A Bush Tale – Traveling Nigeria for the First Time
I thought I would be better prepared than other first-time travelers to #Nigeria. After all, my wife, Sagan, has been travelling back and forth for over a decade, forming relationships, learning the culture and navigating Nigeria’s rainforest (aka “the bush”) as part of her academic research. In addition to having lived abroad in Korea for over four years and having traveled to over 20 countries across five continents, I’d even been to West Africa. In 2012, Sagan and I met in Ghana during her longest stint in Nigeria. During that trip, we often heard Ghanaians commiserate with Sagan about the hardships of Nigerian life. I learned quickly that nothing can really prepare you for your first trip to Nigeria.
I was not prepared for the superlative extremes. Landing in Lagos, I immediately felt the heat. Just north of the equator, the Nigerian weather is a force to contend with, made worse by an exploding population (the largest in Africa) and more vehicles than can safely fit on their roadways. The pollution and chaotic traffic don’t make the Nigerian experience any easier. I soon found that the best strategy is to sit back and enjoy the crazy. You will see and do things in Nigeria like nowhere else. Whether it is falling into a road-side gutter (thank goodness it was dry season) or seeing the largest group of captive drill monkeys in the world – be prepared for the unexpected.
#Lagos, where I arrived via direct flight from JFK, was complete madness (especially the traffic “go-slows”). Despite the craziness, we were able to take in some pretty great sights while enjoying the comforts of a good friend’s home in Lekki – a narrow strip of land along the ocean and south of the lagoon for which the city gets its name. The #Lekki Conservation Centre is definitely worth a visit. As one of the few fragments of forests remaining in the city, it’s an unexpected reminder that Lagos was not always an urban jungle. The boardwalk and canopy walk full of mona #monkeys offer a refreshing escape from bustling Lagos life. It’s also a #conservation success in a country that badly needs more.
We spent much of our time in #Calabar, the capital of Cross River State, bordering Cameroon. The area is affectionately known as “South South” Nigeria. The state is home to the largest intact forests and national park in the country. The last remaining #CrossRiver gorillas still roam these forests. Logging, bush burning, bushmeat hunting and palm oil plantations are serious threats to the heavily forested land. Many forest communities don’t have alternatives to these activities and the forests are rapidly disappearing. It’s much easier and much more common to reap the rewards of prized timber rather than invest in the national park system or other conservation efforts.
Politics is an ever-present part of life in Nigeria. As a newcomer, every conversation that makes it past the enthusiastic greetings includes an explanation of the political conundrum this country faces. Freed from the British in 1960, Nigeria is in its fourth democratic republic, having spiraled back into authoritarian military rule numerous times over 60 years of independence. The country suffers greatly from the rule of rich politicians or “big men,” who are more concerned with accumulating wealth and helping their family and friends, rather than investing in the country’s future.
Although the political class is often characterized as corrupt, the average Nigerian works very hard for little reward and is still gracious to the outside world. Despite a very bad reputation built around the petty online schemes and other forms of corruption known as “419,” most Nigerians are very concerned about the well-being of “strangers”. When entering a new community, store or home you will be showered with “Welcome-o!” People are happy to see you arrive, want to ensure you made it safely and want to know that your family and your health are all in good order. In fact, Nigerians are so adept at socializing that they seem to have connections everywhere. Although we frequented hotels, our Nigerian colleagues always had a family member or friend to stay with wherever we were.
Travelling the country is not exactly easy though. The domestic flights, when not cancelled, are definitely the way to go, if travelling long distances. They are comfortable, pleasant and clean. After that, if you are not travelling via private car, odds are you won’t be comfortable. Shared buses won’t leave until they are full, and it’s not uncommon for taxis to be so full that the driver will share a seat with a passenger. Luckily for me, Sagan purchased a Toyota Hilux shortly before I arrived. I was able to avoid the discomforts of public transportation, but there is no way to avoid the general discomfort of terrible roads. Pot holes, speed bumps, traffic, pedestrians and heavy polluting trucks all make the road an exhausting place to traverse.
My first travel experience out of Calabar was to #Mkpot – an interior forest community located 25 km from the nearest roadside community, Ntebachot. Akonjom, Sagan’s project manager and student, drove the truck to Ntebachot. From there, Akonjom drove a motor bike through a jungle path complete with steep hills, root speed bumps and encroaching vegetation. It was quite the journey, but it was absolutely thrilling and I’m so happy Akonjom is a good driver.
Arriving in Mkpot, I was surprised to see so many people living so far inside the forest and all of them smiling and happy to greet us. We put our stuff away and walked over to the construction site where Sagan is building a research station. The location is fantastic, a short walk away from the main bathing river, Akarim, and forested mountains in the distance. My favorite part of Mkpot life was the daily swims/baths in the river, which always included a small group of children as playful companions.
Part of Sagan’s work is attempting to better understand #bushmeat #hunting and the potential ways hunters, butchers and consumers may be exposed to #zoonotic wildlife diseases. As part of the data collection, Sagan and her students hosted gendered hunting focus group discussions and even followed hunters into the bush for overnight hunting excursions. “Sleeping bush” would require a four-hour hike to a hunting shed in the middle of the forest, far away from settlement or cell service.
The initial, most striking aspect of the hunting shed were the bees. Honeybees often create hives close to hunting sheds as they are attracted to the human activity. Inside the shed was the only real haven from them as there was a bed and sitting area next to a constant fire. Despite the natural splendor around us, I had little time to enjoy prior to developing a painful stomach bug. I spent most of the two nights and three days in the forest sleeping and trying to keep food down. Even though I battled through sickness most of the time, the nights in the hammock were cool and the soundscape euphoric, as countless insects, frogs and mammals came to life. The nights weren’t all euphoria though. The hunter we followed killed a #pangolin both nights. On the second night, I watched as one of the world’s most illegally trafficked animals suffered through its final breaths.
Rural Cross River communities can be flush with bushmeat. In one day, we witnessed the butchering of red river hog, pangolin, tortoise, fish and duiker. Overall, the food was difficult for me. I came to Nigeria as mostly a vegetarian. After a few nights of fried fish and boiled seafood, I ate my first of what would be many chicken legs. A “true” Nigerian has not eaten a meal until they have “swallowed.” Swallow is a wet paste of garri (cooked cassava), pounded yam or other grain used to dip into a spicy soup of vegetables and meat. One shouldn’t chew swallow so as to avoid the rather pungent taste. Instead, one should ball the carb-y mush with one hand, indent some room for soup with the thumb and dunk it in the nutrient rich soup. Then, it’s down the hatch, the quicker the better. I tried it multiple times with different soups (utasi or bitter leaf, melon, etc.) and was left with dirty hands, a sour taste in my mouth and a bit of a gag reflex. Eating was tough; I relied heavily on Indomie (Nigerian instant noodles), rice, beans, plantains, fruit and some western breakfast staples.
Nigeria is a challenging but rewarding place to travel, especially if you know someone. I am very grateful for the opportunity to visit such a unique place with such a great travel companion, my wife. Nigeria is also lucky to have her. It certainly needs more travelers willing to learn about a new culture and leave it in a better place. I hope to do so again someday soon.