Abuja is not a typical African city. To start with I’m not sure there are any poor people living here. The makeshift market stalls, tin-roofed shacks, bare-footed children and street hawkers so characteristic of urban Africa are noticeably absent here. As are the piles of rubbish and other man-made detritus. It is certainly the cleanest city I’ve visited on the continent and the only one that doesn’t feel overpopulated. The fact that living here is so expensive partly takes care of that.
Any Nigerian living within Abuja is comparatively rich. One only has to observe the kinds of cars being driven along the newly paved roads to get a feel for the city’s wealth, or see the size of the houses. Step into one of the popular western-style supermarkets and take note of the price of foodstuffs: 250g box of Cornflakes (£4), 1 litre tub of ice-cream (£5). This is not Nigerian food, but Nigerians, at least some of the wealthy who reside in Abuja, quite comfortably exchange large sums of money for such items before climbing back into their Mercedes or SUV. For those who can’t afford the western lifestyle, it is something many aspire to.
Nigeria’s capital city is less than 20 years old and is growing rapidly. Maybe it will become like other African cities in another 20 years time. For now it has an incongruously tranquil, affluent and dare I say safe atmosphere about it. If only all African cities were so easy to navigate and enter into. The roads are so wide here that if the city authorities really wanted to they could put in bike lanes. There would be little point of course; no Nigerian is interested in riding a bicycle. They are much better at getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and driving quickly and badly.
I never planned to stay two weeks, and had it not been for the kindness and company of strangers hosting me again I would have grabbed my Cameroon visa (24-hr service available – cost $100 for a 30-day stay) given the School talk I’d pre-arranged to and sped on out.
I cycled into the city looking for the Sheraton hotel. No I wasn’t planning to take a $200+ room for the night, but pitch my tent out the back for free. How this arrangement between the hotel’s management and the small contingent of comparatively impoverished travellers overlanding through Africa came about I have no idea. Someone obviously felt pity for us. Abuja is anything but a budget place to reside.
As it was I never joined the ‘traveller’s camp’ out the back, but spent a week with a British army officer and his wife in a compound complete with swimming pool and squash court. A true oasis of luxury, particularly the Cropwell Bishop Stilton. My host ran a weekly camera club and decided a trans-African cyclist would make for an interesting photo-shoot. Later in the week he lent me a tuxedo for a charity dinner-party. Did I foresee any of this when I was camping in a Nigerian village the night before arriving in Abuja?
There are a number of International Schools in the city, which provide a western education to Nigeria’s elite and the growing number of expatriates who live here. I’m not sure many of these children have experienced much life outside the air-conditioned and high-gated environs of their home and school. As far as I can tell most Nigerians and some expats choose to ignore life as it’s lived by the masses in this country. The inequality in wealth is noticeably greater in Nigeria than the rest of west Africa.
I visited four of these schools, gave a number of talks and was well-received by the teachers and students. To what extent they thought I was crazy I don’t know. People are sometimes too afraid or polite to say. Well I suppose riding a bicycle through Africa is crazy, if only because most Africans don’t know how to drive properly.
Hiromu would agree with me. I rescued him from the Sheraton when he rolled into the city at the end of my first week there. The management had banned him from taking a shower in the squash courts and he looked like he needed a decent feed, as well as a trip to a clothes shop. There I was thinking that my clothes were becoming a little threadbare and old. Hiromu had gone one stage further and taken on the appearance of a tramp. From experience I believe this is in an effort to appear poor in the minds of Africans and well-travelled amongst foreigners. Anyone who can afford to travel overland through Africa with a $1000 camera and laptop can afford to buy a t-shirt for a few dollars. Unfortunately Abuja is not a place where wearing hole-ridden clothes fits in well.
From the John Lewis furnished interior of my British hosts’ house I moved camp and stayed with a missionary couple for the second week. Mike and Meghan had first come from the states to Nigeria ten years ago, where they were dormitory parents to students from a missionary school in the northern city of Jos, my next destination. Now they were back with 3 young children and responsible for running a centre to provide religious guidance and education. The overwhelming hospitality and generosity continued and by the end of the week I was starting to forget what it was like to take a cold bucket shower and eat with my hand. Once Hiromu had received his Cameroon visa and I’d given my final school talk it was back on the road together. The break and company in Abuja had been a welcome one, but I was looking forward to re-immersing myself into the ‘real’ Nigeria.