I will be decapitated in less than two days. They are going to kidnap me, shoot me, rob me, rape me and cut me into pieces to sell my organs in the Asian market. This is a brief list of some of the things that I had been told me that will happen to me once I cross the border that I have in front of me. I'm in no man's land with the exit stamp from Cameroon in my passport. The moment has finally arrived and there is no turning back. I am at the gates of Nigeria, and the vast majority of these things I have not heard only in the media, but the very same Africans throughout Africa. As if that wasn't enough, I also read the bad experiences of several cyclists who crossed the country in recent years.
As I cross the bridge moving towards the Ekok migration post on a bright and sunny day, I have nerves running through my veins. I do not know what to expect, but within the whirl of emotions that runs through my head, I promise myself two things. The first is to use all my energies to cross the country as fast as I can and leave it behind as soon as possible. The second one is not to play hero and to insist on crossing it by bicycle at all costs. If my common sense says that I am in danger, then I'll put all my things on the first bus that takes me to Lagos. I have nothing to prove to anyone and the people who love me in this world are more important than fattening my ego. With that thought in mind, I arrive at the migration post with passport in hand.
I enter with a smile greeting everyone there because I have not been in such a busy border for a long time. The interest in me is immediate and the warmth and good humour of the officers are such that it baffles me as much as it comforts me. The immigration officer who has my passport talks to me all the time non-stop with the friendliness of a lifetime friend. He asks me warmly: How long do you intend to stay in Nigeria? To which I respond that because I travel by bicycle I reckon that I will need at least two weeks to cross the country to get to Benin. 2 weeks? - he repeats. -Yes, I reckon- answering without much thinking because my visa is valid for 30 days anyway.
Already with the stamp in the passport, before leaving I ask the officers about the security situation in the country and they reaffirm to me that everything is quiet in the south, that only the north is still in conflict with Boko Haram, but that this is very far away and I have nothing to worry about. Between that and their warmth, I start to cycle across Nigeria with a smile, even though I won't drop my guard yet.
In this country of almost 190 million inhabitants, a population comparable to that of Brazil but only a fraction of its size, I decided to plan my route by staying out of the big overpopulated thoroughfares in the south and away from the northern conflict zones. I assumed that this, the middle way, would take me along a quieter network of rural roads to avoid the chaotic cities of the country whose reputation is terrifying.
This is where I start to roll in Nigeria, where long before I can even begin to notice its people, there is something that is so obvious that stands out above everything else. It is impossible to ignore it because it is simply overwhelming. Shortly after entering this country I discover that the Nigerian urban landscape is mainly an endless collection of posters offering and promising the Divine Salvation, the definitive exit from poverty, the healing of all terminal illnesses, and all kinds of extravagances that surpass the imagination. Here, it is fantasy evangelism taken to the extremes, led by an army of innumerable self-proclaimed pastors, what rules. Traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church are reduced to merely abandoned theatres. The number of clandestine churches in Nigeria is such that it could well leave the Philippines reduced to a country of atheists. I have never seen anything like it and the names and slogans that define them are an invitation to both laughter and outrage.
Amidst this religious delirium, little by little I begin to realize that I receive beautiful smiles from all the people I am running into on the road, but above all, an intense curiosity. I return the gesture smiling with the same spirit but I do not want to be too optimistic because it may be just a false illusion of the beginning, as it had already happened in Ethiopia when I was with Julia. But the hours and the days pass and in these, mostly quiet rural roads, people comfort me every day a little more.
In the small towns, as in the cities, the Nigerians begin to get into my heart with that brilliant energy that they show me every day. An energy so positive and also so intense, that I confess that I have seldom felt with such depth until now. Wherever I stop I attract hordes of curious people, eager to talk and ask me questions. We are in the era of cheap cell phones and everyone wants a photo with me to the point of making me feel almost like a movie star.
Energy is contagious and with it, my fears are knocked down one by one until I feel completely comfortable. In every place I stop, whether it's to eat, to drink something or to take a break, people come up with laughter, smiles, jokes, good humour and love to ask me things. A rest stop leads to an invitation to lunch, or a mountain of fruit and snacks as a gift for the road, or an affable talk with the vendors of the stands.
In the multiple military and police checkpoints along the way, sometimes as close as only 10 km apart, the Nigerian police and military do justice to their fame. In each and every one of them, they ask me for money in one way or another. However, the funny thing is that after a while, everyone seems to be overcome by fascination and curiosity. In every checkpoint, it all starts with an invitation to bribery and ends in a fun chat between friends. Police armed to their teeth with machine guns that become curious children, asking me everything thorough an endless number of "why's". Those who are checking on the other side of the road quickly leave their posts and cross to where I am to gossip. Each of them wants a picture with me, and each one with their own cell phone and so they take turns between them, passing the phones and standing next to me to pose. I am delighted, but there comes a point where I can not stop at each checkpoint for 20 minutes to chat and I must cut off the enthusiasm because otherwise, I will finish crossing Nigeria in 3 months.
Even though the positive experiences add up to each other every day, to the point of totally losing the fear and making me adore the Nigerians, I do not reduce my pace at any time. I do not want to drop my guard either because the reputation of the country cannot be completely a myth either, so I try to reach a town always before it gets dark and find a safe place to sleep. Unlike other countries, here it is more difficult to find places where I can stay. On the one hand, the overpopulation does not leave enough free space to camp and feel safe at night, and on the other, the general distrust due to the Boko Haram conflict is a reality that leads people to be less open to offer you a place in their houses. That's why I always look for cheap hotels, generally brothels, where I can spend the night, but even so, many find it hard to overcome suspicions about me.
In spite of everything, I feel completely happy crossing Nigeria although equally confused due to the brutal contrast between what is said about Nigeria and what I am experiencing every day in this country among its people. My confusion is huge and in my head, the questions far outweigh the answers as I go. This is the kind of dilemma that one faces when travelling, when the personal everyday experiences, contradict the rumours and stereotypes that one had formed.
The first week, until my first encounter with the great Niger River, happens in the blink of an eye, but I am making a titanic effort to cross the country without taking breaks to rest and my infections are not healing. My legs are all swollen and in deep pain. Worse yet, I have developed impetigo. Now, a new infection appears in every place I touch after touching one of the existing open wounds. I need to continue cycling as much as I can to get to Lagos and seek treatment, I am aware by now that this will not heal by just cleaning my wounds.
On the other hand, fortunately I have gained enough confidence to believe that everything will be fine in Nigeria. The middle way has proved to be excellent to get across this country. However, things would change significantly when crossing the Niger, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not so much.