us home with them, and had us to stay for the night. Their touching hospitality is a favourite moment from our journey. There are not many ‘homely moments’ on a transcontinental trip, but eating fish pancakes in front of the television with the Akandes, surrounded by their family photos, I felt very lucky, and thought fondly of my family.
Nigeria is huge, and we had begun to worry about time. With fourteen letters still to go, and the intention of reaching South Africa, we still had a lot of continent to cross. Thus, instead of journeying north to such places as Abuja, Kano, and Yankari National Park, we decided to stay south, to cut across the country where it was ‘narrowest’—still a 700km trip. The natural mid-way point was Benin City. The streets there were thronging. A simple quest to buy mosquito coils became a full-on assault on the senses, vendors on all sides inviting us to buy t-shirts/shoes/fresh fruit/batteries, and child beggars running at our sides, distracting us as we tried to cross roads heaving with speeding traffic. (‘Please stop!’ I said, finally, ‘it’s too dangerous!’) The historic brass-casting street the city is famous for was, at the time we visited, little more than a row of shops manned by sleepy-looking sales assistants. Any interesting work going on there must have been behind closed doors, or perhaps artisans were taking a break from the midday heat. An unexplainable profusion of young men, and a host of young women dressed in noticeably revealing tight clothes, in an otherwise fairly vacant hotel, hinted at the possibility that it doubled as a brothel. An abandoned pair of trousers, pants, and shoes in the corridor as good as confirmed it. We took refuge in our room, and watched the kind of movie you only ever see while travelling, the hysterical ‘Madonna: Innocence Lost’.
Choosing the southern route through Nigeria had one major flaw, from a foreign traveller’s perspective: the proximity of the delta region, an area now famous for the kidnapping of western oil workers by rebel militias, angry with the unfair exploitation of local resources by multinational oil companies and the government (the huge wealth generated doesn’t seem to benefit the people living in the region). One man had just been released after many months being held captive. In his description of the ordeal, he was keen to point out that for much of his imprisonment he had been cared for by local villagers, and they had been kind to him. The situation is far more complicated than two passers-by can guess at, but it certainly seemed that the locals had a rough deal in the delta, and I could understand why rebel groups had formed, however questionable their methods. This did not make the very real prospect of being kidnapped appealing, however. No use writing ‘we are not oil workers’ on our foreheads in magic marker pen. Travellers don’t really come to Nigeria. We never met anyone there doing what we were doing. Other westerners were expats, oil workers, and volunteers. In any case, our white skin would be enough to suggest the possibility of landing a fat ransom. The whole region was unsafe for us, and absolutely had to be avoided. We needed to reach the city of Calabar, in Nigeria’s southernmost corner, and in the pretty state of Cross River. There we could buy our visas for Cameroon. The question was, which route would our minibus take? We looked at the map, desperately hoping that the delta region could be avoided. If the bus travelled directly east, to the town of Enugu, then continued that way before plunging south to Calabar, it looked like we could skip the delta, and its dangerous hub, Port Harcourt. It seemed a fairly likely route. However, I’d had a conversation with our cab driver, Billy, the previous day, a disconcerting part of which went:
Me: Is this your home town, Benin City?
Billy: No, no, I’m from Delta State. It’s very nice—you’ll pass through tomorrow on the bus.
Me: .... Erm, yes! That’s great, that would be... great...
We got up at six to catch the seven a.m. bus. We shouldn’t have, it left at nine. Bleary-eyed, I asked the man who sold the tickets, ‘you take the Enugu route, don’t you? East and then south?’ He vaguely agreed and wandered off. We took back seats, and somebody made the usual prayer about blood-sucking demons on the highway, and then we were off. Seth got out the GPS, and started frowning at it. ‘Looks like we’re heading a little south... Not east...’ Fate, I thought, is going to have to look after this. (A day later we read the BBC news online, and discovered that in a town just 90km south of Benin City, the army had conducted an armed raid on suspected militia, and sent hundreds of villagers fleeing in a panicked exile.)
The road wobbled in a general eastern direction, much to my satisfaction, but then came the unexpected road sign, ‘You are now entering Delta State.’ We glanced at each other. Soon after, the bus stopped for a typical police check.
‘They are watching you,’ said an officer with a huge rifle, in a chillingly prophetic manner, wagging a finger at us, ‘the militants - they will take you.’
‘We’re not going to Port Harcourt’, I stammered, ‘we’re going to Calabar.’ (Just as well. The Bradt guidebook, in its usefully detailed delta warning section, mentioned how the army and rebels fought each other, armed and on motorbikes, in Port Harcourt’s streets. The image in my head fell somewhere between Disney’s Tron and Aditya Chopra’s biker movie Dhoom, though in reality I guess it would be less colourful, more dangerous and missing the song and dance scenes...)
‘There are militants in Calabar’, was the officer’s response.
‘No there aren’t!’ scoffed a tall, confident male passenger, and everyone started laughing. We joined in, though our giggling was decidedly more manic, laced with the nervous edge of ensuing madness. Back on board, I slid low in my seat, pulled my sleeves down, pulled my hood up. The sign ‘You are exiting Delta State’ was cheering, but was followed by the crossing of a magnificent river. It could only be the Niger. I couldn’t help but smile; we had seen it last in Gao, Mali, backed by Saharan Dunes, the water low. Now here it was, gushing through Nigeria, a month and a half and so many miles later. Another sign - ‘Welcome to Delta State’ - Damn!
The ticket seller had been wrong about the route. From Onitsha, we did not continue east long the road to Enugu, but plunged diagonally south-east on a country road. An air of resigned acceptance fell over us. We were out of control of this now and had to ride the wave. The road became narrow, the trees on either side dense and green, giving way to small villages where hens pecked around in the dust. It did not feel at all threatening. I could only hope that we would not divert to Port Harcourt to drop off passengers, and my hopes were entertained; we came as close as 90km from the dreaded oil hub, and rolled on eastward. (This was an especially big relief because I had just read about the militia’s use of rocket launchers.) It was just before dusk when we arrived in Calabar, Cross River State, the delta long behind us. We had only really skirted its edges, but the Star beer that evening went down particularly well.
Calabar was a nice city. You travel everywhere on okada (motorbike taxis), with the obligatory blue helmet on your head. (I’d read an article about Nigerians using calabash shells as bike helmets and was disappointed not to see any in use, or wear one - even better!) (How come BBC articles about Nigeria are so sensationalist anyway? Never saw any goats getting arrested for being car thieves either.) There were two excellent primate conservation centres in town, looking after rescued chimps, drills and various monkeys. There was a rather yawnsome museum but in it I found a sketch or lithograph of Princess Town fort (where we had slept back in Ghana) in 1670. It had not changed much. But Calabar’s best spot was in the Botanical Gardens around sunset, less for the flora and more for the ambience. People strolled, and ate suya (grilled meat) and bbq fish, and everyone lounged around on plastic garden furniture, looking at the sky as it turned pink behind the palms, and listening to the same old music we’d heard all over Africa -‘ Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oooh, why d’you have to go-oh, away from ho-ome, mi love?’
A really intelligent and interesting guy called Innocent had issued our Cameroonian visas, and we planned to head north to the border, stopping first at the Afi Mountain Drill Ranch on the edge of a stunning national park. Drills are awesome monkeys. The females and babies look like delicate, posh versions of baboons, and the huge males have shiny black faces, as dark and shiny as liquorice, as well as bright pink and purple butts. They only live in Nigeria and Cameroon, and are in serious threat from hunting. Pandrillus, one of Calabar’s primate conservation centres, also ran this ranch, where groups of rescued drills (as well as chimps) were kept in huge, wild enclosures full of tall trees and even streams. It was less that the monkeys had ‘a cage’, more like their own slice of forest, protected by a fence and poacher-free. We arrived with supplies of instant noodles and coffee, and spent a few days accompanying staff to watch feeding times, and walking through the forest to swim at small waterfalls. These were awesome days. The people working on such projects are invariably good, gentle types, and the camp had a tranquil, laid-back atmosphere, the resident parrot keeping an interested eye on our noodle cooking, and a pair of rescued Cameroonian mongeese visiting the scene from time to time. Seth took great photos, hoping Pandrillus may find them useful on their website and for promoting their work. He had a favourite chimp, Pie, whom he photographed with all the verve of an artist painting a muse. Pablo, a big chimp from Equatorial Guinea with grey fur, was another favourite, because of his habit of reclining with crossed legs, though at feeding time his shrieks sent a chill through you (a return to that opening scene in A Space Odyssey...) Another resourceful chimp stored up fruit and made sudden runs towards the fence, lobbing it at us. Twice I was almost knocked out by flying papayas. You had to admire the audacity. The drills, you could watch for hours. My favourite was Star and Stripes, a grumpy male with a habit of clapping his hands. He was a master of the classic drill warning to strangers; the mini-lunge and eyebrow wiggle. I was on the receiving end of this attitude when Seth called me over to the other side of the enclosure:
‘Look, Louie!’ said Seth, ‘This drill has a tiny baby!’
‘It looks like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love’, I concluded. It really did.
On our last night at Afi, some thieves snuck into camp and tried to steal some tools, including a chainsaw. There was much late night walky-talky action, the roaring of bikes, the arrival of security men with guns. For drama, however, our journey from Calabar to Ikom - the journey we had taken before coming to the drill ranch - could not be beaten.
As usual, we had climbed aboard the minibus. As usual, someone made the prayer about protecting us all from blood sucking demons on the highway. A young lady with a baby sang a Christian song as we drove out of Calabar and her voice was beautiful. The lady next to me was upset that the conductor had overcrowded the bus.
‘That’s why I don’t like to travel with this company, ‘ she sighed, as I helped her squeeze her bag of crockery under our seat.
Soon there was a police check. Seth was sat a few rows in front of me, and I heard the cop make a comment to the driver which sent a rippling giggle through the bus. The lady next to me explained;
‘He’s asking the driver, ‘did you kidnap this white man?’ ‘
Much laughter all around. The lady shared her packet of fresh peanuts with me, and chatted to a Malian man next to her who was heading to Cameroon. It was a normal, pleasant atmosphere. Then:
Suddenly, two or three young men, ununiformed, were arguing with our driver. It was getting heated. Passengers started shouting their opinions.
‘We have tried to be reasonable with you!’ announced one of the young men, and there was a sudden hissing - a tyre deflating.
In a fit of anger, one of the passengers at the front of the bus switched seats with the driver, took the wheel and stepped on the gas. The bus lurched off, the men at the window grabbing on tight and running alongside it, their feet just inches from the spinning wheels. Was all this for a bribe? Were they hijacking the bus? Cries of alarm from the passengers. One of the men outside leaned in and grabbed the wheel. After fifty metres of wrestling (and punching), the bus swung off the road and down a steep slope, towards some trees. Sharp intakes of breaths and screams from the passengers. My heart was in my throat, everything felt electric and vivid. The man who had grabbed the wheel fell down against the bus, and that he wasn’t run over is still amazing to me. We screeched to an emergency halt. We all climbed out, shook up, and a huge argument began by the roadside. An important looking man in a pinstriped suit pulled his car over and asked if we needed help. He was soon in the crowded debate. Seth and I stood a little way off, with a few other passengers who also wanted to stay out of the fight. We considered grabbing our bags and hitching a ride the hell out of there, but in seconds, the eruption was over, the driver returned to the wheel, the passengers filed back on board. A lively young woman gave off a victorious war cry as the idiot men who had stopped us, let air out of our tyre, driven us off the road and almost killed us, slunk off, bruised, in the direction they had come from.
‘See what human beings can do?’ said the girl with the baby, who had sung the Christian song.
The war-cry girl seemed upbeat after the drama, and returned happily to her spy novel. The lady next to me quietly took her seat, pulled a pocket-sized bible from her handbag and began to read. The Malian man beside her produced a pocket-sized Quran and did the same. I sat in a daze, wondering what the hell had just happened to us all. The lowdown is as such:
There are different transport unions for different parts of Nigeria. Our bus and driver had been from the Calabar union, and he had broken an Ikom union rule by dropping a passenger off at a ‘non-designated dropping point’ before 6pm. Big deal, right? Like it even mattered. It seems the guys who had hassled our driver were Ikom union men, gunning for a pay-off, and making noise about detaining our driver for breaking the road rules. They thought if they made enough noise about it, he would give in and hand over some money. The passengers were angry because Nigerians are generally sick of being taken advantage of by greedy money gougers, and corruption is a real problem there. Bribes to police were one thing - some people even thought of them as tips for keeping bandits off the roads, in the daytime at least - but these union guys were just plain devious, and, as we found out, perfectly willing to risk their own legs and all of our lives in a bizarre show of machismo-meets- greed- meets-insanity. They didn’t slash our tyre but went to work on letting the air out, which is when the angry, proud passenger, sick of the situation, took the wheel and drove us away in a burst of frustration. The union guys then clung on, grabbed the wheel, and ran us off the road. The situation only calmed, we think, because the man who pulled over in the pinstriped suit was some kind of important authority figure.
So, as you can imagine, it was another one of those nights when we felt we’d earned a beer.
That was on the way to Afi. Now we were leaving. The ranch staff arranged for two motorbike taxis to pick us up, drive us along the hilly dirt road through the jungle and local villages, and drop us at the main road. It was the best ride yet, high speed beneath a hot sun, racing up and down hills and round corners, and leaving our stomachs behind at every turn. At the junction, I was elated -
‘That was the best! Amazing! Like a rollercoaster!’
Seth looked green, and was grimacing, clutching his butt; ‘That was the worst motorbike trip ever. I think I might have broken my coccyx.’
We flagged down a share taxi. It was not possible to put our bags in the boot because it was full of dogs. The cage full of canines was unloaded onto a wheelbarrow at a town near Ikom, several sets of sad eyes glancing out as they were rolled away into suburbia. As in some other places in the world, there are some folks in Nigeria who consider dog meat a special treat. It depressed me here as it did in Vietnam and South Korea, but what can you do? Get too judgemental and you quickly see the many ways in which you become a hypocrite.
Our Nigeria days were unforgettable, each one injected with life and never predictable. Despite any blood sucking demons, we both came away with a really positive impression of the people and a strong urge to return some day and see more. There was a sense that you would learn a lot about Africa by staying six months just in this one country. The momentum our travel had gained, and the new level of intensity, we hoped would carry over across the border into Cameroon.


30th August 2009

Very Nice. From a Nigerian living in London
21st September 2009

thank you, it's especially nice coming from someone who knows the country so much better than i do :) best wishes
10th November 2010

What an adventure! You are either incredibly courageous or else crazy! ;)

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