Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Nigeria?

‘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?

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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 

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Guenon monkey, 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. 

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Canopy walk, Lekki Conservation Centre

Nike Art Gallery 

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4 storey glory, Nike Art Gallery, Lagos

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. 

Lekki Market

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Lekki Market

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 

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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 

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Cheeky Chimp, Afi Mountain Drill Ranch

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Hiking the mighty jungle, Afi Mountain

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. 

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Volunteer Chris feeding ransom the monkey, Drill Ranch Calabar

For scenic drives: Taraba State

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Somewhere in Taraba

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.

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Sunset, Taraba State

Is the food good?

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Jungle bananas and African sweets

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?

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John and Victoria, Olum village

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?

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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?

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Chillin, Afi Mountain Drill Ranch

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.

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Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Ghana? 

‘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.

Beautiful, modern and tourist-friendly, Ghana is Africa for beginners, a place where everyone speaks English, corruption is rare and the music isn’t loud enough until glasses are rattling off the shelves in the next village. Want to ease yourself into the African way of life? Ghana is the perfect place to start. 

Where is it? 

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Ghana shares its borders with Côte d’Ivoire to the west, Togo to the east and Burkina Faso in the north. You’ll find gorgeous beaches from Axim to Cape Coast, soaring desert temperatures in the north, and refreshing waterfalls in the mountainous east.

What can I see there?

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Elmina Beach

Heaps. Ghana is the most visited West African country (by non-Africans) by a long shot, it’s teeming with German volunteers and Americans finding themselves, as such there are plenty of well set-up tourist attractions. Unlike many West African countries, where tourism is a bit of a D.I.Y experience, there are excellent visitors centres at popular spots, and there are often guides available.

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Elmina

You can sip a cocktail under the palms at Elmina, and learn about Ghana’s slave trading history at Cape Coast Castle. Shop for gorgeous, multi-hued traditional West African fabrics at Accra’s sprawling Makola market, and go for a casual wander around Jamestown, a coastal fishing village with vibrant street art, ramshackle wooden bars and a pretty lighthouse.

Want to head off the tourist trail? Head to the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop in Teshie, the original home of Ghana’s weird and whimsical hand-carved coffins, or simply pull up a chair at a small local chop shop, you’ll find yourself deep in conversation with the locals in no time.

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Fish coffin, Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop

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Mount Gemi, Amedzofe

The Volta region is Ghana’s crowning glory. It’s clean, green and home to wandering roadside baboons and misty mountain ringed villages. Take the winding road to head to Ghana’s highest settlement of Amedzofe, a picturesque and prosperous village where you can take in the view from Mount Gemi or descend the precarious rocky slope to Ote Falls.

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Ote Falls, Amedzofe

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Wli town

 

In Wli you can take an easy unguided walk to bathe under West Africa’s highest water falls as tens of thousands of bats circle overhead (go at the right time and you’ll have the whole place to yourself) or take a guide and make the two and a half hour climb to the top.

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Lower Wil falls

To the north, you’ll find the bustling Ashanti city of Kumasi, and Mole National Park, one of the cheapest wildlife parks in West Africa which is home to elephants, leopards and rare birds.

Are the people nice?

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Dora and Prisca, Wli

Yes! Open, honest and friendly, it’s super easy to strike up a conversation with a Ghanaian, and you can learn a lot about local politics and religion.

Ghana is overwhelmingly Christian, with churches representing every possible denomination scattered across the country. Allegiance to Jesus is plastered on every car, bus and shopfront, and businesses have names like ‘By His Almighty Grace Kitchen Supplies’, and ‘Jesus is my C.E.O Plumbing’. Ghanaians love to celebrate life, and even death – funerals are often vibrant, raucous affairs, with mini street parades, deafeningly loud music and dancing. If you go for a weekend drive you’ll invariably see huge marquees set up for either funerals or weddings, where the music will be pumping until the early hours. There’s a bit of a technique to the Ghanaian hand shake, which is punctuated by clicking your fingers with the other persons. It’s not a proper handshake until there’s a loud snap, and you’ll have people in fits of laughter if you can’t get it right after a couple of go’s.

One down side to the tourism in Ghana is the persistent begging, which is often more accurately described as ‘demanding’.

Cries of “money, give me some!” and “lady, you buy me food now!” come thick and fast in some areas, and children as young as two are trained to wave and chant “MONEY” at passing tourists. Handing out cash to everyone who asks isn’t doing anyone any favours, so use discretion, be jovial but firm, and you should get through without any major problems.

Is the food good?

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YES. And the tastiest grub is found at little street-side stalls and chop shops, so you won’t even have to set foot in a proper restaurant for a good feed. You can pick up an overflowing tray of fried chicken, jollof rice and thick slabs of fried yam for 10 cedi ($2.80/1.65 euro), or get your fingers dirty with a bowl of kenkey and fried fish for even less. Meals like kenkey (ground corn dough) and banku (corn and cassava dough) are eaten with your fingers so there are often bowls of water at tables for washing your hands, don’t confuse this for drinking water, or you’ll be the laughing stock of the village for quite some time.

If one of your guilty pleasures is a big ol’ dirty bowl of Indomie noodles, a la high school lunchtimes, rejoice! Ghanaians are obsessed with Indomie, and you can pick up a pre-cooked bowl with sides in just about any town or village you’re likely to pass through.

Is it safe?

Absolutely. Begging is the only hassle you’re likely to endure in Ghana, and given it’s usually teenagers trying their luck, things are unlikely to get tense. The police and military are generally professional, and serious crimes like kidnapping are practically unheard of. 

Where should I stay?

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Campsite at the Stumble Inn, Elmina

Unlike other parts of West Africa, where budget options are few and far between, there are plenty of places to stay in Ghana that are both comfortable and easy on the wallet. In Elmina, the beachfront paradise of the Stumble Inn provides bungalows, camping spots and plenty of shady areas to rest with an ‘African mojito’. The breakfast menu is spot-on, so you can start your day with French toast and grilled pineapple or chocolate and banana pancakes for as little as 15 cedi ($4.20/2.50 euro). In Accra, you’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier spot than the Sleepy Hippo, a three storey hostel with a rooftop terrace, a fantastic restaurant and ever-smiling staff. There are also plenty of gorgeous campsites in Wli where you can pitch your tent or park your car for a pretty reasonable price.

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Kids at Wli falls campsite

VERDICT: Should you go? “Yes, my sistah/brothah!” *enthusiastic hand clap & snap*

PS: You can check out our visual diary from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana here.

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