‘Your consciousness is your best
A lengthy conversation
At the border. A man ask my passport, I give it to him. He offers me a seat, I sit down.
V: What is your profession?’ and ‘For which company are you working?’
C: ‘You don’t know the company where I work for, if I tell you the name I am sure you don’t know it. Why do you ask me this!’
V: ‘Why are you traveling in Africa?’ and ‘Are you married?’
C: ‘Who are you? Why do you ask me this kind of questions? I am not going to answer you. You can be anyone!’
V: ‘I am Victor and I work for the Nigerian Secret Agency. Are you handing over your passport to anyone on the street? No, you don’t, and I decide whether I let you travel in this country or not.’
C: Well, then you should introduce yourself from the start so I know who you are. If you are a professional you should show me your ID, so I know whom I’m dealing with!’
Of course I know he’s some kind of a police because he’s sitting at the entrance of his country. That’s why I hand over my passport. Although he’s not wearing an uniform. He does wear grayish speckled socks in dark grey Karrimor shoes. Hearing him say he’s in the position to refuse my entrance, I opt for cooperation.
After I explained why I am traveling, Victor seem to be a bit in a lecturer mood…
V: ‘Maybe you are from the KGB or the CIA? Or maybe you are an undercover terrorist? Maybe you want to do a bomb attack? How do I know you are not carrying a bomb on your bicycle?’
C: ‘Do you really think a terrorist is planning a bomb attack on a bicycle?’
V: ‘No one wakes up in the morning and decide that day to go to Nigeria! What’s your motive? I must know who you are!’ Why? Why do you travel?’
C: ‘I just told you why I travel. I am here because I want to see Nigeria and I want to go overland to Congo, and since it happen Nigeria is in between, I am here.’
V: ‘You are alone, you are not married, you leave everything behind, no one is waiting for you. What is your motive?!’
Each time I try to answer Victor, he’s interrupting me with another silly question or some of his philosophical points of view.
V: ‘How much money do you have on you? Do you have a Visa Card or Platinum Card?
C: ‘That’s none of your business. I am not going to tell you how much money I carry. I have been thoroughly checked by the Nigerian embassy in Benin and showed them a copy of my bank account. It’s not for you to ask me this.’
V: ‘Don’t worry, I am not going to follow you and steal it from you. You told the embassy people, so why don’t you tell me, they did not follow you to steal your money, did they?’
C: ‘It’s not your business!’
V: ‘Maybe you become a problem for our country. If you get sick you have to be flown out of the country and that will cost our country’s money. You need to go to your embassy and have to arrange a flight.’
C: ‘If I do get malaria, I will stay in bed and take medicine, there’s no need to fly back to the Netherlands for that!’
V: ‘Can I become your friend?’
C: I think before I answer, and say ‘No, I don’t think so.’
An endless physiological insight about friendship follows…
This has turned into a not so average interrogation. He might feel hurt by the time he went abroad and questioned him as a black man. He says that when he goes through the immigration of an airport they will ask him the same questions. Because of this being a land border it doesn’t mean anyone can enter just like that. When I want to say that only Nigeria and America suspect me from being a terrorist, I quickly decide this is not the best reply.
V: ‘Why did you not apply for a visa in your home country?’
I watch him to see if he’s serious. He checked my passport precisely and knows that I am on the road for 10 months. Is he joking?
V: ‘Where do you eat? Do you eat African food?’
C: ‘Listen Victor, don’t treat me like I am stupid. I travel my whole life, don’t ask me this kind of questions. You interrupt me all the time with one questions after another. Let me speak and listen to it. Stay focused, and do it quickly! I want to reach Abeokuta today!’
V: ‘You don’t read newspapers? You don’t watch CNN? You don’t know what’s going on in this country? That’s why I ask you this things!
C: ‘I know what’s going on, I told you ‘I am not stupid!’ Just do your job and let me go. I will have many more checkpoints today.’
Since the bomb, after his hour of questioning, has not come to an explosion, Victor must be convinced I am not a suicide bomber. Thankfully my passport is renewed in India and has therefore no stamps of Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
I make it into the darkness to Abeakuta, after 20 checkpoints, such as a health check, luggage check and many immigration checks. I am halted a few times by curious passerby’s and the many hills slows me down. I check into a brothel where ‘Blow My Whistle’ plays while the mosque whispers it’s azan and I dive deep into my pannier to find my head torch. The light is very romantic, I tell the voluptuous woman who checks me in. A perfect light to make love, with an appetizer of what the song loudly suggest. These actions sure must have been done before I arrived, the bed smells disgustingly. But I am too tired to complain.
I love you, I want to put your bicycle in my car and drive you around
A week in Nigeria. Several marriage proposals, one of a 24 years old, one of a young police with impressive machine gun. And one of Prince Alaiye who knows me enough to ask me to be his wife ‘because I see your photo every evening and you’re a good Christian.’ ‘Isn’t it? Your Christian, right?’ after I reply his ‘when do I get the chance to see you’ with Insha’Allah. People check me twice. Marveled comments like ‘it’s a woman, on a bicycle’ and ‘heee, it’s a lady’ are common, but for the eyes who see me. There are no bicyclers here. There are no whites either. As soon as I enter the outside world ‘ohibo’ comes my way, in different voices, different tones of happiness. People yell at me, as if I ignore a huge check post with ultra important policeman. This time, however, I don’t ignore check posts. Nigerians are jovial, welcoming, hospitable, enthusiastic and very well mannered. This combination makes that I like his country.
‘That’s Nigeria for you’
‘That’s Nigeria for you,’ says another police man when my reply is that I think that Nigerians are very different than the rest of West African people. According the Lonely Planet one out of a five Africans is Nigerian. Cities, as a result, are massive. Villages are big. Houses are made of stone and rusty iron sheet roofs. Cassava is the staple food. Hills are waving without a moment of interruption. Indeed, there’s not much difference with the rest of West Africa. Yet, it’s quite different.
People are talkative, touchable too. Friday kiss me happily on the cheek, because he’s a cyclist too and he’s happy to see me. Friday is a young man who represent Nigerian racing and he wants to have some training with me. Thanks Friday, but no. Sunday, another police officers’ name, is a day with little food stalls offering food. Nothing new in West Africa, there for the more special that a woman offers me rice and sauce of her own. People are stunned when I answer ‘fufu’ and ‘eba’ after they’d asked me if I eat Nigerian food. People assume I want Mr Biggs or Sizzlers and are delighted when they find out I eat like they do. Captivated are their smiles when I tell them how supposingly dangerous their country is. Like the stunning beauty of the Nigerian embassy female receptionist, they laugh about my joke and repeat her very same words: ‘Nigeria is not dangerous!’ and that’s exactly how I feel. Also when I drive for hours on lonesome stretches of potholed roads, four men stepping out of their Mercedes, blocking the road, their colorful dresses flaring in the wind. Except one, his white T-shirt is stained with a caramel colored spot and he let me stop, want to talk to me. He start praising me. He actually just stopped because he wants to show me his respect! Things like this happened only in Morocco. The man isn’t a Muslim, he’s a catholic and a prince as well. The only thing I can think of is that his stained shirt doesn’t support the prince style, but passerby’s greet him with an exorbitant respect and he, Ren. Adekunle Samson, ask me if I need anything? ‘Niara? Do you need Niara, I can give you, just tell me what you need.’ Niara is the money of Nigeria.
No peace for the wicked
It’s not all blissful though. I expected Nigeria to be the India of West Africa. Lonely Planet describes it as a frantic, chaotic country not suitable for the first time traveler to Africa. Or at least, that’s what I read and store into the chambers of my brain. The cities are so massive and so spread out without any logic nor main road cutting through that it could be India indeed, but again, it lacks beauty. There are so little smashing compositions in West African cities and Nigeria is no different. Once I saw a brick mosque being built immaturely, almost as if as child had built it, electricity wires dangling in front of the mosque as were it a spider webs to protect it from the mess surrounding it. The structure and the wires together made it a very interesting composition which had me halted. I looked again and said to myself: to do I really want to make a photo of this? Is it beautiful? No, it isn’t,’ and I rode on. I try hard to find beauty in cities. I stopped trying to find it, as well as searching for tea and coffee. Nigeria has no such thing. There’s no place to sit down, watch the life in front of you and sip sweetened tea or something which resembles coffee.
The nature is stunning, a continuation of the few countries having past, more lush forest and thick, seemingly impassable bush. The many sealed roads linking all the minor roads, express highways and dual carriage highways in such a pattern that there’s no unsealed road on the route which I choose. Infrastructure is just too good. Roads are general in a good condition so the many luxury cars and jeeps speed up, like this is yet another race course. Trucks are not used to bicyclers, simply because there are none. Long before they reach me their horns let out painful cry of ‘go out of my way, move from this road’, something I am not always able to. And so once I am being sprayed with water, another occasion the co driver throws a bottle at my face, because he’s annoyed with my slow uphill. Sometimes I do hold traffic up though. Roads are designed for a truck to pass a truck which passes a minibus and when there’s a bicycle -of all means? A bicycler? Is she insane?- things get tight.
A hairy chest beneath an open checkered blouse
So, let’s face it: I can’t move freely around in this huge country, neither do I have the desire. The North has Boko Haram and his kind fellows, the South has continuous kidnappings going on. Every one advised me not to go to Nigeria, but one. And that one was the only person with experience the way I would be there: Yves. He applied for his visa months ago and entered two weeks before I did. He set the route which I was about to follow roughly. The only straight forwarded yet trouble free route. For two weeks we are the only cyclists in this huge country, with the Icelandic people in their orange Bedford truck passing through as well. The whole bunch of adventures are here together for the very last time. Some weeks later a Swedish woman cycle through.
‘A big man, much hair uh, on…’ the woman let her hand slide over her chest. Her son fills in ‘chest’. ‘Yeah, big man with much hear on his chest,’ repeat the woman. I am drinking tea in a shop where Yves also had his stop, he bought a meat pie and a sachet of water. The woman and her son had also seen the orange truck drive by, all heading for Ibadan.
It’s not easy to find your way out of Nigerian cities. Yves let himself be let by motorcyclers while I found out the GPS on my smart phone and usually within the hour and many looks on the screen, I find my way. In a meanwhile I am cheered on by men along the route, some follow me for minutes to make a photo while riding on their motorbike. Signboards are nonexistent.
After a few days I stop giving my phone number to people. Not that I was handing it out to everyone, yet I keep getting calls from unknown numbers. Alaiye keeps calling me a few times a day, warns me how dangerous the country is, and don’t want to ignore the fact that he’s also a prince, please ‘be my wife’, followed by ‘I will drive you in my car.’ Men in fancy cars stop their vehicle, where ever they are, and ask me to buy them a bicycle just like I have so they can follow me. Their flirting is ridiculous straight ‘how can I see you again?’ My answer is simple yet powerful ‘you can’t.’ Men who greet me with ‘Hi baby!’ get my sharp reply: ‘I am not your baby or a baby!’
A guy whom I sit next to when I get my bowl of rice tell me: ‘You are so pretty!’ Really? I know I can look good, but not when I wear no make-up, when my head’s sunburned and partly white around the eyes, completely covered in sweat and my hair tied up in a way neither stylish nor natural and far, extremely far from pretty. I am not pretty, so shut up! My cycle clothes are smeared in grease, oily food stains and some more sweat. Well, my T-shirt is so faded it’s become fashionable but all the rest of my appearance is really not pretty. The only thing pretty is my whiteness. And actually I am not white at all!
Is life like a box of chocolate?
Many people, men and women, want to become my friend. Bluntly because I am white and they think it I can take them to my country. Even though quite a few people don’t even know what is ‘Thenetherlandshollandnexttobelgiumyouknowfrenchspaineurope.’
He: ‘I want to go to your country.’
He: ‘It is nice there.’
Me: ‘Why is it nice?’
He: ‘People tell me.’
Me: ‘What do they tell you?’
He: ‘Uh… that they make nice products there.’
Me: ‘Like what?’
He: ‘I don’t know.’
Me: ‘So why you want to go to a country you know nothing off?’
‘Take me with you’ and ‘Do you have something for me?’ are answered with a smile though a negative answer. ‘I love your sunglasses and ‘I love your bicycle’ are answered with a ‘I love it too,’ while the most pleasing answer would be, maybe, ‘do you want it?’
‘Can I follow you?’ is the only question, along with ‘can I be your Facebook friend, replied with a positive answer: ‘Oh, yes, you can tag along,’ and each time I cycle on, I can see that scene with Tom Hanks in Forest Gump. And each time I have to smile. In my mind’s eye I am followed by hundreds of men already.
‘I love your hair’ is plain nonsense. ‘I love you’ too, but told by mostly young women who do their utter best to look pretty, willing and lovely -every innocent man would fall for such a look- are answered with my most charming expression and a ‘I love you too’.
‘Where to where?’
‘Have a safe journey’
‘Are you using gas?’
I might look harsh and unfriendly at times, but being sweet and promising holds you up, gives them hope and really, when you are cycling in Nigeria, you become soaked in a mood which is far from peaceful, tender and lovely. ‘Shut up’ is my reply when a guy checks out my belongings and says: ‘I want that.’ Another of my not so friendly reply to a woman who overcharge me is: ‘You are bullshitting me! I don’t want your food anymore!’ a guy who overhears us calls out: ‘I’ll pay for you, come!’
The thing is, it is normal. People scream to each other. Men are rough to the women. Women are screaming pigs. Men are shouting like they’re being killed, only to get a white her attention. Truck drivers who deliberately push me off the road get a ‘fuck you’ and the finger from me. Sales people on the road between the traffic better move before I hit them and inpatient drivers or pedestrians waiting for me to pass, yelling and angry faced, surely wait a little longer because I will slow down, just to annoy them a little more. Traffic in Nigeria is rough. It’s complete madness. Insanity.
It takes energy, being on the express roads of Nigeria
After the first day and 20 checkpoints, a few very nice comments, some mango’s, of police officers and the like, ‘How will you ever find a husband if you are so busy?’ and ‘Let’s chat to know you better,’ are people who do their job and might be a bit bored. The second day however, a man in a car and dressed as any other, stops me. He drives behind me, passes me and ask me for my passport. ‘Show me your badge first,’ is what I ask him. He does so but won’t let me hold it, so I assume he’s a fake and there for I won’t let him hold my passport either. ‘I understand you,’ is his reply.
I find the people of Nigeria disarmingly, sometimes they might seem to be unfriendly, rough and even angry but as soon as you throw in something simple as friendliness, they’ll open up immediately, their mask smashing into hundred pieces before their feet. Whether it’s a police man, a military officer, a salesman at a ticket booth or anyone who initially suspect a single white female. Never so often I cycle with an immense smile on my face. Things I see in Nigeria are just a tad more funny than anywhere else. A baby with little heels on, for example. A fancy frame with a mirror taped to a minivan. A woolen Christmas hat on some one’s head. ‘Happy day’ wished to me.
When I’m having a lunch of beans and rice, a young man tells me to go into another direction as I was planning to, because the road is bad. It might sound incredible but I choose the bad, shorter route over the good one. I start to miss tracks and pistes, roads in Nigeria are general very well maintained. Soon I am surprised by clusters of grass growing in the potholes, not disturbing the tarmac by their artistic growth. I am astonished by bush trying to win from the road, their lushness attempting to embrace each other by covering the route. Because there’s no traffic -for hours only a few cars drive up and down- I admire the nature where I am in and be amazed. I have to stop often to watch the beauty in front of me and thoughts range from ‘this is not so very different than before’ yet ‘this is soooo beautiful!’.
I remember watching a promotional scene for National Geographic channel or the like, showing scenes of diving, of flying, of admiring, of action, of contemplating. Fast paced. Nature as it is never experienced in such a mode. That feeling’s presented to me, while I move freely on a downhill, realizing where I am, knowing what is surrounding me, recognizing the feeling. I know the moment I start labeling this feeling, it will go. But it doesn’t. For a long period of time I am in a blissful cocoon and just take it in. At this point I am stripped from all thoughts, all little things going on in my head are over. It’s pure.
What a questions?
People ask me: ‘Are you Nigerian? Or are you Chinese? I ask them: ‘Do you know how Chinese look like?’ Yes, they reply. ‘So why you think I am Chinese?’
Nigeria is intense. When I am in Oshogbo Sacred Grove, a dense patch of forest in the middle of the city, where art is playing around with funky religious woodcarvings and giant statues of unnatural looking creatures, I am again in a complete bliss. Monkeys jump around and people too. Some come to me in hope, halt me, ask me. One woman seems to be in need for help, she clamps onto me, hold both my arms and beg me to pray for her, while her son tries to get a hold of my phone number. ‘I have no phone,’ is my reply while his mother says: ‘Yes you do, I can see it in your bag.’ Something not visible for her though. In the evening I am again surprised when I settle down with a thermo flask of masala tea and three donuts, they are filled with each a boiled egg.
To be continued…
Nigeria May 2013