A Window on the Heart of Africa

18 January 2006
The Times

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website was not encouraging. It advised against all but essential travel to the state I was now rattling through in a beat-up Nissan taxi. I was in Bayelsa, in the Niger Delta, a remote region of Nigeria: taking hostages for ransom had occurred here.
Near by, local youths had invaded oil rigs and tried to extort money from Western oil companies. Oil workers now were flown by helicopter to the rigs or escorted by armed guards in large four-wheel-drive vehicles.

But here I was, by myself, taking rickety taxis and the public boat, with nothing but a video camera and a few clothes in an old bag. I had flown into Lagos the night before, and stayed there overnight with a friend who was working as a journalist in Nigeria. His wife had given me great thick bricks of naira — the Nigerian currency — and urged me to hide little bits of it all over my person. She warned me to be careful. Tom, my friend, was more sanguine: “Keep your eyes open and you will be fine.”

There was a reason I was so fascinated by Nigeria, and why I was willing to take risks to catch a glimpse of the country — I was on a journey to follow in my great-grandfather’s footsteps more than a hundred years after he passed this way.
The next morning, I caught another plane to Port Harcourt, and my Nissan taxi down to Yenagoa, a seedy town in Bayelsa State. I paid the equivalent of a pound here, and climbed into a blue speedboat. A two-hour journey through the mangrove swamps took us to the place where the Delta met the Atlantic Ocean. I was now in a jungle outpost called Akassa. I sat under the shade of a large tree and ate pounded yam, fresh, peppery fish, and drank Nigerian beer, and stared at the ocean.
My great-grandfather, also called Francis Gilbert, was 17 when he took part in the Benin “punitive expedition” to Nigeria in 1897. An unarmed diplomatic delegation had been massacred just outside Benin City on the orders of the Oba of Benin. Within weeks, a mighty naval force — which included my great-grandfather — was wending its way through the jungle towards Benin City. A naval detachment seized the city, which was looted and then burnt to the ground. The best of the booty can now be seen in the British Museum.
It was not a glorious moment in our past, but a fascinating one. My great-grandfather wrote a beautiful naval log, complete with maps and a diary — nothing revelatory, but enough to feed my imagination. I wanted to retrace his journey, to talk to Nigerians about the incident and the colonial legacy in general, to see the country for myself.

At Akassa, I learnt of a troubled society. The government machinery in Nigeria does not work because too many powerful people steal public money, leaving nothing for the people. So many officials “chop” money that the Government struggles to keep schools, hospitals, universities, water systems and roads running. The Akassa Development Foundation was struggling to fill these chronic holes. I saw school classrooms with no windows, no doors, asbestos roofs and old, decrepit furniture. But there was hope. The foundation had set up a new school, a medical centre, and had repaired roads and built bridges to remote communities, as well as helped to create a new market.
I left Akassa feeling uplifted and moved. It is a special place: the legacy of the colonial past is still much in evidence. I saw the warehouses of the Royal Niger Company, where slaves were imprisoned during the years of the slave trade, and observed a spooky “white man’s” graveyard. Near by there was a sea turtle sanctuary, vast beaches, and “the largest lighthouse in Africa”, according to locals . But, above all, I was struck by the charm of the people — everywhere I went I was greeted with warm smiles and conversation.
The public boat took me back one chilly morning to Yenagoa, where I found a lift to Port Harcourt. Here I saw the most amazing football match of my life. It was a World Cup qualifying clash between Nigeria and Gabon, which was played in a torrential rainstorm. The stadium was packed. The only thing that stopped the people in our area from being crushed to death was a guy with a horse-whip who lashed out at the numerous spectators who wanted to get over the wall, driving them back. Luckily, Nigeria won 2-0 or there would have been a riot.
I continued to follow in the tracks of the Royal Navy in 1897, stopping off at Warri. Because of a recent tribal war, there were frequent barricaded army and police checkpoints, with young soldiers brandishing machineguns. I then went on to Benin City (slightly confusingly, this is still part of Nigeria, and not in the neighbouring country of Benin), where I saw the workshops that supplied the Oba, the king of the area, with his incredible bronze statues. I visited the ancient moat and walls — which appear to have become a rubbish tip — and the Oba’s palace with his grand lawns and imposing statues. Benin City was a bleak, poverty-stricken place. Apparently child-trafficking and prostitution is a problem here. “Adam”, the boy whose mutilated body was found in the Thames in 2001, came from a village near Benin City.
Lagos seemed positively luxurious compared with Benin City, Warri and Port Harcourt. It is on a beautiful lagoon and has huge, sandy beaches. As well as the five-star hotels, such as a Sheraton, that you might expect in such a huge metropolis, some smaller boutique examples have opened recently that offer better value and a more personalised service. Michaels on Adetokumbo Ademola Street is a funky, relatively inexpensive option and Kuramo Lodge, attached to Le Meridien, is less formal than its big sister. I stayed in Lagos with Tom, visited the intriguing National Museum and bought souvenirs at Lekki Market, where there were some superb examples of African masks and other beautiful cultural artefacts.
Nigeria is trying to promote itself as a tourist destination. It has so much to offer: amazing swaths of rainforest, mountain plains, tracts of desert, a vibrant, artistic culture. Aware that many tourists would not want to rough it as I did, the Nigerian Government suggests various “safe havens” such as the Obudu Cattle Ranch in the far southeast. This stands about 7,000ft (2,130m) above sea level, in swirling clouds with European temperatures. Similarly attractive is the Yankari game reserve in the remote northeastern Bauchi State, offering warm springs and views of baboons, elephants and other wildlife.
Rampant corruption and decades of military dictatorships have left Nigeria with the stigma as one of the world’s toughest places to visit. But for an adventurous traveller it provides a fascinating window on the heart of Africa, its myriad problems and its spectacular beauty.
Akassa Development Foundation: www.pronatura-nigeria.org.

your comment