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Published: September 15th 2006
A young Fulani boy arrive in a small village at the Mandala plateau, Taraba state.
Known in the backpacker grapevine as “scam-land” and housing the world’s most corrupt government - Nigeria was not a country we looked forward to enter.
But the bad reputation is undeserved.
Never before had we met such openhearted hospitality throughout a whole country. And every day we were amazed by the country’s dramatic and beautiful nature. With huge rocks rising from the open savannah in the north and mountains draped in fleshy jungle in the south.
After some minor difficulties with the border police at Katsina
we went by bush taxi down south to the relentless bustle in Kano
- the biggest city in northern Nigeria with some three million people living in a hot conglomeration of car fumes and mud.
After a few days of paranoid behaviour (Due to Nigeria’s bad reputation, we got scared stiff by everyone aged twelve or older that approached us.), we travelled further south to the federal capital Abuja
To us the most surreal sight in West Africa. It was made capital in 1993 and before the constructions started in 1981, it was nothing but dense tropical forest and small tribal villages.
Now, it’s an ultra modern city
Kids in the mountain kingdom of Sukur.
with high-rises, elevated highways and swanky shopping malls. An unexpected but well deserved treat by mod-cons and air-conditioned cinemas for us.
I remember reading in some medical paper that the first three minutes of life are critical. Well, as we with breakneck speed left Abuja on the road to Jos
- watching the Nigerian roadside’s impressive collection of wrecked cars - I realised that the last three minutes of life, are (most probably) pretty dodgy too.
Our bush taxi recklessly climbed the mountainsides of the central plateau, and with our hearts in our mouths we arrived in the devoted Christian city of Jos.
Spent a few days enjoying the cold drizzle (a reminder of summer back home) and reading excerpts from the Bible.
As we went down the plateau with another speed-freak driver we got an unwanted reminder of how fragile human life is - as we witnessed the Nigerian roadside claim another car to its cumulative collection. An eager driver tried to overtake us, lost control of his car, and crashed into a nearby cornfield.
Our fellow passenger kept crying; “Jissus! Jissus!”
all the way to the city of Bauchi
The great mosque at Abuja
It took the islamic community one year to build the national mosque. The national church a stone throw away has been in construction for the last 15 years. It's more tricky to unite the 100 or so different denominations of Christianity than the one and only Muslim.
changed transport once more then finally hitched with a Lebanese contractor for the last leg of the journey into the Yankari National Park
In an attempt to boast tourism in the region, the local government had turned the badly managed park into a construction site. Construction workers, hotel staff and baboons relished in the parks main attractions - the Wikki Warm Spring
, and the Yankari Park Bar.
After a dip in the hot spring and a couple of cooling bottles in the bar, the construction project’s manager - An Italian contractor - invited us for dinner in his “Executive-V.I.P.-suite”, and let us the luxurious guestroom. He filled us with grappa and gin, whiskey and wine, while telling us amusing stories of nightly adventures in Lagos
The following day was spent with a hammering hangover in a number of bush taxis heading to Maiduguri
(known to Nigerians as the “backside of beyond”) in the extreme north east of the country.
Our careless driver had at several occasions jeopardised our future, and as we drove into Maiduguri, we finally crashed.
With a screeching sound of non-functional brakes, we crashed into a slow-moving car in front of
Behind the wheel of steel
Bush taxi driver, death defying and proud. Serti, Taraba state.
us. Luckily the speed wasn’t too high, and we left the scene with bruises and minor scratches. A motorbike picked us up and brought us downtown as the sun was setting.
The Muezzins call for the day’s last prayer echoed over the city and thousands of chattering bats filled the scarlet sky - as rows of faithful Muslims bent down to their creator.
The next morning we continued into the Adamawa
state and the overwhelmingly friendly town of Michika
located at the base of the Mandara Mountains
The townspeople were extremely helpful, took us around town on bikes, paid for products we bought in the market - and in acts of generosity - repeatedly invited us to have dinner and to stay with them, all without a single trace of ulterior motives.
Some months earlier, friends had told us about a kingdom hidden in the Mandara Mountains only reachable by foot. Given directions by the townspeople, we walked up into the mountains to give hail to the king. After a strenuous climb up a man-made causeway, we crossed the threshold of the small Sukur
We found the king next to the rock-hewn royal throne
Small boys and girls sat perched on cliffs along the causeway leading up to Sukur. They chanted and blew horns as we came closer, truly beautiful sounds accompanying the already magnificent views of the Mandara mountains.
and gave him our greetings. Then we were taken to a cliff from where we had a panoramic view over the whole kingdom. Early every morning the king climbs the cliff to address his people.
A truly unique day was spent in the hospitable kingdom before we walked down the mountain and back to reality.
Two days of spine-tingling bush taxi journeys later, we ascended the snaky roads leading up to the Mambila
plateau, in the - by tourists - little visited Taraba
state (like if Nigeria had a tourism industry!
The views were incredibly beautiful as the road gently followed the green rolling hills like a brushstroke of black asphalt. Pastoral nomads grazing their cattle, backdropped by steep peaks dressed in waistbands of cotton-candy-like clouds.
A night was spent at the Highland Tea Plantation
where the pluckers foreman, passionately explained the time consuming process of producing tea.
After a short disagreement at the motor park, we arrived in Gembu
, a small town laid out over steep hills, with mosques and churches clinging to the slippery slopes and with eye-pleasing views over the red mud Donga River
and the neighbouring Cameroon.
Early morning in Gembu, Taraba state.
woman called “Mama Jacky”, invited us for dinner then gave us her guestroom for the night, once again proving that Nigerian hospitality is unmatched in West Africa.
After a delicious breakfast we drove back over the scenic grass-fields, down to the hot plain, and on our way to the town of Wukari
, passing small villages with Fulanis celebrating Gerewol (a big annual festival where the Fulani men dress in drag to make themselves irresistible to the Fulani women. Spectacular
, is the least I can say.).
Arrived in Wukari as the sun was setting and I had barely bought a sundowner and had the first sip, as a peculiar individual reached out her black hairy hand to snatch my bottle.
Stupefied by the sight of a full grown chimpanzee standing next to me at the noodle-vendors stand, I tucked away the bottle before she had the chance to grab it and looked into her pleading eyes as she reached out an eagerly begging palm. The next moment a witless spectator hit her with a plastic chair and she ran off into the motor park.
While serving us food, the noodle man explained that she was once
A small Fulani village near the Highland Tea Plantation in Kakara, Taraba state.
the pet of the ex-governor, but since he now was living abroad, she roamed around in town begging for food and drinks, and sleeping wherever possible. In the nights people would give her beer and cigarettes and she would dance and chatter.
Just like me - I thought - after a couple of bottles.
As we sat down in the long-distance overnight bus that would take us south to Enugu
, I couldn’t stop thinking about the quick moment we had made eye contact. All the intelligence and emotions I had sensed in her eyes.
I got so pensive that I missed the mandatory mad preacher (found on every transport in southern Nigeria), as he promised milk and honey to the God fearing, and fire and brimstone to us infidels.
Due to the (justified) fear of armed robbery, all overnight transport stop driving at midnight at some “safe” petrol station, lorry park or small town, then head out again after the break of dawn. So as our bus broke down in the heavy downpour on a desolate road surrounded by dark jungle - people started praying to their creators.
Two hours of makeshift mechanics later
we rolled into petrol station. Six hours later - as we had just left our nightly shelter - the bus ran out of petrol because the driver had forgotten to fill the tank.
The first person to leave the sinking ship was the hypocrite pastor. He waved down a passing car and disappeared, in the name of Jesus. -Hallelujah!
Two hours later a car passing by sold us enough petrol to take us to the next petrol station.
As we rolled into the station we got swarmed with market women selling bananas and home roasted cashew nuts. Everyone stocked up and we continued, only to - 20 minutes later - run out of petrol again.
The driver had been so busy buying bananas that he had forgotten to fill the tank! -Again!
There was an outcry for public flogging of the driver among the passengers, and I could but agree as my newly met friend called the driver: -A very sluggish human being!
What felt like an eternity later, we arrived in Enugu - the proposed capital for the Biafra
Another perilous journey and we entered our final destination Calabar
A friend in Gembu
- the south-eastern-most city of any size and the seat of the (extortionately expensive) Cameroonian Consulate.
On a particularly rainy day we went to see the Drill Monkey Rehab Centre
, an orphanage for apes and monkeys sold by poachers to thoughtless people.
The friendly manager told us absorbing theories of crossbreeding and the pros and cons with living in a developing country for 20 year.
She got less than happy as I told her about the chimpanzee we’d met in Wukari, and immediately outlined a strategy for how to set her free in nature.
After four days and four nights of continuous downpour I feared a second flood of biblical proportion; and since I’m far deeper into vice than virtue, we hurried for the closest boat. The arch of the covenant was not to be found, so a rusty fishing boat-cum-passenger vessel had to do.
Got hold of two seats in the vessel’s windowless inner chamber, labelled “the vault of vomit” for obvious reason. Since after leaving the calm creeks of southern Nigeria, the vault turned into a tumble-dryer as we navigated the uncompromising waves of the Gulf of Guinea
The mandatory frenetic
Children of the employees at the tea factory playing with sticks and wheels, like all West African kids do.
minister of the gospel did his best to keep our attention with kindergarten style clap-your-hands-and-sing-along-songs about Jesus, every now and then interrupted by a Hallelujah!
or the reverberation of seasick stomachs.
To save my sanity I stepped outside and walked to the front of the boat, where I stood in silence - drenched in the heavy rain - watching burning oil platforms in the far distance.
As we slowly approached one of the platforms a dark-voiced man walked up to me, and we inevitably ended up discussing faith.
After a long heated discussion in the rain I was getting cold and decided to step back into the vault. Excused myself and was about to leave as he looked me in the eyes and gravely declared: -Within three days you will have a revelation of Jesus. He will come to you and all your doubt will vanish. You will fear him, and you will follow him.
The forceful flame of the nearby oil platform reflected in his eyes, and it was not the time for an ironic reply.
I thanked him for the promise (threat?) of revelation and walked back into the boat.
The Wikki warmspring.
preacher had switched off the loud P.A. system and most people were sleeping. The few that were still awake sat with green faces holding half full plastic bags of former meals.
I went back to my seat at where I remained sleepless for a long time, contemplating my coming blind date with Jesus.
Then - as the vessel jolted slowly further into the dark night - my thought pattern got more and more unclear, more and more vivid, and I slowly slipped into a dream.
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