Narrated Audio Blog
Told in the collective first person, jointly from Stu and Janell Clarke's perspective.
A few days before leaving Benin we ran into a biker who told us about the motorcycle clubs in Nigeria and gave us the contact details of Queen, a prominent female biker. We contacted Queen to get some information about the border crossing into Nigeria and tried and organise a meetup. Queen was very responsive, but being located in the capital Abuja was well off the main route through Nigeria. However, she asked a friend and the president of the Lagos club, Paul, to reach out to us. Paul messaged us straight away and told us that he was unable to meet us at the border but would make sure we were taken care of by his friend Blessing. Once through the border we were to head to our accommodation and Paul would meet up with us after work.
The exit from Benin was pretty straight forward, apart from the immigration officers asking for a €10 exit fee each. We normally know when a fee is simply made up because the legitimate fees are easy to find online and the fake fees are also commonly mentioned. We didn't know either way if this was legit but from the body language of the officer it was pretty obvious. When a border official asks for a fee while looking at his feet its most likely he's making it up on the spot. But still it wasn't going to be as easy as saying no. He insisted that we needed to pay, we'd been through this before and were happy to just sit and wait. After 10 minutes, as anticipated, he got sick of us and just gave as a telling off and told us to leave his country. Fine with us.
As soon as we parked up at Nigerian immigration we were met by Blessing, he walked us through all the many offices required to get us through this complicated border. Being only a year or so after the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa a health check was also carried out, but only on paper, Janell wasn't even seen. The bike import was very interesting, we were not travelling with a Carnet therefore should have been issued a Temporary Import Permit. There was a lot of confusion from the customs official, he couldn't work out what to do with our UK registration papers. Not wanting to look like he didn't know his job, he simply stamped and signed the papers with the carnet stamp, took a photocopy and gave it back. No charge. Great!
Once we finished we asked Blessing what we owed expecting that he was a fixer but he said nothing, Paul asked him to be there and so he was. We had a good feeling about these bikers.
It wasn't far to Lagos, maybe 100km, and the road was good quality so we should have been there within an hour. But not the case, we must have passed through over 20 checkpoints, some not even out of view of the previous. The checks varied but police and military still dominated. Amongst them were passport checks, vehicle checks, health checks and even a veterinary check who almost waved us through before noticing the dogs. The government had started to crack down on corruption, at least at the lower levels. At the border and all along the road to Lagos were signs telling people not to pay bribes and providing a phone number to use to report corruption. This was obviously working as no money was ever directly asked from us. They did, however, ask if we had anything for them, a round about way of asking for money, but as soon as we said no they quickly changed the topic and asked us to move on.
We arrived in Lagos just in time for peak hour. Lucky us. We'd booked accommodation through AirBnB and found the address surprisingly easy. Our host for the next few days would be Fola. As well as letting out a few rooms, Fola was an architect and ran an import business selling small kitchen appliances imported from China. He had an old school bus parked in his front yard which he had transformed into a restaurant and was very proud to show off. Our booking had included breakfast, but Fola insisted that every meal was included and if we were not in for a meal he would have something put aside for when we returned.
Fola had one other guest during our stay, Nori from Japan. Nori had been staying with Fola for a few months learning about and absorbing the Nigerian culture. He was a keen photographer and took some excellent photos during our stay.
Paul arrived later in the evening on our first day in Lagos, and Fola welcomed him to stay for dinner. Over dinner Paul said he would organise a few rides to show us around his city and insisted he take us out for dinner before we leave. It seemed an opportune good time to tell him about a few issues with Janell's bike that we wanted to get fixed before leaving. Guess what? Paul was not only a mechanic but ran a very successful workshop. Before we knew it, Janell's bike was booked in.
Fola became fascinated by our story and quickly organised for a local newspaper to come by and interview us. Next was national TV, but Fola had a special plan for this. He simply said that if we booked a few extra nights he'd take us on a road trip, we could either go with him in his landcruiser or we could ride. Fola kept inviting more and more people on this road trip and it quickly got to a stage where we had no choice but to take our own transport. Included in his invitees was a reporter and cameraman from Channels TV, a Nigerian independent 24-hour news and media television channel.
Unfortunately Janell's bike was not finished with its repairs in time for the road trip so we travelled 4-up on Stu's bike, not the first time by any stretch. Paul organised for a biker to meet us along the route so we wouldn't be the sole bikers, but he wouldn't be with us the whole trip.
Our first stop was Ogbomoso where we entered the palace of the local King. The introduction was very unusual for us. Men entered his throne room first and lay face down on the floor. Then the women could enter and kneeled behind the men. The purpose of this formality was to ask permission for an audience with him. Putting yourself in this position reduced any threat of attack to his life while he considered our request. The King was a lovely old man and was as thrilled to be meeting us as we were to meet him. He gave us permission to look around his grounds and in particular to meet his tortoise which was said to be 345 years old. No we didn't ask to see his birth certificate. It was here that our biker friend said his good bye and we did in fact become the lone bikers.
We spent the night at a nearby hotel which had been designed by Fola. The owner, a good friend of Fola, put on a great spread followed by plenty of drink and we all relaxed in an outdoor setting sharing some great conversation before retiring for the night in preparation for what would surely be another exhausting day.
The next day was supposed to be a visit to Erin Ijesha Waterfall and then the long ride home. But our visit to the waterfall, including an interview by the news crew, went over by a number of hours. Fola's brother ran a hotel nearby and it seemed reasonable that we just continue the excursion. So without any consultation we were booked into another hotel for the night wondering if we would ever return to Lagos. Oh well, as long as they accepted dogs we were happy.
After 3 full days of riding around South Western Nigeria we were finally taken back to Lagos.
We had to make an emergency visit to the vet the very next day. Shadow's lip was swollen and she was obviously in a lot of pain. Finding a vet wasn't difficult, we simply Googled and went to the nearest. Shadow had picked up an infection and we knew exactly where from. On the first night of our road trip while eating outside, the dogs were with us on their leads and despite Janell's best efforts to prevent scraps making their way into their mouths Shadow had gobbled some fish with small bones. One of these fish bones pierced her lip and made it bleed. She was upset about it but had seemed harmless enough at the time. The good news was that it was easy to fix by removing the pus surgically followed by a course of antibiotics.
Once Shadow was sorted we headed to Paul's workshop to pick up Janell's bike. While at the workshop we met John, a Nigerian businessman having his car serviced. Paul told him all about our travels and John insisted we be his guest at the Afrika Shrine for Femi Kuti's performance. It all sounded exciting so we happily accepted, it just meant that we needed to extend our stay a few more days. We were told it was a big event and Stu was carrying a collared shirt for just such occasions. Janell on the other hand had absolutely nothing appropriate to wear. Teresa who worked for Paul in the office surprised Janell on collection of her motorbike with a dress she had bought for her to wear to the concert. Janell was speechless, it was perfect and it fit. How could she do that after only a few conversations when Janell struggles to buy a dress for herself after years of practice. It had to be said that Teresa had impeccable taste and style.
The extra time in Lagos was well spent, Paul took us out with some local bikers and we had dinner at Fola's Chief's house. A very interesting experience indeed. Culturally Nigeria couldn't be further from Australia, but on the individual level people are all mostly kind and friendly and just want to look out for one another. Meeting with African bikers really brought that home. We'd often have so much in common, we loved to ride and socialise and hospitality was always so warm. A lot of the differences were irrelevant or just extreme cases of our very own culture.
Time came for the Femi Kuti concert. We ended up having quite a crowd including Paul and some staff from his workshop, Fola and his entourage of friends and the local chief. John was happy to welcome all to the VIP area where we had an exceptional view and direct access to the bar from which John ensured the French Champagne flowed freely. The experience of the concert was for the most part just like any concert we'd been to back home. Everyone in the crowd was dancing and enjoying themselves as Femi Kuti played song after song.
It had been suggested that we may be invited backstage after the concert to meet Femi Kuti and that he was made aware of our presence. We honestly didn't know anything about Femi before being invited to the concert but we were told a lot about him and his work with UNICEF and as a human rights activist. Towards the end of the concert, Femi used the opportunity to address the audience. The message was for the most part that there should be a push back on Western cultural influence in Nigeria and very specifically that the idea of equal rights for women was not in the best interest of Nigeria. This seemed to be in sheer contrast to his work as a human rights activist.
When the concert ended we did receive the invitation to join Femi in his backstage suite, an invitation he would be sure to regret. We were given instructions before he arrived on where to sit, how to speak to him and what to talk about, this isn't unusually in the very hierarchical cultures of Africa.
The meeting started off very civil, we got some photos together and just talked generally about what we'd seen and done in Nigeria and Africa as part of our world tour. Then Stu, always willing to partake in a human rights debate, couldn't resist questioning Femi's speech. Femi didn't back down at all, pointing out the obvious difference between men and women and asking if Stu could have a baby. After Stu acknowledged that there were differences between the genders, Femi went on to argue that each country should protect their culture and that it was the will of Nigerian women to preserve the rights of men to marry as many times as they wished, regardless of how previous wives felt and effectively treating women as property. Stu argued that culture could be used to justify many abuses but finally realised he was not going to convince anyone of anything that night and so conceded to the cultural argument. We all shook hands and headed home for the night. Although it ended on a bit of a low, the experience provided a very unique insight into the Nigerian culture and that of Africa that would otherwise have been hard to see.
The day we left Lagos was the day the news report was aired on national TV. For 24 hours the 5 minute segment played every half hour. It was clearly a slow news day. Stopping at fuel stations and supermarkets became a whole new type of experience where people would come over wanting to talk not out of interest for the bikes or the dogs, but because they'd seen us on TV. However, in the poorer communities where you find yourself most of the time and where access to TV is limited the response was as it had always been, mostly from children.
The road network in Nigeria was one of the worst we'd seen, traffic either didn't understand or didn't conform to the rules. At one point riding down a dual carriageway Stu checked his mirror, looked over his shoulder to make sure the fast lane was clear before pulling out to overtake, he was then faced with an oncoming semi trailer belting along the motorway in the wrong direction. Stu quickly pulled back in just in time. The road surface was also far below standard, even for Africa. Potholes were just a given, some the size of a car or bigger. In other parts the surface had completely deteriorated resembling more of an uneven dirt road. Worst of all were the puddles, even in built up towns, that could swallow the bikes if the wrong approach was taken. Being the only route, trucks would venture through, exacerbating the problem.
Our last stop in Nigeria was to be Calabar where we'd find the Cameroonian consulate and obtain our visa. We arrived late on Friday so would need to wait until Monday to visit the consulate. This was fine, we needed a break from the hectic ride across Nigeria. While at the supermarket picking up supplies for the weekend we met Fidel who had seen us on TV. He was now living in Chicago but visited regularly to conduct business. We ended up spending a fair bit of time with Fidel over the next few days as he showed us around his part of the country.
Come Monday we were ready to move on and so got to the consulate nice and early. To our surprise this visa was produced while we waited and with very little hassle. We had heard that it would be easy but weren't expecting this. We could have left that day but we'd already booked that night's accommodation and had made plans with Fidel so it would be a Tuesday departure.
The country certainly has its problems which don't seem to be going away any time soon, and the existence of the hierarchical system within their culture seems at least to an outsider to be preventative of positive change.
All in all our stay in Nigeria was a positive and happy experience. We had been exposed to and embedded in the local culture in a way few others would have experienced. At all times we felt safe, even riding around Lagos at night. We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went and made good friends who we hoped to stay in touch with.
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