The Fun of Backpacking in Nigeria


When I made my second visit to Nigeria last November, I thought I’d find nothing new. I certainly did not expect trouble with security men who thought I was a Boko Haram agent, but I’ll tell you about that in a later post. Yet, that is not strange, given the terror situation in the world today. What I totally did not expect however was trouble with toilet paper. It’s something I never thought about much before, but after it hit me, I begun to question the meaning of life. Toilet paper!
A traveler enjoys the view on Olumo rock, Abeokuta


It’s the beauty of travel. You learn about other cultures, how they use words and things in a way totally different from what you know. Like a garage is a place to fix broken cars, but in Nigeria a motor garage is a taxi or bus park. And then tea. In the big hotels when you ask for tea you get tea, but I asked for it in a small hotel in Ibadan, and the waiter replied, “Do you want Milo, Bounvita, or Lipton?” I did not think Milo and Bounvita counted as tea. I thought she was merely offering me options. In Idanre I asked for tea in a small shack. The young man did not offer me options. He at once mixed me hot water and evaporated milk. “No!” I said. “Not that. I want tea!” He got cross. “But this is tea!” And we entered an argument. I tried to explain that I wanted only water and a tea-bag, but he only kept shouting at me about wasting his time, so I gave in and said, “Okay, just give it to me.” It was an awful drink. Only after I took a sip did I see a box of Lipton teabags on the shelf, and I said. “That! That is what I want.” And he laughed, “Why then did you say you want tea?” I learned rather late that in Nigeria, and most of West Africa, cocoa is tea. If you want actual tea, ask for Lipton.
Breakfast is served. 'Tea' and bread.
A shack restaurant in Idanre.

A woman uses a razor blade to peel an orange in Ibadan
Before all that fun, I was in Abeokuta for a week, at the fabulous Ake Arts and Book Festival. Life was easy in the luxury of Park Inn by Radisson. I did not feel the pinch of the power cuts, and I had access to great wifi and lovely Nigerian food. It did feel like my trip would be uneventful, that I’d have nothing to write about, until I wanted to change money. Then I got my first adventure.

I had thought that changing money would be as easy as it is in Uganda, that I would not have problems the way I did the South Africa. Nigeria shares many similarities with Uganda, and so I didn’t expect problems. I was wrong. I should have changed the money at the airport. A few friends offered to do it for me, but they said it would take a long time. I'd have to wait a whole day. I didn’t want to wait. I had only a hundred naira left. At the hotel they said they could change it for me, unofficially, but at ridiculous rates. I turned down their offer. They advised me to try the banks, but each bank I went to said they only change money for account holders. I nearly gave up until someone whispered, “Go to the black market.”

“Where is that?” I said.

“You can’t go alone,” he said. “They'll cheat you. They might rob you. Better you give the dollars to a Nigerian and he'll do it for you. Don’t go alone.”
I thought about that. It was wise advise. But I was looking for an adventure. I wanted a story to tell. So I thought it would be fun to find this black market on my own. I pled with him, and he reluctantly gave me a name of a place. Itoku.

I stepped into the streets with a mad sense of thrill. I had to go to Itoku, wherever that was, whatever I'd find there, a place where dollars are sold and bought illegally. Itoku. I didn’t even know which direction it was, so I asked the first pedestrian I met, and he pointed it out. “That way.” Still, I didn't know how far I'd have to go, or how I'd know if I reached it. I didn't even know if it was within Abeokuta town, or if I would have to travel an hour. Once I got there, how would I know the black marketeers? If they were doing it illegally, then they sure would not have sign posts that said ‘Dollars for sale’.
Rocks lend Abeokuta town a surreal beauty.

Well, I put my trust on an okadaman. It’s the beauty of travel, the way you throw yourself at the mercy of strangers, trusting that their good side will overwhelm the dark side. Naively. Trusting that they will always be nice to a traveler if you smiled your best. The okadaman agreed to take me for 70 naira, I then knew that Itoku wasn’t far out of town, but I had only 100 in my pockets and if things went wrong I might have only 30 left and no way to get back to the hotel. As we sped on the bike, I told him I wanted to change money. I held my breathe, knowing now was the time for his dark side to show, for surely he now knew I was a foreigner and that I had dollars.

“No problem,” he said. “I’ll take you to my friend.” Alarms went off in my head. How can it be that an okadaman I picked at random has a friend who sells dollars in the black market? I became suspicious. I almost told him to stop, but I bit my lips and waited for what would happen next. After all, I wanted thrill. An adventure. We stopped under a bridge, and several people crowded around us. “These are my friends,” the okada man said.

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“You want dollars?” one of the men said, and I replied that I wanted Naira. I kept looking around, expecting someone to pull a knife, or a gun, but we were at a roadside, with cars zooming by and pedestrians heading to a nearby market. That comforted me a bit. On addition, it struck me that I knew this kind of people. I grew up in a boarder town in Uganda. We used to call them ‘money changers’ and they dealt in Ugandan and Kenyan currencies. They always had huge bundles of money in their palms. They are still common in Busia and Malaba. But here were Nigerian men, in a small town about three hours from Lagos, a town not anywhere near a boarder, and they were dealing in dollars. It made me think about the Nigerian economy.

I should have haggled and gotten a better rate, but the 215 Naira for a dollar they offered was above the rate I saw online (200 for a dollar) or in the bank (196 for a dollar) and way above what I was offered at the hotel (180 for a dollar), so I took it without asking questions. I later learnt that at the airport I could have gotten a better rate of 220-225 for a dollar. Thus my trip to the dollar black market turned out to be uneventful. Only that the okadaman changed his mind, and instead charged me 200 Naira, up from 70. When I tried to argue, he became quarraleous and wanted to fight, so I gave him the money.
A man buys bagged water from a truck. Nigeria seems to have
a drinking water problem. The safest water comes in plastic bags
and I wonder how much environmental damage that does.

A poster in the streets of Lagos illustrates gender disparity.
Female workers are paid less than males.
The next day, I struck travelers luck. I intended to explore Nigeria by walking the streets. It’s the best way to get a feel of a country, to experience something other than what you read in guide books. Just walk the streets, talk to people, blend in. I could pass for a Nigerian so it was a plus. I even spoke like them, putting an o! sound at the end of every sentence. (I’m exploring Nigeria o!) I wanted to look at the old streets of Abeokuta, at its historic architecture, and then, I saw it. Three very tall things swaying in the street. A masquerade. I at once started to take pictures. When they saw me do it, they posed and invited me to join them. I had a rare treat!
A masquerade in Abeokuta town
A poster for a Juju fantasy film from Nollywood

It opened my eyes. Some Nollywood films and all the news about pastors and Christianity had made me to imagine that ancestral spirit worship was dead. This igonuko masquerade was a small family event that happens once every three years. They used not to do it, but tragedy befell the family and four prominent members died within a year. A shaman advised them to do it or else the rest of the family would perish. In it they pray for blessings, and for protection. A few days later, in Ibadan, I saw a dead chicken in a calabash at a road junction. I at once recognized it as a sacrifice, for I had seen something similar in Nepal. A Nepali once explained the significance of sacrifice in road junctions, but I was not paying keen attention. Now, after seeing that both Nepalis and Nigerians leave sacrifice at road junctions, I am anxious for an explanation. Still, these two incidents showed me that Nigerians were worshipping their ancestors openly, unlike in Uganda where people are afraid of their Christian and Muslim peers.
Sacrifice left in at a road junction.
The sacrifice, or that's what I think it is, up close
A man hawks religious artefacts and charms.
One reads 'protection from evil.'

Ibadan is supposed to be an hour’s journey only from Abeokuta. I paid a thousand naira to share a small car with three other passengers. If I was in a hurry I could have paid four thousand to travel alone, but I was not, so I waited for two hours as the others trickled in. I reached Ibadan shortly after darkness. I had no accommodation, but that was the thing about this trip. I didn’t want to pre-plan anything. I was seeking thrill, so I’d hop into a car and get to the next town blindly. I did try googling and asking friends, but found no useful info for cheap hotels. I knew it had to be like Uganda, where you only get the cheap and comfortable places after you have reached town and ask help from locals.

In Ibadan I had in mind the university guest house. It cost 10k naira a night yet my budget was 5k, so I for the second time I put my trust on okadas. “Take me to a hotel,” I said. “Which one?” he asked. “Any good one,” I said. “But cheap.” He took me to Plaza Park. I paid 5k for a room without a shower. I had to scoop water out of a bucket using a cup. 5k was too high for that kind of room! “We have air-conditioning,” the receptionist said when I complained. That explained everything. They charge according to whether a room has air-con (Cabs in Lagos with air-con charge higher too). However, the air-con was broken. I couldn’t change the temperature and it made a lot of noise. It kept me awake most of the night.
I paid 5000 N for this room in Plaza Park, Ibadan,
because of air-conditioning




I paid 2500 Naira for this room in Infinity Hotel, Idanre.
It had no air-con. No difference with the 5k Naira room.

External view of Infinity Hotel, one I'm not about to forget soon.

The next night I was in Idanre town. There was a power cut that had lasted four days, so even if I was to get a hotel with air-con, I'd have paid a high price for nothing. (Nigeria has a huge power and fuel problem that is cyclic. The power problem worsens the fuel crisis, for everyone uses generators, which compete with vehicles for gas.) Idanre gets a bit of tourists so there is online info on hotels. Everyone recommends Valley Rock, but in the spirit of my trip, I did not book in advance. I got in at 10pm, and the okadaman told me Valley Rock is far outside the town, too late to go there. “Then take me to the nearest hotel,” I said. He took me to one called Infinity. I knew it was the wrong place the moment I saw the receptionist – No, there was no reception. There was a bar, and there was a woman sitting at one of the tables, wearing nothing but an ill-fitting t-shirt, and red knickers, her legs spread open. She gave me a big smile and said “Welcome.” Did she open her legs wider or was it only my imagination?

“Buy me a beer,” the okadaman said, sitting at a table.

“Do you want a room?” the naked woman asked, coming closer. She had a strong perfume mixed with the stench of alcohol. I wanted to get out of there, but it was 10pm, and I wanted to take a poop, for I had spent the entire afternoon – let me backtrack. In Ibadan town, I was at the motor garage (car park) at 2pm when the urge to ease my bowels struck. I ran to the public toilets, but they had no tissue. “Use water,” the attendant told me. At once, the urge vanished. Water? I’d have to use my fingers to wipe –no. I couldn’t do it. I thought I’d wait until Idanre, so I jumped into the bus (mini-van). It took four hours to fill up, and only after we set off did I go into ‘labor pains’. By the time I reached Idanre at 10pm, my bowels were bursting, so I overlooked the naked woman and dived into the first room she showed me.

I paid only 2,500 Naira. There was no air-con, but they had a fan. I thought it was going to be a tough night to sleep, then I remembered that in Nepal, temperatures and humidity was just as bad, yet I slept soundly with only a fan. So I took the room. And dashed into the toilet. At least it had a shower, but the toilet set was broken, and there was no tissue. I went to the receptionist. The okadaman was still there. “I want my beer,” the okadaman said. “Me and you we get drunk tonight.” I got angry and told him to return the next day. He left. The naked woman laughed.

“I want tissue,” I told her. “What is that?” she said. “Toilet paper,” I said. “Toilet what? What does it do?” And so I made a motion of whipping my behinds, and she said, “Oh. You mean toilet roll. No. We don’t have that.” And I said, “Send someone to buy.” She replied, “No. We have to go to Akure (an hour’s drive away) to buy it.” And I said, “Then what shall I do?” And she said, “Use water o!”

By this time I could not hold it anymore. I found a piece of paper on the floor, a card from a Pentecostal church inviting people to a fundraising function, and I took that. I searched through my bag for scraps of paper, receipts, anything, and they did help.

The next day, I went to Idanre town and was pissed off to find tissue in every shop. The naked woman had just refused to buy me a roll. Or maybe she just couldn’t be bothered and wouldn’t understand why I could not use my fingers to wipe my butthole.

Continues here. In the next post I tell you how security people took me for a Boko Haram agent. Enjoy the read.

Meanwhile, enjoy a few more pics :-) 
A sword woman guards spirits during the dance.

A masked spirit dancing

Not sure what his role was, but it looked like he was blessing everyone
by sprinkling them with stuff from the palm fronds.
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10 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. So Surreal.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this piece. Just to inform you that it was the best decision not to change your money at the airport in Nigeria - you could change your money, count it before them and it would be complete but afterwards when they leave your money will short some thousands of Naira or become tissue paper. True :-)

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    Replies
    1. Hahaha! I have heard those stories in Uganda too :-))

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  3. Thrilling! Engaging! Informative! And captivating. I love this article.

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  4. Oddly the observation I have about this piece is that the disparity in pay starts from the amount of hours worked. Men work 6 hours, get paid 3500, women work 5 and get paid 2500- if anything the men work an extra 30 minutes for free. Now that says a lot about equal opportunities for work but then in a small town like that, an average woman is a mother running home to her kids. :-)

    And yes, even at 225 you got cheated man. The US dollar has been around 245 since april 2016. Hard luck!

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  5. This is beautiful... My attraction was the "backpacking" in your title; my Masters thesis is on backpacking in Africa. I wish I had read this before now.

    Simply beautiful!

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  6. Beautiful and interesting article, I totally loved it! Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Beautiful and interesting article, I totally loved it! Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Lolest....when we were kid's I most definitely told better stories than you did ☺. Now I am beating my self for why I never wrote about my two and half years experience in West Africa. This has most definitely told the entire story in a very captivating manner. I can't wait for the Boko Haram experience ooO! šŸ˜ƒ

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  9. Lolest....when we were kid's I most definitely told better stories than you did ☺. Now I am beating my self for why I never wrote about my two and half years experience in West Africa. This has most definitely told the entire story in a very captivating manner. I can't wait for the Boko Haram experience ooO! šŸ˜ƒ

    ReplyDelete