Nigeria

I was in Nigeria for nearly two weeks. It’s a direct flight from Amsterdam to Abuja, and the plane stops there for between 1 and 2 hours and then goes onto Kano. I arrived at about 11pm. Immigration and passport control was a bit difficult to understand – lots of people asking to check the passport and visa, and then lots more people asking to check that it had been checked okay. I then went onto baggage claim, and customs. I was asked to lift up my ‘box’ and one man rummaged through my case. He said it was okay to go, so I zipped it up, put it back down and went to leave. The woman next to him tutted loudly and asked me to lift it back up so she could look into it too. I’m not entirely sure why. By this point Susan had arrived and was laughing at them asking why they were giving her “Maigida” a hard time. It seems laughter and smiling usually gets you further here than annoyance.

I was barely in Kano before I left again, to go back to Abuja. After I’d booked my flight Susan had had to arrange meetings in Abuja. So we had an early morning call and back to the airport. Abuja is the capital and one of those slightly strange capitals that isn’t an especially big city, but is the centre of stuff just because it’s the capital. We went straight to the hotel, and just as we arrived at the hotel a bomb went off fairly close by at the police headquarters. The Boko Haram group have claimed responsibility. Reading the previous day’s papers – where the police chief had promised to crush them now that he had some new armoured personnel carriers – gave me a bit of background on the situation. But I also had a call to the hotel from Susan, instructed by her bosses to check I was okay and advised not to leave the hotel in the current situation. Things were fine, but I didn’t go out until that evening for dinner.

We stayed the rest of the time in Abuja with colleagues of Susan’s, and had various dinners, meals and a fun trip out to a large reservoir and to a small pottery factory where we had a great lunch. It was good to get out of the city.

Then back to Kano. It took a long time to get back, partly because the plane went via Sokoto – not exactly a straightline, but a triangular Abuja-Sokoto-Kano route that inevitably gets later and later as the day goes on. It was only then that I really got to see Kano, which is where Susan is living and working. Kano is a big city – the second biggest in Nigeria after Lagos – and stretches for what seems like miles.

Nigerian driving is pretty dangerous. I am full of admiration for anyone who can cope with it. There are no traffic lights at major junctions; roundabouts either don’t have rules or they are completely ignored; there are massive potholes and ditches in the road; and a mix of heavily laden trucks, bicycles, tuk-tuks and lots and lots of motorbikes all together, often on the wrong side of the road, and trying to avoid people, goats and the rubbish. The rubbish is not piled as much as spread – spread out in thin layers so it can be picked through by scavengers, and then burnt. Susan told me it was better now it was the rainy season as the grass grew up and hid some of it. The smell of this and the sewage is pretty strong.

The one walk we took in Kano in the early evening was along some old railway tracks. There was a lot of rubbish there too, and it was also a very public bathroom (open defecation in development speak). One of the major sights along the way was a goat tannery. Unsurprisingly they have problems with rats, and we saw a few. There are more lizards here than anywhere I’ve been. But the other wildlife is nicer – lots of beautiful birds, and lizards and rodents feed the owl, black kite and several hawks we saw. There are also the herds of cattle being moved across the country by nomadic Fulani people, often young boys. It’s interesting to see the mix of old livestyles somehow continuing.

Everyone said if you want things to work, get somewhere quickly, or expect efficiency you will find it very hard. So, I tried to manage. Much of the time I was staying at Susan’s home, working. More on what I did – mainly reading Foucault and writing on that – in another post at some point [update: see here]. But there was almost no internet for the first five days here, and regular powercuts. Simply going to get a loaf of bread could be quite an operation. The supermarket has a seemingly large array of food, but often out-of-date and frequently unbelievably expensive. Much better to eat more as Nigerians do, or at least with stuff that is natural here rather than imported, which is why Susan has been working hard on her garden.

Bribery and corruption are rife. I wish it wasn’t that way, as I don’t want to continue the prejudice, but it just seems to be true. We got stopped by some pretty shady looking police at one point in Kano. No reason, just a spontaneous stop. They wanted the papers. Susan didn’t have them because the last time she was stopped they confiscated them, awaiting the bribe, and didn’t get them back. So they said we should pull over and they would impound the car. Susan has diplomatic plates, so this is not supposed to happen. She got on her phone and called the British High Commission – well, actually a colleague, but this is what she told the policeman. She was arguing with the policeman and the advice she had over the phone was to refuse to stop the engine and instead drive off. Assessing that the officer didn’t have a gun and was a long way from his parked car we did just that. He jumped out of the way to avoid having a toe run over and hit the car pretty hard.  But they didn’t follow us – seemingly thinking it was less effort to try to pull the same deal on the next person they saw drive by.

I did get to meet some very nice and fascinating people, both development workers and local Nigerians. Saturday night was a party for colleagues who were leaving. An interesting mix of people came along. Susan lives on a compound with four houses, and there are several people employed to garden, clean, cook, drive and guard. They were exceptionally kind and – I think – simply curious about me. I found it hard to see how friendly almost everyone was here with the terrible state of the country. I can’t quite explain it, but there is a sense that the ties that keep things together here are pretty fragile. While Susan was with me in Australia there was a lot of violence in Kano in the wake of the presidential election. One of the guards at the compound was killed, as were friends and relatives of other people I met, and a lot of houses were burnt down. Somehow things carried on after it died down, and it seems to have returned to a state of normalcy. But I get a strong sense it could quickly return. There are lots of racial and religious divisions here, many of which I found hard to see until they were pointed out.

Although Susan has been here since October this was my first visit, as we’d previously met up in London or Egypt, plus her trip out to Australia. It won’t be the last.

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