The Road to Afi Mountain

As we continued our journey East, Nigeria continued to surprise, amuse, frustrate and delight.  At 5am I was awoken by a loud, insistent hammering on our hotel door.  It was not as I first assumed, a fire, a robbery or a kidnapping attempt, but the maid dropping off an extra bog roll. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we hadn’t even run out!

Having apparently forgotten Nigeria lesson 101, ‘never go to bed without paying your bar bill’ Jim and Fab were awoken in the same fashion a few moments later. Unfortunately, in their sleep befuddled state they did not notice that we had been charged 3 times the normal beer price and blithely handed over the cash (bar tabs which are not paid promptly also have a sneaky habit of increasing). Given that a litre of beer normally costs 30 euro cents in Nigeria, it wasn’t exactly going to break the bank but we had been travelling far too long to be that easily had and there was a principle at stake. Once it reached a more civilised hour we assembled downstairs and I tried charming the barman, a boy of around 19, with light skin, freckles and a shock of reddish brown hair. Realising he had been caught out, he stared sheepishly at the ground, refusing to meet my eye, but despite my (undeniable) charm, he mumbled that he couldn’t change our bill.

My next tactic was flat out bribery, when my favourite maid (she of the early morning bog roll delivery), asked what was in the large metal boxes on top of Fab’s car, I told her (truthfully) that they were full of clothes he had brought from Europe to give to ‘friends’. I always found it interesting just how delighted people were to receive ‘Clothes From Europe’, even mine and Leon’s stained and well-worn castoffs were much cherished gifts. But go to any market in Africa and there will be stall after stall selling Europe’s unwanted second hand clobber, in decent condition and at far cheaper prices than anything made locally. The majority of people in Nigeria are already wearing ‘Clothes From Europe’, they just don’t know it, or don’t believe it, up until they have the incontrovertible evidence of a random white person having turned up on a motorbike and handed it to them. It seemed to neatly encapsulate the attitude a lot of people have, a sort of awe and fetishisation of Europe, where things are ‘good’ simply because they come from Europe. It was an attitude we spent a lot of time trying to change, usually to no avail (it is a hard thing to do without sounding monumentally unaware of your own privilege). 

Whatever the reason, both the barman and the maid really wanted Fab’s clothes. The latter looked looked imploringly at me, ‘ah, but we aren’t we friends sister?’ ‘Well I don’t know’ I said, ‘friends don’t overcharge each other do they?’ She looked at me aghast, I thought she was about to deny it, but instead she exclaimed earnestly, ‘ah sister, you must not punish evil with evil!’ I was still chuckling when Jim intervened, the ‘Bad Cop’ to my good. I don’t know exactly what went down, but he emerged from the bar some 5 minutes later with a partial refund, having apparently settled on splitting the difference. Looking at this exchange from a Western perspective, it seems crazy that we would be sat around, sharing our cooked breakfast (the first time any of the staff had tried bacon) whilst amicably discussing just how much they had ripped us off, but that is how it usually is in Africa. There is a strange kind of morality to it, if you are stupid or careless enough not to notice the scam, you deserve to lose your money. 

On the ride that day and for the first time since leaving Lagos, we saw greenery, the seemingly endless towns and traffic, replaced with quiet, palm fringed roads. Around lunchtime we stopped at a small bar/ restaurant. Some of the patrons had clearly started early, an elderly man in too big corduroy trousers swayed precariously as he wiggled his hips suggestively in time to the music. He caught my eye and wiggled his eyebrows too. We ordered beef stew and a beer and found a free table. When it came time to pay, the smiling lady behind the counter told us someone had already settled our bill.  At first we thought we must have misunderstood, but she pointed out a young guy sat in the corner, deeply engrossed in his mobile phone. We immediately went over to thank him. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, at the very least I thought he would want to talk to us, exchange phone numbers or invite us to his hotel, but instead he seemed politely disinterested. As we shook hands, he barely glanced up from his phone, asking absolutely nothing of us in return and giving no indication at all of what motivated his act of kindness. Once again Nigeria had proved itself to be a country which defies any kind of categorisation. Who would have thought that here, of all places, we would discover that there is such a thing as a free lunch? 

A resident of Buanchor village

Later that afternoon we hit a road diversion, locals assured us that whilst the cars had to take the long way round, motorbikes could continue down the old route. We soon discovered why; the road had turned into a river.  And not a small river either, it was at least 5 meters wide and looked pretty deep. There was a narrow, steep and muddy track running along one bank, it was just about wide enough for a single motorbike, though at one point it veered so close to somebody’s house I had to duck to pass underneath their thatched roof. I wondered how the inhabitants felt about their front garden suddenly becoming a major thoroughfare, then remembered this was Nigeria, it was probably the least crazy thing to happen that week. The deluge that afternoon was particularly severe and by the time we reached the hotel Fab had found (a challenge in itself as the dirt road leading to it had been completely washed away) we were soaked through and freezing cold. I say hotel, it was really a couple of spare rooms in an old man’s slightly ramshackle house in the countryside. Fab had asked around in a nearby village and someone led him there. The generator wasn’t working, but the old man found us candles and some incense coils to keep the mosquitos at bay. It was an unusually peaceful evening without the persistent hum of the generator, the ever present soundtrack of Nigeria.  

After a relaxed start to the day, taking advantage of the early morning sunshine to try and dry our sodden bike gear, we packed up and headed out. Leon was not in the best of moods, grumbling that it had been 5 days since he last had dry feet.  We were around 50km from Calabar, a historic port city tucked into the far southeastern corner of Nigeria but our luck at the checkpoints had it seemed, finally run out. With the roads so much quieter, we had nowhere to hide. We deployed our second tactic. When the officer beckoned us over, we instead stopped dead in the middle of the road, hoping that a queue of impatient drivers behind us would help hurry things along, but the officer was having none of it. “Move over there” he barked, pointing his machine gun at a spot some way behind us. (For anyone unfamiliar with motorbikes, it is probably worth mentioning at this point that they do not have a reverse gear, manoeuvring a large and fully loaded bike backwards is not an easy task). Leon did not try to explain this to the officer, instead shouting “yeh alright mate, but you’re going to have to help us move it.” The officer looked at him askance, “Me with My gun, help You??” he bellowed incredulously. I had to admit, he had a point… Deciding I did not want to be stuck in the middle of two angry men, one of whom had a machine gun, I tried to diffuse the situation, hissing furiously at Leon to keep his mouth shut, I jumped off the bike and strode over to shake the officer’s hand. After a liberal dose of ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no sirs’ and a casual mention that I worked as a lawyer, he relaxed considerably, though as we prepared to drive off he had a parting question for Leon, “why are you so saucy??” Leon wisely did not reply. 

Calabar felt quite unlike anywhere else we had been in Nigeria, nestled amongst green hills and relatively unplagued by traffic, it was a world away from Lagos’s frenetic streets. The highlight for us was ‘the junction,’ a busy crossroads by day, at night it was transformed into Calabar’s premier outdoor dining experience. Makeshift bars and restaurants lined the pavements and delicious smelling smoke wafted from all directions. Dozens of tiny stands sold ‘suya’, spicy skewers of meat, served in a wrap of newspaper with raw onions and a sprinkling of ‘Maggi’, whilst others dolled out huge portions of barbecue chicken, jollof rice and plantain.

Whilst in Calabar, I paid a visit to the Basic Right’s Council Initiative (BRCI), a charity which works to promote and protect the fundamental rights of children in Nigeria. I had first come across the organisation through my work in the UK as an immigration lawyer. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but the founder, a Nigerian barrister named James Ibor, was extremely generous with his time, putting aside the afternoon to answer my many questions and allowing me to read through their case files (after signing a confidentiality agreement – so no specifics are discussed here). I have spent years working with and for charities and it is fair to say, I have never seen an organisation achieve so much with so little. Amongst many other things, they employ social workers who work with families and investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect, they pay for severely traumatised children to access specialist counselling (something which is extremely rare in Nigeria), they have a safe house for children in immediate danger and a team of lawyers who bring cases ranging from claims for compensation and child maintenance to supporting prosecutions against child abusers and traffickers. They often take on cases which are politically sensitive (a very dangerous thing to do in Nigeria). What I found the most impressive is that they manage this despite facing the kind of obstacles which are hard for most people to even comprehend. James for example, explained that even if a child, or their family member reported a case of sexual assault to the police, the police have no interest in investigating, put simply, there is nothing in it for them. If lawyers at the BRCI complain about their inaction, the police will simply say they have no money to buy petrol so they can’t go and interview suspects. How does BRCI deal with this? They drive the police to the interviews themselves of course!

A young boy I met in Buanchor village, his face is painted with flour to
show he has a new sibling

James told me that in around 1 in 4 of cases referred to them, explicit allegations of witchcraft have made against a child, but he believes it is a hidden factor in many more cases of child abuse and neglect. I asked James how a child comes to be labelled as a ‘witch.’ He told me that often, a family member will experience some misfortune. They will go to their church looking for answers and the pastor will tell them it is because someone close to them is a witch. They will keep returning to the pastor for advice and for protection and each time he will charge a hefty fee for his services. Eventually the witch will be ‘discovered’, then the pastor will demand they are brought to him for various ‘exorcisms’ all of which which will, of course, come with a price. Very often pastors point the finger at children because they are unable to defend themselves. James told me about a recent case which had been widely reported in the local news, a father in Cross River State lost all his money gambling and a pastor laid the blame at the feet of his baby twin daughters (traditionally Igbo people have considered twins as a bad omen sent by the Gods) eventually the man murdered them both by poisoning. We talked a lot about how you can change beliefs, when they are so deeply rooted in religion and in tradition. Passages from the Bible such as Exodus 2:18 “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, are often quoted by pastors. The BRCI has tried various strategies, including working with sympathetic churches to try and change attitudes and they have also been part of projects to encourage people to think more rationally.  

Before I left, James took me to meet the children in the safe house. It was difficult to conceal the shock I felt when I first saw them, the younger children all bore the clear, physical signs of severe abuse and neglect, with the older children the signs were less obvious, but still there; the nervous fidgeting, the inability to make eye contact. I tried to make conversation, inviting the children to ask me any questions they wanted about the UK, but they were all extremely shy. Just as I was preparing to leave, one of the older girls finally plucked up the courage to ask the one, burning question she had, “is that your real hair?” “Yes,” I paused, “do you want to touch it?” She smiled and nodded and with that the shyness evaporated. For the next hour, I sat as all the children took turns plaiting my hair. After that fist question, the floodgates opened and it turned out the children wanted to know absolutely everything: was I married? Why was I not married? When was I going to get married? How many children did I have? Why did I not have any children? When was I going to have children? What church did I go to? Why didn’t I go to church? Did I believe in God? What was my favourite food? What was my favourite lesson in school? Had I met the queen? Had I seen the Bollywood movie with the horse? When I finally did say my goodbyes the girl who had first spoken to me, slipped a bracelet off of her own wrist and put it onto mine. It was a plastic bracelet, with a date and a message reminding people to vote in the local elections, I knew that it had been handed out for free, but I also knew it was one of the only possessions she had. I tried to protest that I couldn’t take it, but she looked at me, at last meeting my eye and said ‘I want you to have it, so you remember me.’ If you want to find out more about BRCI or make a donation to help fund their work you can visit their website: https://BRCI.org.ng/donate/

The Drill Ranch, definitely one of the highlights on Nigeria

The BRCI was not the only extraordinary NGO we encountered in Calabar. We had been camping  at the headquarters of Pandrillus, a charity set up to try and prevent the extinction of the Drill Monkey, the most endangered primate in West Africa. There we got to know Peter, an eccentric American in his early 70’s. Some thirty odd years ago, he and his wife, Liza, had set out to drive around Africa, but a chance conversation led them to remain in Nigeria and found Pandrillus instead. Peter had a lot of extraordinary stories, for many years he had a price on his head thanks to his work leading a special task force carrying out armed raids on illegal loggers and bushmeat traders, he had been kidnapped more than once, held hostage by pirates and attacked and very nearly killed by a chimpanzee. He was also quite possibly the most pessimistic person I have ever met. He would frequently bemoan the fact that he had wasted his life trying to save a species which would never be safe in the wild. He had seen first hand the devastating impact of Nigeria’s population explosion and he saw no way out, crime, corruption, environmental degradation, everything was worse than it was 30 years ago, the only tiny glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel was that some day soon the human race would be wiped out, leaving the rest of the planet to flourish.

Ice, who I met whilst sheltering from the rain

Despite Peter’s pessimism, we decided to visit Pandrillus’ ranch, around 90km North of Calabar in the Afi mountain wildlife sanctuary. We set off from Calabar around mid morning, in the early afternoon the skies opened we pulled over at a small roadside shop to take shelter. The proprietor was a young and very sweet girl called ‘Ice’ who quickly ushered me into the back of her shop and found me a chair. I was soaked through and freezing cold and so when she asked if I wanted a ‘hot drink’ I gratefully accepted, it was only when she took down a large cola bottle and poured out a shot of a clear liquid that smelt like paint stripper, I realised ‘hot drink’ is slang for spirits. It did warm me up though! I was still chatting away to her when Leon (who had been outside smoking) came running in, Fab had called, he had been in an accident. 

The next 30 minutes were a terrifying blur, we had no idea what had happened, if Fab was OK or if anyone else had been involved. One of my biggest fears had always been a collision in which someone else was injured, we had all heard stories of angry, vengeful mobs and knew firsthand how quickly things could turn in Nigeria. The rain was so heavy we could barely see, but picturing the worst, we rode as quickly as possible and eventually spotted Fab’s car up ahead. Fab, who was visibly shaken, filled us in on what happened. He had been waiting to turn right into the entrance of a hotel. He had indicated and had checked his mirrors and seen nothing (it wasn’t raining then, so visibility had been OK) but as he turned, a motorbike had appeared suddenly out of nowhere colliding with the side of his car. The riders, an elderly man and his daughter had been thrown off the bike and had flown several feet through the air. Both were injured and had been taken to the local hospital. A large crowd had formed within moments of the incident, but luckily several people had seen what happened and acknowledged that the motorbike had been going much too fast. Even so, Fab thought it would have been a lot worse if it was not for one particular guy, who intervened and calmed the situation. There was however no chance of driving away (even if we had wanted to). Throughout the evening we were visited by various self appointed ‘envoys’ for the family. Fab was happy to pay their medical bills, but he also didn’t want to be taken advantage of, especially when the accident really hadn’t been his fault. We were naturally suspicious of the motivations of these ‘envoys’, though on the whole dealing with them seemed preferable to a baying mob. We were particularly wary of one ‘uncle’ who had warned us darkly that Fab was very lucky the family did not die, if they had, it would have proved he was to blame (this tallies with what other people later told us about accidents in Nigeria). Eventually an amount was agreed upon, but the uncle insisted Fab must go to visit the family in person the following morning.

Fearing that it could be a trap, we told Fab there was no way he was going on his own. We wondered vaguely if we ought to try and make a break for it under cover of darkness, but somehow it didn’t seem right. So instead the following morning we gathered outside, anxiously awaiting the uncle’s arrival. Soon, he and another man pulled up on two moto taxis. They told us it was a ten minute drive to the village. We managed to commandeer a third bike, but altogether we were 9 people and had apparently exhausted the supply of taxis. The irony of going to pay our respects to the victims of a motorbike accident, whilst riding 3 up and without a helmet, was not lost on any of us. As we approached the house more and more people followed us, until there was a crowd of at least 20. We suddenly realised how stupid we had been in taking a taxi, if the crowd turned on us, we would have no means escape. We were led into a small, single story house. The daughter was sleeping, but the father sat on a blanket in the corner of the room. One leg was wrapped in bandages, his face was pallid and it was clear that he was still in pain (fortunately, it seemed his injuries would heal with time). The family greeted us and we shook hands, Fab said how sorry he was for what had happened and we all wished the father a quick recovery. And that was it. No lynch mobs, no demands for more money, it seemed the man really had just wanted an apology. Suddenly the uncle was smiling, clapping us warmly on the back and insisting on buying us a beer, it was only 9am, but we felt it prudent to agree. 

The wonderful ranger (also called Peter) who guided us up Afi
Mountain

Fab stayed on for the day to try and repair the damage to his car (the uncle had offered to take him to a mechanic), while we continued on to the Drill Ranch. Getting there proved to be a bit of an adventure in itself, Leon came unstuck on one of the river crossings and several locals had to dive in to help him keep the bike up. The ranch is home to over 600 drill monkey’s (an incredible 20% of the world’s population). It is also home 28 rescued chimpanzees (most of whom had once been kept as pets). They live in enormous enclosures deep in the rainforest (though the Drill monkeys frequently escape and wonder around camp, causing havoc and stealing from the food stores). We ended up staying for 5 days, during which time we got to know the staff and some of the nearby villagers quite well, through our frequenting of the (very) local bar. It was interesting and intensely frustrating to observe the tensions between two communities. Peter and Liza, often do not know from one month to the next whether they will have the funds to feed all the monkeys, let alone pay their keepers, drivers, security guards etc, but the villagers just see that they are Americans, they see the foreign tourists arriving in the 4×4’s and overlanding vehicles (although the security situation in Nigeria means such visits are increasingly rare) and they assume the ranch must have money. They resent the fact that the ranch does not do more to help the community, complaining to me that they should have fixed the road (which was washed away during a landslide). Of course the ranch doesn’t have the money for this (and better access would only increase illegal hunting and logging) but many in community don’t see it this way. I tried pointing out that the ranch supports local farmers and traders (they spend over $1,000 dollars per week on fruit for the monkeys and are one of the biggest private employers in the area) but in response I was told they bought all the fruit from ‘outside.’ It later transpired that ‘outside’ meant another village less than 10km away and that the Ranch alternates where it buys from each week so many local communicates can benefit. I liked the villagers, who were incredibly kind and welcoming to us, but I couldn’t help sympathising with the Ranch, who it seemed, wouldn’t ever be able to do ‘enough.’ Very sadly not long after we left, these tensions boiled over and the ranch was attacked by angry youths from the village, Liza and another volunteer were kidnapped (though later released) and the camp was heavily looted and damaged (luckily the monkeys were unharmed). The full story of what happened is here: https://www.pandrillus.org/2020/02/a-report-from-drill-ranch/ 

The future of the ranch is now very uncertain, they doubt their relationship with the village will recover and they don’t know if they will be able to attract visitors in the future. But whilst here, like everywhere in Nigeria there are so many challenges, I can’t help but feel hope.

The view from Afi mountain

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