I was chatting to a knitting friend the other week and we talked about our travels. She’d been to India too, I’d been twice, the first time as a Hare Krishna – that might have been a good thing, since we got to see the hinterland not many tourists visit.
I’d also been to Nigeria and lived and worked there for 1 1/2 years. And here’s my experience of both places – and it will blow all stereotypes out of the water.
India is the place where everyone goes and expects a lot of spirituality. People go to India to have some kind of experience. In the same time, especially for women, India can be uncomfortable to the point of being unsafe. There’s been plenty in the mainstream news, but shedloads more stories that never make it into the media.
Nigeria on the other hand. I must admit I had my head filled with all the usual stereotypes before I went there. I even packed loads of scarves because I thought I’d have to keep my hair covered to be safe. In reality, even starting with my trips to the High Commission to get my visa, people have never been anything but kind and polite to me.
My life in Nigeria started with me living in a walled compound and I didn’t go outside on my own for weeks. I remember the first time I walked out the door, armed with all my fears. Yes I attracted attention but that’s simply because you don’t see that many white people walking on their own. Once I relaxed enough to listen to what people were actually saying to me (after another couple of weeks) I realised – they were curious, not threatening. Of course there was the occasional ‘Marry me!’ but it was childlike and easily parred with a clever comeback – there was never anything happening against my will.
For a while I was ok with shorter excursions by myself but took my bodyguard if I had to venture further away, like to the Shrine (thank you Abiola) – until I realised that wasn’t necessary either.
After another month or so I got brave enough to get on an okada – the first time attracted a lot of fanfare, since white people definitely don’t do that. (With all the traffic it’s the best way of getting anywhere, so I did it anyways.) The drivers of those things can look scary but they were always nice to me. I remember the first one who was always waiting outside the gate, his name was Babyface. After a while they didn’t even try to quote me three times the regular price anymore, that’s how much they got used to me.
Anyways I have loads of stories to tell about Nigeria. And of course I met all sorts of people and once I did end up in a room with someone who didn’t have the best of intentions. But even then I got out before anything happens, told some mutual friends, and they took care of the situation for me.
Once I had become comfortable, I even ended up getting on public transport, and still didn’t have any problems. Of course, once you’re on public transport in Nigeria, everyone accepts you as one of them (even though you might look different) so nobody even looks twice.
I ended up driving my own car too. Madness you might say. I never had any problem with area boys – and the only time I really couldn’t get out of giving some money to the police to let me drive on, happened not on the mainland (I was always fine there) but on the Island, where the big money was and everyone was out to get something. Mostly the white people, of course. I’m sorry, now I am stereotyping – but seriously, who goes to Nigeria except to make loadsa money?
Anyways, what I mean to say – screw the stereotypes. I could never do anything practical in India and I feel bad for all the people that go there and get disappointed. But Nigeria – I still find it amazing that most of the people I met were lovely, respectful, tolerant of my naivete in what I was trying to do there, genuinely interested and open to meeting a white person who didn’t fit into the usual stereotypes either.
And if you want spirituality, go to Oshogbo, read up about Susanne Wenger, read some Ben Okri, listen to some talking drums. Yes that kind of spirituality hasn’t undergone as much insitutionalisation as yoga etc, but my god you can feel it everywhere. And who knows what things were really like in India 2000 years ago with the pantheism and the animal sacrifices.
And finally, here’s one of my fave pics from the first 3 months – there was an armoured policeman and I borrowed his gun.