We awoke the following morning to news that the riots had spread. South African businesses around the country had closed their stores. Eye witnesses had given accounts of masked men with machetes roaming Lagos’s streets, searching for foreigners. I wished we could have found a nicer hotel to barricade ourselves in..
Around lunchtime our fear of violent xenophobic mobs was starting to be outweighed by our desire for Dominos (6 months without pizza will do that to you). After spending the best part of an hourying to arrange delivery via their app, which was hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with Lagos’s sprawling, haphazard, neighbourhoods and lack of formal addresses, we resigned ourselves to collection in person. Leon and Jim were nominated for the mercy mission. They returned an hour later, their faces a similar colour to the pale, undercooked dough of our ‘Pepperoni Passion’ pizza. Apparently the whole of Lagos was under lockdown, with huge sections of the city cordoned off and police everywhere. As they were waiting patiently in line at Dominos, a fleet of armoured had trucks had turned up and scores of riot police had begun barricading the street outside. Riot police are not generally known for their friendly demeanour but in Lagos they really mean business. When Leon and Jim finally got to the front of the queue, the youth behind the counter did not hide his surprise, ‘what are you doing here, o?? Are you crazy, brother??’
After a day locked in the hotel, drowning our sorrows and nervously checking the news, we decided to try and make a break for it. Figuring rioters to be night owls, rather than early birds, we left just after dawn. The city was remarkably quiet and things were going well, until we discovered the main route North was closed, meaning we had to take a lengthy detour down some truly terrible back roads.
That day we made it 218km to Ore, a small town on the Benin- Sagamu expressway. Outside of Lagos, things were much calmer. We were still asked frequently if we were South African, but the enquiries somehow seemed less threatening. The following morning we were reminded, once again, of Nigeria’s niche approach to the hospitality industry. After a late night at our hotel bar, celebrating our escape from Lagos and loosing to the locals at table tennis, we had toddled off to bed, assuming (since no one had presented us with a bill or said otherwise) we would pay for our drinks when we checked out. The barman however, had other ideas. His shift ended at 5am the following morning and (possibly hoping for a tip) he figured the best thing to do was to hammer on Jim’s door until he staggered out, bleary eyed, to be presented with his bill. He seemed genuinely surprised by Jim’s forthright response!
I did not fare much better at breakfast. After asking the surly waitress about coffee, “no have” and fried eggs “no have” I settled for “tea and bread” for 400 Naira. Given the unambiguous title, I was surprised when the waitress set down two slices of bread, a plastic jug of boiling water and a sachet of powdered milk, “could I please have a tea bag?” “No have.” I considered pointing out that she had failed to deliver 50% of my (very basic) order, but after taking one look at her face, I decided otherwise. When she slapped down a bill for 600 Naira though, I couldn’t stay quiet. “The menu says 400?” I enquired politely. She looked at me disparagingly, “I had to buy bread.” When I contended that having to by the ingredients for a dish didn’t really justify raising the price of it she shot me a look that could kill, before sighing theatrically and storming off to the kitchen.
The 172km from Ore to Agbor, will forever be burned into my mind as the worst ride of this trip. We passed through 26 checkpoints (i.e one every 6.5 kilometres). It felt like driving through an active war zone. Approaching the checkpoints the first thing you see is the thick black plumes of smoke belched out by the long line of stationary lorries. Next, you see the makeshift barricades, appearing suddenly from out of the smoke, car tyres or oil drums stacked in horizontal rows at intervals along the road. Most ingenious were the tree trunks mounted on wheels which could be rolled in and out of position. For the first time, I felt scared of the authorities. Officers leaned casually on rocket launchers and had grenades tied around their belts, they wore two machine guns slung around their necks (one machine gun being apparently insufficient for whatever threat they were guarding against). Perhaps most worrying were the home made (and highly unpredictable) pipe guns some carried, I really didn’t fancy having one of those pointed in my direction. We passed a bus parked at the side of the road and watched as a police officer brandished a handgun, his finger quite clearly on the trigger, waving it threateningly in the driver’s face.
We took our lead from the locals on bikes and didn’t stop. It soon became a game. As we approached the barricades Leon would try and hide, sneaking up the side of lorries until at the very last moment we would dart out and around the officer. While the officers were busy shouting down the road after us and waving their guns around, Jim would take advantage of the temporary distraction to come sailing passed (unsurprisingly, this did little to quell their rage). I don’t think there was any serious danger of being shot (even Nigerian police officers draw the line somewhere), but we didn’t hang around to find out. The plan was working flawlessly, until a particularly beady eyed officer spotted us trying to sneak up the side. As we approached the gap in the barricade, we were level with Jim and the officer was waiting for us, wooden club in hand. There was a moment of indecision and then as if through telepathy Leon made the decision to dart one way and Jim the other, criss-crossing in the middle. The officer lunged and his club narrowly missed me, but we were through.
It was late afternoon, we were around 30km outside of Agbor, where we planned to stop for the night. A police car had just overtaken us, I remember noticing an officer in the back laughing as he swigged from a bottle of beer. I had my eyes on my phone, thinking about trivial things, like whether I could get away with covertly filming the checkpoints, when I heard Leon let out a quiet but unmissable ‘oh shit’. I looked up and around, then at last I saw what he had, the bare feet sticking out of the long grass by the side of the road. The man was lying facedown in the ditch. His arms were straight and pinned unnaturally to his sides. He was unmistakably dead. Even so, I asked Leon ‘do you think he’s just asleep?’ Part of me wanted him to lie to me, to say ‘yeh, I think so’ but he didn’t. He had seen what I had not; the shirt that was covered in blood, the body starting to bloat in the heat.
There were no ruins of a car next to him, or a smashed up bike, just the man, lying alone and dead. I didn’t feel anything about him at first, that came later. My first thought was about what, if anything we should do. I found myself worrying about what our role was in this event, what responsibility did we have? I wondered if we should stop and make sure he was dead, but it was clear that he was. I thought wildly about going back to cover him up or digging a grave, but it did not seem like a good idea for two white people to be found with a dead body. My next thought was to report it to the police, but if we had both seen the body, the police car overtaking us almost certainly had. Reporting it would only lead to trouble and, inevitably, a demand for cash. Should I take a photo, like a journalist would, to preserve what happened, to evidence it? My thoughts became more tangental, how would I write about this experience, what would I tell people about it? Instantly I felt disgusted with myself for thinking such selfish, trivial thoughts, a man was dead, why wasn’t I more sad? Shouldn’t I be crying? Did that make me a bad person? It took about 10 minutes and then the sad feelings did hit me and I realised that those trivial thoughts were just part of the shock. It is was my brain switching off to what I had seen, letting me experience the emotions gradually.
I began thinking about what it says about a society that a body is left to rot by the side of one of the countries busiest highways, less than a kilometre away from a police checkpoint. It means that no one has checked how this man died; he could have been beaten to death or shot in the back of the head, or (as I think is most likely) killed by a hit and run driver. All of these things suggest a crime, but the police are more concerned with extorting passing motorists than investigating it. It means that no one has checked his pockets for an ID or a mobile phone for contacts and his family likely have no idea that he is dead. I wondered about the man, what was he doing on the expressway, was he walking? Had his bicycle or motorbike been stolen? Was he a drunk? Was he travelling home from work? Did he see the vehicle that hit him? Did he have a wife? Children? I wondered too about the other drivers, had they seen the body? Were they doing the same complex calculations I was and realising there was nothing they could do? Did they feel guilty at their inaction? Were they shocked and upset, or was this normal to them?
I felt helpless, there was nothing we could do for the man but thinking about his body lying there, slowly decomposing in plain view of the passing traffic, I felt this urge to mark his death somehow. I am not at all religious, but religion is so much a part of how we, as a society, sanctify death, that I reached for it. I found myself wishing I believed in God because then I would know what to do, I would say a prayer for the man. He was almost certainly a Christian, so perhaps he would want me to have a go anyway? I started, stumbling my way through the first line of The Lord’s Prayer, but the words sounded strange and insincere in my mouth. In that moment, I remembered a Buddhist prayer I had learnt when I was in primary school.I had not thought of it in many years, I couldn’t really remember what it meant, other than that it supposedly helps us to free ourselves from worldly suffering, but that seemed fitting. The prayer is six syllables repeated over and over, ‘Om Mani Padma Hum.’ I started singing and at first I felt ridiculous, but then I heard my voice. It was wobbly with emotion, but with my visor down, this thin, frail chant reverberated around my helmet, it sounded strangely beautiful. I felt this wave of calm wash over me and I carried on chanting and listening and the more I chanted the calmer I felt.
It made me realise that the rituals of death aren’t really for the deceased. They are a way of making the death acceptable to the living. What upset me was not seeing a dead body or even the fact of this man’s death. It was the lack of dignity. The lack of any significance or ceremony being attached to his passing, the fact that his family have been denied a way to grieve and a way to make their peace. Reading this, some people may think ‘that’s just how it is in Africa, life is cheap’ but I assure you that is not the case. It is true death is more accepted, losing a child or a younger sibling is not thought of as unusual or unnatural as it is here, but this is not the same thing as treating death as trivial or insignificant. If anything, people place far more importance on observing funeral customs and rites. African people are by and large, very religious, whether they Christians, Muslims, or Animists, they have strong beliefs about death and the afterlife. African societies are also about as far away from an individualistic, laissez-faire as it is possible to be. A body left by the side of the road therefore, is not an example of ‘the way things are in Africa,’ it is rather, an example of the complete breakdown of the normal order of things.
We reached Agbor; the sky was blue and dotted with clouds, the town was bustling, filled with hotels, international banks, fast food restaurants and billboards advertising ‘Life Larger Beer’, it seemed incredible that just 30km away there could be a dead body lying by the side of the road. I felt heavy with the weight of what I had seen. When I got into bed and closed my eyes, I could still see the man’s feet sticking out into the road, his bare soles curled slightly, toes pointing to the sky.
We left early the following morning. I felt nervous as well as physically and emotionally exhausted. The prospect of a further long day of motorway riding to reach another busy, nondescript city was not enticing. I felt angry with myself for my previous glibness. I had read other tourists accounts of similar experiences in Nigeria and had dismissed them out of hand. Now I had seen it for myself and it was awful. Did I still want to be here? If so, what did that say about me? So many Nigerian’s are desperate to leave and yet I came here willingly. Did I somehow find other people’s misery culturally enriching? Should this post be titled, ‘that time I saw a dead body and learnt some important life lessons?’
I pushed these thoughts aside as we went for breakfast. We decided to forgo the expensive hotel menu and instead headed to a ‘chop shop.’ The lady and her daughter who ran it were lovely and we spent an enjoyable half hour chatting and being schooled in numerous different varieties of ‘swallow’ (a starchy food with a similar texture to cold porridge, which is dipped in various soups and swallowed, hence the name). Most African countries just have one form of swallow, but chop shops in Nigeria will have at least 8 giant pots containing different varieties such as Eba (made from Garri/ grated cassava), Àmàlà (made out of yam or cassava flour), pounded yam (made out of, you’ve guessed it, pounded yam), Fufu (which is sharper tasting and more gelatinous) and other varieties made from wheat, semolina and rice flour. Every Nigerian has an opinion on which is best.
I had stopped off to withdraw cash and was on my way back to the hotel, when a plump middle aged woman planted herself squarely in front of me. ‘O’ she exclaimed, in the manner of a detective who had just unearthed an important clue, ‘who are you?’ ‘Errrrrr,’ the suddenness of the intrusion had thrown me a bit, ‘my name is Ruth,’ I offered, uncertainly. She looked angry. ‘What are you doing here, o?’ By this point a crowd had started to gather. People were giggling nervously. The woman was standing very close to me and seemed slightly unhinged. ‘I’m a tourist’ I mumbled. She shot me a look, which clearly suggested I must be stupid if I thought she was going to fall for that, ‘this is Nigeria, o!’ (A quick word about the use of ‘o’, I never quite got to the bottom of what it means, it can be used to answer a question, to signify agreement or to reiterate a point, mostly I think it’s just something people like to say. Nigerian’s say ‘o’ A LOT. They will even tack it on to one word answers, like ‘OK, o’ or ‘No, o’. However many times ‘o’ appears in my recollection of a verbal exchange you can probably triple it). I wan’t sure how to respond to this woman, so I opted for the truth, ‘I know you don’t get many tourists here’ I smiled ruefully, ‘but we’ve heard a lot about Nigeria and we wanted to come and see what it was like for ourselves.’ There was a pause, then the woman stepped forward. For a second I thought she was about to hit me, but instead she held out her hand for me to shake, ‘welcome to Nigeria, o.’
After leaving Agbor, we headed to the supermarket in Asaba to stock up on supplies. When we returned to the car park, we found a short, smily guy, who looked to be in his early 20’s loitering by the bike. His name was Ken. He was nervous, but clearly very keen to talk to us and to show off his bike, which was parked next to ours. We chatted and when it came time for us to leave, Ken asked shyly if he could ride with us and show us the way out of town. We happily agreed, though soon wished we hadn’t as Ken took off at speed, darting through a tiny gap in the central reservation and out into oncoming traffic. When we reached the outskirts of town, we hit a huge traffic jam. The concept of ‘lanes’ had been entirely abandoned, enormous trucks battled cars, motorbikes, tuktuks and bicycles all trying to find a route through. The heat and pollution from so many engines was intense. We had assumed Ken would quickly say his goodbyes, after all he had no reason to be subject himself to this hell, but instead he beckoned us to follow as he veered off the tarmac and onto a narrow, bumpy dirt track that ran alongside the road. We stuck close behind as Ken charted a course, beeping incessantly and scattering the roadside saleswomen and their teetering trays of oranges, in his wake. We made it around 500 meters, before the track narrowed, Ken diverted back onto the road, darting in front of a lorry but with our panniers we were too wide to fit through the narrow gap. We had lost Ken and we were stuck.
We were contemplating our next move when we heard a loud beeping coming from behind us, the next thing we knew we had been joined by another biker. His helmet was adorned with a blue fluffy mohican and he was smiling broadly. As the traffic inched forwards, he pulled in front of the lorry holding it back so that we could pass. Who was this random guy stopping traffic for us? He soon caught up, gesturing for us to follow him through a gap in the central reservation (meaning we would be riding the wrong way up the motorway). He seemed to know what he was doing, so we followed. As we reached the open road, I heard beeping and looked back, Ken was there, along with our new friend and 3 other riders. I realised Ken must have called his mates and they had all come down to ride with us. In that moment, I understood the appeal of motorbike gangs, the camaraderie riding together brings. ‘Some people pay for a police escort through Nigeria’ I thought, ‘we’re getting escorted by bikers.’
We stopped on the bridge leading out of the city, to introduce ourselves and take some photos and the guys all offered to accompany us as far as the next town. We were glad as we were about to have our first encounter with the stick men. The stick men are basically ordinary Nigerian’s who have realised that the police are on to a winner with their checkpoints and so have decided to set up one of their own. They don’t have uniforms or guns, just sticks and they stand around in the road, causing huge tail backs by stopping vehicles and demanding payment of a ‘community tax.’
Having safely made it through, we bid farewell to our new friends and continued our route East. In the late afternoon the skies opened. This was a regular occurrence in Nigeria. At least once a day we would have to pull over for an hour or so, to wait out a torrential downpour. Today we found shelter in a tiny shop by the side of the road. The two ladies running it did not bat an eyelid as we dripped mud and rainwater all over their floor and instead rushed to find us some chairs. Their names were Janet and Patricia and it was not long before they were calling me their daughter and pressing bags of popcorn on me.
In bed that night, I reflected on what had been a very different day. The contrast between this day and the preceding one, could not have been greater. In less than 48 hours we had seen the worst of Nigeria and the best. I still didn’t know exactly what to make of the country, but I felt I had an answer at least, to some of my questions. Did I still want to be here? Yes. What did that say about me? Well, there are undoubtedly people who get a kick out of travelling to difficult and dangerous places, who trot out the stories of other people’s misery to show how ‘brave’ or how ‘worldly’ they are. But I think there are others who go to those places, not to see the worst of people, but to see the best. In the way that diamonds are formed through immense heat and pressure, it is sometimes the most testing conditions that bring out the best in people. We had seen a society that was broken, a body left to decay by the side of the road because people are scared of what will happen if they get involved and there is no one in authority you can call. But we had also seen a society where people go out of their way to help you, expecting nothing in return, where if you ask for directions to a restaurant, someone will walk you there, where a group of guys will drop everything to ride through traffic with you, where everyone wants to talk to you and take a picture with you, where people who have very little, will insist on giving you things for free, where people are excited and enormously grateful that you have come to experience their country for yourselves.