The color of the ground below had shifted little the last couple of hours. It was still a sandy drab making contours hard to distinguish through the fine dust suspended below the aircraft.
Harmattan, the North-Easterly trade wind carried a fraction of Sahara to deposit it across West Africa from November to April. Getting closer to the ground specks of olive green started to contrast against the sandy beige and just before touchdown a large monolith appeared in the haze on the right, the Zuma Rock.The setting African sun turned from bright yellow to a perfectly round orange orb as it bathed the immigration hall in the day’s last rays. Forms, fingerprints, photograph, visa check, stamp. Kadunk! Welcome to Nigeria.
The country’s best highway was lined with half-finished luxury villa developments interspersed with shack villages. The dome of Africa’s largest mega church with seating for 90 000 people stood out of the darkness. The daredevils running across the four lane expressway in the dark could certainly do with a blessing or two. It was a gamble which had killed many who took the shortcut rather than using the sparingly placed overpasses over the years. The gate to Abuja invited in to the second largest city in Nigeria. The capital was founded in the 1970ies as the best compromise due to its central location amongst the multiple ethnic, religious and tribal interests of Africa’s most populous country. It is not a state but a Federal Territory and gained prominence in the late 1980ies and has since grown to become the country’s second largest city with a population of over six million.
A faint call to prayer reminded me where I was the following morning. It was time to explore the local surroundings in the valley below. A quintet of five expats met up to make our way downhill. We passed a walled compound said to be a guest house sometimes used by the president. Further down in stark contrast a tin shed where a woman cooked food in the early morning hour. We and she greeted each other with a “Good Morning”. We had just been introduced to the enormous gap between the have-and-have-nots. I was humbled by her friendliness as we five white people wondered by just outside her front door. Dried crops and banana plantations filled the valley floor as we meandered along a brook, the three birdwatchers gleaning through their binoculars and consulting the West African bird’s handbook. Here and there small mounds of brown evenly grained sand which had been excavated by hand probably to be mixed with cement into concrete. Along the river bed a few shells of buildings now occupied by squatters. At a large sliding gate a man brushing his teeth welcomed us through and we entered the National Arboretum through the back door. The park was well maintained and activities in full swing. A cluster of curious monkeys kept their distance whilst carefully watching the invaders. Looking upward the steep slope a few almost leaf less trees stood out. What first appeared as large dark fruits turned out to be large clusters of fruit bats taking their morning naps after a busy night. As we were leaving the compound a guard approached and said the place was closed and wondered how we had gotten in. As we explained that we were welcomed through the back door he eluded that his boss would be mad if he did not collect an entrance fee, even though the park was closed…. As we carried no cash we apologized and headed for the gate. Another first, the Nigerian art of trying to extract money or as it was also called “show some love”.
The road through the city took us by the national assembly, The National Mosque and the National Cathedral on an elevated flyover without possibility of stopping. A modern city but as it had little history it did not either have a direct center. Instead it was districted in clusters. One such is Wuse which also holds the city’s largest market. It is a mad house on a Saturday morning and may well be all other weekdays as well. The arrival at the market was an introduction to Nigerian energy and crowds. There were numerous “helpers” with purchase suggestions and tips on where to go. We were on the lookout for a stationary store and after sailing through alley after alley, passing rows of generators, sidewalk hair braiding shops (fun fact. It is said that Nigerian woman spend 30% of their income on hair braiding, extensions or wigs. Little did I know, nor understand….) we so managed. As we headed back to the car, I fumbled for my wallet and realized that it was missing from my pocket. I became instantly convinced when it had disappeared and who had taken it. Luckily I was wrong as it had slid out of my pocket and was lying on the car floor. I felt ashamed for so fast jumping to conclusion and giving in to my own pre-conceived notions that I had been robbed. Shame on Me!
Gurara Falls, Niger State.
On Sunday it was time for a pick-nick at a waterfall a few hour’s drive out of the city. Sounds benign, right? Well, in Nigeria there are a few more things to consider. Local driving skills and security are two main aspects. Large, comfortable SUV driven by a trusted local driver, Check. Leave the front seat for a one man SWAT team wearing body armor, Kevlar helmet and an AK-47, Check. With Sunday (the Police officers name) in the passenger seat we headed out of town. We would soon leave the Federal Territory which encompassed the capitol and head into the neighboring Niger State one of thirty-six which makes up the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Just before passing through the checkpoint into Niger state we pulled over to get a quick look at the Zuma Rock which had reared itself in the dense dust at arrival yesterday. Today being closer it became evident that this is one large piece of Rock, raising 725 meters out of the surrounding ground. It’s is massive, black, solid and bore a resemblance to Stone Mountain outside Atlanta, Georgia, USA, sans the carved confederate Generals. After only a few minutes us shorts clad Swedes were ushered back into the car by Sunday who greeted the soldier in the nearby checkpoint. It is said that most Police officers are not afraid of robbers but rather other police officers and military who sometimes earn some extra cash by shaking down travelers at check points.
Soon we passed through villages and lively markets, overtaking oil tankers, being overtaken by lightweight motorcycles at breakneck speeds. A shack in one village claimed to be a hotel and restaurant another, a Sharia court house. A mesmerizing snapshot of a complex, cacophonic and crowded country. At a large unfinished flyover where one ramp was still missing (had the money run out or just landed in someone’s pocket?) we turned and eventually the crowds lessened and soon we were out in the country side and arrived at the gate to the falls park. Even on a Sunday there were just two cars on the parking lot, but plenty of boys and men some with official function, most not. We grabbed our pick-nick basket, swimwear and headed for the overlook. The panorama that unfolded was one of a wide waterfall now in the dry season divided into two smaller falls joining into a large emerald green pool below.
Time to get closer and wet. At the bottom a large sign prohibiting swimming. In the now 35 degree C midday heat the prohibition would be ignored. In-between dips in the refreshing and sweet water. Here and there thin lines with hooks entered the water to try to catch some of the 4 inch long fish swirling around. Trying to swim into the stream was like being in a real eternity pool, swim, swim, swim but no headway. Having seen a local getting into the cascading waters we gave it a try by entering from the side of the falls. Being pounded by the roaring stream was surely a rigorous massage. After half a day of reinvigorating ins-and-outs of this natural wonder it was time to return to the capital.
The name did not necessary infuse comfort but this was not Somalia. Instead it turned out to be a large number of fish restaurants within a market within a larger military compound. At the core a very large round tent with some fifty stalls preparing two kinds of fish. As we entered the circle invites of seating and arguments over orders flew. It was a slow night. Eventually we settled nearby No. 8 Sylvia, No. 9 Sarah and No. 10 Suzan. The two options were Croaker or catfish seasoned in a tomato and spice mix and grilled over open fire.
All seating was in an outer circle with plastic tables and chairs under cover. Fans and generators whirred to keep beer and soft drinks cold. TV screens showed entertainment of all kinds. As we sucked on beers the fish arrived in foil packages with steamed veggies and sides of French fries. A bowl of lemon water to rinse and napkins was added before we dug into the soft perfectly cooked and delicious fish with our bare hands. As we were settling the bill the place went dark and some of the ladies behind the grills scampered around with headlights. It was 09:30 PM and a firm closing time, TV screens went black, fans whirred down and patrons streamed out of the market.
At the Maitama Farmers Market large foot long grey yams, a Nigerian staple, were stacked next to water melons, nuts, bananas and an array of to me unfamiliar eatables. There was more than human chatter as a few adjacent trees had been swarmed by a colony of black masked weavers hard at work building and improving their family dwellings. The intensity and skills of the birds somehow mimicked the intensity and sheer force of life which was the Nigerian experience.