Before we even got near Nigeria I was heartily sick of the white-people-scare-stories. Everywhere from Cape Town to Cameroun our route intentions were given the standard ex-pat response “OOoooooo Nigeria… (much rolling of eyes)…You don’t want to go there”. Look, I’m not pretending Nigeria doesn’t have a history of kidnapping, but to be told “You can’t possibly consider driving across Nigeria without an armed guard” I thought was utterly preposterous. After all, millions of people manage it every day.
Moreover, we are not well-connected politicos or lucrative oil worker types; we don’t look like we could muster up a smart suit, let alone a decent ransom. I think some people get a kick out of dwelling on the worst-case scenario, whipping up the Fear… It was all very reminiscent of the stories pedaled by doom-merchants in South Africa just before the elections in 1994 (in between them stashing their baked beans in the cellar or packing for Perth). I remember being told I couldn’t possibly consider walking in downtown Jo’burg. I didn’t believe them then and I don’t now. Irresponsible scaremongering doesn’t help us deal with challenges; it builds barriers preventing the interaction needed to overcome them. I always prefer to trust my own eyes, and go with my own experience. With no disrespect to the many concerned people who tried to be kind and warn us of the dangers, I am now going to take great pleasure in blowing a few negative stereotypes out of the water.
N.B. I’m not saying bad things don’t happen in Nigeria (look at their anti-gay legislation[i]). I’m not saying bad things don’t happen in SA. It’s just I’ve lived there 20 years and – except for a couple of burglaries, which could happen anywhere – I’ve never had a really bad thing happen to me, but I’ve had hundreds of wonderful ones. People with terrible stories get so much more airtime than people like me who have positive things to relate, so let me trumpet a few.
Having said all that, I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive as we came to the bridge over the border from Cameroon into Nigeria. It was only 3km after the clay pit experience and we’d had quite a day of it already. However, there was no respite: I was immediately thrown into a typical Nigerian experience i.e. intense and full of contradictions.
At the sweaty border post, I passed through an area where police were busy watching a Nollywood sci-fi series on TV with a hilarious District 9 type monster photoshopped in, and was ushered into a crammed office, with a man in the corner asleep in front of the fan. The Big Man didn’t appreciate being caught napping, and on being nudged by his lackey, immediately began shouting at everyone to prove how on top of his job he was. As subordinates circled warily, expecting him to snap their heads off at any moment, he suspiciously perused our passports. Having noted that it was the last day of the three-month window granted to cross the border, he tried to give me a hard time, opening with “I’ll give you three weeks”, like it was a negotiation. We’d paid for 30 days! I didn’t flinch, just quietly said, “Well, we’ve got to go to Calabar for Carnival, then source oil from restaurants, then go to Abuja to perform for the ambassador – we’ll struggle to do all that in three weeks, especially if we break down.” Begrudgingly, he stamped us in for a month.
However, on the other side of the office, where I was sent to fill in forms for each of us, I was greeted by Johnson, who beamed and said “You are welcome”. When he heard we were from SA, he offered condolences for our loss, adding “We are happy to have you here” with such sincerity, I was quite taken aback and wondered if Leon Schuster was lurking somewhere. Full of enthusiasm, he expounded “You are going to have such a great time in Nigeria” and listed the claims to fame of his home state, Ogun: the first bible translation, the first woman driver, the birthplace of three presidents as well as Fela Kuti. He came out to see the truck and was beside himself with excitement, taking pics with his phone and calling all his colleagues to come look.
This set the tone for the rest of our stay; the sheer intensity of the warmth, the pride and the enthusiasm of Nigerians sets them apart from the rest of the continent. In much the same way that a strong woman is automatically classed as aggressive by men who prefer their females to simper, I suspect that the confidence and capacity of Nigerians has given them their reputation for aggression and arrogance abroad in countries that prefer Africans to ‘know their place’ and cower.
Nigerians don’t apologise for being loud and opinionated. Even in Douala, Northern Cameroon, people were regularly having outspoken altercations in the streets, in a way that would never happen down south in Kribi, and this was just magnified in Nigeria. But I have never had “You are welcome” said to me so often as a greeting. Literally hundreds of times every day, by everyone from bank security guards, to street sellers, to people simply passing by who can see you’re a stranger. South Africans could learn a thing or two from Nigerians when it comes to welcoming visitors. A few minutes later, while Sampson was on roof re-strapping oil containers that had bumped out on that mad road to the border, an older gent walking by stopped to greet him and concluded, with his arms outstretched to encompass the grandeur: “America, London? Pah! NIGERIA!!”
According to the Lonely Planet 2010, one in five Africans is Nigerian; by 2050 it could be one in three. Although geographically smaller than SA, the population is approaching four times the size: almost 170 million, with a vast diaspora. There are few gaps between settlements in this country – it becomes quite a challenge to drop your sewage responsibly.
We stopped to sleep a few kilometres from the border and, as I was dishing up supper, a police van pulled up next to us. They were checking to see if we were OK, bless them! The main dude said they would prefer us to sleep in the town of Ikom 3km further on; we said thank you but we prefer to stay in the bush where it’s quieter.
The next morning, Ruby woke up early for the first time since changing her anti-malaria medication 2 weeks ago – I was thrilled, and convinced we’d made the right decision to take her off Mefliam. Her tween strops have by no means ceased, but at least she’s stopped sleeping excessively and is behaving slightly more rationally.
At the border, I saw a copy of this poster, advertising a country-wide campaign to vaccinate against Yellow Fever. This was a fabulous coincidence, because when the other three Sampsons had had their jabs before leaving, I wasn’t allowed to have mine because my last one (to go to Brazil for Carnaval in 2004) hadn’t yet expired. I needed to renew the 10 year innoculation this very month.
I’d only been driving five minutes, when we saw nurses walking along the road approaching a primary school, so I pulled over and asked them if I could join the queue. I was welcome. We took our ‘bag of tricks’ with us, and Sampson and the kids gave a quick juggling and magic show to the tiny children to take their minds off the approaching needles. All the teachers at Retu Mankono School, Ikom, were so lovely, but we’d like to give special thanks to Mr Ndifon Mike Oyui, who offered to keep Zola, and Mrs Caroline Ogonej, who was convinced she also could make the red cloth disappear if she just concentrated hard enough!
I deteriorated quite rapidly afterwards and was laid out for rest of day. Thankfully, therefore, it was Sampson who drove into the space-invader traffic of Ikom, where he witnessed two crashes in 20 minutes involving the motorbikes that were whizzing everywhere. They’re banned in the cities and you can see why. Drivers just don’t seem to feel vulnerable. Many Nigerians act as if they’re omniscient and immortal behind the wheel, it’s terrifying; time and again, vehicles would pull in front of us mere milliseconds before oncoming lorries hammered past, leaving the kids and me yelping with our hearts in our mouths…
Perhaps it’s their faith that bolsters them. We’ve never seen so many churches. Every 50m in southeastern Nigeria there’s a sign advertising a new Christian congregation: Assemblies of God, Deeper Life Bible Church, Winners Chapel as well as the full spread of Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not to mention the huge Covenant Singles and Married Ministries distributing full-colour four-page A4 flyers at the border. Pastor Chris Ojigbani has 7 best selling books on Amazon, offices in London, Accra and Lagos, and the profile of a pop star.
After filling up with water thanks to the help of young strong Tony Enogu and Kingsley Anthony in Edor village, we decided to drive north to see what the Lonely Planet describes as “one of Nigeria’s highlights”: the Drill Rehabilitation and Breeding Centre at Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, run by Pandrillus, the same organisation that founded the Limbe Wildlife Centre.
Drills are one of Africa’s most endangered primates, found only here in Cross River State, Nigeria, southwestern Cameroon and on Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea. Afi Mountain is the only place in the world where you can see natural-sized drill groups in captivity in their natural habitat. Carnival Calabar was not for another couple of weeks, and, basking in the relief of having made it across the border before the expiry of our visas, we now felt we had the luxury of time to explore a little.
Not for the first time, the Garmin GPS sent us the long way round, but this was the first time we were stupid enough to follow it without question (possibly because the navigator was laid out in the back). Instead of taking the 50km road from Ikom, Sampson drove a huge 150km circle up to Ogoja and back. On the bright side, this gave me time to recover from the vaccination, and the Big Green Truck went through the last major rainstorm of the season on tar rather than in the deep forest.
However, in hindsight, I suspect that with Pandrillus’ reputation, on the short route we would not have had such a parade of roadblocks: police, military, traffic police, some other uniforms. This was followed by the self-appointed ‘plain clothes’ guardians. The first lot asked 500Naira (R33) for a sticker; the second lot wanted money for torches and batteries. We never pay. We can’t – if we paid everyone who asked us, even a nominal amount, we’d blow our meagre budget within weeks. In response to the inevitable question “What have you got for me?” we usually reply “A smile” but if that doesn’t suffice, Sampson explains he’s a performer and offers to show them a trick. I think he had to pull out the red cloth 6 times that day.
I began to feel like we were a travelling family of itinerant gypsy players, like the one in that final Heath Ledger film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. We’re like a group of hobos wandering the Wild West, going from place to place, putting on a show, trying our luck. It was such a relief to be in an English-speaking area again, so Sampson could share the burden of interacting at roadblocks – for the last four countries I was constantly leaning over him to chat to policemen.
Now I was reminded of how good my husband is at winning over an initially hostile crowd. All those years on the Cape Comedy Collective club circuit, MC-ing baying mobs of drunken Afrikaans males in some dive with beer on the floor in the northern suburbs on Friday nights through the late 90’s[ii] paid off. It’s a very macho game; you have to show them you’ve got bigger balls than they have – take on the biggest one and best him – to make them shut up and listen. Sampson can turn a tense bunch of bullies into a pally group of backslapping bro’s in minutes.
The third lot of self-appointed ‘security’ was by far the sketchiest. It was the next day, and I was driving when I saw a group of young men crawling all over a huge log across the road, making a big show of cutting this apparently fallen tree into pieces to clear the road for motorists. I called Sampson off the bed as I knew we’d be targeted and, within seconds, there were blokes up on both doorsteps asking for contributions. We stuck to our tried and tested routine: everyone got out, kids too, demonstrating we were in no hurry and couldn’t be intimidated. The first dude was keen to see the show and Sampson started his spiel. But one of the gang wasn’t happy and shouted “No, money, give money”. For a moment it could have gone either way, but just then, dozens of schoolchildren who’d been let out of high school down the road arrived and clamoured to see the end of the trick. Their response to Sampson’s overhyped ‘moving thumb up the arm’ sleight of hand was so overwhelming, ‘security’ had to give in and let us go.
By the time we finally managed to get online, check a map to Afi Mountain, get on the right road and find the turn off into the forest, it was getting late. The last hairy 10km up the rutted path took 2 hours, with a stop for re-strapping containers that a tree branch had managed to unhook overhead, and it took its toll on Sampson. I had complete confidence in his driving, but somehow he was doubting himself and took real strain. I didn’t think the track was as difficult as the worst roads of Angola or DRC, but I think the combination of narrow path, low trees and wet mud, plus not knowing just how far we had to go, made it heavier. I had to hold a portable fan plugged into the cigarette lighter on him most of the way – that R50 fan made a huge difference in our life this month.
He was just about to give up when we reached the village of Katabang and were greeted by Victoria, whose husband Michael works at the Sanctuary. She told us to stop here, as it was another hour or so up an impossible road for the truck to get there. Phew. The village kids were a bit wearisome, like DRC children, relentlessly stationed at the door even after 8pm, eager to watch the soap opera of our lives.
There was no signal, so the next day we had to use the Inmarsat satellite phone to call the office at the Drill Ranch in Calabar to let Afi know via radio to come and fetch us. It gave us time to do our last school lessons. Just after lunch the Peters arrived in the Land Rover: lanky Pieter van Heeren, a Dutch volunteer who planned on passing through Nigeria as quickly as possible on his round-Africa trip and, 2 years later, is still here; and Peter the local, who gave us a masterclass in rainforest driving as he negotiated the slippery path back up to the Sanctuary. Sampson had to brace his back over every bump and thump, but was just so glad we hadn’t made the attempt in Big Reg. The tree trunks made the way far too narrow for our truck to pass, not to mention the spindly bridges.
When we arrived, Ruby immediately fell in love with Carby the rescue mongoose (so called because she likes to sneak into carboots). Pieter introduced us to manager Tunsi from Lagos in the scenic mess hall, before taking us on what remains of their famous canopy walk. It used to be the longest in Africa – over 400m – but a massive landslide in July 2012 caused by heavy weather combined with deforestation higher up the mountain resulted in severe floods, which took out a chunk of forest and destroyed ¾ of the canopy walk, as well as the village school. It was the most dramatic example we’ve seen yet of devastation caused by climate change and human degradation of the environment.
The remaining 100m of the canopy walk was quite long enough for me, tipping like crazy as it was above the void. You used not to be able to see the forest floor, but so much vegetation was ripped away by the force of the floodwaters, the 30m vista to the ground is horribly clear. When we reached the end, Pieter commented that the tilt had got noticeably worse since he’d brought some other visitors the previous week and he didn’t think he’d be doing it again…
Pieter was very impressed with Zola’s tracking ability – he was able to lead us back through the jungle having only been through there once! I was too busy watching the butterflies and the patterns of light falling through the foliage to concentrate on directions. I could understand Pieter’s shrugged reason for his prolonged stay: “This is like Paradise for me”.
We got back just before feeding time. Pandrillus cares for 6 extended family groups of drills in solar-powered electric enclosures, 5 here at Afi Mountain and 1 at the Drill Ranch in Calabar (www.pandrillus.org). They were mostly recovered as orphans after their nursing mothers were illegally shot for bushmeat, and more than 250 drills have been born at the project. In the future, once their habitat and safety has been secured, Pandrillus aims to release drills back into the wild. We watched keeper Emmanuel distribute wheelbarrows of corn and beans to Group 1, a family of 35 drills in a relatively small enclosure, and Group 2, numbering more than 100, living in several hectares of forest space. Pandrillus nurtures around 400 drills, which is about 10% of the total global population. By comparison, there are between 100000-150000 gorillas in central Africa’s forests.
There are only 25 orphan chimps here, but the wily creatures require twice as much security as the drills – that’s double the guard and substantially narrower rungs of electric fence. As he doled out their rations, their keeper Gabriel told us their names and their rescue stories. The chimps were unimpressed with the corn. They sat balefully regarding us, picking out the beans with delicate fingers.
We felt very privileged to get so close to these cousins of ours in their natural environment. After generations of hunting, Afi’s gorillas are extremely shy and need many more years before they will be easily seen; the Cross River gorilla is the most endangered species of gorilla in the world. Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary was created in 2000 and is managed by the Cross River State Forestry Commission; protection and research is sponsored by a partnership of NGOs with government.
Pieter is visibly scared of the chimps, saying they are very strong and clever and can be very violent. But I couldn’t help feeling that Pavlo the old grey outsider from Equatorial Guinea needed a cuddle. Lined up either side of the wire, once again the thought struck me “Who’s watching whom here?”
The wooden guardrail suddenly snapped and broke my reverie. There is a very faint air of neglect at Afi Mountain, half due to the unending damp and inevitable rot, half perhaps reflecting Texan co-founder Peter Jenkins’ increasing absorption less with the protection of these animals but of their habitat. You have to admit there’s little point dedicating your life to rescuing and rehabilitating endangered primates if there’s going to be no forest to release them back into. Pieter told us that Peter has become head of a government-endorsed Task Force actively enforcing anti-logging laws in the area and has earned a reputation as a bit of a ‘cowboy’.
I have even more respect for David Attenborough now than I had already. On the way back in the Land Rover, I tried to brush a giant biting ant off Zola’s back. It dug its jaws into my finger and made me scream like a little girl. In my defence, it was more than 2cm long, and drew blood!
The next morning we were woken up by little gits banging on the door. To make matters worse, because of strange slope we were on, rain in the night had been funneled in through a tiny hole made for a light fitting into a cupboard above the bed. Everything not in plastic bags was soaked through i.e. most of Sampson’s clothes and half of mine. The bottom of the mattress was also wet. It was impossible to dry any of it because it was so damp; we had stuff draped inside everywhere for days.
At 10am we went up to the local primary school as promised. One of the two teachers said “Since you came, we haven’t been able to teach anything…” as the children have all been congregating around the truck. Sampson and the kids did a half hour show on the field to say thank you for the village’s hospitality before leaving the educators in peace.
The way back was much less traumatic as we knew what was coming, although Sampson did manage to break a wing mirror off completely, luckily the same one he’d already smashed in Gabon. We got it fixed for R85 by an obliging fellow by the side of the road in Ikom, before setting off for Calabar. I sat reading the billboards and learned that ‘Naija’ is the slang word Nigerians fondly use for their country – like ‘Mzansi’ is used by young South Africans and SABC1. Fo sho.
The only thing we really don’t like about Nigeria so far is the bread. The gluten-tolerant Sampsons have been spoiled throughout Francophone central Africa with daily fresh baguettes. We couldn’t find any bakeries in Ikom, only piles of chemical-smelling overprocessed loaves that, somewhat like the Macfries in the Supersize Me movie, could prove to last indefinitely. Perhaps that’s why one brand was named after Mandela. 🙂
Written around Dec 21st
[i] See http://ayosogunro.com/2014/01/17/the-straight-nigerians-guide-to-the-new-anti-gay-law-by-ayo-sogunro/ and http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-01-20-the-bigger-picture-understanding-anti-gay-laws-in-africa/#.Ut1jOBbg4dV
[ii] corralling them into showing respect to the young black comics in the CCC stable before they grew up to be TV and film stars Loyiso Gola, Kagiso Lediga and Riaad Moosa etc.