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!


Bamako – Hot Nights at Djembe

Mali is perhaps mostly famous for its music. People from all over the world congregate to the butterfly-shaped country to see superstars like Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Amadou et Mariam, as well as other, less-known talent.

In Bamako, where music seems to be a necessity of life, there are live music bars for any size wallets and tastes. Tourists and upper-class locals pack the expensive Le Diplomat every night, while others get their fill at places like Oumou Sangare’s Wassulu Hotel, Buffet de la Gare, Blonbar or Le Hongon. But during Ramadan, when everyone else closes shop, there is a place where the night really swings. In the Lafiabougou district, Djembe calls on the infidels with raw, powerful rhythms, and some of the best musicians we’ve ever heard.

Djembe is like an aging queen with a youthful spirit. Once upon a time, the locale must have been splendid with its art deco interior and lush garden bar. But it’s seems the place hasn’t been maintained in the last thirty years, and everything is pretty much broken or falling apart. Someone has punched a hole in the wave-shaped wall decoration, the couch-covers are ripped to shreds, the mirror-ball has lost most of its tiles, and the paint is peeling off the walls. The bathroom is the worst we’ve seen anywhere, with an unfastened toilet bowl hanging on its side, leaving a big hole at its base, wall paper rolling up due to humidity, and an unimaginable stench to go with it. Forget about being able to flush the toilet, wash your hands or lock the door. Not in this place.

But despite its gritty exterior, this place has a soul that’s hard to beat. When the djembe player starts beating the drum with alternatively soft, then hard slaps, having total control of the softness and loudness of the sound, it’s heaven. Accompanied by guitarists, kora players and a drummer, its easy to fall in love with the sound. It’s easy to think you’ve never heard anything sound that good before. But when the singer enters the stage, and starts wailing with a voice that sounds like the worst pain you’ve ever known, crying to the world with sadness of lost love, a broken heart, anger and the longing for retribution, you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. The music enters your body, your soul, and makes you part of it. You smile, you dance, you love.

The place starts filling up before midnight, and by one o’clock it’s jamming. Lots of men, mostly in the African-style long dresses and pants with bold, colorful patterns, and some with laced pajama-style wear. The few women, some girlfriends, some prostitutes, all wear the traditional style clothes with long sleeves and long skirts. Only one girl, as singer, wears a t-shirt and jeans. She looks really good.

A drunk man who is having a fight with his lady, dances alone on the floor, unsteadily marching along. Tall and cool, looking exactly like Malcolm X, he fascinates us with his moves, until he gets so drunk he crashes into tables, dances into the singer.

Most people don’t drink that much. They come to enjoy the music, hang out and be free. Some dance, but mostly this place is about listening to the band. And man, is it a good place!

Agadez – Sweating in A Not So Sleepy Desert Town

After only ten minutes in Agadez, we were ready to leave. We had just gotten off an eight-hour journey in a steaming bus, chock-full of people with “interesting” body odors. Outside, the scorching desert air hit us like a hot wall, so we quickly checked into the only hotel still open to tourists. But when we turned the faucet to take a refreshing bath, there was a hissing sound, but not a single drop. No water? Panic! This place was not only hot as hell, this was hell.


But there was air-conditioning in our room in the ancient mud-made hotel, and it’s incredible what a difference a drop in temperature can make. After cooling down, and bathing with water from a bucket, things didn’t seem so bad. So we stayed.

Agadez used to be the main tourist destination in Niger. People would arrive by truckloads (and direct flights from France) to visit the Teneré Desert, the Aïr Mountains, and to see the male beauty contest during the annual Cure Salée festival in nearby In-Gall. But in the last three years, the Tuareg rebellion has put a stop to that. And although the Nigerien authorities have opened up Agadez to tourists again, most Western countries advise their citizens against travelling to Northern Niger.

However, visiting Agadez itself is still worthwhile. Walking through the old town with traditional Hausa and Tuareg mud-brick architecture takes you back hundreds of years. The inhabitants still live in dire poverty without running water and electricity, with a sewer system that consists of a pipe leading into a back alley. But it’s nonetheless an intriguing place, where behind every corner you discover something interesting, like an old man reading the Koran out loud, or teenage mother with a baby tied to her back doing laundry by the village pump, or a group of boys playing football with a ball made of dirty rags.

thumb_Kristi_Saa..SC_2861 Kristi_Saa..SC_2840

The center point of Agadez is a tall, mud-structure mosque, decorated with wooden beams sticking out on the sides, much like a cactus. For a “small dash”, the caretaker opens the gate and you can climb to the top via a narrow staircase. I crept through a small opening into total darkness. A swishing sound of wings just above my head made me stop. Then I heard the screeches. Birds? I ducked and climbed higher, slowly. As the light seeped in from above, I started making out the shapes of what seemed to be millions of tiny flying things. Bats!
“Eduardo!” I screamed. But he was still taking photos below.. Crouched down, and with my heart beating at super-speed, I ran all the way up, with Eduardo, now following me closely at my heels, was panting with fear, but laughing.
We made it to the top, unbitten, to enjoy the 360 degree view of the dusty town. And stayed for a while, knowing what awaited us on the descent.

The caretaker chuckled contently when we returned back down. We had not paid him enough for him to warn us about the bats.

While Agadez may not be the most pleasant place in the Universe, a visit is definitely doable by exploring the town in the early hours of morning and late afternoons, and resting during the hottest hours of the day. And we ended up loving Agadez!


Segou – An Oasis in West Africa

After travelling for over two months in West Africa, every town started looking pretty much the same: dusty, dirty lanes with mud-brick houses and rickety shacks. But when we entered Segou, Eduardo and I turned to each other, perplexed. What was this? Segou actually looked cute.

This small town of about 100,000 inhabitants should be a model for all cities in the region. Incredibly lush, with tree-lined streets, colonial style houses and numerous outdoor restaurants, it’s a perfect place to rest a couple of days on the long journey between Bamako and Mopti. We spent a couple of days walking along the banks of the Niger river, taking in the action at the port and enjoying a cold beer or two at the many bars. Eduardo also took on the local kids’ football team, where he successfully scored a goal. The goalkeeper was helpless, trying to catch the ball between goalposts made of a big stone and an empty can.


One afternoon, we took a moto to Segou Koro, a village that used to be the center of the Bambara kingdom, nine kilometers outside of town. With more mud-brick buildings and three small mosques, the most interesting part of the visit was meeting the village chief to whom you have to pay a visitor’s tax. Heaps of children followed us around, begging for money, candy, photos (for a fee, of course!), my sunglasses, or something, just anything.


Segou, on the other hand, stayed lovely. Although it was pretty dead during Ramadan when we visited, the town comes alive in early February when it hosts Mali’s largest music event, the annual Festival Sur Le Niger. The rest of the year, there are plenty of live music places to dance the night away.

But the town redeemed itself on Eid Al Fitr, the end of Ramadan, when the little boys, dressed up like gangsters in their new suits, walked around town. Suddenly everyone was happy and smiling again, after a month of daytime starvation.

So if you ever find yourself in West Africa, don’t miss Segou, the pearl of Mali!


Dogon Country – Wading through Rivers and Up Golden Hills


“Where on this map are we?” I asked our guide on our first night in Dogon country. Mahaman pointed to Teli in the Southern part of the Bandiagara escarpment. “But weren’t we supposed to start at Dourou?” Mahaman shrugged. “There’s too much water there.”

I was furious. While discussing with all the guides before picking Mahaman, we had been very clear: we want to do the stretch between the Youga villages and Tireli, if doable. Mahaman was one of the only ones who said “Yes, no problem.” I wasn’t sure at what point he had changed his plan, but once in Dogon, there was no way to change the route. Dourou was 20 kilometers away, or a four day hike.

The problem with Mahaman was that he spoke decent English, but didn’t really understand any. When we asked “How come there aren’t any monkeys here ?” he would reply “There are mangoes, apples and bananas in Arou. When Eduardo wanted to know “Why do men treat women so badly here?” Mahaman answered “Women can get married when they are sixteen, but men when they are eighteen.” And when we asked to see the cave with the human skulls, Mahaman took us to a souvenir shop where we could buy masks. Even when communicating in French, he would only explain things written in the most basic guidebook. In other words, Mahaman sucked as a guide.

Dogon country was supposed to be the highlight of our visit to Mali. By far the most expensive part of our journey, we figured it would be worth it just to see the “fascinating animist culture with traditions and cosmology as complex and elaborate as any in Africa”, as Lonely Planet describes it. But Dogon, for us, was nothing like that, as we didn’t learn anything new about the Dogon culture at all.


Our discontent grew by the hour. The first night, we decided to sleep inside as the thunder and lightning in the distance threatened heavy rain. But it was so hot in the tiny mud-hut, with only a miniscule window, that we couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning for hours, we didn’t fall asleep until the rain finally fell. The peace didn’t last long. I woke up from a peculiar sound from inside our room. I turned to see what Eduardo was doing, but he was sleeping. A few minutes later I woke again from the same sound and looked at Eduardo. He was still sleeping. “Eduardo,” I called out, “I think it’s raining in…” Eduardo opened his eyes and stared at me. “I know,” he said angrily. “It’s raining on me.” The mud roof, as I guess should be expected, was not waterproof. And, no, we didn’t get much sleep that night.

But the landscape was beautiful. Due to the rainy season, the fields were lush, and there were plenty of waterfalls sprouting down the 200 meter high escarpment. Climbing up the steep path to the Benigmato plateau was tough, but worth it. The volcanic red rock obelisks carved by the wind and waters over a million years changed colors with the sun, and you could see across the plains all the way to Burkina Faso. On the third day (and unfortunately the fourth day, as well) we climbed down (and up) a narrow and murderously steep pathway through a crack in the hillside, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful sights we have ever seen.

Kristi_Saa..SC_3120 Kristi_Saa..SC_3160

On the last day, when we wondered (again) where the caves with human skulls were located, a Dogon man who only spoke French, Dogon and Bambara, finally understood what we were looking for. He explained that the burial chambers are located in Kundu (where we had originally planned to go). But, to his great satisfaction, and our big surprise, he opened his bag and unwrapped a package that contained – a human skull! Photo opportunity, at last! He just didn’t understand why we didn’t understand why we didn’t want to buy it. “On peut acheter. Ya pas de probleme!” he kept repeating.

Back in Mopti a couple of days later, we met a guide that actually seemed to know his stuff. He was born and bred in Dogon, spoke good English and could answer any questions we had about the Dogon cosmology. We almost considered going back and taking another tour with him, but decided not to because of the heat. If anyone needs a Dogon guide, we warmly recommend him: Seck Dolo,

Mahaman, although really a nice and caring person, kept disappointing us. At the end of the trip we made a deal; I would give him my Peru football t-shirt, and he would give me a traditional African outfit. I kept my part of the deal, I’m still waiting for his…


Baba Sacko and The Importance on Doing Internet Research

“I heard you’re interested in doing a trip to Dogon?” said the round-faced man in a shiny purple “pajamas” outside our hostel in Bamako. “Well, maybe,” I answered reluctantly. “Well, I’m going there on Thursday, and I already have an Italian guy and Japanese girl interested, so you should come along”.

Baba Sacko talked a good talk, spoke good English and seemed to know his way around Mali, so we listened and took him under consideration. The price was high but negotiable, and the timing right. But just before sealing the deal, Eduardo and I needed to discuss. Was Baba the right guy, did we like him, and how much did we want to pay? So we did what we always do – a background check.


“DO NOT travel with Baba Sacko”
“Baba Sacko is a douchebag”
“I completely agree that Baba Sacko is a liar and thief of the worst degree”

The comments weren’t very nice. In fact, there was not a single positive word about Baba Sacko. But were the comments about the same person we had met, or could there be two guides with the same name? Then again, how can it be possible to be a guide for twenty years and not a single person recommends you?

As Eduardo and I were contemplating next steps, Baba Sacko walked in the door of the internet cafe.

“So, have you decided?” he demanded, eager to make an easy $500.
When we d confronted him with all the terrible comments about him on the internet, Baba shrugged. “That’s not me,” he insisted, as we had guessed he would. “Besides, I’m not a guide, I’m a Director of Marketing”
But someone had specifically mentioned that this horrible Baba was indeed a Director of Marketing, so we apologized, and told him we just could not take the risk of using him as our guide to the Dogon country.

Coincidentally, we got to know a German guy a couple of weeks later. He had met a Baba – most likely the same man – at the airport. This Baba warned him about the dangers of Bamako and instead brought him to a guide-infested hostel in a small town outside of Bamako. One night, when taking a walk, one of Baba’s guide friends offered him a drag off a joint. But as soon as the German guy put the joint to his moth, a police appeared to arrest him. Panicked, the German guy called Baba, who arrived in a minute and told him to pay 500 Euro or go to prison for ten years. The German guy paid, packed his bags and escaped, not knowing that he had fallen victim for a common scam.

Hearing his story, whether it was the same Baba or not, we felt lucky we had done the research and had the wisdom to turn down this thief.


Mali – Riding on the Buses from Hell – Part Two

“We’re going to die in here!” Eduardo moaned after five minutes on our way to Mopti. He was probably right. With no air-conditioning and no open windows, the bus was suffocatingly hot. I tried to calm him down. Surely it would getter better soon, when the bus started driving faster, and we would catch a breeze from the open front door.

The problem was that the bus never really started moving. It took us an hour just to get out of Segou. Every two minutes the driver would stop to pick up new passengers and cargo. You want to ride with us? No problem. No space? Well, you can sit on a stool between the seats. No free stools? OK, you can sit on top of someone else. That’s fine. No worries. Just pay me, and you can come along.

The bus advanced at snail’s pace. Truly. Everyone was picked up. Everywhere. Even if we had just stopped one minute earlier, we stopped again. After half an hour at the bus terminal in San, we stopped right outside the gate to pick up more people, then again at the next corner. We picked up people, boxes, carpets, motorbikes, furniture, goats, chicken. Anything. And the more people entered, the hotter it got. We were bathing in sweat, barely being able to breathe, like sitting in a sauna fully dressed.

After three hours on the road, Eduardo was furious. “Hey driver, stop picking up more people!” he screamed into the driver’s face. “We’re dying in here!” But the bus driver and conductor just laughed. They didn’t care. They were making money. No one else in the bus said anything. They just sat there, silently suffering for ten long, unbearably hot hours.

But if the West African buses are hell for humans, the animals fare far worse. On our return ride to Segou, the bus stopped to pick up a man and his cargo. The poor goats were carried as bags, their legs tied together, hanging upside down. When they hurled the screaming goats onto the roof, and they crashed down on the hard metal, I wanted to kill the bastards. Those self-righteous, greedy monsters didn’t deserve to live. But I bit my tongue. My protests, especially being a woman, would not be heard. I was nobody, and unfortunately could not change a culture where men only respect men, and women and animals have no rights.

I spent the rest of the ride unsuccessfully trying to filter out the wails of pain from the goats as they bounced on the hard roof over the potholed road.

And, yes, I did cry.

Previous Older Entries