Entering Nigeria: When Pre-Conception Creates Fear
I sit on the foot of my bed. The soles of my shoes swing carelessly inches above the dusty tiled floor of my Beninese hotel room.
“Shit” I say to myself looking down at the light hairs standing on the top of my knees. I’ve forgot to put my pants on before putting on my sneakers. Part of me wonders if I’ve done this subconsciously to avoid the inevitable journey ahead. I’m still weary from malaria, but it’s the destination rather than my well-being that has me rattled. Rather than unlacing and re-lacing I struggle for a dozen or so minutes to squeeze my shoed feet through my overly tight blue jeans, navigating them past the hole I carelessly ripped in the crotch the other day.
I stand up, toss my camera bag on my back, my backpack over my shoulder, and squeeze the handle door to exit my room and enter the world outside.
My heart is racing and I keep thinking to myself “am I really about to drive a scooter into Nigeria?”
Nigeria’s reputation stands on wonky ground and I can’t help but feel worried about the road ahead. Stories of corrupt police officers and highway checkpoints are just the beginning. These roads are littered with bandits I’m told, these highways are scattered with thieves and the like. Before leaving Accra a man warns me of kidnappers, another tells me to stay clear of highways: “if you drive on them with your scooter, you’ll die.” Few people mince words when talking about Nigeria.
I’ve always held myself to a certain standard, one in which never passes judgement before experiencing. However, Nigeria has me scared.
After skirting through the Beninese countryside I come across a small post which hangs down over the road and a little sign that dances in the wind below it: Welcome to Nigeria.
After a couple detours for stamps, chats and countless welcomes, I’m on my way. A series of immigration huts are lined up a couple kilometers into Nigeria. At the first, a well-dressed doctor explains to me that though I should have proof of vaccination for my Hep-A and B but he believes that I’ve taken them and I move on. I’m not entirely sure what the point of the second hut was meant to be, but we spend my time there laughing as I explain to them that I will be driving this scooter to South Africa. I show them my GoPro camera and they laugh at the distorted form of their faces in the LCD screen. In the final hut, an old man who is hard of sight explains to me how he is the Nigerian version of the CIA, but has a hard time reading my writing and hardly seems fit to walk, let alone hunt down spies. He blesses my journey and I’m on my way.
“That’s it?” I can’t believe that this is the famous Nigerian border, that these are the so-called ruthless forces that dig into the pockets of anyone who dares cross past. Not a hint of a bribe. Not a touch of funny business. Nothing but smiles, welcomes, laughs, and a little bit of curiosity.
I drive Anne Murray through the landscape which starts to hill in the west of Nigeria. The road winds and climbs over beautiful passes of greenery. Cement bridges cross calm rivers in which I wonder if crocodiles swim. I pass a couple police checkpoints. Again, it’s nothing but laughter and some light-hearted joking.
I have no maps with me, no GPS today, and on multiple occasions I find myself at a junction with no clue whether to turn left or right. Without prompting aide, strangers walk up to me and ask if they can help point me the right way; they don’t let me leave until I’ve repeated the directions to prove they are clear.
“Nigeria is brilliant.”
I know it’s only been a week. I know that I might feel a little bit differently a couple days from now. However, the one thing I’m reminded of here in Nigeria is something I’m constantly reminded of as I travel: the world bears not judging by those who have never walked it.
So often we let our pre-conceived notions get the best of us. All too often we listen to the worried words of people who have never been to the places they talk about. Perhaps part of the problem is our educated need to have an opinion on everything. Perhaps we feel that it is our duty to know the world even if we haven’t had the chance to explore it. Perhaps mankind is inherently xenophobic and forms opinions to make it seem we are not. Maybe we can blame it on the media and their need to portray the negative to sell newspapers. Whatever it is, I feel a little bit embarrassed that I let it get to me in the case of Nigeria. Sure, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns here, but, at the end of the day, I’m proud of myself for not allowing the fear of the unknown keep me from discovering a little bit more about the truths about Nigeria, the truths of our world, and really the truths of my own self-conscious.