‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.
I know what you’re thinking – “Nigeria, really? The source of all my spam emails asking for my bank details in exchange for seven million dollars? Home of systemic government corruption and also Boko Haram? That Nigeria?”
Yes, that Nigeria.
Nigeria’s reputation as a *place where bad things happen* is notorious, and it’s not just a Western construct. Nigeria is widely and unfairly vilified by other African nations, and many Togolese, Ghanaians and Cameroonians will advise you simply not to go there. But is Nigeria really that bad? Are there places there that are worth seeing? The answers are: 1) no and 2) absolutely.
Where is it?
The most populous country in the continent, Nigeria dwarfs neighbouring Benin, and shares its northern borders with equally massive Niger and Chad, with Cameroon to the east.
What can I do there?
For culture: Lagos
Nigeria is big, so it stands to reason that there’s actually a lot of cool stuff to do there, especially in the modern African metropolis of Lagos. Lagos isn’t the capital, but with its shiny malls, bougie neighborhoods and bumper to bumper traffic, it might as well be. There’s some top notch eating and partying to be done and you can get online cheaply and easily (a godsend if you’ve been in Africa for a while). Lagos highlights include but are not limited to:
Lekki Conservation Centre
Boasting Africa’s longest canopy walk, a visit to the Lekki Conservation Centre is a perfect half-day activity, and until you spot the high rises peeping over the vegetation, it’s easy to forget you’re in the centre of Lagos. Canopy walks can be an anticlimactic affair, but the walk at Lekki is engineered to allow for a serious amount of wobbling, and there’s a 20 metre high treehouse you can climb to, a delightfully health and safety-free experience. Cheeky guenons swing from the vines overhead, while snakes slither across the wooden platforms and into the marshes below. There also a big old tortoise which ambles around the place at will.
Nike Art Gallery
The Nike Art Gallery is simply one of the best galleries in West Africa. This four-storey building is so chock full of vibrant works its hard to know where to look first, and you may find yourself still climbing up and down the staircases after a couple of hours. There’s a modern sculpture garden outside, a wooden carvings section on the top floor, and many of the huge paintings are the work of pioneering artist Nike Okundaye, the founder of the gallery and one of the most influential women in African art.
If the pieces in the Nike gallery are a little out of your price range (and the price tags are high) take a wander through the art section of Lekki Market and support some young Nigerian artists. There’s sections for jewellery, tailoring and plenty of shops selling paintings and prints. The trick is to visit a few shops, try not to be too suckered in by the hard sell and pick out the unique works from the cookie-cutter prints.
For taking it easy: Calabar
Calabar is the antithesis to Lagos. This quiet, riverside city is the capital of Cross River State, and is clean, green and gorgeous. A perfect night in Calabar would be grabbing some suya fresh off the barbecue at one of the myriad street food stalls, before heading to the Marina Resort, a collection of quiet bars along the riverside. Nigerians are often keen to discuss the country’s colonial and slave history with visitors, so you can get clued up at Calabar’s two slave museums – the Slave History Museum and the National Museum.
For nature and wildlife encounters: Afi Mountain Drill Ranch
Arguably the best eco-initiative in Nigeria, Afi Mountain Drill Ranch is a monkey sanctuary and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places you could hope to stay in the country. Located deep in the jungle of eastern Nigeria, Drill Ranch is home to hundreds of drill monkeys and nearly thirty orphaned or rescued chimps. You can take a tour around the massive jungle enclosures before embarking on a sweaty, expertly-guided hike up the mountain, through caves once lived in by jungle tribes, past gorilla nests and sparkling waterfalls. The Ranch was founded by Americans, but is staffed almost exclusively by Nigerians, and the project supports the surrounding villages (where you’ll receive a hearty welcome if you pop in for a beer) by purchasing all of the monkey food locally. You can also visit Drill Ranch HQ in Calabar, a much smaller site but a good place to visit if you’re rushing through.
For scenic drives: Taraba State
With soft, rolling hills, red rutted roads and picturesque villages aplenty, Taraba State feels like a completely different Nigeria. In stark contrast to the evangelical Christian south, where the churches are as big as stadiums and the faces of celebrity pastors beam down from billboards, Taraba is a majority Muslim area. Women and girls in floor-length, day-glo hijabs and equally bright make-up swish down the streets, and local lads in kufi hats are keen to help if you get stuck in the churned up roads during the wet season. In the highlands the expanses of farmland look much more like New Zealand or Ireland than Africa, but the putt-putting of motorbikes up and down the isolated roads and the smoke of the street barbeque reminds you where you are.
Is the food good?
If you like it HOT. Nigerians are not afraid of spice, and everything from jollof rice to suya comes with an eye-wateringly generous helping of it. Pepper soup is a classic Nigerian dish, though Nigerians are often afraid to serve a full-force pepper soup to foreigners, so try to sample a legit one and an oyibo (white person) special if you can. Fufu (starchy dough-like paste eaten as a side with your fingers) is ubiquitous and you can find it being served along with tasty soups and sauces in even the teeniest of villages. If you’re heading to the jungle, you won’t find better bananas than the ones that fall straight off the tree in the misty mountains, there are a bunch of other mysterious and colorful fruits to be found too. From the very very bitter ‘bitter kola’ to the impossibly sweet red fruit seemingly known as ‘African sweet’ which grows underground and produces super-sweet, jelly coated seeds. Beware of signs outside chop shops in regional areas which read ‘404 is ready’ – it means they are serving dog.
Are the people nice?
If you don’t include the authorities *see below*, YES. Although there are plenty of ex-pat oil and gas workers in Lagos, tourists are easily distinguishable and very welcome in Nigeria. Nigerians tend to overestimate the amount of danger in the country, so they are a) very shocked to see you, and b) very pleased. We were told by many an African not to trust Nigerians on the basis that they were all scammers/criminals/just want money from tourists etc, etc. In reality, some of the most generous people we met were Nigerians, from the Land Rover dealership in Lagos who insisted on repairing our vehicle for free, to the guy in the highlands who loaded us up with bananas, said “Welcome to Nigeria!” and sped off on his motorbike. Nigerians are loud, proud, and fascinating to talk to. You’ll also quickly become enamoured with Nigerian Pidgin English, which substitutes ‘how are you?’ for ‘how far?’ as in, how far have you come? 419 (pronounced four-one-nine) refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing in fraud, and means scam, as in “don’t trust him, he’s a 419 guy”.
Is it safe?
If you stick to the right places. Due to the insurgency of Boko Haram in the north and the risk of kidnapping in prominent oil areas along the coast, there are a few places in Nigeria where visiting simply isn’t worth the risk, but large chunks of the country are open to travellers, and in places like Lagos, Benin City, Calabar and the Nigerian highlands you’ll feel totally safe.
Nigeria has a serious problem with corruption, and if you’re driving through, you can look forward to being stopped and hassled for cash by any one of the multitude of government bodies stationed along Nigerian highways, but stand your ground, don’t pay a cent, and they’ll soon give up. There can also be problems with bandits, but a bit of deft driving around the DIY road blocks will get you out of trouble. In many places wild camping unfortunately won’t be an option, with either paranoid locals, or military ensuring you move on. You may start feeling very conspicuous after being called ‘oyibo’ for the 60th time in a day, but it’s always meant in a welcoming way.
Where can I stay?
Although Nigeria isn’t crawling with tempting budget accommodation options, there are plenty of decent places to stay in Lagos and Calabar, and the welcoming Nigerian spirit means you’ll have no problem finding a Couchsurfing host, if that’s your thing. Our favourite places were Drill Ranch HQ in Calabar, which offers one basic but comfortable room (bonus points for waking up to the sound of monkeys), and the absolutely wonderful Afi Mountain Drill Ranch, which offers camping in the forest, or beautiful open cabins, where it’s just a mosquito screen separating you and the gloriously dense jungle.
VERDICT: Should you go? If you’re ready for an adventure of a lifetime, Nigeria is the place to be.