Nigeria is a large country on the west coast of Africa, about one thousand kilometers east-west and north-south, spanning from the wet coastal regions to the dry northern Sahel. Nigeria has officially 80m people and unofficially up to 200m people. Lagos itself has over 18m people. The other large cities in Lagos are Ibadan (once the largest in Africa), Abuja (the seat of government, created in 1972 mainly to move power away from Lagos and the Yoruba generals), Port Harcourt (the oil capital), Kano, Benin City (not Benin the country).
People and Culture
Its population is varied and the main groups are the Yoruba in the south west, the Ibo in the south east, and the Hausa-Fulani in the north. There are many other groups and subgroups and like most Africans, Nigerians identify strongly with their village, district, tribe, and state. In gross terms the army is historically controlled by the Yoruba, the state by the northerners, and business by the Ibo. Lagos is in the south west, and the heart of Yoruba land. However you will find all people in Lagos, the Hausa-Fulani recognizable in their long robes and headcaps. You may with time get to recognize a 'typical' Ibo or Yoruba face.
The city sits on a river delta and covers a number of islands, then expands into the interior for a vast distance. You will rarely cover this except by plane when you leave. The districts in Lagos that you will probably visit: Iganmu, location of the Company in Lagos. Surulere, next door, great place to buy African clothes. Lagos Island (the original city) is just a totally crowded ghetto of old colonial buildings that you will drive through on your way to Victoria Island (VI), location of most of the interesting places to go out. Ikoyi, where the company residences on James George street are located. Ikeja, on the way to the airport and location of some larger nightspots such as Night Shift and Motherland.
Currency and Money
The official currency is the Naira (NGN). The black-market exchange rate is about 140N per USD, 125 per EUR or so. Common notes are the 100N, 200N, and 500N. You may still get 20N or 50N notes and these are useful for tips and small purchases. However, 200N or 500N notes are useful to avoid big bulges in your pockets. You can also spend USD, but beware - the smallest USD note (5$) is worth more than the largest common Naira note.
You can exchange money at the Company at good rates – ask to see the Treasury Manager (TM). You can also change money at various places such as the Eko Hotel in VI - not at the main hotel cashier, which give the official rate, but in the small market at the hotel street entrance, where you can get the black-market rate. Make sure you know what that is, and change your money before 7pm to get the best deal. Before traveling, make sure you have some dollars or Naira for emergencies. US$50 should be more than enough. When you travel to work for the Company, they cover all your costs (even beer) - all you need is spending money. You should allow US$200 per week if you like to enjoy life.
Nigerian money changers accept Euros. Leave your credit cards at home. You cannot use them and there is a good chance that someone will find your wallet, copy the card numbers, replace everything carefully, and then hit you with a $1500 bill of Internet purchases. Do not take other papers, such as identity cards, diving license, etc. unless you need these to get to or from the airport at home.
Traveling to Nigeria
Before you can travel you must have a valid passport and an entry visa. The procedure for getting a visa is as follows:
- The Company sends a fax to the Nigerian embassy in Lagos, formally inviting you and promising to cover your costs.
- You get a letter of introduction from your employer or a person of good standing.
- You get a visa application form from the Nigerian Embassy that you fill-in in duplicate, and attach two photographs.
- You take the application form, passport, photos, and letter of introduction to the Nigerian Embassy.
A visa takes 1-2 days. There are single-entry visas and more costly multiple-entry visas valid for 3 months. We will normally arrange all this for you except the passport and photographs. Before leaving make sure you have a departure and return reservation and that your flight details have been sent to the Company at least a few days in advance.
On arrival you must complete a blue immigration entry form. You can state your address in Nigeria as 'Eko Hotel, Lagos'. Your purpose is 'business'. It will take up to an hour to retrieve your luggage on arrival, so my preference is to take a large wheeled bag. In business class you can take two articles and one can be fairly large (up to the size of a small suitcase).
Arriving in Lagos
At the airport, there will normally be someone from the airport protocol staff waiting for you at the end of the arrival corridor. He or she will take your bags and passport plus entry form, and take you through immigration and customs. This seems redundant as the immigration and customs officials are uniformly friendly and efficient. If the customs ask you what you have in your case, reply 'personal effects', and offer to open the case. They will wave you through. Give them the chance to demonstrate their grace. Any arrogance on your part will earn you a full search.
If for some reason there is no-one waiting for you on arrival, proceed through immigration and customs, and wait outside the main doors for thirty minutes or so. The planes from Europe arrive around 5pm. You do want to move before it gets dark, which is around 7pm. If no-one comes to pick you up (and whoever it is, they must know your name and know that you are coming for the Company, simply do not get into a car with someone who does not state clearly that they are from the Company), ask the officials at the airport door to get you a taxi. You can expect to pay about 2000N (or USD15) to get to Iganmu in an official taxi. You do not want to hunt around for anything cheaper when you are carrying baggage.
In Lagos the main language is Yoruba, with English spoken by most people and Ibo and Hausa spoken by people coming from the east and north. The English accent is uncommon and takes a little getting used to. Pidgin English is a broken language spoken by many people, with typical West African melodies and effects, like the "oh!" at the end of phrases.
Here are some simple pidgin phrases you may hear or want to try:
- Potakot = Port Harcourt
- How you dey? = How are you?
- Body fine? = How are things?
- Nawa-oh! = Wow!
- Oyeeboh-man-oh = White guy (not insulting)
- Sorree-oh! = Sorry
- I don go = I went
- He don eat = He ate
- Barman, give me shak-oh! = Barman, a beer please!
These are some useful Yoruba words:
- ekaro = good morning
- ekasan = good afternoon
- ekurole = good evening
- odaro = good night
- odabo = goodbye
- ekojo meta = long time no see
- ejo = please
- eshe = thank you
- beni = yes
- oti = no
- mio lowo = I have no money
- kilofe? = what do you want?
The Company will normally lodge you in one of three places: the accommodation center at Iganmu, about 100m from the headquarters; the James George visitor's center in Ikoyi, or the Meridian Eko hotel in VI. The choice is arbitrary, depending on the availability. Since the Eko Hotel costs about USD200 per night, the Company uses this as a last option.
The Iganmu accommodation center is most convenient, since it's a five-minute stroll to work. It has a nice pool, and friendly staff who will be happy to talk to you. However, you will have to be ready to eat breakfast and supper on time, and when the building is full of drinking, smoking engineers from eastern Europe it can become very tiresome.
James George is much nicer and used for visiting directors. You have a personal cook who will make you what you want. However, many people complain that they are stuck there. Make sure you have a driver if you stay at James George.
The Eko hotel is very luxurious, with a large pool, three restaurants, and a big bar. It is convenient for accessing the Lagos nightlife. Unlike the quite personal environments in Iganmu and James George, you may find the Eko to be crass and vulgar (see Culture Shock, and Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll). In all three places, the Company will pay for anything you want to eat or drink. Do not abuse this hospitality.
There is no public transport in Nigeria except some battered trains. You should be careful but not paranoid when taking taxis. The Company should normally provide you with a car and a driver, especially if you are staying in James George or Eko. Your driver is mainly there to take you to and from work, but will also take you around town in the evenings. Remember that after work he will have to drop the car off and then make his way home, which could take hours (see Getting Around). He will not mind taking you around until 3am occasionally, especially if you tip him (see Using Money). It is not recommended to travel between VI and Iganmu after midnight, but many people do it anyhow. If you are staying at the Eko, it is only a few minute's drive to many nightspots, and you can get taxis just opposite the hotel. Take either a yellow taxi or one of the gray Peugeot cars.
The average daily wage in Nigeria is probably around EUR1. Keep this in mind when you pull out your packet of Naira. A taxi drive from VI to Iganmu should cost between 300N and 600N depending on the time of day and the current cost of fuel. You should never pay more than 1000N for a taxi drive anywhere except possibly when you arrive at the airport. A beer will cost from 80N to 200N depending on where you drink it. A meal in a simple restaurant will cost 200-400N. A meal in a fancy restaurant will cost 2000N to 4000N. If you want to tip someone, such as a taxi driver, give him 50N. If you want to give your driver money to spend while you are at the beach, give him 200N to 400N.
As a white person ('oyeeboh-man!') you will be expected to give presents to all and sundry. 'What have you for me, sir?' is a common greeting. You do not need to dash anyone, even the police who man road blocks at night. Just be polite and smile like Gandhi and be ready to shake everyone's hand. The police often set-up road blocks at night, to reduce the risk of armed bandits, and to get small bribes from drivers. I presume they pay for the rights to these locations. However it is very rare to run across a policeman that insists on receiving money from a foreigner. Just glide the window down, shake the policeman's hand, and he will probably smile and wave you on. Nigerians are very polite and sympathetic even if they are all thinking about how to make money from you. There does not seem to be any hypocrisy involved in this.
It is rare to find something for sale at a fixed price except for food and drink. Everything is negotiated. Learning to judge the price of things is a fine art and the act of negotiation becomes a fun part of shopping. Typically, any price quoted will be two or three times too high, and sometimes up to ten times too high, twenty if you say you are German. The best way to learn is to shop with a local companion. As a rough guide, most goods and services should cost about 20% to 30% of their cost in Europe.
When you want to buy something, tell the person what you want and ask the price. They will state a price that is 50% to 100% too high. State a price lower than what you expect to pay. For instance, a taxi driver may ask for 1000N, offer 150. He will say, no, 600. Offer 200. He will say 500, no less. Offer 250 and walk away. He will say 'what is your best price', and you can then offer 300, which is what you intend to pay. You may find yourself haggling over 50N (EUR.50) or less.
Remember that generosity is one of the privileges of wealth, but only a fool pays too much for a good or service.
Your first visit or two to Nigeria will either make you hate or love the place. It is hard to be ambivalent. Lagos is especially dirty, loud, chaotic. The motorbikes, or okadas, fit incredibly loud truck horns and the streets are jam-packed with okadas, pedestrians, lorries, taxis, mini cabs, all screaming to get into that small space and honking like drunk Italians on a winning football night.
Occasionally you will see drivers arguing and occasionally someone may shout at your driver or hit the car with a fist or stick. Do not react or get involved. Do not get out of the car unless there is a real risk in staying seated – e.g. your car has broken down in the middle of the motorway. Most of Nigeria is much calmer, but you will most likely remain in Lagos, so some adaption is a good idea. Lagos is a very large and confusing city. It is not always obvious which areas and times are safe, and which unsafe. Do not go exploring alone. Always go either with your driver, or a companion, and preferably both.
You will find yourself treated like a VIP. You have your personal driver, someone to cook and serve for you. You will look around you and see the streets filled with people who are obviously struggling very hard to make that average of EUR1 per day. There is no obvious reason why you should be so lucky, and they so unfortunate. There are two typical reactions to this. Firstly, to conclude that the reason must be that Africans are stupid, lazy, and dishonest. So, if they can't organize their society better, it's their own fault. The second typical reaction is to feel that this is fundamentally unfair, and that privilege is an insult to people who obviously work very, very hard, and yet do not enjoy even the basic levels of comfort – power, light, space, time, food, health, water, education – we take for granted.
Unfortunately, neither of these reactions will help you to function in Nigeria. It is simplest to accept the basic situation – you are lucky to be rich in a poor country – without becoming arrogant or blind to the many positive aspects of the humanity surrounding you.
Nigerian society is incredibly complex and has some real problems. Anything that is not locked down and guarded will be stolen. In government, business, and society, might makes right. People with power use their power to enrich themselves, and this fact plus the precautions others use to prevent such activities form the basis for the structures within which people work and live. Why is this? Probably the main reason is that it is difficult to form any trust in the future. Jobs are cheap, so people can be fired at a moment's notice. When an employee makes a mistake he will be fired. So people avoid risks and look for opportunities to steal.
In many ways Africa and Africans can be understood thus: the continent is effectively a prison. Aware Africans know they are trapped. They see foreigners with a mix of blame, envy, admiration, and desperation. They treat their own situation as one of captivity, and escape as their obvious and unrelenting goal.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll
Nigeria at the start of the 21st century is like Cuba before the revolution. Except that there will be no revolution in Nigeria. Anything and everything you could want is for sale here. When I once asked an intelligent and well-educated girl why she went 'clubbing' (meaning going to nightclubs to pick-up men so that they will give her money for sex), she said it was the only way she could pay for her school. School is a joke in Nigeria: teachers are frequently on strike, and female students are often treated as part-time sex workers. In a classic company outing, a sales manager will organize a minivan full of girl students to accompany the guests.
Much of what is 'normal' social activity in Nigeria would, In Europe, be called 'prostitution' and all parties in the affair would be considered social degenerates. In Central and West Africa, it is normal for a man to give presents and money to his girlfriends, and normal for women to make money by selling what they have. It is useless to debate morals when you have such differences between societies. As a visitor to Lagos you will be confronted by this situation so you may as well take the time to try to understand it.
Some tips. Avoid smokers. If you buy a lady a drink, this is an invitation. If you just want company and not a companion, say so. Nice girls won't mind, the professionals will look for a better client.
Now for drugs. The best widely available mild intoxicant is beer. My personal favorite is "Star" beer, called "shine-shine bobo" in pidgin. Insist on it cold. The colder the better. Don't get too drunk. Raise your glass often but take small sips. Avoid hard liquor – you do not want to get badly drunk in a place like Lagos, and Heineken, because it causes too many trips to the toilet.
Of course there are also other substances to abuse. Kola nuts are sold by street vendors, small green or brown nuts. You break them in two, bite a small piece off, and chew. Kola is bitter and works like coffee, a mild stimulant. Nigerian ganja is, by all accounts, quite good. Apparently you can get small amounts of this stuff in the tourist shops outside the Eko Hotel, by asking the money changers. Though legality is not much respected in Nigeria, you would be foolish to smoke ganja in a public place: you would discover that the law can be enforced very stringently when necessary.
Rock and roll: the Lagos music scene is pretty good. Check out Tarzan's on Sunday evening for great Makossa (Congolese music causing much movement of the buttocks), Club Towers on a Thursday night for an excellent live band, the Night Shift in Ikeja on Wednesday night for live African music, and Lakbaja – a famous sax player – at Motherland.
Places to Go, Things to Do
Eleko beach is a long drive east along the coast – about an hour – but it's worth it. A great programme is to drive to Eleko on the Sunday morning, spend the day in a cabin there, drive back around seven, and spend the evening at Tarzan's, which is on the way into Lagos. At Eleko you can rent a beach cabin for about 1000N, and eat grilled chicken, suya beef, and drink the one-and-only Shine-Shine-bobo. They also have nice coconuts for 20N.
Lekki beach is a lot closer to Lagos, along the same road, and more 'popular', in the sense that is is fuller, dirtier, livelier, and has a market that is fun. Both beaches have boys with ponies, and if you like horse-back riding, it's great fun to gallop along the beach trying to pretend you are controlling the horse.
Both beaches have inviting waves, and the temptation to swim may be strong. Do not go into the water unless you are a good swimmer and you are used to wild water. The beaches are very steep, so the waves collapse rapidly and return to the sea rapidly. It is hard to stay in control when such huge volumes of water are being thrown around, and people regularly drown. With some luck you can body-surf the waves so that they carry you right up to shore, but if you're unlucky the same wave will tip you on your head and force about ten liters of salty water and sand through your nostrils. This is called a 'sand job' in technical parlance. It does clean out the sinuses, though.
There are also occasionally rip-tides, which are currents that drag you quickly out to sea, a hundred meters or so. These are very scary and easily lethal but in fact are straight-forward to escape – just swim laterally (sideways) for twenty meters or so, and you will escape the tide. Do not try to fight a rip tide or you will die. The water can also be polluted with plastic bags and random litter. Try to not swallow or breathe these in.
Nigerians do not generally swim. They leave this to the foreigners, so the good news is that if you brave the ocean, you will (a) be alone, and (b) the object of much admiration when you finally manage to escape the waves and get your feet back on land.
Another beach is Taqua Bay, which you can only reach by boat. There are cheap boats for hire on Lagos Island – you can chose a private boat or a cheaper shared boat that is slower and – well, slower. The boat will carry you across the harbor, which is full of large ships and large waves. If you are easily seasick or scared by the prospect of your boat falling still while a twenty megaton tanker is bearing down on you, avoid Taqua Bay. However, it's like anything interesting, there is some risk involved. The beach itself is nice, less open than Eleko or Lekki, but calm and with gentle waters that people do like to swim in. It has the standard assortment of green, blue, and white plastic bags in the water.
Back in town, the best – and only – espresso bar is in Mega Plaza, upstairs. This place also has great take-out pizzas in the evening. If you need coffee, try to swing by Mega Plaza. Don't confuse this with Murphis Plaza, which has no coffee, but has a pleasant night club upstairs, karaoke and music, and live makossa on Friday nights. In Surulere, Affi's restaurant has excellent Nigerian food – see next section – and is open at lunch time. Finally, if you drop past the Y-not Club and Bar (see SD&RR), say hi to the manager, Tony, and try the Lebanese coffee, which is great.
Nigerian food is not amazing. Just a few points west on the map, in Togo, the food is much better, mixing dishes from Ivory Coast, Senegal, and so on. Nigerians like their food Nigerian.
The Nigerian meal invariably consists of a lump of something starchy, and a bowl of something soupy, containing chunks of something that once crawled, walked, swam, or crept. Add some beer, toothpicks for desert, and you have the basis for an infinite variety of dishes, where 'infinite' means at least 120, being the total combinations of available ingredients.
At least thirty of these combinations are delicious. Sixty are tolerable, and the remaining thirty are disgusting and you should smile and say 'European food, please'.
The starchy ingredients ('bulk') are:
- Pounded yam. This is inoffensive and yellow and quite nice. Think of sticky mashed potatoes.
- Eba. This is a purple/brown dollop. Think of sticky mashed potatoes with something funny added.
- Amala. This is different from eba, but my memory tells me it is also purple and brown. Anyhow, never confuse eba and amala.
- Foufou. Like the CFA currency, foufou changes from region to region. In Nigeria it is white, tasteless, and therefore harmless.
- Pounded rice. It's just that – white rice, cooked and then mashed into a paste. It looks like foufou, but tastes like rice.
- Pounded plantain. Rarer, but quite nice. Sweetish.
- Fried plantain. Sweet and nice, but simply fried. None of that sophisticated 'fry once, dip in garlic, reheat oil, fry a second time' stuff you see in other places. If you ask specially, you can also get boiled plantain.
- Rice, boiled, not pounded. You will find rice served together with fried plantain, since neither is a 'real' bulk food.
The sauces ('soup') are:
- Egussi soup. This looks like a plateful of slime collected from one of the more creeeping-crawling meat ingredients. I don't know what it tastes like, since I've never managed to swallow the stuff. It's actually made from crushed egussi melon seeds, so is in theory harmless. Disgusting, nonetheless.
- Edikaikong. Nice, green, somewhat like spinach with character. Go for it.
- Palm oil no. 1. I don't know what this sauce is called but it's the most prevalent. Red, oily, onions and tomatoes, often served with fish, rice, plantain. It's nice, especially with a dash of some hot pepper.
- Peppasoup. 'Pepper' is the word. Often served by itself like a European soup, sometimes the basis for a meal. I like it.
- Bitterleaf. The name says it all. This is some plant with bitter leaves. In my copy of 'Ye Tradionale Plantes and Herbes', 'bitter' usually means 'likely to be poisonous' and this says it all, I think.
The meat ingredients are:
- Dried fish. This is good, tasty, salty, and safe. Watch out for the small bones.
- Fresh fish. Can be good. There are some restaurants that serve fresh catfish, you choose one, they cook it, you eat it.
- Chicken. Again, a good safe choice, and tasty.
- Cow leg. Yes, this is the name. I don't know what happens to the rest of the animal.
- Grasscutter, or bushmeat. This is a large rodent – something like muskrat – that lives wild. It's not dead monkey or something. Bushmeat is tasty and chewy.
- Snail. Large, chewy, tastes something like beef liver. For some reason, every country has a 'delicacy' that is frankly disgusting. In France it's Camembert. In Britain it's tripe. In Nigeria it's egussi soup with snail.
The Company staff will make a valiant attempt at serving European food. Spaghetti Bolognaise, fish and chips… the choice is not great. Ask for cow leg with peppasoup, they'll love you.
You can also find some nice restaurants in town. European-style food is generally served at European prices, or more. There are not many African restaurants. Takeaway pizza from Mega Plaza is a good stand-by.
Street food is actually not bad. Suya – spicy barbecued beef strips – is good. Barbecued chicken is worth the money at midnight when you are on a 'night out'. During the day you can find roasted plantain or roasted corn, depending on the season, nice snacks if you're unable to get something more serious to eat.
Health and Safety
The Company has a doctor and a medical department and if you get sick you should get help there. Do not expect to find competent medical assistance anywhere else.
You need the usual vaccinations before leaving. You can also take anti-malarial drugs such as Paludrin. However, you must in any case protect yourself against mosquitoes, and many doctors now suggest that it's wiser to focus on preventing mosquito bites in the first place, leaving drugs for treatment if you are unlucky enough to get malaria.
Use a good anti-mosquito lotion with a high percentage of DEET. Apply to arms, ankles, ears, etc. before going out in the evening. Mosquitoes sleep in vegetation by day, and start to get hungry around 6pm. If you have very good eyes, you can try to spot the females – they are the ones that bite. Leave your room windows closed, airco on, and door closed. Before sleeping, check that there are no insects hiding behind curtains, on the walls, etc.
In the Company buildings the water is filtered and safe. You can actually drink it. Elsewhere, drink bottled water or beer.
Never eat watermelon. It's amazing how often this is served, considering that it's a great way to get dysentery. Watermelons do not filter their water, unlike most other fruits. If the water in a country is not drinkable, the watermelon is not edible. If you're served a fruit salad with watermelon, give it back.
Do not eat cold prepared seafood. Try to stick with hot food. Street food – suya, grilled chicken, roasted plantain, these are safe.
Do not eat salads except in the Company. Salads are washed with tap water. Do not accept ice cubes in your drinks (except in the Company, etc. etc.)
These are straight-forward precautions that apply to all travel in the tropics. Don't get phobic.
The raw force of the African experience can destabilize the unprepared foreign mind. At the least it will take you a week to adapt and recover from the shock of the place. If you travel for the first time, try therefore to stay two or three weeks. Longer starts to become risky, a type of Stockholm Syndrome can set in whereby empathy for the African situation turns to self abandonment and for some, loss of identity.
You cannot, except at a high cost, make permanent friends with Africans in Africa. The cost is a heavy dependency that expresses itself in every phone call, every email. The prisoner cannot treat a free person as an equal. As a foreigner you have the capacity to free your African friends. That is, to organize visas for them, invitations, sponsorships, and eventually, permanent residence in Europe via marriage or subterfuge, followed by years or decades of support, encouragement, and help. Either you act, and that will change your life in ways you did not plan, or you do not act, and then your friendship is meaningless.
Unexpectedly, Africans do not for the most part either feel sorry for themselves, or angry at foreigners. In my experience they have an extraordinary capacity for resistance, for positiveness, for finding pleasure and joy even in the most difficult of circumstances.
It is this capacity which the astute visitor can try to learn, and perhaps take back home.