Roughing it in the heart of Africa
parched desert in the north.
[quoteright]The revolution in January gave Nigerians new hopes. The soldiers who took over are on their best behavior, and everybody is trying to prove that the country is not just another banana dictatorship. This honeymoon period is the best possible time for travelers.
Christine and I enter Nigeria in the north, crossing from the Cameroon highlands just south of Lake Chad. Although smuggling has been officially abolished there is an enormous market just inside the border, filled with Cameroon goods. The prevailing medium-class transport in this part of Africa consists of 6-passenger Peugeot station wagons. Elsewhere, the village car park has been a scene of chaos, as each driver tries to drag you into his vehicle. Here, all is orderly. On top of one car is a wooden box, with the destination and price painted on it. When that car is filled, the box is placed on top of another. Within five minutes we are bouncing over the potholes to Maiduguri.
Nigerian money comes in nairas, each containing 100 kobos. At the bank a naira costs $1.33. But in the market, $100 cash buys from 200 to 250 nairas, depending on how hard you bargain. This useful situation is partly a consequence of the revolution. Every day the papers are full of stories about how officials of the former government have been caught trying to convert their ill-gotten nairas into foreign bank balances. However, it also means that imported goodies, which must be bought with hard currencies, are quickly disappearing from the markets.
The Bauchi train carries an ancient wooden sleeping car which is falling apart beyond redemption. The chain that is supposed to support the outer corner of the upper berth has come loose; when I climb up there the whole assembly groans and sags, threatening to deposit me on the floor. I extract a loose screw from elsewhere in the car. Using the gimlet on my Swiss army knife, I install the screw in the corner of the berth and rig it to the end of the chain. It works; I get a good night's sleep.
The Jos plateau is dry, dry, dry. The harmattan blows down from the Sahara, sucking the water out of you. We are staying with Mensan Waclaw Kijewski and his wife Anna. They are from Poland; he teaches English and physics at the University of Jos. Anna boils and filters big pots of water, which we greedily guzzle down. They make their own Polish sausages and preserves. We eat well for a change. They have a papaya tree; we raid it every morning for breakfast.
The Canadian community in Jos is putting on a pageant - songs, skits, and a film about Canada. The show is nearly cancelled when a mob of Islamic fanatics comes out of the hills and threatens Jos; the police are talking about roadblocks and a curfew. But all quiets down and we go. The film shows steel mills, electronic gadgetry, endless fields of grain. The audience is ho-hum about it all. But then a single image throws the hail into pandemonium. It shows a farmer unloading a bushel basket of apples. In Nigeria, apples are the ultimate foreign delicacy, available only rarely and at great cost. Surely a country where they are handled by the basketful must be rich beyond imagining!
There are still primitive people in Nigeria. Waclaw wants to take us to a village he visited some years ago, where the women wear wooden buttons in their lips. He inquires first at the University and is told that the village no longer exists. Two years ago a camera crew visited them; the result appeared on national television under the title "The Shame of Nigeria." Shortly thereafter the government sent trucks and dispersed the villagers into other areas. Now there are only two old ladies left, who grimly refuse to be photographed.
Jos has a Chinese restaurant; the food is good, even though they have never heard of fortune cookies. We go there and listen to Nigeria stories. A law professor from the University tells about the Great Cement Scandal. A few years ago, when oil dollars were plentiful, certain government employees discovered they could get generous kickbacks by purchasing cement. Everybody jumped into the act, and a large part of the world's supply suddenly headed for Nigeria. At one point there were 900 ships sitting in Lagos harbor, waiting to unload cement. With no way to store it or use it, the government finally threw up their hands; they told the ships to dump their cargos and go home. All that cement dropped to the bottom of Lagos harbor, where the tides smoothed it out. A diver went down and reported that there was nothing else like it on this planet - a perfect concrete bottom for miles in every direction, like a monstrous swimming pool.
Kano is 200 miles north of Jos, on the edge of the Sahel. The Emir of Kano still holds court there in a walled compound with his hundreds of wives and thousands of children. As we are peering into the gateway, he suddenly leaves for an appointment. First an aged retainer in a blue robe comes bounding out, blowing an antique horn. He is followed by a brightly painted minibus full of women, with THE EMIR OF KANO written on its side. Enough wives to hold him for an afternoon, presumably. Then the man himself in a black limousine, giving a clenched fist salute to the guards. The whole entourage disappears in a cloud of dust.
The Magwan Water Restaurant is the only public swimming pool in Kano. The British left Nigeria some odd nomenclature; sidewalk restaurants, for example, are called "food hotels." They specialize in such items as pounded yams and pepper soup. The Water restaurant actually serves lunch. We order enormous dumplings with a spicy sauce and lumps of tough meat. Cow? Goat? Better not ask.
The Lagos Express carries us from the desiccated plains of Kano to the lush coastal swamps in 28 hours. We leave it short of Lagos and head west. This time we have a relatively modern sleeping car and a couple of Agatha Christies to enjoy in it. When we order tea, the dining car steward regretfully informs us that none is available. I produce a tea bag from my rucksack and life goes forward.
At the Benin border as we leave Nigeria, we pass another market full of smuggled goods. The state of our Foreign Exchange Control Form is a small worry; after 12 days crossing Nigeria I can show only $60 changed into naira at the official rate. But the guards magnanimously wave us through. Their revolution has been accomplished, the military is in control, and the New Nigeria is about to unfold.
You can read about George's latest book here!
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