What comes to mind when you hear Nigeria?
Well, that’s not surprising. However, allow me to introduce you to the Nigeria I saw.
Before I do that though, I will shamefully admit that until I experienced and explored Nigeria, the things that would have come to my mind would’ve been Boko Haram, population, economy, corruption and oil. Whilst these do exist, these aren’t the things that define Nigeria. This country has so much more to boast and to be proud of that the global perception of Nigeria seems to be blatantly unjust. I have only travelled to 6 out of the 36 states in Nigeria and spoken to as many locals everywhere as I could, so through this blog I will attempt to paint a picture of what I saw in this country. Pardon my obvious generalisation here as I am sure some of you already know a lot more about Nigeria. Hopefully this will be a short and interesting read for all of you.
Personal security seems to be a big concern when one hears about Nigeria. I remember every single person who knew that I was going to Abuja, expressed their concerns on kidnapping and Boko Haram. I don’t blame them as I’d have done the same. Media is selective and one must remember that no news is good news. I will keep the debatable security issues out of this blog just because I don’t want to distract you from seeing a more real picture of Nigeria. Only a simple note to say that so far I haven’t felt scared or intimidated or have had any other reasons to be too concerned about my own security.
People. Nigerian people are some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever met. People here enjoy a laugh and are largely very social. The formal way of greeting here is “You’re welcome” and during the first few weeks I didn’t know what to reply with. I still don’t know and all I do is smile and ask them “How are you?”. Every single time I have gone running outdoors, I’ve been greeted warmly by the people who pass by. Make no mistake though, you have to be wise when you start speaking to a stranger here, as you are never sure if they have a hidden agenda. Having said that, such warm reception brightens up your day a little bit. I don’t have to speak back or even stand there and listen to anybody, it’s just a simple smile from a stranger and a muted hello and you start feeling just a little bit more spirited. All of these are great observations but what really struck me is the story behind these smiling faces. I don’t want to make this too emotional but one really needs to acknowledge that Nigerians feel cheated through decades of misalignment between the people and the government. Due to years of false promises from the policy makers, people here have become cynical and resentful towards the higher authority and feel hard done by. Amidst all this adversity and economic turmoil if people still find a reason to share a smile with a stranger then that has to be one of the purest forms of humanity.
Food. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I love Nigerian food just yet. It is too spicy for me. Jollof rice i.e. rice infused with tomato flavouring is the first Nigerian dish I tried and I have to say it seemed like a glorified version of a common Indian dish called tomato rice. I am not a huge fan of rice per se but I can still see what the fuss is all about. It is something you can eat just on its own as it doesn’t have to be supplemented by anything else. So, it is easy to cook, cheap to buy and satisfies the appetite. It is for everyone. I find it a very diverse dish as it goes with everything and everywhere. The main and the most traditional staple food here is pounded yam, which is meant to be swallowed with soup. Apparently Anthony Joshua’s secret to fitness is homemade pounded yam. I am not sure if pounded yam alone can make you as fit as him but I haven’t had enough of it to make such statements either ways. Fried fish is another delicacy and people here would swear by it when you speak about Nigerian food. I struggle with fish in general as the small bones always seem to find a way to get stuck in my throat causing me to temporarily choke to death. Suya, similar to a kebab stick but 300 times spicier, is another go to food here. Suya has to be one of my go to foods too, but an alternative, less spicy version. Add to the mix is plantain, which seems like raw banana, is eaten deep fried with anything and everything. I have eaten more rice in the last 3 months than I have had in the last 3 years.
Weather. Hot, humid with a few hours of thunderstorm and torrential rain causing flooding, immediately followed by bright sunshine and humidity. The large, proud and arrogant grey clouds cover the sky in no time. When it rains, it really does rain. It’s loud and attention seeking. It’s meant to get hotter and drier from November onwards, so I’ll wait and see. The rain does bring with it a refreshing vibe and the loud noise awakens your deep and slumber emotions. The smell of the wet grass, the mud and the droplets on the leaves brings out that extra bit of positivity. All you need is a cup of tea.
Scenery. My very first experience of Nigeria i.e. ride from the airport to the hotel was quite an experience. I couldn’t believe how lush green everything is in Abuja. The roads are wide with proper road signs and traffic lights and there are trees on either side. I then thought that perhaps Abuja being the federal capital state is the reason why infrastructure is so good here. I was expecting the rural parts of the country to have less greenery and rather more arid and dry landscape. Katsina is one of the north most states that I have visited and that’s the only place which seemed a little bit arid. Every other state I have been has a lot of greenery. Even today I find it quite surprising that the scenery of Nigeria is a lot more uplifting than what I initially had in mind.
Not everything in Nigeria is perfect, beautiful and inspiration though. Whilst I have many great stories of optimism and belief that I’d like to share, there are also many areas of concern that I think is important to share to provide you with a more rounded outlook of the Nigeria I saw. A few things that really jumped out to me are mentioned below.
Visa. Not my favourite topic but it’s a really important one. Visa to come to Nigeria or continue to stay is Nigeria is a nightmare process. It’s hard to comprehend how it can be so complicated. It comes back to the very first thing I mentioned in this blog about the inefficiencies in the implementation of the government policies. People applying for visas don’t fully understand as the information is not clearly posted on any web portal. People issuing the visa, at least the ones I interacted with, don’t fully understand the different categories of visa that exist. Such a chaotic system doesn’t allow one to freely organise holidays or even take a flight at will. It restricts you in this technologically advanced modern era where tourism, travel and holidays are at a new high.
Traffic. Like all other places in the world, traffic here depends on where in Nigeria you are. Saying Lagos traffic is pretty bad would be an understatement. The constant honking does bring back memories of Indian roads, not really a memory I want every single time I step in a car though. If at all the cars wait for the green light, there would be 6-7 cars next to each other on a two lane road. Accidents happen far too often. Due to the high frequency, road accident injuries have lost its seriousness in this country, something I find very disturbing. I am not entirely sure how responsive the emergency services are but there was an incident that I saw in front of my eyes and I felt completely unequipped with information to help anybody.
Plastic. I am not sure why it is the way it is but the use of plastic in Nigeria is alarmingly high. It takes less than 5 minutes of being in the country to see how much plastic is being used. The road sides are generally clogged with thin plastic bags, plastic bottles and all things plastic. Any open space is full of plastic waste. Supermarkets will give 20 plastic bags for 20 different items. I also think that there is lack of education about the use and abuse of plastic, which results in largely non-existent conscience for plastic use. I haven’t done any research on this but I believe there isn’t a great deal of recycling happening either. Use of plastic in Nigeria needs to reduce ASAP.
Economic inequality. I don’t want to go into the details of why it exists but the fact that it exists at an outrageous proportion is very disconcerting to the naked eye. Abuja and Lagos are two states where the inequality is ridiculously dramatic. The street I live in has many other massive, monument like houses, mostly owned by government officials and then there is an incomplete building where around 3-4 families of 30 odd people have taken shelter. Kids from those poor families are always on the street and they never seem to get tired of smiling. It’s a feeling that is not easy to explain in words.
It is a sad reality that value of life isn’t the same everywhere in the world. It’s totally unfair but it is startlingly real. The happiest and the richest (without money) bunch of kids I have ever seen in my life have been in Nigeria and the most cynical, unhappiest and the poorest (with money) bunch of adult citizens I have ever seen in my life have also been in Nigeria. This really sums up the Nigeria for me. Nigeria is merely a shadow of what it can be. The power of Nigeria is in the people, their passion for the country and their desire to make it big. Right now though, people whose drives to make money overshadows their integrity are the ones hogging the headlines that Nigeria is making in the global platform.
I’ll soon add photos relevant to each section.