Coverage of Nigeria tends to focus on its bad news, but with the rising prominence of its authors on the world stage (think Americanah writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), its place as Africa’s top economy, and increasingly nuanced representations of the country on social media, it’s time to think again about a country that has much to offer.
As a former resident of capital Abuja and a frequent traveller to megacity Lagos, here are my top tips on how to travel in Nigeria
1. Take your manners with you: Nigeria is polite to strangers to the point of being courtly. Greet people properly; ask about their days, nights, work and family. This firstly makes you feel very welcome and puts you on a much better footing when you run into point 2.
2. Be news aware but not news obsessed: imagine if your country was judged solely on its saddest and worst news. Horrible, correct? Nigeria’s misplaced reputation belies a country full of charm, amusement and natural gorgeousness that you probably haven’t heard about because Islamist insurgency Boko Haram is always more newsworthy than a waterfall or a mountain. If you’re smart about your travel there’s little reason you should feel unsafe.
3. Expect wahala: the pidgin word for problems, wahala can be ascribed to many of the challenges you might face daily traveling in Nigeria: traffic jams, power cuts, non-functioning ATMs, a tire blowout. Leave plenty of time for everything, don’t be too ambitious with your schedule and be patient. Without sounding too Pollyanna, there’ll be a fun story, a fascinating conversation and an interesting or beautiful view while you wait for the tire change.
4. Drive safely: most travelers to Nigeria and especially in Lagos accept they’re not up to the unique task that is driving on the often congested and sometimes heavily potholed roads. When I’m travelling alone there I ensure I have a trusted driver from a rental firm I like who knows the idiosyncrasies of Nigeria driving. The radio is fantastic too, so make the most of the tunes while you’re in the car or learn a little pidgin from Wazobia FM.
5. Pack smart: a wind-up flashlight and a spare battery pack for the power cuts, bug spray and cream for the inevitable evening mosquito feast, a book for the traffic jams and plenty of dollars to convert into naira (₦), which you can’t buy outside the country. If you’re travelling to the majority Muslim north of Nigeria, home to the ancient trading city of Kano, take modest clothing.
6. Eat local (but mind the pepper): Nigerians love to feed visitors, and depending where you are in the country you’ll find a rich array of soups, stews and grilled meats on offer. If someone asks how much pepper you want on your supper, halve what you’d usually ask for and then halve it again. It’ll still come with enough heat to make you cry. My favorite Nigerian snacks are akara (fried bean cakes), which originate in the southwest, and suya, spiced meat strips that come from the Nigerian north.
7. Read before you go: the Bradt guide to Nigeria was written by one Lizzie Williams, who traveled the length and breadth of the country for her research. If you’re feeling nervous and need reassurance while on your travels, remember Lizzie took a motorbike taxi to Lake Chad and came back in one piece.
8. Go fabric fabulous: you have not seen style until you have been to Nigeria. Lagos—like Bangkok or Hue—is a city stuffed with tailors, so go textile shopping in the market and have an outfit or two run up for you while you’re in town.
9. Always, always, always pee before you leave on a journey: there’s a certain kind of resentment you’ll only know when you’ve been in traffic for five hours and you see men easing themselves (as a Nigerian would say) by the side of the road while you’re crossing your legs.