Lagos and Abuja, two contrasting faces of a nation
Before even thinking of riding into Lagos, Abuja, and the rest of Nigeria, we struggled for the visa. Initially we were reassured that we would get it – “no problem,” had said the nice visa lady at the Nigerian Embassy in Togo. “Sorry-o, we cannot issue the visa for you” she said when we showed up to pick our passports two days later. “The UN headquarters in Abuja was bombed and 20 people were killed in the attack” emailed Rotila. And Louis who was the only one who could have helped us with an invitation from a Nigerian company for the embassy was in bed with malaria. Everything that could go wrong did. And yet, on the 14th of September, on our 93rd day of overloading through Africa, we arrived at the border with a stamp in our passports that had bought us the right to enter the dreaded Nigeria. This is a different country in a new and raw way we haven’t encountered since crossing the No Man’s Land between Morocco and Mauritania.
After lengthy bargains with the Beninese custom officers and socializing with border police who fetched a trustworthy money-changer for us, the rusty barrier was lifted and we were finally in. We knew immediately that this was the second A heat haze was frying the horizon and our nerves. I parked and went to sort out the papers. There were many tall slender AK 47 armed Nigerian officials asking for many un-officials fees. I showed them a pile of papers while explaining why we don’t have a Carnet and hoped for the best.
“Your situation is very difficult”, the tall slender AK 47 armed officer who picked me from the parking said. “You have to post a bond for your bike, that you may collect on your way out”. After an hour and a half of intense negotiations we were friends. A friendship that cost a hefty 30 Euros (laissez passer plus stamps) and a headache. In the meantime Ana was busy chatting the other people off, while under the terrible suspicion that they were in no position to allay.
Inferno of the poor, Paradise of the rich
Road to Lagos
The next 80-sh kilometers were a shock to the senses: after the pauper but healthy street life we got used to in West Africa, suddenly we were navigating a chaos of brand new Q7s and MLs with spinners and custom rims, drivers in white T-shirts and oversized sunglasses with rhinestones. It was like stepping through the magic mirror into an alternate universe, but soon the luxury cars with 3.5 l tanks merged along dilapidated cars and trucks into a suffocating flow of petrol-heads on their way to Lagos. Every other 500m or so people in all sort of uniforms or – more alarming – civilians with guns would throw a wooden plank with hooks in front of the cars, forcing them to pull over. Sometimes we had to stop and chat until they forgot about asking for money. We shook many hands and smiled many smiles and told our story maybe 20 times but we arrived at Mile 2 without paying any Naira. The price for petrol is shockingly low: 65 Naira/l, less than 40 cents. Rumor has it that it is artificially controlled by the government to prevent civil unrest, because there are no refineries in Nigeria and the crude oil is exported to other countries, then later imported back as end product.
Road to Lagos © Nigerian media
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and possibly the most diverse nation in the world, home to a vast array of people speaking an astonishing 840 languages. Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo are the 3 main languages, with english and pidgin widely spoken and understood. Immense natural resources, many untapped, coexist alongside sheer poverty. It is a country of extremes, where the rich are not in any Forbes statistics and where white people are constantly reminded by everyday life that they are no longer in power, but guests at a table where the best bets are up for grabs.
Hardly explored by tourists at ground level, clouded by terrorist Boko Haram and marred by a dihcotomic fight for the black gold of the Niger Delta, Nigeria was before us: a mystery and a challenge. Within the next month we were to meet the fringe Nigeria, surely unable to comprehend its vastness, not to get nowhere near the heart of it.
© Nigerian media
Life for ordinary Nigerians is tough, so they have to be strong enough to survive it. Here if you don’t wake up and go out there and work hard, you die. If you stop in the middle of the highway, you die. If you are afraid to ask what you need, you die. It’s that simple. Especially in Lagos. To come all the way to Nigeria and miss the fastest growing city on the African continent would be crazy. By 2020, Lagos is estimated to become the third largest city in the world, with 24 million people, and these are the official numbers. The many that get by in the slums of the mega-city remain unaccounted for.
Lagos – Victoria Island ©Nigerian media
Our host, Louis, took Ana on an introductory speed boat ride through the port, while I plunged into an introductory ride through the rush hour traffic of a megacity of 14 million. It was exhilarating, and insane. Kamikaze motorcyclists were shuttling clients through every inch available. They are the okadas and their life is expandable. 4x4s, limos, minibuses, trucks and cars hurtle through the okadas at computer game speed. Red light, roundabout, lanes, sidewalk, traffic police are utterly useless bits. The point is to move forward by all means as fast as possible. 90 minutes later I knew hell had set up serious business in the streets of Lagos. And yet, I was digging it.
During the following 5 days we tried to look into the eye of this monster city. We fell under the spell of this unique, vibrant, mad, excruciating place of a million faces, born out of explosive population growth, a place that feeds on money and power. In their book “Last Chance to See”, Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine wite: “in different parts of the world strikingly similar but completely unrelated forms of life would emerge in response to similar conditions and habitats.” They talk about behavior patterns and about the gift shop “habitats of Spain or Greece” where “the local people cheerfully offer themselves up for insult and abuse in return for money which they spend on further despoiling their habitat to attract more money-bearing predators.” Cities are immense organisms where, likewise, local inhabitants develop special skills to better adapt to the concrete and steel habitat. Dubbed the New York of Africa, Lagos has surely its Nigerian versions of the many life forms that populate every speck of one of the world’s most intricate cities.
In this complex and paradoxical context, we visited Marine’s workplace, the Louis Pasteur French school, where we we become subject of study for a bunch of reasonably rich and quite smart kids. We had fun asking questions like: “How did you cross the sea?”, “How can you have Naira when in Europe you have the Euro”, or “How do you repair the moto”, “What do you eat”, “How do you wash” or “Why didn’t you take the plane?”. We had a brilliant time, followed by another mad downtown crossing with Ana trailing our bike with an okada.
These kids were screaming of joy when they heard the price tag for my bike. One said he’s got the money to buy it and that he’s going home to demand his dad to get him a bike asap.
Afrobeat & Suya
If Lagos can be hell by day, by night we entered the realm of sublime at The New Africa Shrine, the Mecca of an unique music style that originated in Africa in the 1970s. Afrobeat is a polyrythmic fusion of Yoruba music, jazz, highlife, funk and chanted vocals, created by the genius Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Kuti. A spiritual leader, a hero to millions and a musical pioneer, Fela used Afrobeat in his own political guerrilla that revolutionized the political scene of Nigeria. His music was confrontational and spoke about an imperative and profound social change that was needed in the post-colonial Africa of the 1960s, where people were struggling with military coups and social discrimination. With psychedelic neon lights, an actual shrine bearing personal belongings and intimate photos of Fela, the place is a sound capsule which evokes the original legendary nightclub where the larger than life artist performed with the same incredible energy with which he enjoyed drugs and women. We saw the live performance of Femi Kuti, a “cleaner-cut version of his father”, but a true artist, a soft spoken man who exploded into powerful harmonies and rhythms, combining and improvising with different elements. The show was completed by the jaw-dropping dancing of Femi leading a group of 5 women dressed in traditionally inspired attire. Beside hosting the weekly concerts of Femi and Seun, The Srine also provides a venue for new Nigerian talent and a space for intellectual debate.
The Shrine. Photo credits: www.afrobeatmusic.net
Chop Time with our Nigerian Nephew and Niece
Street food in Lagos is not easy to come by, so we wondered if we’ll get a chance to sample more local cuisine, other than sue, a delicious Nigerian version of grilled beef, thinly cut and served with red onion and lots of ground pepper. But we also promised to visit Karen, a one of a kind woman and friend we met in Togo a few weeks back. Happy to see her and the family again, we were thrilled to enjoy the best Nigerian food we were to have during our whole stay in the country.
Egusi – a thick soup made from grounded melon seeds and bitter leaves, with goat meat and 2 starches: eba (the yellow paste made from cassava) and semo (semolina paste)
Test ride: Max (2) likes the Tenere
It was a biker’s day. Max had to try on my Tenere and was fearless at 2. I tried his dad’s K1.
Ana and Karen
Me, Karen and the kids: Macszi and Aneesha, our awesome Nigerian nephew and niece. We love them so much!
Ana sharing a smooch with our extended Nigerian family
Riding Across Nigeria
And then it was the day to leave Lagos. We had fallen for this manic but vibrant, but we had to go. Our itinerary: cross western Nigeria to Abuja to do some visa shopping. We left on a downpour and crossed Ilorin and Ibadan, the city that was recently severely affected by floods and where about 200 people died because of collapsing buildings. By evening we were stopping in Offa, thanks to Karen who had arranged our overnight stay (cheers Karen!).
The 70s decor where we stayed for one night.
Waiting for the tropical rain to stop so we can take off to Abuja.
We were saddened by the poverty that is so evident in rural western Nigeria. People are struggling to come to terms with a fast developing economy. Focus has shifted from agriculture and manufacture to the oil industry, and not to everyone’s profit. Food is scarce and lots of stuff is now imported and quite expensive. The road to Abuja through the Niger state was exhausting. Bad tar with potholes from side to side and a massive traffic: trucks, lorries, buses, minibuses moving about at mind boggling speed. 550 km, 10 hours of riding, 3 brief stops for omelet with tea and a visit into the bush.
Crossing the Niger river once again
Finding a Nigerian Home in Abuja
By sunset we arrived in Abuja less than 3 weeks after a bomb exploded at the UN HQ. The terrorist group Boko Haram had already claimed responsibility for the attack in which reportedly 20 people were killed. Compared to Lagos, Abuja feels quiet and peaceful, but there is a lot of security in the streets, also because all diplomatic missions, NGOs and big oil companies are based in the very young capital of Nigeria. The city was founded in the early 80s. It has an impressive infrastructure due to Julius Berger Nigeria PLC – the same company that built the longest bridge in Africa, the 11.8km long Third Mainland Bridge, which connects Lagos Island to the mainland.
The church and the mosque are towering symbols of the Muslim and Christian nation.
In Abuja we met the Romanian community and the Embassy staff. Mr. Mircea Leucea kindly wrote letters to the various embassies we had to visit to support our visa applications. A week later we had Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Namibia stamps in our passports. During our visa runs we met Julien and Frank, two bikers overloading round the world on a brand new Super Tenere and on a BMW
We stayed for 2 weeks at Mircea Rusu’s, Rotila’s dad, a fabulous host who can cook a tasty salad soup. We cannot thank enough for the pampering and tips for things to see and taste in Abuja. Rotila and his dad proved to be our guardian angels, helping us a lot.
Ragu of beet with rice at Mircea’s © Mircea Rusu
There are many continental, chinese and french restaurants in the biggest cities in Nigeria, as Nigerians enjoy to travel. Prawns and Sole fish are exported from here to Europe, also prime quality red snapper, crocker, red mullets, as well as lobsters, crabs, gambas are available. The best grilled fish in the whole of West Africa is in Mammy Market of Moghadishu Barracks, Abuja. In the middle of the circular market choose your crocker from the many mamas, then savor it slowly cooked to perfection, with pepper, onion and tomatoe dip, lime and potato wedges. Absolutely to die for. Unfortunately at least 10 people died here in January 2011, when a Boko Haram bomb exploded.
The Nigerian cuisine includes a lot of red pepper, fiery hot. Some of the specialities are the pepper soup (usually with fish); eba, fufu (pounded yam), gari (cassava) with vegetable, fish or goat meat stews. The food is cooked in palm oil with indigenous spices and herbs. Our favorite was suya, the Nigerian version of brochettes: beef, liver, gizzards with lots of pepper, always a night deal.
Grilled pork with cabbage and red onion
Fufu with beef in tomato pepper sauce and egusi
Dried peppery Idemol caterpillar – a protein rich snack usually enjoyed with beer. Has a mild fish flavor.
Picnic with friends at the spectacular Gurara waterfall, 90 km outside Abuja. Carrot and sesame salad, chickpea salad with feta and fresh basil, aubergine salad (a summer staple in Romania!), zucchini soufflé, chicken and flap jack with passion fruits for pudding.
On the 1st of October, the national day of Nigeria, we stayed inside and watched on TV the festivities. Because Boko Haram threatened to repeat the terrorist attacks from last year, the ceremony took place inside the presidential villa and the whole city was deserted.