Saturday, 5 October 2013

Mrs Teacup in Lagos, West Africa

I will  never forget the first time I travelled to Africa; it is as vivid today as it was then. The only white face on the plane was my first taste of Africa as a white woman. I was stared at, talked about and whispers rustled round the plane as diligent as an African mosquito, for the full five hours of the flight. "Why on earth are you travelling alone to Nigeria?" was the first question I was asked as I settled into my middle Afryka Airlines seat between two very dark full figured extrovertly attired African women? Eyes were on me the whole trip and I was observed from all angles; I felt like a Tracey Emin exhibit in the Tate.

I was travelling to work with African children and was proud of what I was doing. I was very excited but as the plane took off with 500 plus Africans staring at me with huge eyes peering out of black faces my excitement did dwindle slightly. My African companions (either side of me) were kind friendly and good company and they found great comfort in telling me the “whys and wherefores” of what I could expect when I landed at Mohammed Murtala Airport, Lagos. I was grateful to some of the information but I could have done without a lot of it.

Proceeding through the airport in Lagos there was not a white face in sight. I was the most popular passenger in the baggage hall and several young African women travelling with me were concerned for my safety. They surrounded me and ushered me through every turnstile and gave me their cell phone numbers “in case I got into any difficulties”. I was an easy target and harassed constantly by the porter who endeavoured to attempt to insist I pay for a baggage cart or pay him to carry my bags to my driver; this was called a “dash.”  I had been warned about this before even leaving the UK and also on the plane by my two African mentors and as my suitcase was on wheels, I gave no one a “dash.” Waiting for the bags to arrive was like waiting for paint to dry! And as the only white face in the baggage hall I was the talk of the town and extremely easy to spot! Some small children wanted to touch and stoke me! 

The baggage conveyor belt did not work, the air conditioning did not work and nor did the ceiling fans; so…hot and sticky in a 40 degree humid hall, finally our bags were brought out (some two hours later) from a deep dark hole somewhere in the airport, on very squeaky and rickety trolleys and one by one passengers claimed their luggage and began to file out of the airport building; most, kindly shouted “goodbye” to me, the exhibit and not surprisingly there was no ordered queue. Outside was an incredible sight…something I have never envisaged…an even deeper sea of dark faces just staring at me and as I exited, in slow motion the sea parted and my driver just magically appeared out of the crowd and rapidly took charge of my baggage and me and whisked me along to a car waiting for us in the car park. I suppose I was not hard for him to recognise?

We passed dealers of all descriptions who grabbed at me and murmured in hushed voices “white woman, white woman, white woman” and tried to touch and grab at me. They constantly asked “what have you bought for me.” Beggars sat in the gutters, hands held out for money or gifts, some with limbs missing, many of them children; those with limbs missing used skate boards to get around. My driver continued to hurry me on and quickly and forcefully thrust me into the back seat of the awaiting car; within minutes we were on our way out of the airport terminal; I was definitely venturing into the unknown. Already I was in awe of this fascinating culture that broke every rule and boundary.

The road was pitch black, no street lamps, no white lines and no cat’s eyes. There were holes in roads as big as craters; no tarmac… just a deep red coloured earth and dust kicked up all around us.  No one had any lane discipline, everyone was weaving in and out each other at least 70mph and buses careered past us laden with luggage on the roof and hanging over the side; these buses were oversubscribed with passengers and goats, many of them hanging out of the doors and. These sights were unbelievable to me; I had never seen anything like this before and my head jerked from side to side as I watched open mouthed the Nigerian culture unfold before me. Cars were smashed up; trucks falling apart and rusty old yellow buses that should not have been on the road were carrying civilians at high speeds. Who insures these vehicles I wondered?

Suddenly we hit a traffic jam and immediately the car came to a halt and was instantly surrounded by children begging. They tapped constantly on the car window and with their hands held out to me called “please, please lady, spare me some coins, anything you have.” They ran alongside the car as we slowly eased our way along begging me to pass money out of the window. “Please white lady, please, some coins, spare some coins.” I took out a few Naira from the ones I had brought from the Bureau de Change in the UK and carefully slipped this through a crack in the window and as the coins fell to ground the children began to fight over this tiny amount of money, it was pitiful. As one child finally took it for herself, she gave me a smile from deep within her soul and ran off. My driver began to laugh and said “you have started something now, best you give nothing as they will never be satisfied and will never leave you alone, especially as you are white.” I logged that sentence and didn’t answer; those words were to haunt me as my trip unfolded. We were also bothered by hawkers selling anything and everything to make a naira or two. Seeing a white blonde western woman in the back seat of a taxi cab meant megabucks to these beggars and hawkers, I had already become a target.

The traffic began to move at a higher speed and we left the children and hawkers behind and continued along in the opaque blackness until we turned into a street alive with loud tribal music, exotic dancing, passionate singing and alight with candles and Kerosene fires on which brightly decorated women were cooking a variety of goat, chicken and beef curries and stews. The street was rocking and buzzing with Africans of all ages; you could feel the vibration in your soul. We slowly wove our way through the crowds, my driver cleverly missing any obstruction…the noise was incredible…it was so loud it hurt my ears and head. What with the women shouting for you to sample their wares, the sound of food frying, the music and singing, the incessant chattering of exuberant African families and the car and bike engines, I had never sampled noise on this level anywhere in the world. Although outrageously out of my comfort zone, I was addicted. The smell was phenomenal too; a bizarre mixture of curry, beer, Kerosene, sweat and engine emissions; I can still smell it vividly today.

As we edged out of the crowd at the end of this long festival, we emerged into the dark shadows again and the celebratory sounds began to fade behind us and we turned into a quiet crater filled road (which ingeniously my driver dodged) and into the hotel entrance closed off by locked six foot overly ornate and heavily decorated gates of copper and aluminium which were very quickly opened by the small childlike gateman, Abdullah, and my driver parked up in front of the so called hotel. Abdullah very quickly relieved us of my suitcase and rushed it into the hotel lobby (hoping for a dash from this white woman, I am sure) while I paid and thanked my driver. On entering I was met by the very young Nigerian male proprietor who kindly “dashed” Abdullah and showed me to my very basic hotel room which included a king size bed (raised about six inches off the floor), a small worn sofa and a rickety chest of drawers on which sat a small TV with a bent indoor aerial. There was one window with torn mosquito screens and no curtains and the ceiling fan was off. My “en-suite” bathroom contained a stained and worn out bath, sink and filthy toilet. No shower, just a bright orange rubber hose pipe fitted to the single tap in the bath. A red plastic “pound shop” bucket stood in the bath with a plastic scoop inside…I learnt very quickly how to bathe in Nigeria; fill the bucket with cold water from the hose pipe (the night before, so it warms up) and scoop the water from the bucket to wash each day. I never did have a hot bath. Clothes washing was carried out the same way, by hand in the bath and hung to dry in my hotel room.

There was an old ugly grey box like air conditioning unit cut into the outside wall next to the window (the plaster work had not been repaired or made good) but I was told by my young Nigerian proprietor that the electricity was only on for one hour in the morning and one in the evening and he could not guarantee that. NEPA, the Nigerian electricity company, “took” power just when they felt like it, so nothing could be guaranteed. And when there was electricity, it was too expensive to have on continuously, proprietor advised me. I thought to myself “I am paying for this?” I giggled inside at the thought of relaying to my family my experience…they were never going to believe my story.

Exhausted (and elated) I was blessed with a chunky china mug of weak black unsweetened tea, compliments of the proprietor as a nightcap (I requested milk to accompany it) and was left to settle down for the night in 40 degree plus humidity with no air conditioning, no fan and no light, alone in a wild part of the world. I safely locked and chained my hotel door and lay in the darkness until sleep took over.


  1. What a vivid picture you paint of a world so removed from our comfortable Western existence. Thanks for sharing - what an amazing experience!

  2. Thanks Hywela Lyn for your kind words and encouragement. So glad you enjoyed it. Yes, my life has been amazing and vivid and interesting. ;-))