I arrived at the border to Nigeria, wondering just exactly what would be in store for me. I cautiously changed my remaining CFA into naira, the Nigerian currency, expecting to be fleeced on the exchange rate or conned with forgery’s. On the contrary, the rate was good and I have since spent all the naira so I can only presume they were real. It’s not my problem now if they were fake.
I cycled on down to the border but couldn’t see where to get my Benin exit stamp. A young money changer hopped on his motorbike and led me to the police control. Exit stamp – done. He then led me down a narrow dirt track, seemingly in the opposite direction to where I wanted to go. I was suspicious. Why was this guy helping me? The track went on, past village huts and people staring curiously at me or waving. ‘Just a little further,’ he kept saying. And each time he said it, I grew just a little more suspicious. Where exactly was he taking me? But then, after perhaps the tenth little further, I spied a large building. A multi-storey concrete building, when all others are single-storey thatch huts, looking out-of-place in an out-of-the-way place can only be a government building. Sure enough, Nigerian immigration. It appeared derelict and empty from the outside. On the inside, an empty shell, but with a desk in the middle of the entrance and along one corridor, a room with mattress and clothes. Signs of life. I called out. Eventually one tall, slim young man appeared, followed by stouter, rounder middle-aged chap, large belly on show as he struggled to squeeze his beige shirt over his head and shoulders without undoing the buttons first. He was the man in charge. Immigration form completed. Entry stamp – done.
Well that wasn’t so bad I thought. And as I cycled down the smooth tarmac road into Nigeria, everyone I passed waved or said hello or welcome or good afternoon. Some in English, some in French. And the sun shone. The sky was a clear blue. And it seemed like everything was right with the world. I smiled back.
As I started down the hill, the pace quickened. Faster and faster. The wind was cooling and refreshing. And then I saw a roadblock up ahead. What to do? Have to decide quick. When I was back in the UK I met up with Dan Martin, who has cycled this region before. I had asked him what he did at roadblocks. He said he cycled on through them, didn’t stop. That, I decided, was probably a good idea. Dan is a big guy at 6ft5. I’m a smaller girl at 5ft4. Minor details. As I rapidly approached the roadblock, I could see the nail board stretching across the road. Large nails protruding vertically upwards from a wooden plank. There was a gap between the board and the verge. Under the shelter a number of plain-clothed men sat. I saw no uniforms. I saw no guns. I saw no motorbikes. And as I flew past at about 50kmh, I put my head down and ignored the shouts to stop.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, I began pedalling furiously in an attempt to use the momentum and get me as far up the other side as possible before having to changed down into granny-gear. Less than half-way up the other side and two cars overtake me and pull over, arms waving out the window indicating that I should too. They are the men from the roadblock. Angry men. Shouting at me. Why didn’t I stop? Why did I ignore them? They are security. Here for my safety. Do I behave like this in my home country? More shouting. I see the mouth moving and I hear noise. But all I am thinking is, how the hell did I not see the cars?! And how much money are they going to extort from me? I tune back in to the noise. I lie and say I didn’t know I was supposed to stop. He doesn’t hear me. I start shouting back at him. He wants my passport. I give it to him. He shouts I must go back to the roadblock. I don’t want to cycle back up the hill. But I can see no way out. I demand my passport back and in return promise to go back with them. He agrees. Passport in hand I consider an escape. But with the only way up, me on a bike, them with cars – it’s just not going to work. Reluctantly I turn the bike around and slowly backtrack. One car ahead of me, one car crawling behind. I deliberately cycle slowly. I don’t think it’s possible to piss them off more.
Back at the roadblock, the angry man gradually calms down as he meticulously records my details onto a notepad. Not exactly official paper – the pale pink headed paper advertises a hotel. I calm down too and suggest we start over again. He ignores me. Instead I am told to take my passport to the men sat in the shelter. The immigration official, the big guy in the pink t-shirt clearly comfortable with his masculinity or not at all fashion away, needs to see my yellow fever vaccination card. As he scrutinises it, I am told that I am vaccinated, that the vaccination has not expired, that the signature is in the correct place and the stamp is there too. He can find nothing wrong with it. I already know all this, but try to look enlightened and am glad there is no excuse for a bribe. Next the transport official wants to speak to me. What is the registration of my vehicle? I point out that I am on a bicycle. Yes, but what is the registration number, he insists. I say the make is Thorn. No, he needs a number. Is this going to be the excuse for a bribe? I debate making up a number but decide against it. Instead I say, ‘Can you not see, it’s a bicycle. It is black and has two wheels. Will the number two do?’ All the other men laugh. The transport officer is silent and embarrassed. He says nothing else. I am now free to go, with a caution that in the future I should stop at roadblocks. The officers are there for my safety afterall. But now the official duties are over they all want to know where I am going and what I am doing and are jovial, light-hearted and humorous. Eventually I get away. All I had handed over was my email address.
There are several more checkpoints before I reach Imeko, where I stop for the night. Ten in total. I have my details recorded at three of them, at four others I am stopped because someone is intrigued by a white girl on a bike and has lots of unofficial questions and at three others I am waved on through. Everyone is friendly and they are a good excuse for a rest and break from the sun.
I check into a hotel. It is clean and cool and there is a tv and an ensuite bathroom. I’ve barely had chance for a shower when there is a knock on the door. They have all been talking about the girl cycling through Nigeria and someone wants to offer me a lift to Abeokuta in the morning. I head to the bar and explain I want to cycle. As a compromise, JJ buys me a beer. A group of us sit around chatting, watching tv and I turn down many more offers of a beer. I am sunburnt. I am tired. I also plan to cycle tomorrow. More beer just isn’t a good idea.
The tv is tuned into a standard Yoruba soap. Bad acting. Melodramatics. At a scene where the husband is being stripped of his shirt by loan sharks. Precious, a pharmacology student, says to me, ‘That’s Nigeria for you.’ But I couldn’t tell if she was referring to people having no money, people ready to steal the shirt off a man’s back, corruption and bad debt or simply that Nigerian men shout a lot when angry. I had already seen angry Nigerian men shouting.
Behind the friendly, welcoming faces of the Nigerian’s I met that day, those who know how to enjoy life and be happy, I felt a sense of discontent with the country simmering below the surface.
In any case, I have got Nigeria wrong. I am going to like it here. I can tell.