Nigeria: Okonkwo

Coming back from the market, I made my first Nigerian friend. His name was Okonkwo and like many Nigerians, he spoke better English than most Americans I know. Okonkwo was a native Igbo. The Igbo live in Eastern Nigeria and pride themselves on being Nigerian elite. They tend to be the best educated and most Western in their outlook. Unlike the Hausa in the North, they tend to take a keen interest in world affairs. So seeing me, a rare white person in Nsukka, he came over and introduced himself. He wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing visiting Nigeria. He thought it was very funny that I was interested in Nigerian culture because for most of his peers, their greatest desire was to leave Nigeria. I told him I thought that was very sad, and he reminded me that I had just arrived and had much to learn. The lack of political freedom and economic opportunity is the driving force that makes him want to leave. The two are very much connected. With the military government able to sieze anything profitable, the risk for real entrepreneurs is just too high. Working with a military government means always having to watch your back. It's not that Okonkwo hates Nigeria. He has lived his whole life here and has a huge extended family. But the more he learns about the rest of the world, the more he wants to experience it for himself. Sadly, the best and brightest Nigerians all leave home to find success elsewhere. This is called the "brain drain" and deprives Nigeria of one of its greatest resources" its people. Okonkwo was a great guide. Without him, I really don't know how I would have survived. He showed me where to go in the market to get the best stuff (and how to avoid the bathroom pit -- which he was embarrassed about.) He also introduced me to a whole bunch of Nigerian students. They treated me like a celebrity. Before I knew it, I had a multitude of offers for meals and trips.

Nigeria: The Market

In Nsukka, people didn't go to the local convenience store to buy things. Any shopping you needed to do, you did in the central market place. This is how commerce is done throughout Africa. Every city and town has a market, most of them huge, open air deals. There is no way you can miss these markets. They are loud, they are colorful, they are crowded, but the first thing that hits the Western visitor (like me) is the fact that.... they stink! Yes, take thousands of people coming to one area every single day of the week and don't provide running water. See what happens. There was one disgusting area that was really like a big tent. It was dug out into a huge pit and this is where people went to the bathroom. That's right, men, women, and kids, all gathered around the foulest smelling pit you can imagine. the market workers shovel some sort of chemical in the pit every so often, but there is no escaping the odor. The smell is not just from humans, however. Remember this is an African market and while you can buy chicken breast cut up, it is very expensive. Most people just buy their own chickens. This is true for most livestock so compounding the odor problem is all this livestock. Yes, going to the market was an eye and nose opener for me. So I had no stomach to buy meat or food prepared in such a place when I first visited the market. But I needed to eat. I found a section of the market where fruit and nuts were sold and I bought a huge amount of peanuts (called "groundnuts") and bananas. Nigerian bananas are the best. They are very small and very juicy. Thankfully, they are also very healthy because during the six months I lived in Nigeria, my diet was over 90 percent composed of ground nuts, bananas, and rice.

Nigeria: The Apartment

April 20

Moving on, I was taking in my new apartment for the next six months located at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, a city in Eastern Nigeria. Walking past the bathroom and small bedroom, there was a kitchen area and then a sitting area. The first thing I thought of when I saw these rooms was: "Wow, look at the lizards." Lizards were everywhere. They were on the walls, floors, and ceiling. They were in the sink and the cupboards. I tried to chase them out, but it seemed as if they were laughing at me. I later learned that they are just part of the area. Nigerians are as used to lizards in their houses as I was to ants. They are considered harmless and most Nigerians don't even notice them. So that was my apartment. A bathroom, bedroom, kitchen corner, and sitting area. Since I had not known what to expect and would not have been surprised if the whole apartment was a mud hut, I was pleased with the unit. Once I had gotten my stuff put away, I decided to scout the area and find something to eat. The apartment sits in the corner of the large campus that is the University of Nigeria. In Nigeria, people walk a lot. Just from the apartment to the main buildings on campus was a few kilometers. The market was about an hour's walk. Yet, not everyone -- in fact very few people -- owned cars. So most people just walked. It took a while to get used to the amount of walking I had to do, but eventually I didn't think twice about it. Walking outside the apartment, there was one road heading towards the center of town. There was a big soccer stadium about ten minutes up the road, and kids were there twenty-four hours a day playing soccer. I was so used to kids playing soccer with $100 shoes back home, that it was odd to see that most of the kids playing had NO shoes! That's right, they just played in bare-feet. You know something? They were good too.

Nigeria, April 20

Waking up in my apartment in Nsukka, I was disorientated for a while. Had I really come so far to live in Nigeria for a few months? Was this going to work? I really didn't know what to think, but I realized I had to give it a chance. The apartment was not bad. It was small and plain, but clean and organized. As you walked in, there was a small bathroom on the left and bedroom on the right. In the bathroom there was no shower, but there was a bathtub. The annoying thing that I would find out later is that the water typically ran out after the 20th of the month. It was stored in tanks on the roof and after you used up your monthly allotment, you had no water until the new month started. Now I can easily see how you can take quick showers, but taking baths without using much water takes a bit longer to get used to. Now I had been cautioned not -- under any circumstances -- to drink the tap water. So the water issue was more about bathing and washing clothes than anything else. I had never realized that this Western concept we have of bathing every day is not universal. For many people, it is just not practical to bath every day, so they get used to twice a week. You wear deodorant or... just get used to it. Likewise, most of the Nigerians I would meet wash their clothes after wearing them for few days. I guess it all depends on what you are used to. This concept of bathing and washing clothes was just the first of many huge cultural differences that I would never have known. But in the end, that was what my journey was about. I wanted to full embrace another culture. Well, as I sat in a bathtub with a few inches of water, I realized just what it would mean to full embrace another culture.

Nigeria, April 19

The cab took me to the Nsukka cab terminal. From there I took a local cab to the University of Nigeria where I found the main office and explained that I had rented a room on campus. A nice guy said he would show me the apartment and I followed him outside. No, he didn't have a car. He had an old motorcycle and told me to get on behind him. With no other option, I climbed on and then hung on for dear life as we raced across campus, swerving to avoid the lizards running all about. I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived at a cluster of small apartments. He gave me a key and showed me the apartment I had rented. It was simple with a bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom. It was actually quite nice and I thanked him and said good-bye. I then closed the door and let out a breath. I was so relieved that the journey was over. Since I smelled slightly worse than a hippopotamus, the first order of business was a hot shower. O.K., it was a cold shower, but it was a shower. I soaped off a few inches of dirt and began to feel myself again. That's when I realized that I had not eaten anything for about two days and I was starving. So shower done and clean clothes on, I decided I needed to go find some food and find it quick. I had noticed on the way over a guy by the side of the road selling some kind of roasted meat on a stick. I found him and asked what the meat was. It turns out, this is a Nigerian favorite called Suya. Suya is as popular in Nigeria as Falafel is in the Middle East. It is made of thin slices of meat roasted on an open flame with slices of onion and a very hot, red pepper. To the chagrin of the vendor, I ate three washed down with a few cokes. Shower. Check. Food. Check. Sleep...... Yes, one more order of business to become human again.

Lagos, April 18

So I make my way through the Lagos Airport looking for the domestic terminal. All over bored soldiers shoot me really dirty looks. Luckily, since Nigeria was a former British colony, everyone speaks English. I found the right desk and purchased a ticket. Outside sat a medium sized plane to Enugu. Yet I realized judging by all the nervous people waiting there with tickets in their hands, that they had way oversold the flight. Now this next part is unbelievable. They did not in any way announce boarding. One guy walked over to a door, took a key out and unlocked it. Everyone in the place jumped to their feet and tried pushing their way out the door. Apparently, there are no rules. The first 100 people on the plane get a seat. Everyone else waits for the next plane. Not only that, but in addition to about 100 people sitting, they let on another thirty people who just stood in the aisles the whole flight! Can you imagine this anywhere else in the world? Needless to say, i was much relieved when the flight landed. Of course at this point I am tired, sweaty and feeling disgusting. It is early afternoon when I leave the airport at Enugu and look for transportation to Nsukka. All I want is a shower, a cold beer, and a nice bed. I just wonder how long it will take to get them. There are only two ways to travel in Nigeria. You either take a bus or a city to city cab. I opted for the cab since there seemed to be no timetable for when buses come. The cabs on the other hand are always available. They have signs saying the cities they travel to so I quickly found the one marked Nsukka. It is cheap and quick but the only catch is that they only leave when they have at least 6 people. These are regular cars so 5 of us where squeezed into a rear seat made for two. Needless to say, the squeeze did not help my frame of mind.

Lagos Airport

This place is crazy. I never expected it to be quite like this. Let me explain. We landed this morning and then walked down one of those mobile stairways. I can't believe that some airports still use those. We go into the airport and then everything hits me. The place is hot and crowded -- no air conditioning. First, some guy approaches me and asks if i want a guide. When i tell him no he then asks if i need a driver. When I say no, he keeps presenting other services. This guy can't take a hint. I finally tell him to get lost and he gets all upset. Just when he leaves, a soldier comes up to me and rudely tells me to give him my passport. Since he has a gun, I do not argue. He tells me to wait and then disappears for an hour! I can't go through customs without the passport. Just when I am beginning to give up hope, he returns with another soldier and tells me I can't stay. Apparently my visa was cancelled. I am rarely at a loss for words but I really didn't know what to do. I can't just get back on a plane. I am standing there like a dope when the second soldier takes me aside and tells me for $100 he can get my passport back. This pisses me off but looking around, i realize i have no friends and no other options. I can't go the officials because it appears these two soldiers are the officials. I am pissed but I pay the money. They smile and thank me and give the passport back. Just then a Nigerian lady comes up to me and tells me she is sorry, but this happens a lot there. i should get used to it. The soldiers are rarely paid on time so they get creative with ways to earn money.

Time to Get Out

I felt it was time for a change, a big change. Asia was fascinating at first, but now its all the same. I decided I needed to do something really different and get far away. That's why I decided to go to Nigeria. It seems to be a given that I would go to Africa. I have been all around Europe and Asia, and the U.S. is nice but doesn't thrill me. No, I needed t go to Africa and see what life is like. So why Nigeria? Simple. Everyone who wants to go to Africa goes to either South Africa or Kenya. Those places have become tourist spots. I wanted to go somewhere where everyone goes a little nuts when they see me. So everyone told me that Nigeria was not good for tourists. that's why I decided to go. So here I am in the air flying to Lagos. The flight is packed and it's not fun, but I have had worse, much worse. My plan is to take a domestic flight to Nsukka in Eastern Nigeria. I found online an apartment at the University there which is about $50/month. Can't be that. I guess I will use it as a base and travel around for a few months. I am not expecting much, as long as there is running water and a comfortable bed I will be happy. So in the morning the adventure will begin. For now, I am going to try and get some sleep and forget about you know what. My pack is full and I know it won't be easy, but if I wanted easy, I would have gone to Chicago. (Not that I would have found a $50 apartment in Chicago!)

Hong Kong to China

August 21, 1992

Marcus called me yesterday morning and I called him back today and spoke with him he said he wanted to fly me out to Germany for a week. And he also asked if I love him. He told me he thinks about me every night and it will be coming to Hong Kong in September but he doesn't know the date yet.

I am living in Victoria hostel now and the people are nice. The facilities are great. I'm still teaching English at have one job two hours a week for $200 an hour ($26.)

I'm really missing my roommate Tess. I can't wait till she comes back from Taiwan.


August 30, 1992

I'm in China now Yang Shauooa, just for week vacation. I wish I hadn't come even though it's very beautiful here (big green rocks everywhere.)   This is in the Guilin province, were the Chinese say is the most beautiful place on the earth.


I left Hong Kong not in the best health. But my dorm was much too cold (below 50°F) and I came here quite sick and still am. I left Hong Kong early on August 27 met my friend Robert at the Garden Hotel and we got the MTR (subway) to Kowloon Tong, where we caught the KCR train to the China border. We walked through, then got tickets and took a train to Canton , took a bus than a cab to a boat terminal and bought tickets for a supposedly 10 or 15 hour boat ride to Woo Jo (the boat took from 5:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. the next day, in other words 20 1/2 hours.)

The boat was horrible I felt like a prisoner it was full of little tiny boxes with numbers and there were two levels. In each box we were given a mat and that's what we slept in. There was also terrible food on the boat.


I really felt crappy. Especially since in China, it seems that they think that there is some type of evil in saliva, or in their mouths. So the Chinese people spit everywhere in fact there were people on the boat spitting bad parts of apples right onto the floor even from the top level beds. 


Robert and I checked into a hotel or a supposed hotel, a room had no mattresses and no hot water. The next day we caught the bus here, nine hours Yang Shauooa. Now I need to leave day after tomorrow but I'm not one back out way.


Yesterday I slept pretty much. Today I was feeling better so we went to lunch and then I went shopping in the market. Came back here tired and hot and began to rest vomited my lunch and I'm just resting now hoping whatever is wrong with me gets better.

More from Hong Kong

July 12, 1992


Still in Hong Kong working part-time teaching English. Nothing is really new I'm very lonely and unhappy inside I'm still staying at the hostel where there's no privacy and lots of people in a room although here they call it a guesthouse. Last night I had a bad dream but now it's morning and I have to work soon.

August 4, 1992

Today, last night, yesterday, and the night before that and the day before that I had a great affair. It was with his German guy Marcus Fatalin. I originally thought that he was 30 years old but then he told me he was actually 23. He's a Sagittarius.

He's really built successful and a lover I had a great fantastic time with him and he should be coming back in three months so if I'm still here I will see him again.

An Israeli guy moved into the guesthouse his name is Nir and he's nice to look at a little tall though his birthday is the same day as mine but in 1965 maybe something will come of us.

August 14, 1992

Marcus called me yesterday from Germany. We didn't speak for a long time he wanted to know what time I would be home today so he could call me later when he had more time. It was really great of him to call me. I think about him and the time we spent together all the time.

He said he may be able to come here to Hong Kong in September maybe for 10 days or one week but of course it depends on business I hope he can and does. He said he would call me on Monday in three days but I need to move out of this guesthouse tomorrow because my friend Tess is going to Taiwan for two weeks and my other roommate Ian has been offered a friend's apartment for three weeks for free. I hope the place I moved to is okay I know I wouldn't be able to speak with Marcus for a while. He said he sent me the package with cassette playgirls and letters I can't wait to get it. Smile.