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Published: January 3rd 2011
They say: “don’t go to Nigeria.” “Dangerous – corruption – don’t trust the police.” “Everywhere is filled with bandits.” Even the Niger border police were reluctant to let me cross over to Nigeria alone and had to call two of their senior officers for clearance. There may be some truth to the warnings – even Nigerians will agree prudence is necessary – but they have to be taken with a grain of salt. So after swallowing the butterflies the Niger police, the media, and other West Africans had given me, there was no choice but to cross the bridge over the Lake Chad river and into Nigeria, coaxing myself by remembering to trust in the unknown. Needless to say, getting to the other side of the bridge I was warmly and cheerfully welcomed with no problems by the border officials on the other side. Bribes and corruption? – they fed me a free lunch and stamped me into their country with an extra two months gratis in my passport. (In fact, throughout a month in Nigeria officials never once asked for bribe; in eleven months in Africa I have only been asked once, which was refused without repercussion.) Rounding off their
Yankari National Park
generosity, the police convinced some Arab merchants to carry me to the first Nigerian town in the highest style available at their remote Sahel post – speeding across the desert sands in the back of the oldest Toyota pickup I’ve ever seen.
The good experiences in Nigeria have continued. It is a big nations, comparable area wise to their Saharan neighbors, but here there is the highest population in Africa, meaning a lot more inhabited area, and a lot more roads to cover. So I’ve been doing a lot of what I love most – hitching the roads and experiencing the lands.
Regardless of where in the world one hitchhikes, for obvious reasons dusk to dawn is not a good time to be on the road. So when the sun starts going down, I have several options for passing the night. The first, possibly most obvious choice of getting myself a hotel room is just as off-limits to my personal travel goals as commercial transportation is, so I’ve never done it on this trip. Next, there is couchsurfing or staying with friends of friends; this is generally comfortable and reliable, but it is usually limited to bigger cities.
How I ended up with a private double suite? I dont know, but I sure enjoyed it.
Another option is my favorite way to get close-contact cultural experiences, and that is by going to a small village and asking the chief if he can put me up for the night. Language barriers aside, it is a great, and sometimes the only way to experience rural life. The remaining options are accepting invitations from people I hitchhike with or meet while on the road (accepted only if there will be a wife and kids present); asking a police checkpoint or station if I can pass the night; or camping in the bush, which can be a good “get in touch with nature” experience, but is admittedly a little unsettling, and quite cold. Sticking to this might mean not being as comfortable as possible, but it definitely means maximizing the opportunities to meet people and experience as much of the culture as time allows, and it is worth it.
Traveling this way through Nigeria, I have met and stayed with individuals and the families of police, regional royalty, military, students, embassy staff, company CEOs, forest animals, the air force, spent Christmas with a law professor, and lived a little of the lives of many regular working folk.
The luck even presented itself to meet the management at Yankari Game Reserve, and somehow they put me up for three luxurious days of watching baboons, lions, bushbuck, and elephants, and floating around for hours in their delightful, crystal clear Wikki warm springs. These kind of things can’t happen by planning. Wake up, no idea where you’ll spend the night, and trust it’ll all work out.
Christmastime was wonderfully passed in a small town called Amasiri. It is very close to the Niger Delta, which is the heart of the Nigerian "kidnapping zone" if you are paying attention to the BBC. But all was peaceful, of course. Amari, Lois and their three young children warmly welcomed me for this their only family traveling time of the year. It is the time when Nigerians who have left birth villages for the big cities all head back home for what turns into the sole annual large family get-together possible in a land where the western concept of vacation is normally limited to the top of the upper crust of society (i.e. oil companies and politicians, who are usually rich thanks to the oil companies). This means that here, Christmas is in
apparently a sign of royalty in northern Nigeria
practice what in the west has been reduced to only theory: a time to get together with the family, catch up, patch up, and say thanks for whatever happened during the year. Lots of palm wine and kola nut-driven family meetings and get-togethers follow, rarely planned but friends or family spontaneously showing up to say hi are always welcomed with open arms, food and drink. We spent Christmas eve with a twenty person family entourage at a nearby jungle beach, and Christmas day enjoying a masquerade and cooking a big meal of foufou, pounded yam, egusi and bitterleaf soup, and jollof rice to serve to any guests who would decide to come by. Christmas carols are popular too, although the likes of "White Christmas" or anything to do with dashing through snow haven't exactly found their place. I couldn't pass Christmas without wrapping and giving out gifts to the family and cousins, but as mentioned before this was not part of their tradition - foodstuffs may be given to relations or people that have done something helpful during the year, but frivolous wrapped presents aer only heard of from watching western films, or from couchsurfing Canadians. As for Christmas presents
for my own family, I helped out with some medical bills on their behalf, and hopefully someone in a small Cameroonian village should be getting a goat too. Merry Christmas!!
Speaking of Cameroon, it's time to head there. From beaches to rainforest to volcanic mountains, it is probably the country I have been most excited about along my entire African route so far. So good by West Africa, hello Central!
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