From the moment we set foot in Nigeria, we realized that things were tricky. The police immediately started asking for a “contribution” to their work, and when we refused, they tried to be more persuasive by informing us that they had the authority to give us only a 24-hour permit and make us go to Abuja for a new one. After negotiations they agreed that we were no threat to the State and we could proceed to the next step: investigation of our luggage and a small interview on our motives.
The two ladies in the office were polite and really interested in our answers to their questions. They first asked Steven: “Occupation?” “Student.”
I could see a big question mark dangling above their heads as they wondered how to fill in the form. And then it was my turn: “Occupation?” “Let’s say teacher.”
The question mark grew. They needed to fill in the form with the correct answer but they were not sure what to write. After some serious thinking, they solved the quiz: Two white men with no religion, one German and one Greek having left their jobs only to travel without a plan, wearing filthy clothes and having long beards…they can be nothing but philosophers!
Disappointing them by not having an answer to the meaning of life, we packed everything on our bikes and started travelling east towards Abuja, on our philosophical journey of discovery.
We had to cover 700kms to Abuja and we wanted to do it as fast as possible. Of course, when the rain started we got a bit annoyed, but the tarmac was not bad at all. Our perspective completely changed when, after 10kms we realized that we had come to the end of the tarmac and the off-road, soaking wet part started. This got more interesting as the heavy rainfall didn’t stop for days. And while I was trying to guess whether the next pothole would engulf the 10inch wheels of my Vespa, I remembered it was my birthday!
When we arrived in New Bussa, it was as if the people were waiting for us and the celebrations. Every child came to see us and everyone welcomed us with wide smiles and friendly mood. That was the best birthday present for me, and another stereotype just crumbled away.
The next days until Abuja were almost all the same: heavy rainfall, remote villages, smiling and welcoming people… mostly. But it was also the first time we met with groups of villagers with somehow hostile intentions. The ‘stickmen’, holding wooden sticks who block anyone’s way and ask for money, are not an official authority. As we learned later, they are villagers who live in the less remote areas, but with access to the Media, who demand their share of the profits from the various multinational companies whose trucks move around the country. To do so, they gather in unofficial roadblocks and force the companies’ trucks to stop and pay fees.
Why did they stop us, then? Because they couldn’t imagine that someone with no intention to harm them would pass through their town. On many occasions, we ran away from the stickmen just to fall into the hands of policemen at the dozens of official control checkpoints. Unfortunately, stereotypes concerning fear and ignorance, were not disproved.
In Abuja, where we stayed for about a week until our visas for Cameroon and Zambia were ready, we found out by pure coincidence how hospitable the motorbike community of the region is. While looking for a place to stay, we bumped into a member of the “09ers MC”, the largest motorcycle club in Abuja and we were invited for some beer at their place. They also found a hotel room for us and paid some of the cost, which was fantastic, but we were about to see for ourselves the less hospitable face of the country.
The next part of our trip was from Abuja towards the border with Cameroon in the south. We decided to head towards Ekok and leave Nigeria through a smaller and more quiet crossing. We had 600kms until the border and we were trying to cover the distance as fast as we could. We saw many beautiful places but as I see my limited photos now, I realize that we were too tired from the dozens of roadblocks where we had to unpack everything and then insist not to pay any bribes. The religious conflict between the north and the south of the country was also something we couldn’t ignore. At some roadblocks we found ourselves trying to prove our Christian heritage. In others, we had to show our passports while threatened by furious mobs holding sticks and yelling at us. In every situation we could understand that things in Nigeria aren’t simple. There is anger, huge injustice and unimaginable corruption that leads people into being aggressive towards almost everything. At one of the police checkpoints, we tried to explain that we were tourists, but we couldn’t have imagined that ‘tourism’ as a concept didn’t exist in that area, so the word ‘tourist’ was misheard leading to an awful misunderstanding regarding our motivations for the trip –Terrorists!
Unfortunately, my ‘terrorist’ beard got us into more trouble in the town of Gboko, around 250kms from Ekok, the last town before Cameroon. The minute we stopped outside a hotel to negotiate our stay, we realized that people were gathering around us. Suspiciously enough, the receptionist tried to convince us that there was no room available, but when we insisted that we had no choice as the night fell, he reluctantly gave us one. As usual, there was no running water so we took a quick shower using buckets. While getting ready to sleep, there was banging on the door and fifteen policemen dashed into the room. We were staring at them completely frozen, trying to understand what was going on. A young woman, a local who had also helped us with the reservation of the room, came and almost begged us to follow the policemen. We had no idea what was the best to do. They were fully armed and insisted that we should follow them to the police station for our own security. When we got down to the lobby, Mary, the young woman who had decided to help us under any circumstances, explained that the group of people outside the hotel thought we were terrorists and had threatened to go inside and lynch us! But, who was Mary? Could we trust her? She insisted upon coming with us to the police station. “That’s it, we are being kidnapped!” I thought and gave up.
This article was first published in Issue 18 of Overland Magazine.