Yesterday, I told you about how work has been going here in Abuja, Nigeria.
Today’s let’s take “your questions” about what it’s like to live and work in Nigeria.
Q: So, have you gotten out to see the city?
Not really. And for a very good reason: You can’t really see much of the city.
From the time the sun came up last Sunday through today, Abuja has been blanketed with a thick, yellowish haze. In fact, I had been here two days before the haze cleared enough for me to discover I have a mountain outside the window of my hotel room.
That’s Aso Rock, just north of the central part of the city. The highest governmental offices including the president’s office are located at the base of Aso Rock, I’m told.
The rock is 400 meters high — that’s about 1,312 feet — but sources differ as to how high it actually is over the surrounding area. If you’ve ever been to Stone Mountain in Atlanta, then you have a pretty good idea of what Aso Rock looks like.
Except Aso Rock doesn’t have Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson carved in the side of it. Obviously.
Abuja didn’t even exist in the 1970s. The Nigerian government at the time decided to build a brand-new capital city in the dead center of the country. Work began in the late 1970s and continued through the 1980s. The government was officially moved here from Lagos in 1991.
Because it’s so new, the city doesn’t really have what you’d think of as a downtown business district. So that one typical tourist “skyline” photo is rather difficult to take.
Yesterday — Saturday — a friend picked me up at the hotel and took me to these hills in hopes of getting that perfect shot of downtown Abuja.
Because of the haze, though, this was the best we could do.
Q: Those look like some very nice hillside neighborhoods. But where’s the city?
Exactly. You just can’t see the city. Not with all this haze. And because the city is intentionally spread out over a wide area, in order to avoid the kind of congestion they had — and presumably still have — in Lagos.
Q: So, what’s causing all that haze, anyway? Pollution?
I don’t think so. And neither do the folks I’ve spoken with here. This is the tail-end of the dry season here in Nigeria. In just a few weeks, the annual rainy season — with enormous amounts of rain and flooding — will begin.
What you’re seeing in the air here — believe it or not — is dust. From the Sahara Desert, a few hundred miles to the north.
Q: Oh, wow. How can you breathe that stuff?
Oddly enough, I’ve had no problems at all. I’ve had severe allergy problems for the last couple of years — you might recall me writing about not being able to stop coughing during my lengthy stays in South Africa. I’ve had problems this winter in Virginia Beach, as well.
But here? I’ve used a few of my throat lozenges. But not many. I’m breathing more easily here than I have in weeks.
Q: Really? That’s amazing.
Oh, it’s more than amazing. It makes me wonder if I should be begging Tracy Collins for a job at the Phoenix design studio.
Anyway — because of the design of the city and because of the dust — this might very well be the best “skyline” view I get of Abuja.
Q: Can you zoom in a little for us?
Certainly. The downtown area of Abuja is composed of many, many government buildings and, of course, office buildings.
I’m told there are a number of apartment buildings and homes downtown as well, but rents are so high that most citizens can’t afford to live downtown.
Meaning folks have to commute to and from work.
Q: Aha. What are the roads like there?
They aren’t bad, in fact. The government here was very careful to plan for plenty of generously wide highways. In this picture here, you’d swear you’re on an interstate or U.S. highway in any American city.
But look more closely at this one. Notice anything missing?
That’s right. On most of Abuja’s roads, I’ve noticed, there are no highway markings at all.
Q: No markings? How do drivers stay in their lanes, then?
Quite frankly: They don’t. Cars swerve all over the road. Is this stretch here supposed to be two lanes wide or three? Who cares? Drivers just do whatever and hope for the best.
Q: You’re kidding me! That’s nuts!
Well, yes, by American standards it’s pretty crazy. But hey, it works for Nigerians. I’ve not seen a major accident yet. I’ve also not seen a major traffic jam — with the exception of Friday evening. And that one was caused by the military closing down a major road downtown because of the huge political convention here in town Saturday.
Q: No crashes? No wrecks? Impossible!
Oh, I’m sure they happen. They’d just about have to happen. Especially when you get into the built-up area. Cars zoom back-and-forth with — as far as I can tell — only the most informal understanding of where the designated lanes might exist.
The interesting points come when lanes merge. The accepted method is to honk your horn — which is a signal to the other drivers: Grit your teeth because here I come — and then you just merge.
How the drivers keep from hitting each other, I’ll never understand.
In this picture, my driver is turning left through an intersection. Meanwhile, two rows of cars are coming from the right, also turning left — directly across our lane — to travel toward the way we just came.
Now, in America, we have things like traffic signals to govern how you pass through a “T” or “+” intersection. But not here. You just kind of plow right through. How fast or slow you do this — as far as I can tell — depends on your nerve.
Q: You’re kidding me! There are not traffic signals? No four-way stops? No traffic cops?
There are traffic cops, but not at all intersections. And even when they’re present, thy don’t appear to direct traffic at all times. This fellow here is mostly observing.
Q: So, then, how do they keep from having logjams? Gridlocks?
I’ve been wondering that myself. I’ve asked my various drivers and they just grin and shrug. This system — which might have a name but I’ll call it laissez-faire rules of the road because that description amuses me — works for them.
Damned if I know how it works. But it does.:
Q. What is your commute like every day? Are there any interesting sights along the way?
It’s not the most scenic of drives. If you can imagine, say, living in a luxury hotel in the outskirts of Charlotte and then commuting to an office in the suburbs of Charlotte, what would you see along your commute?
You’d see office buildings, hotels and highways.
I’m staying in the Transcorp Hilton hotel, by far the finest in the city, I’ve been told. We drive right past the second-best hotel in Abuja, the Sheraton.
We pass quite a few government offices — just like you’d expect to see in any capital city. This one, for example, appears to be some kind of justice department — perhaps containing law or police offices.
On the side is a big mural depicting the scales of justice. You can also see a sculpture atop the building of the blindfolded Lady Justice.
Q: Do you see any houses? Any neighborhoods?
Not really. At least, I can’t identify them as residences. When we were driving around Saturday, I shot this out my window.
My friend told me those are very nice homes for upper-class residents.
There is also an astonishing amount of construction in this city. I’ve seen a lot of ugly cinderblock buildings and also a number of beautifully-designed skyscrapers like this one here.
Q: And that’s it? Government buildings and business skyscrapers?
Not exactly. We also drive right past one of the most extraordinary buildings I have ever seen: The enormous National Mosque.
Like many Americans, I’ve seen pictures of mosques but I’ve not really seen a mosque up close. Especially one this big.
The Nigerian National Mosque was built in 1984, I’m told. I’m also told it’s open to tourists. No one seems to know if that’s the case right now, though, with so much unrest in the country at the moment.
In fact, a few folks I’ve spoken with suggested that I might not want to be seen taking too many pictures of the mosque. There is quite a bit of distrust between Muslims here and Americans, I’ve been told. But then others have laughed that off and told me to take all the pictures I want.
It’s probably best for me to stay as low-key as I can. Most of these pictures were shot from a moving car and with my iPhone camera.
There are also modern advertisements along the highways. This, for example, is the widest billboard I have ever seen.
Not far from my hotel is this electronic sign that has all sorts of glitches, burned-out bulbs and apparent programming issues.
Yet it seems to be constantly full of ads. I can’t imagine who’d want to buy an ad that nobody can read. But whatever.
The huge structure behind that billboard, by the way, is my hotel.
Q: Traffic doesn’t seem too bad in those pictures. How do most downtown workers find their ways home at the end of the day?
A number commute via private buses like this one.
And a number go by taxi. In the hours between commutes, in fact, taxi drivers congregate in huge numbers in spots like shady underpasses to while the time away until the next rush hour.
Q: So, other than that one traffic jam, you’ve not seen any other congestion issues?
Just one. And I’m told this is fairly atypical, although it does happen from time to time. Directly across from my downtown hotel are two gas stations. Early in the week, there were enormous lines to get in and buy gas. Which they call petrol.
I was baffled by this. Nigeria is one of the world’s largest oil-producing nations. Why on Earth would there be gas lines of an hour or more to fill up a tank?
Turns out, there was a strike threatened recently by oil workers. That caused a minor shortage but a great amount of panic buying, I’ve been told. And I must admit, the lines did get shorter as the week went on.
By Saturday, you could drive right up to that gas station.
Q: Interesting. Those pictures were taken near your hotel?
Yes. There is a security checkpoint in order to drive into the enormous hotel compound. While my driver was sitting in that line, I shot those pictures out the back window of the car.
Once you get through the security check, you head up a nice little driveway lined wtih palm trees and flagpoles…
…past the gigantic meeting hall building connected to the hotel…
…you round another turn and emerge in front of the hotel itself.
It’s relatively peaceful in that picture from last Sunday. But on weekdays, the lobby area is packed with businesspeople and political dignitaries lining up to be picked up by their drivers. Some even have armed guards.
I’m not accustomed to having my own driver. So this has been new to me. I feel like such a VIP.
Q: Who is this driver you keep mentioning?
His name is Nafiu, which is pronounced very similarly to “nephew.” I made an effort to remember his name because he’s been so kind and patient with me.
As long as he doesn’t call me “uncle,” we’ll be OK.
I’ve been warned not to leave the hotel compound at all — ever — without Nafiu or another driver from the newspaper to keep an eye on me. Abuja is one of the safest cities in Nigeria. But with all the unrest up north, Americans just can’t be careful enough visiting this country right now.
Despite the warning, however — as I mentioned earlier — a friend picked me up yesterday for a Saturday afternoon outing.
Q: Yes, you mentioned you went in search of a city skyline picture. What else did you do?
She took me to an area shopping market geared toward tourists.
These little huts are designed to look like the sort of structures you might find in a small Nigerian village. In fact, though, they’re modern buildings with electricity and even air conditioning.
You’ll find just about anything made my artisans here: Masks, stone carvings, jewlery, clothes.
And lots and lots of art. I met these three folks from Germany who just bought a beautiful painting of a market scene.
Although it was fairly empty Saturday afternoon, this little market gets quite busy at times. There is a huge shopping complex going up next door, as you can see here.
The buildings in front of the new complex will be modern art galleries, I’m told.
The one purchase I made was in this building, which — in fact — is a bookstore.
The store is run by a local publisher of mostly fiction and children’s books focusing on life in Nigeria and Western Africa. Standing by some of the books is one of that publisher’s editors, Chinelo Onwualu.
Chinelo, as you might have guessed by now, is the friend who took me out for a Saturday tour. She was born and raised here in Abuja but then traveled to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. After that, she worked at the Observer-Dispatch of Utica, N.Y. and then the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va., before returning to Nigeria and becoming a book editor.
Q: Oh, did you work with her at the Pilot?
I did not. She joined the Pilot after I left in 2008. I heard a lot about her, though.
And she heard a lot about me, too, she said. I immediately began denying anything she was told. Until she assured me she heard mostly good things about me. Which was a relief.
On this particular day, I was attracted to children’s books that looked at various aspects of Nigerian and West African culture. I bought these four:
In particular, I’m interested in reading Eno’s Story, about a young girl who’s accused of being a witch. I’m told that still happens in this part of the world. The book was published in conjunction with the Stepping Stones Nigeria organization, which aims to help children thrust into a situation like that.
The books cost 700 Naira — or about $4.44 — each.
After we visited the shopping area and then drove up to the city’s highlands in search of a vista photo op, we sat down and chatted the afternoon away. I found her to be bright — brilliant even — and potentially an enormous resource for journalism in this country.
Q: Does Chinelo have a web site or something?
She does. Find her blog here.
Q: You wrote something on Facebook Saturday night about trying the native food there. That’s very much unlike you! Is this possible? Did you actually do this? What did you eat?
It’s true. Chinelo took me to a suya garden, an outdoors restaurant were we ate suya — essentially, beef sliced thin as if it were going to be stir-fried, but then put on a skewer and grilled over an open flame like a kebob.
Q: Those are kebobs? It looks like beef stew or something.
Yeah, well, that was the best I could do in the dark with the flash on my iPhone camera. They take them off the sticks and pile up the meat. You’re given toothpicks with which to stab and pick up the individual pieces. On the left are various bits of vegetables like cabbage and peppers.
Q: The fact that you tried local food is extraordinary! How did you like it?
Oh, I loved it. I love grilled beef anyway. This was just a bit spicier than I’d prefer. But still, very good.
And to answer your next question: Yes, I plan to have some more suya before I depart Nigeria.
Q: How much was a suya dinner, anyway?
Surprisingly cheap. You order suya by the skewer. The place Chinelo took me charged 200 Naira for each skewer. She guessed — correctly — that we would put away five skewers for dinner.
Therefore, we paid 1,000 Naira for the food last night. That translates into $6.34. That’s amazingly cheap. We paid more for our drinks than we did for our food.
Q: That’s a LOT cheaper than the food in your hotel!
You’d better believe it. I looked it up. They sell beef suya here, too, for 4,500 Naira per skewer.
Q: Are you going to try any of the other native Nigerian dishes?
Probably not. In fact, one of the most amusing moments last night came when Chinelo ran through the list of what we could order. I don’t recall, now, what all there was but I think I remember head of goat and brains of cow being among the choices.
Seriously. I wonder if Chinelo was putting me on, though.
While I’ve earned a reputation — a well-deserved one — for being picky about my food, there are reasons for that. I’m diabetic. Also, I tend to get a sour stomach when I travel.
I still remember the time I went to a job interview in Harrisburg, Pa., and — trying to be good-natured — agreed to have dinner in an Indian restaurant. Oh, man. My digestive system did not like curry at all. Let’s just say I made a lot of stops on the way home the next day.
If I were here for vacation, I might try a little harder to experiment with my diet. But I’m here to work, not to spend the entire week feeling ill. So I stick to choices I know will not add unexpected sugar to my system, will not overload me with carbs and won’t make me sick.
Yeah, that makes me a wuss. So what?
Q: What else are you eating?
There’s a wonderful grill-type restaurant out by the pool. I’ve eaten there three times this week. Twice, I’ve had the T-bone steak with fries and broccoli on the side.
One night, I enjoyed the broccoli — marinated in a delicious butter sauce — so much that I asked for an additional, side-order of broccoli in lieu of dessert.
The waiter thought I was nuts, but he brought it to me.
Q: You asked for seconds on broccoli? You ARE crazy.
Yeah, well, for some reason I find myself craving vegetables when I travel. I’m not sure why.
On Friday, the pool bar had steak night: You pick the raw meat you want out of the buffet and they’ll grill it for you while you wait.
I picked out two modest-sized chunks of sirloin and planned to go back for more…
…but those pieces turned out to be as large as they were tasty. By the time I was done eating those — and my sides of mashed potatoes, steamed cauliflower and garlic bread — I was stuffed.
And, of course, I already told you about my Chinese meal on Wednesday night, when I had beef off the buffet and followed that with stir-fry shrimp from the Mongolian barbecue grill.
Q: What’s the local beer there?
It’s called Star. And yes, it’s quite good. The bottles are huge, giving you two full glasses per bottle.
Q: When you were in Cape Town last year, you were constantly writing about the vast quantities of beer you were drinking. I’m not seeing much this time about that.
That’s because I’m not drinking much beer at all this trip. The tremendous heat here has kept me dehydrated much of my stay.
What happens to you if you are dehydrated and then you drink a lot of beer? I don’t know either, but I’d rather not find out.
Several nights I’ve gone down to the lobby bar to hang out while I compile a blog post or the next day’s slideshow. Most of the time, I’ve been drinking Diet Pepsi. Much to the dismay of the waiters there.
So yes, I’ve had the local beer. But not quite as much of it as I usually drink.
Q: How’s your health? Any issues? Other than a touch of dehydration, I mean.
It’s been fine. No problems at all.
Sometimes when I travel, I completely forget to take my medicine. That’s not been an issue this trip. Here is a typical evening’s dosage for me:
The two large pills are Metformin, which help me control my diabetes. I take two in the morning and two at night. The little white pill is Actos — that helps keep my liver from manufacturing too much glucose while I sleep and holds down my wake-up blood-sugar levels.
The red pill is new for this trip. That’s for malaria. I had to start taking those pills — one a day — two days before I departed and every day while I’m here. And then also for seven days after I return.
Q: Malaria pills? Are you serious? Is malaria a problem in Abuja?
It is not. However, it can be a problem in some of the outlying areas. Therefore, they make sure Americans are prepared for Malaria, Yellow Fever, Hepatitis and a bunch of other things like that.
Funny thing, though: I spent much of last Sunday outside at the poolside bar/restaurant and then I’ve eaten dinner there three times this week. I’ve not seen the first mosquito there.
But in the lobby piano bar, I’ve seen dozens of mosquitoes. I’ve killed a number of them myself — I think the piano bar singer thinks I’m applauding her. One night I was bitten at the base of my thumb. Apparently I clawed at the bite in my sleep because it’s formed a bit of a mark.
That was back on Tuesday or Wednesday. The bite is still quite painful today.
Q: So in addition to a hotel full of colorfully-dressed political delegates, what other oddities have you seen?
Just a few. I spotted this decoration on the breakfast bar one morning and had to get a closer look to find out what it was.
That, in fact, is a carved watermelon. Just gorgeous… Although it does kind of remind me — in a creepy way — of the genetically-engineered “alien” creature at the end of the Watchmen comic book.
And then there is the house singer down at the piano bar. I’ve been fascinated hearing the way she changes lyrics to popular songs. At first, I thought that maybe she was trying to, y’know, “make the song her own.” But after several nights of listening, I circled back around to figuring she just doesn’t know the correct lyrics. Or can’t figure them out from the recordings.
In that picture from Friday night, she decided to serenade that gentleman two seats in front of me. She sauntered over and got up close to him. The problem was: The poor guy was on his cell phone at the time. Boy, was he annoyed.
Nearly in hysterics, I pulled out my iPhone to take a picture. She gave me the sweetest smile.
Last night, when it came time for me to go to bed, I packed up my laptop and then glanced over at her as I walked out. She beamed, waved and actually said: Good night!
I’ve been making fun of her on Facebook, but now I sort of feel guilty about that. In fact, she’s very nice.
I’ll leave you with this temporary sign the hotel management put up yesterday when the place was packed with delegates.
The sign, of course, means “exit.” But it seemed to me to be some kind of commentary on politics: Yeah, the politicians are standing over there. And, dude, those guys are way, WAY out. Far out. Completely out of touch.
Back to work I go tomorrow. A rough schedule for our morning sessions:
Monday: News, metro and foreign. Tuesday: Government. Wednesday: Weekend papers. Thursday: Photo.
Plus, the big thing this week: We have two actual graphic artists starting work Monday. I’m expecting to spend a lot of time specifically with them.
As always: Sounds like fun!
I’m starting my second week of a 12-day teaching and consulting expedition to Abuja, Nigeria. Earlier posts about my journey:
- Thursday, March 15: Leadership, a 7-year-old daily in Abuja, Nigeria, redesigns
- Friday, March 16: Departing for my next big overseas teaching expedition
- Saturday, March 17: Ich bin ein Frankfurter
- Sunday, March 18: A lazy Sunday relaxing at the Hilton
- Wednesday, March 21: Teaching infographics in Abuja, Nigeria
- Thursday, March 22: I’m loving Nigeria
- Saturday, March 24: More about my week teaching here in Abuja