Personas Non-Gratas in Nigeria

Yes. Incredible as it may seem, the Nigerians have decided that we are not welcome in their country.

When calling the Nigerian embassy in South Africa two months earlier, they assured us that we can apply for a Nigerian visa here.

“You must have spoken to the security guard,” said the unfriendly lady behind the bullet-proof glass in the Johannesburg consulate. Unfortunately, she was in charge of the visas that day.

“The security guard? Are you stupid?”

Like a captain for a football team, I had to pull Eduardo back. Arguing with a consular employee is never a good idea.

I tried to reason with her:
“I’m sorry, but we have bought tickets to Lagos based on the information we received from another employee here. Maybe there’s something you can do? Perhaps we can speak with your supervisor?”

“What? My supervisor would get very angry with me if I asked him about something so stupid.”

She wouldn’t budge. Eventually we gave up.

When exiting, the security guard offered to sell us visas for R4,000 (four times the actual price). So maybe the lady was right – perhaps it was really he who picked up the phone when we called, knowing he could make some extra cash.

The next day we also found out that Bellview Airlines, the airline we were supposed to fly to Nigeria with, had gone bankrupt.

Which means we’re not going to Nigeria.

End of story.

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Nigerian Visa Part II – You Can Get It If You Really Want

“I can help you get a Nigerian visa!” The words sounded sweet, but it wasn’t the first time we had heard someone promise to help us to get the elusive document. But when Prince, a Nigerian living in Cotonou mentioned that he is friends with the ambassador, things started looking a little more promising. Only moments earlier, he had greeted the ambassador’s wife, a guest at his Benin Independence Day Celebration Party at the Obama Beach in Cotonou. So he seemed to be telling the truth.

Eduardo and I looked at each other. Maybe this was our chance. Maybe it would work out this time. Lagos was among the top reasons why we had decided to come to West Africa, and once again it seemed our dreams would come true. Maybe.

Our hopes faltered pretty quickly, as the “ambassador” turned out to be someone called Daniel that perhaps worked at the Nigerian Embassy, but wanted $800 to help us get the visas. We offered $300, but Daniel declined. Alas, we were back to square one.

But, wait a second! During our “negotiations” with Daniel, we had gotten in touch with a lady in Lagos who had read my blog, and she offered to provide us with an invitation. With Eduardo’s Peruvian passport (there’s no Nigerian Embassy in Peru), and the invitation, we decided to try on our own.

If the Togolese visa officials are corrupt, wait until you meet the Nigerians. The huge man in a bright pink shirt was intimidating. His face convulsed in mixed expressions of anger, surprise and ridicule. He stood up and leaned forward towards us, threatening us with his entire being.

“Why didn’t you get your visa in Peru?”
“There is no embassy there.”
“Who says there is no Nigerian embassy in Peru?”
“The Nigerian Government’s Immigration web page”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is.”
“Mr. Duarte, don’t you know you can call the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out if there’s a Nigerian embassy in Peru?”
“Well, no.”
“So how do you know there is no embassy in Peru?”
“There isn’t.”
“So why didn’t you go to the nearest embassy in another country?”
“It’s in Brazil [we made this up, we didn’t know]. That’s on the other side of the continent. Like how far Ethiopia is from Benin. It’s an eight hour flight.”
“Well, you should have gone there. I can’t give you a visa. You don’t fulfill the qualifications.”

After some begging, pleading, unscrupulous flattering, fake smiling, etc., our man said he can help us get a visa the unofficial way, but it’s going to cost us. He just had to talk to some friends at the border to make sure it was OK. He was lying, of course, trying to make us sweat.

After a twenty minute break, Eduardo was called in by himself to negotiate the fee [“it’s easier with men”], and we ended up paying only slightly more than we had offered to pay Daniel.

We finally did get our visas at the low cost of $320 (plus another $20 paid at the border, where we were interrogated in almost an identical fashion). Because the Nigerian visa process doesn’t end when you get the visa at their corrupted embassy, you have to cross the border, too. And they have all the power to deny you entry, if they feel like it.

So, yes, you can get a Nigerian Visa if you really, really want it!

Lagos – Staying Safe in the ABC Bus Station

It’s engraved in my DNA to have no fear. Or if I’m feeling skittish, to face the fear and overcome it. So however many stories I had heard of Lagos being dangerous, I just didn’t believe it could be so bad. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Eduardo is different.

On the bus from Cotonou to Lagos, Eduardo chatted with the man next to him.
“In Lagos, you cannot leave your house after dark.”
“There are so many young people taking hard drugs, that when they rob you, they would just shoot you and kill you.”
“I would invite you to stay at my house, but I’m afraid someone is going to see you and will attack me because I have white friends.”
“When you get to Lagos, you have to stay in the bus station over night, because it’s not safe to take a taxi at night.”

Of course Eduardo listened to all this, and believed it. When two nice ladies from Abuja told us they were also staying in the bus station over night, to catch a taxi in the morning, it sealed the deal. I was furious. But having just arrived in a country that is rumored to be one of the most dangerous in the world, you would be stupid not to listen to the locals.

So, we had another real African experience and slept on the hard metal benches in the bus station together with fifty or so locals and millions mosquitoes. Eduardo tried to get some sleep on top of his backpack. Many people just slept on the floor.

In the middle of the night it started raining hard. The roof of the “ultra-modern”, recently built (in 2006) bus terminal, was leaking. The toilets overflowed. Outside, the streets started filling up with water.

At 9 a.m., after more than 12 hours in the bus terminal, when the rain finally stopped, we finally managed to wade through the water to hail a taxi. By that time, the flooding was so bad, that water came through the doors of the car and we had to lift our feet to keep dry.

But we were safe.

Better safe than sorry? After that night from hell, I would say I was both safe and sorry.

Lagos – The Incredible Generosity of Nigerians

Mention Nigeria to anyone, and they will think of scammers . Most people have received a letter or an email from a widow of an ex-president of some X-nation, asking them to provide a bank account number so that they can transfer X-millions, all for a handsome commission, of course.

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Some unfortunate people have fallen in love with a fantasy person online, only to find out later a Nigerian scammer wrote the letters.
And in Nigerian internet cafes, they even have signs saying “no scam emails, please.”

No wonder then, that when I received a comment on my blog from Lolade (a Nigerian), saying she could help us with anything in Nigeria, the first reaction was that she might be a scammer.

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Lolade then sent us an invitation to Nigeria, and asked us to Google her to provide some credibility to her person. Lolade definitely did exist. There was no question about it. She had two web sites, and newspapers had commented on the books she had written. But was the person communicating with us the real Lolade? Or had someone stolen her identity? There was no way to know, so we had to take a leap of faith.

When we first arrived in Lagos (thanks to Lolade’s invitation), I called her. She sounded real. I even thought she could be my new best friend. But when she said she will send a driver to pick us up, and please bring our money and passports in case they break into our crummy hotel, we weren’t sure. We decided to take a pass (and rest after a night in an even crummier bus terminal).

The next day, when Lolade arrived in person and hugged me, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. She was real. She was beautiful. And she was wonderful!

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From that moment, Lolade took over, and our stay in Lagos changed for the better (a million times!). We stayed at Lolade’s house, she took us bar-hopping, to concerts, to Fela Kuti’s house, we visited her country house, her cooks made our meals and we were taken care of as royalty. Thanks to Lolade we had some unforgettable experiences that we, as tourists, would never have had without her.

Lolade’s amazingly charismatic father (who looks like Nelson Mandela) said that he always gives people he meets something – whether it’s something material or spiritual. And he has passed on that sense of generosity to his children. Lolade and her sister Yemi go out of their way to help others, not only us. The sheer goodness of this family has definitely taught me a huge lesson and made me want to give back to any strangers I may meet in the future, like a “paying-it-forward” effect.

Interestingly enough, Lolade’s actions also had an instant-karma effect for her. A week after we arrived, her somewhat estranged aunt from Zurich called her to say Lolade could stay with her when visiting Zurich a week later. In addition, when Lolade went to see Andreas Vollenweider’s concert, she got the chance to go back-stage to meet him and his family.

As they say, what comes around goes around. All good deeds you do (and bad) get repaid three times over. Definitely something to think about.

However, Lolade and her family were not the only ones – all Nigerians we met on our trip were absolutely wonderful!

So, if you have the chance, you should definitely visit Nigeria!! Despite the corruption at the embassies and borders, it is totally worth it!

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Lagos – Fela Kuti’s Heritage Lives On

Elvis may be the King of Rock, Michael Jackson the King of Pop and Bob Marley the face of Reggae. But few people have influenced contemporary music like Fela Kuti, the founder of Afrobeat.

In the seventies, international megastars like Paul McCartney and James Brown made pilgrimages to Lagos to soak in the vibe of Afrobeat. This was an entirely new sound,. Even today, bands like Brooklyn’s Antibalas, Akoya, The Budos Band and the London Afrobeat Collective still pay homage to the now deceased Fela Antikulapi Kuti. And the musical “Fela!” is currently making waves on Broadway.

Our new best Nigerian friend, Lolade, grew up a couple of blocks from Fela’s house. As a child, she used to see him, smoking weed on his balcony in his underwear. So, when we knocked on Fela Kuti’s door, his widows happily invited us in. They felt that Lolade was one of them, a Yoruba. And with a few hundred Naira in their pockets, everyone was happy we came.

Fela Kuti lies buried in a pyramid-like tomb outside his crumbling four-story house in the Ikeja suburb of Lagos. But inside his house, his spirit still lives on. At 11 o’clock in the morning, the house is filled with marijuana smoke, and the forty or so people loitering are all feeling goooooood, no matter if they’re ten years old or seventy. Two of Fela’s twenty-seven (!) wives haven’t left his side, thirteen years after he passed away. Hungry for money – or just hungry – they flatter, kiss, and grab your butt to squeeze a couple of dollars out of you.

On the second floor, Fela’s dusty shoes are exhibited behind a glass screen, but no one has tended to them for years. A huge drum and a piano are pushed into a corner, and in one room there’s a place no one should touch, because that’s where Fela used to sit while holding court to all his wives. Or is it because the floor is falling apart, and if you step on it you might fall through the floor?

A couple of nights later we went to see Fela’s son, Seun Kuti, perform at the Terra Kulture. Having made friends with his posse a couple of days earlier at his father’s house, we got to meet Seun backstage before the show. Seun took us into a side room, and while he was getting his instruments ready, he kindly engaged in a long conversation with us.

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Seun said that when he grew up, there were always a “shitload of people” around, maybe 500 or so, in the Kalakuta Republic (Fela’s house). There was always music playing, everyone was smoking ganja, and people were quite happy.

Amazingly, Seun is the spitting image of his father. As a performer, he sounds a lot more than Fela than Femi, his more famous brother. When Seun wriggles around the stage, contorting his body, it’s easy to forget that it isn’t Fela standing on the stage in front of you. Seun’s powerful charisma sweeps you along. When he sings about corruption in the government you agree, when he says that marijuana is the best thing in the world, you find yourself nodding enthusiastically, no matter what you thought two minutes earlier.

The music overtakes you. The horn players blow their souls into their instruments, expanding the walls of the room and creating a perfect symphony. When the two female dancers shake their butts in mega-speed, you find yourself enjoying the moves, no matter how sexist they may be. It’s impossible to stand still. Your feet start tapping, and soon enough you’ll be swaying your body rhythmically on the dance floor, becoming one with the music.

We saw Seun live in New York’s Central Park, a couple of years ago, but seeing him perform in his own hood, in front of his local crowd was a totally different experience.

It was an amazing concert, a once in a lifetime experience, and one we will never forget.

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Kano to Zinder – How Many Bribes Can You Pay in Seven Hours?

Theoretically, the road from Kano in Nigeria to Zinder in Niger should take about three and a half hours. It’s not that far (200 km), and the roads are actually quite good. But when travelling in an overloaded bush taxi, African style, things change.

The Nigerien driver, Moussa, was not too happy when we brought three pieces of luggage to the bush taxi stop in Kano. He was eager to get our business, but tried his hardest to get us to pay extra for our bags. We refused. Since everyone else brought lots of luggage, we weren’t quite sure what the problem was. Until the car started filling up.

Bush taxis are five-seat Peugeots that serve as public transportation between major cities. Often, this is the only method to travel in Africa. The goal of the driver is to cram as many people as possible into the car, and thus make as much money as possible on the route. Usually, this means three people sitting in the front seats and four in the back. But Moussa obviously needed more cash, so he made room for two women and a toddler in the trunk. The luggage was spilling out from the back, tied down with cords, and so we started our journey with nine adults and two children in a five-seat car.

Now, this method of travelling is not without problems, something Moussa must have taken into consideration when calculating the risks vs. gains. In Nigeria and in Southern Niger, there are police checks in every village. Given the bush taxis are legally only allowed to carry six passengers (and only carry as much luggage as would fit in the trunk), this gave the police a good reason to stop the car and get their bribes. In every village, at every police check along the 200 km route, Moussa paid the police a bribe of about a dollar. Which meant that every single policeman on the route, both Nigerian and Nigerien, was corrupt, and that it’s simply an accepted fact that no one even questions any longer.

However, the most interesting situation happened about 10 km before the border, at the Nigerian customs check. Suddenly the car stops, three men get out and get onto moped taxis. All the luggage is reloaded to fit into the trunk, and the poor women in the back finally get to sit on proper seats. We drive 2 km, and the car stops again. The men who had driven away on mopeds are sitting under a tree waiting. We reload the car and the two women get to go back into the trunk again.

Apparently, if the customs see that your car is overloaded, you need to pay a fine of 10,000 Naira (~$60). Unluckily, someone tipped off the customs guy, who caught us as we were reloading the car. A bribe of 2,000 Naira satisfied him.

Strangely enough, the immigration officials at the Jibaya border crossing were of the honest kind, and Eduardo and I didn’t need to pay any bribes this time. Phew!

So, in this style, seven hours and twenty-thirty bribes later, we arrived in Zinder, Niger.

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Lagos – Center of the Jesus Fan Club

The greatest cause for traffic jams in Lagos, is the Sunday flood of people to the Christian Church of God. The church, with over 4000 parishes, is the biggest church in Nigeria. And its Redemption Camp on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is the largest parish of them all. More resembling a small town than a church, it boasts a university, a cinema, multiple stores, and an auditorium seating 1.2 million worshippers.

But the Redeemed Christian Church of God is just a single droplet in the sea of Christian fanaticism. Everyone seems to use God as their personal insurance policy, holifying their children by giving them virtuous names like Heaven, Gospel and Hosanna. They name their restaurant “God Is With Us” or their shoe shop “Jesus Power”. Even the minibuses and taxis are adorned with phrases of adoration: “God’s Time Is The Best”, “The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength” or “Go and Sin No More”, as if this would guarantee accident-free rides, no matter how badly they drive.

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Most of coastal West Africa follows this trend of “Jesus Insurance”, but in Lagos it really comes to a climax. People are literally drunk on Jesus worship. No matter where you look, you see slogans like “Fear God”, “God So Good” or “His Goodness and Mercy Shall Follow Me”.
On every block, there’s at least two churches. No bars, no restaurants, no cafés; only churches.

One man, thinking he was like Daniel in the bible, went into a lion cage believing that the lions wouldn’t eat him because he was a man of God, was instantly devoured by the beasts. What a surprise!

But, despite their intense devotion to God, somehow their faith doesn’t seem to deter any of the crooks from stealing, the police from extracting bribes, or the men to cheat on their wives. I guess they really think it’s an insurance policy.

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