Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Continuing to Niger Republic

Need to Decide

It was around 4:00 am on Tuesday morning on the 11th of April 2017. I was woken by the 4:00 am alarm. 4:00 am is very critical to my job hence the need I set my alarm to wake me up by that time - not minding whether I was on vacation or not. I reminded myself I was on vacation and also that I have not decided on how I am going to do my planned trip to Niger, after the issues I experienced in East Africa the pre pious day. I searched and found a plane to Sokoto from Lagos that morning. I made reservations and paid for it. Going to Niger and Niamey the capital required one to travel to Kebbi or Sokoto and then cross the border into Niger. A few Nigerien who live around had earlier advised I may have to travel through the Kebbi border but it was unfortunate there were no direct flights to Kebbi from Lagos but to Sokoto, several of them. 

I waited for day break to tell everyone at home I was travelling to Niamey, this is one the aspects of my travelling adventure I loved, announcing strange names of countries and cities I want to travel to. I had to pack a few things I thought I was going to need. I was excited of the idea I was going to see the far northern Nigeria. I also was telling myself it might probably be the last time I will have to travel to Sokoto without a visa (Hoping Biafra would become a country soon and that I will now need a passport or a form of identification at least to travel to Nigeria or whatever the remaining country will be called).

A vehicle to Ilela. The driver seems to be very relaxed and was speeding.
Not knowing what to expect in Niger, I picked my bag and left for the airport at around 8:30 am. On my way to the airport, I noticed one of the facilities of the airport authority was on fire. I watched with other onlookers, started a Facebook life video when I noticed it was getting out of hand and the arrival of the fire fighters. I was a bit carried away but I left the scene after roughly 10 minutes of recording and sharing the video with my friends. To cut the long story short, we first flew to Kaduna before flying to Sokoto. The total flight time was around 2 hours. At Sokoto, I noticed an extremely high temperature of 41 degrees Celsius. 
Well, I made inquiries on how to get to the border and I was told I was to first get to town, then I get to Ilela Park for a vehicle to Ilela and then get a motor bike to help transport me across the border.

Unfortunately, I had failed to take enough money. I was really grateful to one of the drivers in the park who agreed I do a bank transfer to his bank account so he could pay my fair to Ilela. The bank was far from the park. From there, I now took a motor bike for the onward journey to the Niger/Nigeria border.

Two Fulani Angels

I will also thanks two very helpful Fulani men who were of immense help to me on my trip to Niger.
Mr. Bala Ibrahim. This gentleman can best be described as an understanding father and a lover of justice. He and his men of the Nigerian Immigration were at the border between Nigeria/Niger when I passed it last week Tuesday (11th of April 2017). I passed their post without paying a dime (usually, immigration officers at borders collect a fee before stamping passports to admit someone who does not require a visa into West Africa). 

However, at the Niger Republic border when the immigration officers requested I pay 10000cfa to pass and I bluntly refused, insisting it is free and even if I will pay, I will give them nothing more than 3000cfa. This seemed to get to the Niger's commanding officer’s nerves and he requested his men to conduct a thorough search on me. This was because according to him, I was coming to do business and not tourism, which I said, was what am coming for. However, he saw some of my valid visas which proved to him I was not headed to Agadez(it's a border town with Libya and it's a route for illegal immigrants to Europe).

In my whole life, I have ever been search the way I was searched that day. The type of search I was subjected to that day was horrible (I prefer to use interesting though). I removed everything on me except my under pants. He later even checked what was inside the under pants to be sure there's no exhibit. They had to cut my shoes to be sure I had nothing inside. I was just there laughing and afterwards, he said I should pack my things, pay the 10000cfa or go back. I told him I will go back.
Back to the Nigerian side, I narrated my ordeal to the Nigerian officers who were worried about the development. They told me to thank God they found nothing on me and that if they did, it could have been something else, because they could have arrested me. Their display of love and concern was something out of this world and at that point knowing I am Igbo, they had to escalate to their overall boss at that border, Mr Bala Ibrahim. He came, took my passport and after going through it, asked me to follow him in his bike. He took me to the Niger Immigration officers and spoke with their boss. Some other junior officers outside were cheering me that I was smart to have gone back.
After the ‘oga to oga’ talk inside, the Niger officer took my passport and stamped it and Mr Ibrahim now asked me to give them anything I had. Well, I had to give them 5000cfa eventually - to prove it’s not that am broke that I did not want to pay what they demanded.

I wanted a picture with Mr Bala for this post but he told me the Niger officers would complain if we do that at their end but that I can have his telephone no which I gladly collected. Please anyone who knows this man should help me thank him.
Meanwhile, I spent almost two hours on all these and waiting outside was another Ibrahim, another Fulani guy from Ilela in Sokoto State of Nigeria. He was patient all through and did not complain. After the whole incident, he even took me to the Airtel office to get a SIM card; to Banque Atlantique to make some transactions and then to the car company that I would be travelling with the next day. His display of patience was so excellent and I wish to thank him for it. 

The Night Fall Hotel, Birni-Koni

I had also made the mistake of not withdrawing someone local Nigerian currency (Naira) before getting to Ilela. Unfortunately the banks at Ilela also were not working so, the only hope I had was just to change some dollars I had when I arrive Niger. On arrival, it was very difficult to change the dollars at Birni-Koni (the exchange rate I was offered was very low and as a result, I decided I would not change there but wait till I get to the capital). I will advise anyone who intends to cross the border from Sokoto to Brini Koni(the town in Niger side) to always make sure they go with Naira. It is easier to change and you also have several people who change it there - competition will make them sell it at a better price. I walked around to find a better price but could not.
After the long walk looking for a bureau de change operator, I was very thirsty and also needed to find a place to relax for the night so I can continue my journey the next day. I found a shop however, bought a bottle of coke and water to relax and then asked the owner of the shop - Tu connais un hotel pas loin d'ici?  I was asking if he knew a hotel around there but he did not understand me. It was then it dawned on me I am in a territory where I needed to be able to speak Hausa at least. He did not understand what I was saying but he seemed to understand I was talking of a hotel but yet, he could not respond anything meaningful. After some 5 minutes or so of sipping the 250cfa coke (the cheapest I had ever bought in a francophone West Africa), two customers came in to buy cigarettes. I then asked them the same question and one of them responded in French, we can help you find one. I was quite happy at least I could be understood.

With the two Mohameds - the blacksmith and police.
These two gentlemen were both called Mohamed, they were Tuareg. The older Mohamed was the only one I communicated with easily while the second, understood a little French, the older Mohamed told me the younger is a policeman...which I later got to understand he was just a local security officer in one of the motor parks around. The older Mohamed whom we later became friends is a blacksmith. We went out in search of a hotel and unfortunately, we found nothing. It was then Mohamed asked me to come stay with them in their house...which I happily accepted - even though I was bit bothered about the safety of some of the things in my bag. For myself, I knew I will be safe no matter what. After all, it was not the first time I was getting to sleep in house of a stranger. Maybe my first time abroad anyways.

We got to the house. It was made of rafts. From the door to the roofing. Inside, the floor was just sand.
So I will sleep out today??
The portion where the bed was had a little polythene covering that the mattress was resting on. Seeing that gave me hope that at least, I would sleep on something close to what I have at home. I dropped my bag, went out to take fresh air with the Mohameds, take my bath and possibly go for a walk with them to find what to eat. After a while of waiting, another gentleman walked pass and entered the same room. Mohamed introduced him as his brother. I noticed that the guy went in to relax on 'my bed'. After a while, a lady went in there to join him. I later learnt she was his brothers wife. The other 'Police' Mohamed left to his house and it was only myself, Mohamed and a few other neighbours who will eventually sleep outside. It was at that point I knew the sad truth that my bed actually belonged to another and that same person will be using it for the night with his wife. I was perplexed by the thoughts of sleeping outside on just a mat without anything to cover me. I thought of the torment of mosquito, the warm weather and the eventual fall of temperature at night, the possibility of something creeping to the place I will be sleeping and a thief visiting when I might have slept. I eventually slept but vowed to myself I must find a good hotel the next morning and be sure to take a good sleep that I will not get that night. Well, it was really a horrible night as temperature actually dropped later in the night. 

With Sadaam and Aishat. The raft room behind
Mohamed also showed some hospitality. He bought some yogurt, water and some local African tea. I took only one of the yogurts and then the water. I was very tired to go out to buy other things so I decided to sleep a bit hungry that evening.
Waking up the next morning, my entire feet was so dusty I decided to wake Mohamed to get me water to bath but I left him to continue his sleep when I recalled he slept late around 3 am. While waiting, some little children showed up and I decided to have some pictures with them. I had seen them the previous evening and tried to play with them but they understood little or nothing that I said. Sadaam, one of the boys was able to respond to "Comment tu t'appelles?" which is to say "What is your name?"

Later in the morning, Mohamed decided to take me to his shop so that I could see what he does for a living. He was a blacksmith and I watched him work on a ring he wanted to give me as a gift. Some of his friends came around and good a thing they spoke French. They made me understand their friend spoke as much as 8 languages.
The blacksmith
The blacksmith
I also noticed that if there was anytime he wanted to tell me something he did not want his friends to understand, he spoke to me in English and I was surprised and his ability. He patiently worked on the ring until it fitted my finger. He made another and asked me to give it to my girlfriend when I get back to Lagos which I took and I thanked him. I noticed his strong addiction to cigarettes and mentioned it to him, 

He smiled and told me he has been working on it. He told me he used to smoke a full packet of cigarette in a day before then but now, he only does only 5 or less in a day and that he hopes to quit very soon. That reminded me of the rate at which francophone West Africans smoke. I had seen very strange smoking behaviours in Mali and Senegal. In Bamako, Mali for instance, I noticed some very young children who I was not sure they were up to 15 years of age and they were smoking and it looked like if everyone does it. In Dakar Senegal at one point, I noticed that most of the women I met smoked. It was then Habib Koite's Cigartte Abana 1995 song made meaning to me. I wished him the best and told him continue and that things will be alright someday. 

Cigarette Abana - Habib Koite