A Nigerian Dawn

On the morning I was due to present myself at the Nigerian border—to throw myself into the jaws of the enormous, unpredictable beast of a nation—I was awake and prepping before anyone else in the house had stirred.

I sat at the big table on the verandah and made a clearing for my bowl of oatmeal in the detritus left behind from the previous night's joint-smoking ceremony. I'd been feeling a little too at home at Haie-Vive and had impulse-purchased a large box of oats a couple of days earlier. I'd failed to put a meaningful dent in it while I was in Cotonou and would now have to abandon it along with my sense of security.

As I thoughtfully stirred, spooned and swallowed I set my mind to crafting and translating tactful WhatsApp messages to my self-appointed, long-distance girlfriend Fatim back in Bamako. I was trying to articulate that her feelings might best be invested elsewhere. I also had to delicately work at the knots she had tied herself into while I'd been out until 3 am the night prior. The results of my failure to report a safe and celibate return to my lodgings at an appropriate hour were proving a difficult to undo.

I also had some corresponding to do with Maxi, my prospective partner-in-crossing for the forthcoming Nigerian section of the trip. Maxi was a day or so behind me now, having spent some extra time taking the longer, coastal route south from Senegal to Ghana (and making the most of the Ghanaian surf scene). He still had to make his way through Togo and Benin but that was more a challenge of border crossings than distance and it was along a common, busy route of exchange between the region's Anglophone powerhouses, Ghana and Nigeria.

A third recipient of my breakfast messaging was Tokini, a friend-of-a-friend who ran an upmarket, international art festival in Lagos. Tokini had built upon a blessed start to life to become a high-profile arts entrepreneur. Her father had founded what had become one of Nigeria's largest banks. Her education in England had honed her into a cosmopolitan globe-trotter who could slip comfortably from one upper echelon to the next. Tokini's number had found its way into my phone because luck had placed her and my humble, hard-working Australian friend Beth beside each other in an MBA program in Singapore a few years earlier. I did not know all the facts of Tokini's life at the time, nor did she ever deliberately flaunt them, but I sensed I was dealing with someone from a plane of existence that I would never truly have access to. Tokini was Nigerian commercial royalty.

Tokini had graciously accepted Beth's request to point me in the direction of some interesting sights and sounds while in Lagos. These would be picked from a trendy, expensive sliver of the city. That sliver was accessible to only the wealthiest top 1% of Nigerians who concentrated their conspicuous consumption on Victoria Island.

With a gross national income of $2,000 per capita, Nigerians may not be wealthy on average but the sheer size of the population creates, in an ocean of poverty, a drop of affluence large enough to float a few super-yachts in. As you slide down the steep inequality curve you scoot over the long tail stretching out over the majority of Nigerians who live a dirt-poor existence. Slide back a little and you do find a large (by numbers) middle class and a country frustratingly full of potential. Aching with contradiction, Nigeria dares you to generalise and laughs at your every assumption.

I set my sights and sat-nav on the luxury landing pad that Tokini had recommended: The Blowfish Hotel. It was the cheapest of the ones she'd recommended and under normal circumstances a fine and considerate balance of affordability, luxury and quirk. At the time it felt like a real indulgence. I'd wanted to act on Tokini's thoughtful advice and honour the introduction Beth had made. Conversely, I didn't want to alienate myself too much from the overlander's budget-minded philosophy (which can border on competitive). God forbid the African Overlanders Facebook group were to discover I'd stayed in an upmarket hotel on "VI" instead of authentically camping behind a truck stop under a rusty sheet of corrugated iron.

By the time I was ready to leave Cotonou, the ad hoc inhabitants of Guest House Haie-Vive had emerged foggily from their dorms and there were many goodbyes to be said. The place had a camaraderie about it that glued everyone together. Its tackiness was hard to detach from. It was getting late enough in the day for me to be anxious about it. It was only 40 km to the border but I was worried about the road from there to Lagos. I'd heard many complaints, including first-hand from Gildas and the Japanese gnomes.

Adding some extra spice to my already flared nerves was the issue my bike had developed since Togo—a flat spot in the rev range. It was getting very slightly worse every day that I got further away from anyone I could trust to try and fix it.

I formally entered Nigeria via a small, quiet border crossing at Owende only 10 km or so north of the busy main crossing near Seme on the coast. This outpost's reason for being was a mystery. Perhaps a relic from times when the villages on either side had more in common with each other than they did with the nation states in which they inadvertently lay. These tiny settlements preceded the European colonial battles that drew from a distance the lines that cut communities in two.

On the Benin side, the border post felt like a step back in time and development. In dingy buildings with small, high windows, ageing officials sat out of the heat on creaky wooden chairs. The Nigerian side was equally dated but much more lively.

As soon as I set foot in the country I was struck by a wave of humanity. Nigeria was blessed with an abundance of people with which to staff their border posts. A plethora of positions had been created for myriad ministries—from customs and immigration, police, and special forces to the ministries of health and silly walks. When the original brick buildings could no longer contain their numbers they had erected improvised bamboo outhouses from which to issue their orders and stamps.

I could already feel the fullness of Nigerian urban life. Everything was bold and brash like the idea of America. It felt filled with action and possibility, chance and rage. "THIS IS NIGERIA" it announced to you—daring you to respond with your own, mumbled introduction.

The immigration chief invited me into his office to debate the finer points of my visa's validity. He had a hypothesis that I had in fact started the clock on the day that it had been issued, leaving me with only a few days to cross the entire country and exit to Cameroon. This was an impossible task by his estimation (and mine). I disagreed with his interpretation of the rules, believing firmly that the approaching deadline was for me to be able to enter, not exit, the country. We now only had to find the truth.

Like so many truths, such as the fair price of a piece of fish, this one would be arrived at through argumentation and not the analysis of evidence. This made it a philosophical rather than an empirical fact. Like most Africans I'd settled into a spirit of c'est la vie rather than carpe diem by this point in my journey so I wasn't fazed by the problematic potential of this plot twist. I had nothing better to do than let the conversation run its course. I'd done what I could and the rest was up to the ancestors.

The chat remained calm and civil. Second opinions were sought from others in uniform and a superior on the phone but it became clear that the outcome lay in the chief's hands entirely. There was no cost or benefit to him either way. He contemplated silently for a while and then abruptly leaned forward to shake my hand. "Welcome to Nigeria, Mr. David."

I rolled out of the border/carnival village towards Lagos, my bike sputtering briefly but ominously as I changed into second gear and weaved between potholes. I hadn't gone far before I encountered my first traditional, Nigerian checkpoint. A group of excited, perspiring officers in blue uniform swarmed around me. They energetically overwhelmed me with questions (none official or relevant to their duties). They had the demeanour (a kind of up-beat urgency) of a group of friends who had recently cracked open a fresh baggie of finely powdered stimulants on a big night out. Despite their friendliness and generally positive attitude, all of them showed the physical signs of an upbringing harsher than mine.

There was a decent proportion of women in the throng that surrounded me at the checkpoint. In the short time I'd been in the country I'd already noticed that the presence of women in Nigerian commercial and official life was more prevalent than in the other countries I'd been through.

One of the female officers jostled for a more favourable position in the pack. She presented me with a proposal of marriage and gestured towards her AK-47 by way of encouragement. As tempted as I was, I had a booking at The Blowfish that night and no room for such a significant passenger on my bike. A few moments of friendly, nervous banter and I was back on my way toward the big smoke—in this case one of the biggest and smokiest I would ever see.

I was a Molotov cocktail of emotions. All the tall tales of chaos and banditry teemed through mind while I swam in an ocean of relief. I'd made it. I'd scraped in. I'd overcome the impossible, peeling myself off the floor in Senegal and getting to Nigeria in time to salvage the remainder of my trip. To ride on. To live on. To move on.

Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble
Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble

© David Baskind · 2022