• Deportation: Mwanza-Muscat Part 6 September 17th, 2015

    Things were going OK until my passport disappeared. Snatched out of my hand by a drunkard wearing a white singlet and combat trousers. I’d only been in the country thirty minutes. Welcome to South Sudan I thought to myself.

    He first approached me moments after I’d crossed the border and gone in search of an immigration official. The newly built office block nearby, with a sign outside reading ‘Immigration Office Tsertenya’, was clearly closed and the flag poles bare. A good enough sign that few people came through this little-used post.

    South Sudan immigration

    I asked a group of men playing dominoes under the shade of an acacia tree where I could find the immigration officer.

    ‘Go and ask for Jacob up there’, pointed a disinterested police officer in the direction of several tin-shacks.

    In doing so I had chosen to brush aside this drunken fool, who in a slurred drawl pumped his fist on a bulging scar in the centre of his muscular torso and claimed to be working for the CID. Criminal Investigation Department perhaps?

    The immigration officer was fortunately sober, but confessed, somewhat embarrassingly while he stamped me into the country, that this fool was indeed a government employee. Without asking much more I got the feeling that if there was any hierarchy of authority out here, unfortunately he was quite senior.

    I was just about to leave, after having filled my water bottles up, when he re-appeared on the track in front of me and demanded to see my passport.

    It would have been wiser to hold onto it firmly for inspection. I recall doing this in certain places in Africa where law and order have little meaning and the person requesting to see my passport probably had little authority to do so, and was most likely, as on this occasion, drunk.

    Well my passport wasn’t even opened before it disappeared in a side pocket and the fool stumbled off out of view. Great.

    As I stood calmly waiting and wondering what to do, it also occurred to me that it would have been wiser to cross the border in the morning – less chance of dealing with a drunken border official. Actually, it would have been wiser not to enter South Sudan at all.

    In the days and weeks leading up to entering the World’s newest country I mostly avoided telling people my plan to cycle there. The day before entering the country there had in fact been another signed agreement for a ceasefire to come into play between government troops and rebel forces loyal to the country’s Vice President. Whether that was going to make much difference to the general atmosphere in a country wracked by years of Civil War I had no idea. What I did know is most of the recent conflict was taking place in regions I would be well away from. Some solace as I looked out into a scenic expanse of green bush in the late afternoon sun.

    I patiently let time pass as various people became involved in either trying to retrieve my passport, or attempting to explain, mostly in a drunken manner, that they worked for another government department and that now I must follow them.

    The passport during this 40-minute time frame moved through various hands. There was plenty of discussion, but eventually it came back to me from the immigration officer, who in leaning towards me while handing it over uttered two clear words. ‘Go now’.

    An abandoned tank appeared in the bush moments later as I rode between high elephant grass towards green mountains. Something in Arabic was written on the front and I wondered when in the past this had last been in use.

    Abandoned tank

    Heading to Ikotos in South Sudan

    There were no villages visible. When I pitched the tent a short distance from the track I assumed it would just be the familiar sound of insects to fall asleep to in the sultry air.

    Wild camping. First night in South Sudan.

    I was wrong. Drumming, singing, voices and several gunshots were audible as I lay still trying to guess how far away this village was. Actually there must have been more than one village or compound of huts as the sounds came from different directions.

    It wasn’t the only night I heard singing and drumming while lying in my tent during the short time I spent in South Sudan. As for the sound of gunshots – well I soon realised that the possession of a gun here was more common than that of a mobile phone. There probably aren’t many countries in the World that can claim that.

    Toposa gun man

    Guns were everywhere – nonchalantly slung over male shoulders from a young age. It was hard not to think how quickly a calm rural setting could change in an instant should one of these guns be in the possession of an angry youth one day, who just so happened to see a foreigner on a loaded bicycle approaching.

    The reality was most people on the roadside looked on with bemusement as I rolled past with a hand in the air to greet them. When I did stop it was clear few people spoke any English, so I just pointed in front of me and named the next known settlement on my map.

    People frequently asked for water, and when I had plenty spare I offered what was left in a bottle. On other occasions when I was running low I did my best to point and explain I had little left.

    Girls on the road to Kapoeta

    South Sudan girls

    With the history of conflict it’s little wonder I saw no large animals as I rode through what my map demarcated as Kidepo Game Reserve. Surely nothing edible and valuable, such as elephants, could survive out here.

    Much to my surprise the dirt track here had been recently regraded, although only one vehicle came past me as I headed towards Chukudum. The sky was a deep blue, and despite the many dry river-beds I crossed I guessed rain wasn’t all that uncommon in this part of the country.

    South Sudan landscape

    Road to Chukudum

    Track to Chukudum

    Kidepo River

    ‘Please bear with the situation’ said the local driver cheerfully as he slowed to greet me in a landcruiser with a ‘Norwegian Peoples Aid’ sticker on the side.

    In Chukudum I managed to obtain a local sim card. The mobile tower pointing out of the greenery beside a single street of tin and wooden shacks was the only significant indication of the modern world I had seen since entering the country.

    Sunset in Chukudum

    I enquired about accommodation and got pointed towards a Catholic mission, which in structure and setting turned out to be one of the most impressive I have seen in Africa.

    Mission in Chukudum

    ‘Built in 1947 by the Italians’, I think the Pastor had said. He gave me a brief rundown of the history and life in Chukudum, before I pitched my tent in the shade of some mango trees. I was too tired to remember much beyond him saying that most gunshots I might hear at night were just boys showing off or possibly hunting an animal. It was somehow reassuring.

    The mountainous surroundings continued on my third day in the country as I rode towards the town of Kapoeta.

    Road to Kapoeta

    ‘Be a little careful going through Camp 15’, cautioned the Pastor. ‘The Didinka and Toposa are sometimes raiding each others cattle’. This, for the most part, seemed to be the biggest security problem I had been hearing about. One tribe stealing livestock from another. Camp 15, which wasn’t on my map, but sounded rather ominous, turned out to be as peaceful as the rest of the countryside.

    East from Camp 15 to Kapoeta

    In Kapoeta I pitched my tent in the cool shade of a large campsite called ‘Mango Camp’. If ever there were an oasis of calm in a war-torn country this would be it. Campsite would actually be the wrong description, even if there were a number of large permanent tents in the compound. Aside from a few missionary and NGO groups passing through, I very much doubt anyone else came to stay here.

    Mango camp: Kapoeta

    The owner, who had in fact assisted me with providing an invitation letter to secure a visa for South Sudan, was out of the country. The main business here wasn’t providing accommodation, but running a borehole drilling company. There were also a number of containers belonging to a gold mining company on the compound. It would have been useful to meet him, not only to ask about where I could find boreholes on my route ahead, but information about the condition of the road and the general security. This task fell to the responsibility of a few individuals working for an NGO called the Carter Centre.

    Back in Tanzania, when I hatched the idea of crossing through South Sudan, a former employee of the Carter Centre, working on Guinea Worm eradication in and around Kapoeta, had given me the idea that it would be possible to cross the border from South Sudan to Ethiopia. Until I saw a detailed road map of East Equatorial Province from one of the locally employed Carter Centre staff, I didn’t think it would be possible, but sure enough there were tracks, and more importantly boreholes from which to access water.

    The distance into Ethiopia from Kapoeta would be about 350km, so I calculated around 4-5 days of travel, for which I would need to provision myself with food. There would be nothing to buy en-route and crossing into Ethiopia would involve walking up to a rocky plateau and then into a tribally sensitive no-mans land. It all sounded like pure adventure. My mind was made up.

    I rested in Kapoeta for several more days, which as a settlement turned out to be a sprawling dump of tin-shacks where the smell of human excrement filled the air. The place had no toilets! Kenyans mostly ran small shops and other businesses frequented by the local Toposa tribe, some of whom lived in the town. Others had probably walked in from the bush. With little or no public transport in South Sudan I realised that people here were used to walking for an entire day or more to reach somewhere.

    Central Kapoeta

    My stay just so happened to coincide with some annual Carter Centre meeting. White faces, all American I think, flew in on small charter planes to the nearby airstrip. I only spoke with a few, one of whom happened to be living very close to Ethiopia on the route I had planned out. He clearly thought it was a mad idea for various reasons (security, roads, remoteness) and shrugged my idea off with little encouragement. We didn’t talk much after that.

    On the way out of Kapoeta an immigration official caught up with me on the back of a motorbike. I needed to register my passport and details of where I was headed. I did so in a nearby tin shack. All seemed fine and I cracked on.

    Road from Kapoeta to Kenya border

    Toposa girl

    That night I slept beside a Primary School in a small village with a borehole. It was a familiar African scene – schoolteacher and a small collection of other locals watching on as I erected the tent, emitting gasps of surprise and wonder as the sleeping mat was unrolled and inflated.

    Primary School camp

    The track which I’d now turned onto had also been recently up-graded. No vehicles, just a few toposa, walking I knew not where. Other than cow, goat meat and milk I couldn’t work out what people lived on out here. There appeared to be no cultivation of crops.

    Toposa girl

    Toposa girl

    Toposa Shepherd boys

    It was certainly a remote road, as well as scenic. In stretches where dry black cotton mud covered the road, I was thankful the skies stayed clear. Several hours of heavy rain would have been a nightmare out here. When I pushed the bike off the track to reach a borehole I ended up jamming the wheels with thick mud. It took the best part of an hour to get moving again properly.

    On the road north to Boma

    Flowering baobab tree

    Baobab flower

    I camped between thorny acacia bushes the next night and spent half the time while eating a bowl of spaghetti stamping on scorpions. They were obviously attracted to the light from my head-torch.

    I had only been on the road the next morning for 10 minutes when a Toyota Hilux pickup came driving towards me. Two armed police jumped out of the back and a passenger in military fatigues stepped out of the vehicle.

    ‘Where is your document to be travelling on this road’? he asked as I handed over my passport. The visa was expiring in 3 days time, but I calculated I would be out of South Sudan by then.

    There then followed a serious of questions about my mission, where I had slept the previous night and where I was going. I soon learnt that this vehicle, in convoy with another, had driven out the day before under the orders of the Police Commissioner from the town of Narus, some 150km away. I hadn’t passed through this town, where apparently I needed permission from the Commissioner to be where I was.

    It all sounded like rubbish, but I was in no position to argue or defend myself. Moments later, with bike lying flat in the back of the pick-up and me over a wheel arch, I was being driven back in the direction I had just come.

    That journey was one of the most frightening and painful I have ever taken in my life. Moving at speeds of 100km/hr and more on a dirt track while I bounced around in the back had me fearing for my life. The only time we stopped was to pick up two random walkers who jumped in the back with a goat. About 80km further on they were dropped off. Thanks to me I just saved them a 2 day walk.

    Picked up by the Police

    ‘There are many wild animals out there like elephants, lions, rhinos and tigers’, said an older military-clad official who looked through the pages of my passport while my bags were thoroughly searched back in Narus. The journey back here, had taken less than two hours.

    Wild animals sounded as much like bullshit as ‘special permission’ to be where I was. It wasn’t a closed area. There was no rebel fighting. I had a visa.

    Apparently someone in one of the villages had reported seeing a foreigner on a bicycle with bags and the Commisioner, who I never met, decided to deploy two armed vehicles to drive out into the bush to get me.

    ‘You know people out there are backward. They might harm you’, said the immigration official an hour later. Not only had I been driven back to Narus, but I was now at the border with Kenya, 20km away from Narus, and effectively being deported from the country. I couldn’t believe this.

    Well at least I remained unscathed following the journey in the pick-up. And contrary to what I feared when I first arrived back in Narus, no one had made any mention of a fine for having police deployed to drive out and pick me up. Things could have been a lot worse, although I still couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. I was basically just a random anomaly, attached to no organisation, and the authorities wanted me out of their head-space. Had I gone to the Police Commissioner in the first place to request permission to cycle this road and cross into Ethiopia I rather suspect it would not have been a simple case of agreement.

    Whatever, I would now have to detour 350km through Turkana county in Kenya to reach Ethiopia, another challenge in itself.

    You can view the map route for section of the journey by scrolling to the bottom here.

  • Hold ups: Entering DRC March 8th, 2011

    “A major disadvantage of taking this route is that you must pass through awful customs officials who demand stiff matabribes (bribes) and often delay travellers for hours on end.” (Geoff Crowther: Lonely Planet, Central Africa 1991)

    The information might have been twenty years old, but it was still accurate. In hindsight I’m not sure which was more of a hassle: leaving the Central African Republic, entering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), or leaving the first town in the DRC? We were, as I feared, delayed for hours.

    Our problems, like many in Africa, could have been resolved with money. A middle-aged woman with a terrible wig, and her younger hot-headed male accomplice expected $7 each for the privilege of having our passports stamped at the immigration shack in Bangui. As normal I politely refused. Time passed. They then telephoned their superior. He arrived, seized our passports, more time passed and he disappeared. We continued to wait. I tried to remain calm by watching the tranquil surface of the Ubangui river behind me, but without my passport worry crept in. Where had it been taken? I called one of the many young men eagerly waiting to ferry us across the Ubangui river to DRC to fetch me a beer. “You drink a beer now?” Hiromu exclaimed. “I’m stressed” I replied.

    Well the beer changed the atmosphere. The woman with the wig and her accomplice naturally expected me to buy them one too. Show and return my passport to me and you’ll get your beer I reluctantly replied. It seemed a fair trade-off. Hiromu decided to donate a stainless steel thermos flask; “Pas Chinois” he stressed. It was one of many gifts that was bestowed on him by his Japanese contacts in Bangui.

    Two hours later we were off – loading the bikes into a motorised pirogue and crossing the river. With so many eager oarsmen and so few people crossing the river here bargaining for a cheap fare was in our favour. But then came round 2.

    What made the officer in charge at the immigration post in Zongo so angry I’m not sure. We sat silent as he delivered a 20-minute long soliloquy on DRC and the formalities of entering and travelling through the country. At first I couldn’t take him seriously. His face looked like it had been treated with some kind of whitening cream, which made his cheeks shine with a chestnut gloss. Was this man real or a wax-work? His waistline matched his level of importance, but I sensed even before he refused to shake my hand that we were in for a long round.

    We were to pay $50 each to enter DRC on the basis that if he were to visit Europe he would have to do the same. I politely pointed out that this was not true. ‘Was I challenging his word?’ he retorted. “Have you visited England?” I asked.

    The sparring continued for sometime, but in French I do a better job of looking dumb and innocent than providing a coherent and comprehensible challenge to the authority of Francophone bureaucracy.

    “You are corrupt” I told him. “Your country has a bad reputation because of people like you. You are the first person people meet when they enter DRC and look what impression you are creating”. I continued using this thread with French dictionary in hand. He disappeared and time passed.

    It was now almost sunset and our passports were back in the hands of the chap who’d previously spent 20 minutes examining each one. The DRC is the 19th country I’ve visited with this passport. For Hiromu it is 30-something. We have a lot of stamps and visas and he studied each one like it were a complex equation that needed solving before turning the page. Well now he was reaching for the ink-pad and providing the entry stamps that we needed. This wasn’t the script as I foresaw it. Weren’t we meant to plead and offer a lower sum? The shiny-faced shit had obviously exhausted his efforts and disappeared. Had this all been a game to scare us?

    I too was exhausted and I’d only cycled 6km since leaving the Guest House in Bangui 7 hours previously. But we weren’t quite in the clear. Someone who’d been lingering around the immigration shack like a hungry puppy now pursued us and said he was from the Zongo Tourist Bureau. He pointed at a non-descript concrete block. I laughed. A tourist office in Zongo, DRC? With what remaining ounce of politeness I had left I kindly said we’d finished for the day and ignored him.

    We spent the night at the Catholic Mission in Zongo. It was an oasis of tranquility to pitch the tents on lush grass in an orchard of mango and avocado trees. The white-bearded Italian priest said he’d been in Zongo 15 years and in the country 46. Nothing was said about the problems we’d encountered at the immigration office a few kilometres away. I’m sure he knew, or rather didn’t want to involve himself in any dealings with two foreigners who’d arrived unannounced. I was grateful he’d given us permission to camp with the mission compound.

    The problems continued the next day. FBI would you believe? They found us drinking coke in the market. We’d previously just taken breakfast there (rice and beans) and quickly discovered from all the name-calling that both Jet Li and The Transporter are equally as famous in DRC as they are in CAR. Word had obviously spread quickly that there were two foreigners in town.

    Naturally we had no reason to believe these plain-clothed chaps without ID were anything close to who they said they were. So we pedalled off. Five minutes later they caught us up on motorbikes. We stopped, showed photocopies of our passports and asked to see their ID whilst a large crowd of locals gathered. They produced no ID, so off we pedalled again. They followed, motored ahead to what was clearly a check-post at the end of the town and returned. It was quite obvious we would not be leaving this town. Finally someone arrived with a badge. It wasn’t much more convincing, but there was confirmation that registration at their office was ‘gratuit’, so we reluctantly turned back to the town escorted by several motorbikes.

    The Director of this so-called FBI office spoke English. He wanted to know my mission. I showed him my magic letter, plus my ‘Ordre De Mission’, which puts me as ‘chef’ of ‘The Big Africa Cycle’, explains in brief about the Against Malaria Foundation, and gives me authority to travel throughout all provinces of DRC. It would seem this Ordre de Mission, that I wrote myself, is a vital piece of armour for lessening the problems one encounters when travelling through the DRC. To say one is a tourist is not sufficient. “And where is your Ordre De Mission?” the Director asked Hiromu. “He’s my assistant” I explained, as Hiromu tried to provide a convincing explanation to why he was in the DRC.

    Forms were filled out with our passport details and thumb-prints. This was indeed official, I think, and I felt a little foolish for not knowing so in the first place. There was no call for a bribe. “Tell your men to carry ID next time” I told the Director. It would have saved us all several hours.

    Finally we pedalled out of Zongo under the midday sun. Had there been jungle there might have been shade. Instead an open rolling expanse of green hills and waist-high elephant grass provided my first scenes of the DRC – Africa’s third largest country, or to put things in perspective, a country 77 times larger than its former colonial ruler – Belgium.

    The red laterite track was easy going at first, and we shared it with many other cyclists. Let me introduce you to the Congo bicycle. It is to this country what trucks are to most others. People transport enormous loads on these reinforced Chinese antiques and cover huge distances. Motorbikes are rare and 4-wheel motorised transport even rarer. Bicycles represent the economic lifeline of commerce in rural DRC, which is as good an example as one needs to illustrate the state of infrastructure here. The loads transported on these single-speeds make my 25-30kg of luggage look like I’m going out for a day cycle. For example, two 50kg bags of maize will commonly be purchased in the town of Gemena for 20,000 Congolese Francs ($22), loaded onto the back of a bicycle and pushed/pedalled/freewheeled (depending on the topography – fortunately mostly flat) some 240km to the town of Zongo, where it will be sold for around 25,000 Congolese Francs ($27). This is a round trip journey of 4-5 days for a back-breaking profit of $5. Other common items being transported along these jungle tracks include palm oil, petrol, groundnuts, and seasonal fruits (lots of avocados at the moment).

    Congo cyclist

    And so really the bicycle is the perfect form of transport for an outsider to truly see the Congo. Where there is a broken iron bridge, of which there are two within the first 80km from Zongo, it presents no problem for a bicycle. Should one want a conversation in French, or an opportunity to learn some Lingala, there will be no shortage of willing candidates on the road with you.

    The problems for the outsider in the DRC are the authorities, whoever they may be. Petty police in ragged uniforms occasionally stopped us on the road. They were usually drunk – the little money they did have would have been used to buy whatever cheap alcohol was available (palm or casava wine). With the usual patience and firm but polite refusal to hand over money we would be on our way again, perhaps in exchange for a few cigarettes. The bigger problems exist in the larger towns. Men claiming to be from an immigration or security bureau wish that foreigners register their details with them and pay. It is unnecessary, and merely an opportunity for them to present something official and then expect payment.

    In the town of Libenge we reluctantly paid the $4 each for this process. To have made a fuss would have been embarrassing. We had been taken to this immigration office by nuns from the Catholic mission where we were staying. It seems that towns throughout the Congo have missions dating from the colonial period, which are about the only colonial enterprises still functioning.

    Libenge sits on the banks of the Ubangui river and at one time was perhaps a thriving and prosperous place. Direct flights used to connect the town with Brussels, and along many of the mango-lined avenues can be found street lights. These, like most things that depend on electrical power have not been working for decades. And so the colonial buildings and rusted remains of long-abandoned trucks and machines sit like ghostly reminders of another era.

    Were it not for the small population of people who survive here the town would have been swallowed by the jungle. Once we left the mission and pedalled out the track narrowed to become little more than shoulder-width wide. There were lots of villages out here, one-hut deep from the jungle, and they often stretched for many kilometres with no discernible centre. Few contained anything for sale beyond bananas, groundnuts and manioc, and finding fresh water wasn’t always easy.

    Bamboo jungle

    On my map Gemena looked like the first real town of any size. Well I guess it is. There is an airport here providing direct flights to Kinshasa twice a week. But the streets and pace of life are more like a village than a city. We’ve sought refuge in the Catholic Mission again (not sure there is even a hotel) which almost guarantees the authorities can’t come knocking on the door, or tent as is the case (the mission charge $25 per night for a basic room). South from here lies the town of Lisala, where with a bit of luck and perhaps patience I might be able to find a barge heading up the Congo River towards Kisangani.

    Congo truck

  • Suffering and Smiling: Entering Nigeria November 3rd, 2010

    Nigeria greeted me with a lot of check-posts. They were simple palm-thatched shacks, of a type more commonly seen with plantain or yams being sold beneath them than places for showing my passport and vaccination certificates. Were it not for the wooden posts spiked with large nails lying across the road I might have thought twice about stopping. There were no signs, no power, and no-one at any of these dozens of check-posts (containing immigration, customs, police, army, or health officers) was wearing a uniform.

    Why there had to be so many check-posts I don’t know. Or perhaps I do. Those manning them claimed it was for security reasons, but I only had to hang around and wait for a motor-taxi to be flagged down to witness the quick money exchange. “Do you have something for me”? one or two might venture to ask. “Yes I do. My smile. It’s priceless so you’re very lucky.”

    Entering Nigeria

    Few people have anything positive to say when you tell them you’re going to Nigeria. “Good luck.” “Be careful.” “You’re mad”. For the past several months I’ve been hearing such comments from both Africans and non-Africans. On this basis I should have been nervous about entering Africa’s most populous country. Perhaps if it had been a French colony I would have been. Dealing with bribe-hungry hopefuls at check-posts is a lot harder in a language you can’t speak fluently. The truth however is I’ve been looking forward to seeing just how Nigeria lives up to its reputation. Could it really be as bad as all those scare stories about scams and crime the Ghanians told me?

    The check-posts have fortunately decreased in number the further I’ve journeyed into the country. A more common sight has been the derelict petrol stations. With their over-grown grass fore-courts and rusted signs there must be hundreds if not thousands of these in Nigeria. Oil is a dirty business in more ways than one. The back-bone of the country’s economy is also the reason for many of its problems. Nigerians still have some cause to be happy though. Petrol costs about £0.30 a litre in stations which sell it.

    Petrol station

    Perhaps that partly explains why no-one rides bicycles, at least in Ogun and Oyo state (there are 36 states in total). I was hoping I could find a shop to install one of the classic dynamo-lights I frequently saw on old Chinese bicycles in Benin. For anyone planning and preparing a bicycle trip in Africa, please take note. A strong front light will be of great use. I try whenever possible to avoid riding in the dark, but night comes so quickly that it inevitably happens. Yes I have a Petzl headlight, but its beam is not strong enough to pick out the cavernous pot-holes waiting to buckle a wheel and throw a cyclist into the bush.

    Benin boys with a bike

    So what other observations does a first time visitor note about the country and its people? One is that Nigerians like to hiss to attract your attention, although their brand of hissing is different from other Africans. They do not “hissss” or “sissss” as such, but pucker their lips as if to kiss, then withdraw air inwards. I suppose it is a bit like a reverse whistle, and needless to say highly irritating. Until you turn to acknowledge the menace doing it, the pitch will increase, possibly culminating in a shout of “Oyibo.” (Yoruba for white man). The shout may come without the hiss, and should you turn to make eye contact there will often be a hand motioning you to stop. The truth is that if I stopped every time someone hissed or yelled “Oyibo” it would take a long time to get anywhere in Nigeria. And I would quickly lose count of the “Do you have something for me”? question whenever I did.

    Most of the time it’s easier, wiser and generally just safer to smile, wave and pedal on. Which is what I did when the traffic suddenly became unpleasantly congested and the market stalls and people spilled onto the streets. Had I been invisible I would have loved to stop, watch, photograph or film it. But alone, white, on a bike, with “steal me” written within my hands. I don’t think so. Photographs taken in urban areas in Nigeria are best done quickly, and I have the feeling that people won’t mind their own business even if you’re taking a photo of something entirely disconnected to them.

    Abeokuta is the first real city I entered. This is the birthplace of several important Nigerians, most notably Fela Kuti, whose music I discovered on my first trip to Africa. These days you sadly won’t hear Afrobeat tunes from the 1970’s played on the streets, but more likely some US-influenced hip-hop and rap. Far less tasteful.

    Experience, advice and common-sense would dictate that giving $100 to a stranger to go and change money on the black-market is an unwise thing to do, particularly somewhere like Nigeria. Which is what I explained to the owner of the Internet Cafe in Abeokuta, who entrusted his friend with my money to disappear to some part of the city that was allegedly too dangerous for me. “Don’t worry my friend. It is only small money so he won’t steal it”. I thought I ought to explain that this would be my budget for 1-2 weeks, and should it disappear I would have to place my visa card in a Nigerian bank, which would possibly be even less wise. Thankfully this friend returned and asked if I knew what Nigeria’s motto was. “In the words of Fela Kuti, ‘suffering and smiling‘”, I suggested. “No, it is ‘good and great’, and this action has just proved it”.

    The traffic, crowds, filth and chaos of Abeokuta were but a warm-up for Ibadan, where I arrived the next day. At one time this was West Africa’s largest city, and several people I met there were adamant it still is (in terms of population I think Lagos is). My country map conveniently showed a road that would by-pass it, but I had already realised that the ITM map of Nigeria is about as accurate as that of the one for Ghana. The road took me straight into the centre as there is no other road. When I have more time I will write a letter to ITM and kindly tell them just how terrible their maps of Africa are (Togo and Benin was poor and I have Cameroon still to test). I could easily manage without these maps, but despite their inaccuracies they give a better spatial awareness than the Michellin map of North and West Africa, which seems better updated.

    At first I thought to just put my head down, ignore the “Hey Igbo” calls and focus on not being hit by one of the thousands of white mini-buses, motorbikes and large cars with Nigerians who somehow give the impression of being aloof or oblivious to the mess they live in. But I realised it would take me hours to pedal beyond the crowds, traffic and tin-roofed skyline, so went about looking for a cheap place to stay before darkness fell.



    Now the trouble with being a white face in Nigeria, or much of Africa I guess, is that people often assume you need accommodation accustomed to how they imagine you live back home. You are white and therefore rich. So I have to say that 10,000 Naira ($65) is not cheap and that I don’t need air-conditioning and satellite TV, nor to be directed to a hotel where ‘my people stay’. This will be a 4 or 5 star hotel, where people who have jobs and whose company most likely pay for their lodging stay. All I need is security and cleanliness. After a good amount of being directed and mis-directed by various people, most of whose faces read ‘don’t trust me’ (“You can stay with my friend, let me just call him”), I ended up in a brothel. Well a brothel in as much as it was a place that usually rents rooms by the hour. The proprietor seemed nervous, a little confused, yet over-joyed that a white face arriving on a bicycle should want a room in his establishment, so went about making sure I was comfortable. “You people cannot shower with this well water. Look at the colour of it. Let me go and fetch cleaner water. You will need soap as well. I will buy some from the shop. Just make sure you lock your room if you go out. You will be safe here, but bad people come to stay”. Not overly reassuring, but I was taken care of, only leaving the premises to buy rice, beans, fish and plantain from a stall across the street by a woman who seemed equally incredulous that an Igbo was eating her food in an area that few whites probably venture.

    The traffic finally eased once I cleared the northern outskirts of Ibadan. It was Sunday and the Churches were full. I have lost count of how many different ones exist here. Beyond the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist and other major denomination Churches comes a plethora of signs for evangelical/new-age missions, prayer camps and miracle healing events. Some look as shady as the banks, of which there are also a large number. Do I trust my visa card in a Nigerian ATM? I might have to in Abuja.

     With God 

    I’m writing this from the town of Oshogbo, where I arrived in a downpour and followed a sign to the first Guest House that didn’t have ‘fully air-conditioned’ or ‘satellite TV’ etc advertised on it. Thankfully its somewhere I’ve felt comfortable enough to relax in for a few days. After surviving the traffic of Ibadan and incessant oyibo calls I feel I need it.