Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nwanne di na mba

All over West-Africa, people tend to overestimate the maximum speed of our motorbikes. Nigerians are no exception. We were told several times that – with our machines – the distance between Abuja and Jos could be covered in two and a half hours. Since Jos lies 313km ahead, this implies an average speed of 125 km/h. We wouldn’t be surprised at all if some Nigerians can achieve this, but we certainly don’t even bother trying. Instead, it takes us more than four hours. Without stopping for photographs, that is, since we left late from Abuja and don’t want to arrive in Jos after dark. Once the chaos, dirt and poverty – successfully banned from the heart of the Nigerial federal capital, but spreading east for tens of kilometers in Nassarawa State – has subsided, the ride through the green and hilly region north of Akwanga is very pleasant. Jos Plateau State announces itself with some dramatic scenery: solitary rocks dotting the landscape as if they have fallen from the sky. Taking into account the higher altitude and thus cooler temperatures, it isn’t hard to image that this beautiful region used to attract quite a number of foreign tourists.

On the plateau, several military checkpoints are stopping traffic but waving us through. The heavily armed soldiers don’t feel the need to chat with us. “No peace, no progress” has been painted on the oil barrels blocking the road. Jos itself feels very relaxed: much less chaos and dirt than around Abuja. My cousin Cyril awaits us on the market of Angwan Rukuba. It is great to see a familiar face among the crowd. The following three days, Cyril takes excellent care of us. We are lodged and fed and shown around town. The architectural and ethno-historical museums and a nearby bird reserve are well worth a visit. Even more interesting for us to see, is how the crisis affects daily life. Whether it is a visit to the university campus, where the recent ethnically motivated stabbing of two students is still the talk of the day and the sorrow of the vice-chancellor, or the detours avoiding Muslim-dominated Bauchi Road. It’s also visible in the market hall that was burnt down in the first outburst of violence in the early nineties, causing the sellers to take in the surrounding streets. Houses left in ruins after their Muslim owners were chased from a Christian neighborhood. The nearly repaired roof of a bar in Angwan Rukuba that was bombed at Christmas Eve. The suspicious reaction to pictures taken near a private house. Or in a more positive way: a reconciliation project signposted on the street. The local media pick up our presence in town via Cyril’s contacts at the university. Their main questions are: why do people like us come to Jos and how do we like it? Our answers are broadcasted on radio, tv and printed in the twice-weekly Nigerian Standard.

To travel is to say farewell. Cyril comforts us with an Igbo proverb that used to be written on the back of the minibuses shuttling to Cameroon: “Nwanne di na mba”. There’s always a brother on the other side. The road to Bauchi seems to count more lunatic drivers than ever. Ghana was sometimes bad, Nigeria is often much worse. As Cyril’s landlady put it: “We don’t value life here, not even our own”. In Bauchi, crowds are rallying for the upcoming April elections. The atmosphere is heated, with decorated speaker cars being parked along the road, young men chanting and the presence of a well-prepared police force. In the center of town, traditionally dressed horses are lined up as if they were expecting some VIP. We don’t stay watching. As in Jos, little is needed in Bauchi for riots to be sparked.

Yankari National Park allows motorbikers to ride the 40km of tar road from the gate to the Wikki Lodge. Along the road, we stumble upon a herd of fluffy waterbucks. We haven’t come for a safari though, having heard that game are rare and shy because of ongoing poaching. The main attraction here are the Wikki warm springs. It’s a weekday, and we have to share the springs only with a family of thirsty baboons. At least they aren’t shy…

After Bauchi State, we go further northeast. The temperature rises slowly, vegetation gets more arid, roads are a little more potholed and herds of cattle and camels grow bigger, all of which indicating that once again we are entering the Sahel. Borno State is particularly known for its legislation based on Sharia. We are shocked to see 3 year old toddlers wearing long headdresses, but otherwise men and women do not seem to interact any differently at first sight. A female senate candidate is even particularly well represented on the billboards. However, alcohol is not available and women of easy virtue, prostitutes, hawkers, harlots and commercial sex workers (sic!) are not allowed in our hotel in Biu. It is known that some people, including the Bokko Haram sect, wish for a stricter adoption of Sharia and have resorted to violence and terrorism to obtain their goal. All of this explains why the special forces manning the road blocks here are – unlike Operation Safe Haven in Jos - conducting Operation Flushout II!

For more pics, see album "Nwanne di na mba".
Riding through Maiduguri, we are happy to find shadow under the nicely smelling neem trees lining the boulevards. Even on the market the atmosphere is friendly. The Immigration Services stopping us on the road towards the Cameroonese border genuinely wish us a safe journey. We are about to leave Nigeria – via the horribly degraded road through the semi-desert on the shores of Lake Chad - but with a good feeling. So much for Operation Restore Our Reputation Abroad. Ok, I have to admit, we aren’t blind: locals pay bribes at virtually all police check points, one policeman from notoriously corrupt Lagos asked us for one but didn’t insist anymore when he saw Isabel, and the filling stations other than the state-owned NNPC are blatantly cheating with wrongly calibrated pumps and incorrect pricing. But even organized stealing goes with a smile and a joke. Nigeria has certainly left an impression.

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