Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fear factor

We would have never come here if we had listened to the travel nurse in Saint John. She said we were going to the riskiest part of the world for picking up certain diseases: malaria, cholera, hepatitis, yellow fever, and dengue fever.

“Is it really the riskiest?" I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“But I’ve been to places like Central America, Thailand, India,” I said.

“This is worse than all of them,” she said.

“And whatever you do,” she said before she began to administer the first of many expensive shots that provided some – but not complete - protection against these diseases, “don’t wear sandals. Wear protective footwear at all times. You never know what you’ll step on over there.”

This is when the fear started to set in. “Should we be doing this?” I asked Janet as we left the clinic. “It’s a little late to ask that now,” she said.

I was told there was much to fear about Ghana: diseases, pollution, armed robberies and traffic accidents (the leading cause of death).

I was so worked up that, on the third day I was here, I went to the hospital thinking I was having an asthma attack because of air pollution (I wasn’t). I haven’t been really sick yet or been in an accident, but Janet and I were nearly mugged (turned out Janet was too tough for them).

Ghana turned out to be not so frightening after all. Then we decided to take a trip to Nigeria, the scariest place in all of West Africa – except for maybe Sierre Leone, Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire…

There was so much to fear about Nigeria: it had the same diseases, but was more polluted and the roads were more dangerous. And it was more violent, way more violent. The day before we arrived, seven foreign oil workers were kidnapped in the Niger Delta, and armed robbers had broken into the house of the people Janet was to work with. (We went to Nigeria because Janet was giving some presentations on behalf of UNB.)

The Nigerians didn’t dispel my fears. Don’t go out alone, they all told me. And if you do, take taxis, not public transport. The buses and okadas (motorcycle taxis) get in more accidents and get robbed more often.

On the first morning, Janet went to work and I took a taxi to The Punch, the most popular daily newspaper in Lagos. I wanted to get a tour of the paper and go out on assignment with a reporter (see “A Sunday drive through Lagos” in the May folder). In a meeting with a group of editors they told me that the West exaggerates the dangers in Nigeria. “Yes, foreign oil workers are often kidnapped in the Niger Delta,” said one editor. “But they never kill any of them. They always let them go eventually.” But whatever you do, they all said, don’t ride the buses or the okadas. I took a cab back to the hotel.

The next day, I stayed in the room watching movies until noon. I didn’t want to take any more taxis (they were very expensive) and I was a bit spooked by all the Nigerians telling me to stay away from other, cheaper forms of transit.

At noon, I decided to venture out into the city. The guys at the front desk begged me to take a taxi. When it was clear I planned to take the bus, they gave in and wrote out directions for the bus stops.

I was so proud of myself as I stood at the bus stop waiting for one to come along, but still a little scared. One finally came along and I hopped on board. I nearly had a full-blown panic attack after the first minute. The bus stalled in traffic, and the air was thick with diesel exhaust. What if I have an asthma attack? What if the traffic’s so bad I can’t get back to the hotel before dark?!

I had calmed down by the time we reached the first stop, and decided to take a second bus that would take me all the way downtown. But I freaked out almost immediately after it pulled away from the stop; I got off at the next stop and made my way back to the hotel. Nonetheless I was very proud of my grand adventure. The hotel staff was delighted to see me back alive, and I couldn’t wait to tell Janet when she got back from her day riding around in taxis.

The next day I made it all the way down to Lagos Island, which has many large outdoor markets. Wary of pickpockets, I had my hand in my pocket, clutching my cash. As I walked down the sidewalk of a very busy street, I heard someone call from across the street, “White, white!” I usually ignore people who call out to me, thinking they’re street vendors or people looking for money, but this time I turned toward the man. He was pointing to the ground behind me. “You dropped some money,” he said. There on the sidewalk was some crumpled-up naira (Nigerian currency). Guess I wasn’t holding on to it so tightly after all.

How in this city of thieves and cons, I thought, did I happen upon the one honest guy? And why didn’t the other people on the street pounce on the money after I had dropped it on the ground. The stereotypes about Big Bad Nigeria were being proved wrong, at least in my case. I wandered the markets, down back alleys and side streets and people largely left me alone, except for the occasional person calling out, “Hey white, where are you going?”

I walked around for a few hours and then got back on the bus. As we passed over a bridge that connected Lagos Island with the mainland, I saw a large slum in marshy land near the water. I asked a passenger if he’d been down there before, and the mate collecting fares spoke up. “I grew up there,” he said. “I was schooled there.”

I was surprised when he spoke to me, just as the man who let me know my money had fallen to the ground surprised me. There is so much bad press about large African cities, some coming from the residents themselves, that we forget there is much good in them as well. People talk to each other; people help each other, just as they do everywhere else.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to fear. Everywhere I saw signs and heard stories about a city under siege. Barbed wire fencing around homes and businesses. Armed guards at banks and bank machines. Stories about people being robbed in their homes and on buses.

But you have to let down your guard a bit, or you won’t see much of what’s good in places like this. The same goes for being obsessed about getting in accidents or sick with malaria or cholera.

On our last day in Nigeria, a police officer gave me advice that’s worth heeding anywhere in the world.

We were pulled over at a police checkpoint, and an officer approached the car. I closed my hand over money I was holding so she couldn’t see it (police officers are said to be corrupt here and always looking for bribes). She peered briefly into the car and waved us on.

She must have noticed that I looked tense. As the car pulled away I heard her laugh; I turned around and she was looking at me. “Relax,” she said.

- Mark


Jack said...

I'd like to know more about Janet being too tough for the muggers.
My mother was like that too. As a young woman she apparently fought off some nasty American sailors who were going to attack her Candadan army boyfriend. She too was quite attractive.
So what do these young women do to save their young men from harm?

Janet & Mark in Ghana said...

I should know as a writer that you don't tease people with a story like that and then drop it...We were walking home late one night (breaking rule number one) and a car passed us on a side street with no lights. A guy reached out and grabbed onto Janet's bag. She didn't let go (breaking rule number 2). He eventually let go and the car sped off. I started walking forward as if to chase the car; Janet grabbed onto my shirt to stop me, and all of the buttons popped off! The two of them had a good tug of war with that bag because they had torn the leather, and not at a seam. Robberies are definite threat here, and we were lucky it wasn't more threatening. A friend of mine got robbed by guys with machetes recently. She put up no fight at all, holding out her bag as they began to circle her. She lost her bag but didn't hurt. - Mark

Anonymous said...

This is quite a story Mark. i can't even imagine all the experiences you are having. Be very careful. Doesn't that sound like Mummy.
Take Care, Love, Mummy and Daddy