Fear is nothing more than a negative stream of consciousness
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
From Benin City to Abakaliki I have to take the express highway. This is the most uninteresting way to travel and the most dangerous as well. By now I am really missing the dirt tracks and camping, this makes cycling through Nigeria an experience on its own. I can’t even perform my city skills, which are being the fastest. Although I am cycling alone I still try to be the fastest and this is just not advisable in Nigerian traffic which is already packed and jammed at 7 o’clock in the morning. Trucks pass trucks, minibuses pass everything, cars in between, motorcycles often driven off the tarmac and there comes Cindy. Cindy is aware of the danger and doesn’t plug in music very often, definitely not on the express highway, or at least not in the dense city traffic. As to be able to hear all traffic around. People scream to me ‘stop, I want to get to know you’, voices everywhere calling ‘haribo’, trucks slowing down alongside me, the co-rider hanging out of his window and wave to me. The poor making movements of wanting food or money. I truly feel like a celebrity and it’s hard work. I have to concentrate on the traffic while many, many people are distracting me.
Cindy’s got a feel that by swirling around a minibus who suddenly came to a halt, she might be hit. Simply because no one on the road can swirl. It’s packed, remember. So I am hit. But very lightly. And I do fall of the bicycle but so softly that I feel nothing. I can see the minibus who’s behind me, come to a halt. Right in front of my back wheel. Thankfully. Because with a few broken, and replaced spokes I wouldn’t want to be affected with a bended wheel. People come over to me, grab my rolling bottles, pull my bicycle of the tarmac and bend the handlebar into place. Meanwhile the minibus, who tried to give me some space, is hit by a truck and the truck is stuck against the concrete dividing. I watch it and am aware that I am the cause of this little accident which causes a tremendous delay, for Nigerian understanding. No one blames the ‘haribo’ though and I decide to cycle off.
The truck who got stuck between the concrete wall and the minibus pass me and the co-rider only swing his finger to me, like ‘watch it, you little lady’ and I move my hand wildly, blaming the minibus. Trucks and their co-riders often comment me, and how much this one was right, the others are often plain funny. Leave me laughing out loud: ‘You are not carrying a bomb ha? You are not ha?!’ People make photo’s of me when I cycle, some sit turned around on their motorbike. And while I cycle I read the enormous advertisements above and alongside the road. It dawns on me that everything is enforced with vitamins, even beer is healthy with less sugar. Liqueur is sold with ‘go for the original blessings’. The Chinese taste enhancer aji-no-moto is hot here and bread, milk and drinks are all bursting with healthy vitamins. What about the mango’s, pineapples and cassava?
The day I will cross an enormous bridge in Onitsha, I approach it with expectations and the road I am on is full of unknown feelings. Feelings I love. I can see very far ahead of me and it seems there’s nothing in the distance, no land, not even the ocean. Just nothing. ‘Will there be the bridge?’ I ask myself? While a police man stops me and ask in a high-pitched voice if I want to be his friend. Sorry police, I am not into this nonsense. Not sure whether his high-pitched voice is his real voice, I dare not to ask in case he can’t speak normal. He ask where my helmet is. I feel where he might want to go, so I assure him I was on my way to buy one in Onitsha, and off I am.
I cycle on, eager to get to the nothingness ahead of me, the vast plains of Nigeria. I have climbed a hill and now I am overlooking glittering unknowable space ahead of me. Everything is covered in clouds and blanketed in an unrecognizable haze. I feel grandness to be here. It’s big, tropical and exciting. It’s absolute madness as well, as soon as I cross from prosperous Delta state into prosperous Anambra state I am full in the insanity at its highest of West Africa!
Imagine this at home:
I crossed the bridge and am in complete awe of it. Nigeria is able and healthy, though their incredible many problems and super corrupt leaders. After the bridge, two roads on one side merge with the other direction, so four lanes in two different directions are now on two lanes in one direction. People just cannot handle this and it’s funny to be cycling on the road which is under construction and watch the show: a money transport van is driving very slowly, packed in between the traffic jam, the armed police escorts have left their vehicles in front and in the back and are now walking alongside the money transport van. When the van is speeding a bit, the men have to run some distance. Dressed in thick canvas police cloths, armed to kill, and the sun is shining this day, it’s a tough job. Traffic is moving in both directions on two lanes, not as you would think, but all is crisscrossing, overtaking, swirling and passing one and another. A minibus driver who think he’s good at what he does, drives in the ditch, leaving him struck there. People try to get my attention with ‘are you from China or America?’ and ‘I want to marry you!’ Another car makes a smart move, he drives backwards. Can you imagine this: on a busy express road, he somehow manage to drive backwards? There, three trucks have merged into one huge truck, all clutched to each other. Of course, the usual, car with mechanical issues is left behind in the middle of the road to pick up later, if at all. Important people in high positions behind dark windows are escorted back and front. I watch the show and cannot else than laugh. Meanwhile another spoke snaps, I am hungry and a hill is appearing. I need to eat before I climb this hill. So I stop and am surrounded by about twenty people, some are so very curious and come so close that I ask them to step away, some are asking all kind of things, the usual like ‘do want to marry me?’ and when I decide this is not the place to eat, I ask a man who seems to have an authorized character to move the crowd. With a scream and wild arm movements ‘let her through, let her through’ everyone spreads and I am cycling on. A bit further a man ask me ‘are you a hippie?’ The next shack a woman is overcharging me so I let her finely know she’s bullshiting me. I have to scream, like everyone else, traffic is just loud. I cycle on. I see another shack some distance from the road, I ask some passerby’s if I can eat there. No one understands me and looks at me in surprise before they start asking nonsense questions. I am hungry! I want to eat! To know for sure if they serve food I better walk over, and I am saved: there’s rice. Kind of jolof rice which I like, fried in tomato paste. So I sit down, but not before a guy inspects my bicycle, watch the little chalk bag where a packet of not to recognize toilet paper sticks out, and says: ‘I want that.’ My reply is simple ‘shut up!’ and the funny thing is, that’s how you talk here. Rough and clear.
I sit down, a big bowl of rice on my lap. I am surrounded with guys. Tough guys, I soon find out. They are all under the influence of spirits and it’s only 11.30, the lady serves them shot after shot. Other guys walk in, start making a fight. Soon the guys are standing, shouting, holding a knife, and thankfully gripping each other not to start fighting. The guy next to me has open, flowing wounds on his arm, like a knife once cut into it. Another has bellowing scars on his body. The bowl of rice taste good but the atmosphere doesn’t add too much positivity to it. When I’m finished eating and leave, some of the guys come and watch me, asking for things. He wants to know what I am carrying, he want money, he want want want. ‘I can see you have two hands, you are standing on both your legs so I assume they are able. Why don’t you go work if you want something!’ is my nasty reply, fed by a same nasty surrounding. His reply is most probably honest and makes me realize it isn’t as easy as I think it is: ‘There’s no work for me.’
On my way further I am once again touched by a vehicle, a motorbike who passes me, who’s passed by a car, who in his case is passed by a truck. Too many vehicle’s. Never so often have minibuses come so close to me, it feels like they are trying to shave off some skin of me. It’s dangerous. And my plan to cycle each day a 100 kilometer is on such intense days not possible. It really wears me out. Three days I cycle only 70 to 80 kilometer. Trucks just seem not to notice me when they drive so close next to me, I constantly have to watch my mirror for approaching traffic.
It’s always Weekend in Nigeria!
I have met Friday, the representative of the Nigerian cycle team. Now I meet Sunday, he’s a happy, merry fellow who frolics towards me. And the funny thing is: I know him! Frenchman Yves with whom I text every day a couple of times, send me an email of his adventures in Nigeria and on one of the photo’s was this military check-post man, Sunday. Often I like the check-post people, so I take time out for them, and when Sunday ask me to take my photo I pose for him. I ask about Yves and he remembers him. I always use Yves as my ‘husband’, just to make myself unavailable for anyone who is interested in dating a white woman. Yet, everyone keeps asking for my phone number, my email, my Facebook name, and sometimes my hotel, as if I am not married?! Perhaps they find it very odd that my husband and me are cycling separated through Nigeria, weeks apart, and so they assume I am available, and so I am loaded with scraps of paper where phone numbers, titles and names are written on. Never anyone becomes disturbing though. It’s all jovial, funny and friendly.
One of the first things police men ask me is: ‘Are you married?’ (yes, I lie) followed by: ‘Do you have children?’ No, I speak honestly. Then all expressions turn to sadness and pity, like I am a very, very unlucky woman. ‘Why not?’ they want to know. And my best answer is: ‘That’s to God to decide,’ and I always watch the sky a bit unhappily. Their answer is ceaselessly the same, my hope that their prayers are never being heard too, ‘I pray for your children.’ Uh… thanks, my smile still a bit gloomy.
Another question is often: ‘Where are you going?’ My reply the upcoming big city always draws the same answer: ‘So far?’ followed by: ‘Do you know someone there? Have you been there?’ How do you find your way in this city?’ People in Nigeria are seriously surprised. Many can’t comprehend. Pointing towards the bicycle: ‘With this?’ followed by: ‘Why don’t you take a car? It is too far for you!’
Express Highways for the fast and the furious only!
Their reaction is not so strange, cycling in Nigeria is dangerous. It feels like I am balancing on a cord with on one side death, the other side a soft shoulder. Me falling is not only my concern, would the speeding minibuses crash then the effect will most likely be they will bounce over the road, perhaps towards me. I have to use my mirror constantly and I cannot afford to lose my balance. Cycling like this isn’t exactly fun.
In Enugu I stay a few nights in brothel ‘Precious’. The kind of place where businessmen with ill-fitting suits come to stay the night, and perhaps enjoy the women who are here in abundance. To ease their stress. One of the woman applying make up for quite some time, each day over and over again. I wonder. When we do come close and speak I see she has a full-grown beard. Enugu has a massive shopping mall. New, shiny and very… unafrican. I am amazed. Not only at the new American style, it’s shining but also because one moment I fit in well with bush people, the other I am in a luxurious mall. And still I don’t look out-of-place. Enugu has also a huge downhill, not surprisingly right after the slow, long-lasting uphill. This road is under construction and we all have to switch from left lane to right lane and in the bend of those lanes are men sitting on little carts. I come to conclusion they have no legs anymore and are here all gathered together to collect money from passing cars which slow down right in the bend where they’re sitting. They all wave good-humored to me.
It happens that I sit down for breakfast at filling stations or next to the road, on any chair or bench I can find. Occasionally I feel like I am in the Netherlands, when the sun sits behind the clouds, a truck passes, letters on his canvas ‘Malle Marietje Gordijnenhal’ of ‘Spar Verhuizingen’.
It’s not that I am mad about shopping malls, but I do need a tight-fitting boxer short since I am fed up with the padded cycle shorts. Being a good saleswoman myself I really can’t have mercy with the style girls and young men selling here. It’s ridiculously bad! A young man is trying to help a well off couple (Nigerians from overseas) but as soon as he sees me, he stop helping the couple and attend to me. Another saleswoman tells me: ‘Noooo, it is not too big. It is good for you!’ (only because she has no other sizes nor want to check it) but I know the size of my bottom better than she, if it comes to tight-fitting boxes shorts. A girl who’s cleaning in the toilets press herself almost against me and tells me she loves me. She does this with so much affection, would I be a man and weak, I would surely fall into her trap. They tell me they love my hair. Understandable, it’s blond. People tell me they like my nose. That’s the most unlikely thing to be possible.
Really, it’s not all bliss what Nigeria has to offer
The brothel I stay in at Abakaliki is the worst ever, and with only €6 the cheapest too. There’s no shower so I have to wash myself in the European style toilet full with stinking shit. There’s not too much electricity so it’s hot inside the room. There’s not much clientage either so it’s quiet too. Nice. And there’s food. Good food. Clean and well fed I go to sleep. The following morning I fetch a dry bread and am off. I have reached the turn where I can cycle Southwards, having cycled with a large loop around the sensitive area of the Delta, I can now travel on less busy roads. Less busy means excessive attention for me. It seems to me no one has ever seen a woman on a bicycle and so the route becomes a string of constant attention. From school kids in an endless stream of different style school-costumes to waving and screaming people all along. There are more mud houses with dried grass on top. It’s all more natural but for the noise. It is loud. It is ‘haribo‘ everywhere. In order not to see this as plain discrimination I transformed it to ‘hello’ and so I greet everyone back with ‘white’. I manage to find a spot unseen from the road, I squat down and have my morning toilet, always happy that the jovial Nigerians are, for once, not around. And just when I think about this, there I have scared off a woman attending the fields, she running away from where I am having my laxative moment. Better this than the other way around.
Having begun to cycle before 7 o’clock, already in loud traffic, I start to become really hungry at 8, so stop in a place where I hope they have tea. They haven’t. They do try to cheat me by overcharging on a package of yoghurt drink though. I laugh. They plead me to come back ‘aunti, aunti’. I have a headache. I am hungry. I want tea. The next shop doesn’t serve tea either but I am so hungry by now that I take an unreal tasting apple milky drink to swallow the dry bread with. Meanwhile I am being interviewed and mimicked by the teenage boy who runs back and forth between me and the girls next door, who are undertaking the whole interview. ‘Can you leave me alone for a bit, you act like a child,’ is my request. He does so, being upset, saying ‘I don’t act like a child.’ Once outside all the girls stream to me, asking what I sell.
Many people ask me what I sell. Why else should I be here? They think I am a kind of cycling doctor, selling medicines. When I write down something people ask me what I am writing, and if I am a journalist?
Cattle shepherds still walk next to the road, cows not always knowing the distinction between road and off-road. Cars are annoyed if cows block the road, while their shepherds run in all directions to gather them, never quick enough for the driver. When I pass the shepherds, who look different in appearance, they’re surprised and shy or jovial and smiling broad. Always I see a look of recognition in their expression. Maybe because they’re different too, like the man who came up to me while I was eating eba, ‘I rather live in Nigeria,’ he said. The man had lived in Germany, where he was welcomed in the seventies. After then he was discriminated too much. How must it feel for a Nigerian in Europe? Maybe just as how it can feel for a Pakistani in USA?
I’ll pass yet more check-posts. It is hot but the men are dressed up completely. A few of them wear bullet proof jackets. I knock my fingers against it, and it must be uncomfortable, heavy and boiling hot. ‘Do you have water for me?’ their request is quite understandable, though, as a more experienced cyclist by now, I try not to overload myself with water anymore. So I have to say ‘sorry, but no,’ and I ask if their company doesn’t take care for them with water supply. ‘No, we ask you. Because asking for money is corrupt.’ Other military men wear woolen hats, most are dressed in thick heavy textile, carrying heavy artillery. They earn little. Is it strange they ask for things?
Some military men are charming, kissing my hand. Some are cute, skipping and stumbling along. Utmost cute, these strong, muscled men behaving so childlike.
Eating at the side of the road is often a test in foolishness: trying to fool the white. I am always a show, while I really don’t want to be one. They watch they scene, I watch them. ‘300’, is what the lady ask me for rice and beans. ‘I pay 60, like all of you do,’ is my reply. All the men around me start laughing, giving each other hints of ‘she’s not a fool!’ Next to me another lady becomes mad, someone is not willing to pay his debt. Another lady is pulling money out of someone’s hands, which he owes her. Every one seem to live on credit. People scream and battle. It’s not a very loveable atmosphere throughout Nigeria amongst the locals. A man dressed in greasy clothes repairing motorcycles, someone pointing towards him, ‘see how poor he is, he doesn’t even have a belt to wear in his trouser,’ says his friend. ‘I see,’ a cord is holding both his pants up, ‘but at least he’s wearing two trousers.’ They laugh again. It seems they’re just testing me. The man in greasy clothes, whom I can’t take my eyes off easily -he’s so very handsome- comes up to me, his look says he’s poor but can manage, his words says ‘it’s not easy for us in this country, it’s a bad country.’ Another man brings in his monkey and the scene is complete. Yet more asking, for fuel, food, medicines and of course money. I decide to buy the mango the little monkey stole from the mango lady, and a few extra for the unfortunate, roped animal…
Arriving in Calabar is a surprise. The city is green, clean, well laid out and traffic seem to know what they are doing. Police pointing me the right directions, a passerby telling me not to go to a certain hotel, ‘it’s rough, if you know what I mean’. As soon as I find a decent hotel, I set out for food, a guy accompanies me where to go, replying to a curious other, ‘I show somebody something’ and he pays for my food right before he leaves.
Sometimes captured boat vs dirt road in rainy season?
I get a Cameroonian visa, find out about the different boats to the next country (there are three boats, one is a slow cargo ship, the other takes you somewhere else, and the best, Fakir, speeds in 5 hours to Limbe). All is set and done. I buy two packets of cookies for the boat (eat them all before I am on the boat), I get a bread and a full flask of masala tea.
I am not worried about this mode of transport. I was though, the boat is liable to being attacked by pirates. It happened previous March, as I have done a bit of research. And boats do sink, an evidence is right in front of the docks. ‘Maybe they don’t have the means,’ is the reply of a woman wearing a blond wig, ‘she wants to be like you,’ is her colleagues comment, when I ask why this sunken ship is not being removed. Not such a good promoting for a boat company.
My other option, cycling through the lush, untouched forest in the mountainous region is an option I have longed for, and doubt a long time about it. But as Yves went ahead of me and had to struggle for 60 kilometers in mud, pools of water and of course, climbing steep hills on wet dirt tracks, I decided to go for the boat, also because of my very loose bearing which I don’t know how to tighten. These boats are luxurious, no chance to sit on the deck and let the wind sweep through my hair. These boats are packed with luggage too, hauled in by men trying to screw you yet some more. The entrance is high up but no way I am going to pay ágain. I decide to unload my bicycle and haul everything in myself. The men are laughing, thinking that I, a slim little woman, is not able to do such a thing. If they only knew. Soon a ladder is brought in and my bicycle brought aboard. Voila.
And as soon as I am on it, I feel like I am in a version of Miami Vice! A police speedboat is tagging along, machine guns on carriers are operated and pointing in directions towards unexpected pirates. A lot of praying, interspersed by a loud television showing gospel programs where yet more praying is to be seen. There’s even a pastor on the boat, I meet him a few days later in Limbe, Roland, he’s speaking to us people on the boat through a microphone. Saying that praying is stronger than cancer, I start to wonder how safe this boat actually is?
‘Wait, and you will see for yourself,’ said the woman with blond wig to my question if the boat really takes only 5 hours. It does, even though one motor of the ferry is broken, as Roland tells me later. It’s a little struggle to get to the immigration, and in the end I enter Cameroon without having visited the immigration at all. The Cameroonians want me to enter a bus while my bicycle will be loaded into another bus. They want me to go through immigration but I refuse to have my bicycle separated from me. There’s a fuss for half an hour and then they leave. Just like that. Without me. While I cycle to Limbe I see the bus pass me. Oeps. The man in the bus let me know I have to follow them so I can go through their loving immigration check point. I decide to have dinner first…
Nigeria III: From 5th of May to 24th of May 2013
Meer over Afrika lees je hier: ‘Waarom Afrika?’