I’m hijacking my own India blog here, really just to jot down a few thoughts following my first trip to Nigeria. I was there for only a week, and spent most of that time working, so it’s hardly insightful. However, if you happen upon this blog through a search for travel information relating to Lagos, you might pick up a couple of tips. Or you might not.
When we first got wind of a potential project in Nigeria, I have to say the response in the office was, er, less than enthusiastic. The news had us all jumping on to the Foreign Office advice sites, speaking to contacts who knew people who knew people who had worked there, and we perspired ever so slightly over reports of kidnap, extortion, terrorism and general violence. After a lot of thought, some internal resourcing issues (“Hey, hands up those who would like to go to Nigeria?”) it became pretty apparent that the only option was….me. Mo “Expendable” Gillespie: that’s my name.
So, having had my trip confirmed just before Christmas, I was then sent into a mad panic trying to obtain the business visa (a joyous procedure in itself) and extra vaccinations (the doctor nearly hit me when she found out I’d studied Parasitology but yet still complained about having to take anti-malarial pills in a high-risk country). I also had to ensure the client had arranged the appropriate security measures, although I wasn’t exactly sure what they should be. Oil workers apparently insist on personal bodyguards, armed vehicles and outriders; I was content with the promise of a driver who I might find waiting at the Hertz desk at Arrivals, and a confirmed booking at the Radisson on Victoria Island in Lagos.
This brings me to the Murtala Muhammed Airport: I had read reports of general chaos upon arrival into Lagos airport, but nothing quite prepared me for the madness I faced as I disembarked. Bearing in mind I had been told to go to the Hertz desk and look for Elijah, I was surprised and confused to find a man waiting for me at the gate (i.e. literally as I stepped off the aircraft) with a piece of paper bearing my name scrawled in biro. So when he said “Come with me!” my initial reaction was “No way!”. Apparently people with fake name boards capture their kidnap victims this way, so the alarm bells were ringing…. But. I looked ahead at the crazy bustling queue trying to snake its way through the narrow corridors of the hot, sweaty airport and, having decided that this man must have made it airside for a good (official) reason, my gut feeling was to follow him anyway. Good plan. He pushed me through all the queues (there were hundreds of people now “queuing” – if you can call it that – for the arrivals section), and then said “OK, give me your passport now”. Again, I said “No way! I’m keeping my passport with me at all times!”. He sighed and continued to push me along. When we neared a desk in the middle of a crowded room, he said, “Please give me your passport – I will get it stamped for you and make this quicker!”. Still I resisted…but then he said, “Look, I am an off-duty immigration official” and again showed me his badge. At this point I was hot, sweaty, and pretty tired, and decided just to go with it – I figured it would take about 4 hours to get out of the airport, and if this man could speed it up then, hey – what the hell. If he never came back with my passport I would just have to phone the British Embassy. Or something. I’d work it out. So off he went with my passport, with me trying to keep an eye on him at all times…and he came back! Excellent. So, this whisked me through visa verification, and next stop was actual immigration. Same process – I gave him my passport, he disappeared, then came back 5 minutes later with my entry visa stamped in my passport. I didn’t have to present myself anywhere with my passport – I just walked right through, leaving behind several hundred travellers all jostling through the sort-of-queues (which were just a heaving mass of mayhem). We found Elijah (remember him?) and eventually made it out of the airport, having been stopped randomly near the exit and asked for my baggage tag, to prove my suitcase was mine. Seemed a rather strange place to do this, but never mind. It took about another half-hour for Elijah to get his car to the roadside, but that was pretty good going considering the traffic, all over the roads and verges, trying to get out of the airport. A policeman who happened to be standing beside me as I got into the car did ask me, “Have you got a gift for your friend?”, but a combination of smiling and generally ignoring him meant I got out without having to put my hand in my pocket.
I later found out from the client that they have a ‘special arrangement’ with certain immigration officials to help visitors enter the country, i.e. they pay the officials to work extra hours when they finish their shift to escort the likes of me through the chaos and therefore get processed, and get out, faster. These officials then pay bribes (paid for by the client) to their on-duty counterparts at the immigration and arrivals desks, and magic happens. Brilliant, but I just wish they had TOLD me this before I arrived. I thought I would log this short trip to provide a bit of travel knowledge should anyone else have to come to Lagos, but I can’t really comment on how on earth the lone tourist would fare getting through the airport – I would just suggest you prepare yourself for an awfully long, frustrating, confusing, boring, and sweaty wait.
Elijah took me from the airport to the hotel which was located on Victoria Island, the main business district of Lagos, and reached via a 14km bridge (the longest in Africa) across the water. I couldn’t help but compare everything with my experiences in India, and was pleased to note that here people generally stick to the marked lanes in the road (I say ‘generally’), and there are no wandering cows, goats and stray dogs to throw into the mix, so it’s pretty good, but the traffic jams can be utterly appalling (as I found out on my return trip to the airport).
Security at the hotel was pretty similar to that I experienced in India – you have to go through a security gate where the guards may or may not bother to check the car for explosives, but once you’re in it’s all pretty normal. Phew. There was a sign at reception advising that ‘money laundering’ activities on the premises were banned, but as I wasn’t planning to launder even my smalls during the short stay, I figured I wouldn’t get into any trouble. I had another ‘secure car’ (i.e. just a car) and driver assigned to me for the week, and he arrived late the following morning, complaining about the appalling traffic. All anyone does here is complain about the traffic. Mind you, they have a point – it is effectively gridlock here from dawn til dusk.
The working week was then spent travelling between the hotel and the office (with a couple of sojourns out to a restaurant and a bar), so I feel I’m not at all qualified to give opinions on Lagos itself. However, I tend to judge new places primarily by the people, and my experience here has been fabulous! Seriously, I have never felt more welcomed than I have in Nigeria – everyone is incredibly friendly and very relaxed, and women seem to command a much higher level of respect than they do in India. It’s a joy to be greeted with a big smile, a cheery hello and a firm handshake everywhere you go, and the warmth of the locals is really infectious. Everyone works hard, but there is a lot of laughter in the office – we could learn a lot. My local client colleagues were delighted that I wanted to try all the local food (most visitors order European takeaway food), but it’s too tasty, and there’s too much of it, so not brilliant for a post-Christmas diet. Oops. Also, my hosts were incredibly generous: I had insisted I take them out for dinner to repay their hospitality, yet they refused to let me pay when the bill came. They took me to a great wee bar (with live music – hurrah) and we gorged on spicy goat soup (delicious) and local spicy chicken with jollof rice (a rather addictive staple). Actually, Boye had spicy snails, but I couldn’t bring myself to try them – they were too huge and juicy-looking for me, and I really didn’t want to offend my hosts by being sick on the table.
Some interesting things I learned on my night out with the lads (Adeboye, Abiodun and…Edward):
- When naming a child in Nigeria, the name is made up of a number of different descriptive parts, e.g. ‘Ade’ means ‘crown’ and ‘Boye’ means ‘title’, so said Adeboye. A first-born might have an amazing array of name components including ‘sent from God’, ‘most beautiful’, ‘miracle’, etc. I asked what then happens when the second-born arrives: do they struggle to find equally-adoring names, or are they just less interested? Yeah, I know – I’m a second-born but I’m not bitter! Anyway, Abiodun amused by saying he’d had to shorten his newly-born daughter’s name by several characters as he realised he’d showered her with so many names the characters exceeded the number allowed on a passport. We also chuckled about the surprising English names given to many children: these range from ‘Goodluck’ (as we know) to ‘Godspeed’, ‘Sunday’, ‘Miracle’, and even ‘Frog’. Yes, ‘Frog’. Dear oh dear. Edward admitted he’d been named a traditional Nigerian name at birth, but decided aged 12 to change his name to Edward. He said that for several years after this, his offended father would deny all knowledge of an ‘Edward’ when his friends phoned the house!
- The frequent power cuts (oh, how they reminded me of India!) are a big problem, and the power outages are currently high on Goodluck Jonathan’s agenda: he wants a solution within 6 months. However, there are big bucks being made by importing industrial power generators (all businesses spend a fortune on them – not that they stop the outages – I spent quite a lot of time in the office in the pitch black), and the obscenely rich, powerful men who make the money from such imports are all….politicians in government. So, the future’s not looking bright for uninterrupted power supplies in Nigeria
- There is a rather commendable focus on maintaining a clean environment in the city, and I have to say, it shows. While the streets are still dusty, and buildings look dated and worn, I must admit I didn’t see the huge mounds of rubbish and god-knows-what piled up on the streets and sides of buildings like I saw in India. While everyone appreciates the need to clean up and maintain order, I had to laugh when I heard that the government has an odd way of ensuring participation: on the last Saturday of every month, there is, effectively, a morning curfew, where everyone is expected to help clean and tidy their neighbourhood common areas. So, if you are caught loitering outside on a Saturday morning before 10am, a police officer can make you go and mow some common grass, or pick up litter in the street. So what, I asked, do Adeboye and his friends do? The answer? ‘Go clubbing on a Friday night and sleep through the morning on Saturday until the cops have gone’. Fair enough.
We had a great night, so much so that Abiodun suggested we all go clubbing on the Thursday night, insisting that they’d get me to bed by 2am (!). I declined politely, explaining that since they’d paid good money to get me out there to do a job, I didn’t think that they would get much value for money if I were to spend Friday in the office with my head in my hands, pleading for Irn Bru. Next trip, though, we’ll hopefully get to see some more live music and a few more bars. I’m keen to explore the local musical heritage – Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, was a local, and there are museums and festivals dedicated to him. I want to see some!
Friday in the office was ‘dress down’ day, and loads of the guys came in wearing traditional dress, which looks fantastic! I love the colours, and they’re already planning to dress me up as a local woman on my next trip. Dressing up? Yippee! Can’t wait – I’ve always loved the way Nigerian women dress with beautiful bright headscarves matching their dresses, but I think I may actually look rather ridiculous. We’ll see.
I had a few shocked looks when I said I’d been filling up the office kettle from the tap (“No! You must use bottled water!”. Just as well I’d taken my cholera vaccination, I suppose. Still, I haven’t been sick yet (or since) and the only ill-effects I have felt, I put down to those blooming anti-malarials: I have had the weirdest dreams, involving cess pits and jellyfish…but these may have been flashbacks to India, of course. The last hour on Friday afternoon was spent by my new-found client colleagues rolling around in hoots of laughter at the thought of my being kidnapped, and the captors quickly realising exactly what they had taken on: having spent a full week in my – ahem – ‘formidable’ company, Adeboye and his workmates reckoned any potential kidnapper would endure about 15 minutes maximum in my company before demanding to have me released. I could have been slightly offended by this, but they all wished me bon voyage, with big hugs, and assured me they were really looking forward to my return. I think they actually meant it; I hope so anyway, because I’m due to go back in February….and March.
Anyway, off I trotted back to the hideous airport on Friday evening, feeling perfectly safe at every turn despite (not because of) being surrounded by police brandishing AK47s. I managed to skip all the queues out without the aid of a corrupt immigration official, although I have to say the security was really poor: I was able to take all manner of liquids (half-drunk bottles of water, toiletries, etc) through security and, despite being asked to surrender all cigarette lighters, I counted at least 4 in my (unsearched) handbag as I boarded the plane.
Before I left, I even managed to get one over a shopkeeper at the airport when I decided to buy a handbag as a souvenir: having haggled down the price by over a third, I handed over my useless US dollars (everything locally was paid in Naira, the local currency), and inadvertently short-changing the bloke by $5. When he pointed this out, I smiled and said, “Surely you can let me have that as a gift for your new Scottish friend?”, and I shook his hand firmly and walked away. Ha! On my next trip in February, I shall arrive bearing evidence of an amazing, valuable inheritance for which someone in Lagos is the sole heir. Now that will be fun.
P.S. A few terrible photos below – I apologise. I had only my phone with me, and little opportunity to take any photographs, so the few I had were taking mainly from fast-moving vehicles. I’ll try harder next time :-)