I recently stumbled across WordPress’s Daily Post blog, where they suggest a topic each day designed to inspire and encourage bloggers to write around a set theme. I’ve been meaning to respond to a few of them, but rarely seem to be able to have the time to spontaneously write something against the clock. And I don’t today, either. But I thought I’d do it anyway, because I particularly liked the theme.
Today’s theme, “No, Thanks”, asks the question “Is there a place in the world you never want to visit? Where, and why not?”
As an aid worker, I generally get to see the worst of the worst. Nowhere’s really off-limits. In fact, the places I tend not to get to are the really nice ones. You know, the sort of spot you might take your family for a spot of skiing, or a two-week all-inclusive on the beach.
Refugee camps? Done ‘em in spades. War zones? Sure, why not? It’s been a few years since I was last shot at. Poverty and human misery? To be honest, I’m rarely out of arms’ reach of them.
So is there anywhere I wouldn’t go?
There are a few places I haven’t been, when it comes to the list of top trouble spots. I’ve not been to Baghdad, nor Afghanistan. My folks used to live in the A-stan, however, and I pretty much grew up on slide-shows of the place. In fact, along with watching re-runs of M*A*S*H, I’d credit a pretty fair percentage of my drive to get into aid work with those old washed-out positives. As for Iraq, well, there was a time when they were decapitating foreigners when it didn’t seem like such a great destination, but even then I had friends in Kurdistan telling me I was welcome for a visit, and with the right opportunity I wouldn’t hesitate today.
Another of the world’s aid hot-spots I’ve not managed to get to is Goma, in eastern DRC. Generally acknowledged as one of the very worst humanitarian crises– it’s prolonged, forgotten, and horrifically violent- Goma is also fearfully beautiful. Forested hills overlooking deep lakes and in turn overlooked by towering volcanoes, I’ve heard nothing but terrible things about the crisis, and nothing but awe about the landscape. It’s definitely on my to-do list when the right assignment comes up.
While I’ve travelled a little in the more peaceful portions of Somalia– and thoroughly enjoyed it- I haven’t been down to the Mog yet. A former colleague of mine was there a couple of weeks ago, and it was amusing to see pictures of her all dressed up in her ballistics vest standing next to the armored vehicle trucking her around. But to be honest, Mogadishu is stabilizing rapidly (for now), with Somali businessmen and their families returning in droves, and while I wouldn’t want to buy a summer home there just yet, I would certainly leap at the opportunity to pay a visit to what is one of the most fascinating pockets of east Africa at the moment.
Darfur, South Sudan, Sri Lanka (at the culmination of the civil war), even Turkana in northern Kenya make up the list of some of the more challenging and unstable places I’ve dropped in on- each of them deeply enriching and fascinating places, despite the conflict and the deeply entrenched physical poverty and even injustice. A year in Papua New Guinea had me dropping in and out of Port Moresby more often than I ever would have liked, but even PoM has beautiful hills and bays, and from what I hear, fantastic diving. And my time living in West Africa took me through some of the poorest nations on earth, and some of the poorest communities therein. I still remember Niger with deep fondness.
Chad remains the most unpleasant environment I’ve visited- and likewise for most of those I’ve met who’ve worked there. Physically harsh- beautiful in its own way- the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees sheltering in the desert was devastating, and the violence and hopelessness rivals anywhere I’ve visited on earth. It was a hard, hard place. I’d go back though- if for no other reason than to see what’s changed.
All up, I’ve been to around 60 countries, most of them poor and many of them pre- or post-disaster, and routinely listed on government ‘Do Not Travel’ lists.
So, is there anywhere I wouldn’t go?
Well, don’t tell my wife, but, probably not. I mean, maybe I’d pick my timing. I wouldn’t be so keen to visit Karachi today (I was there a few years ago), and there are certain slums in Nairobi I’d be steering clear of for the next few days, just as a precaution.
But sometimes people ask me is there anywhere I have no interest in going, and there is a place that typically comes in at the bottom of my wish-list. It’s even a place that I had the opportunity to visit, and actively chose not to (probably the only such time I’ve done-so in my life). And I realise in saying this, I’ll undoubtedly upset a lot of people. Not least because the residents of this nation make up one in seven Africans, and I don’t doubt some of them routinely read this blog.
Let me tell you why. And then, before you lynch me, let me tell you why I recognize that this is unfair.
Why Nigeria? It’s not that I wouldn’t go there, or even that I can’t recognize that there would be some lovely things about it. It’s just that there are enough things stacked against it that don’t make it an attractive option.
Nigeria has sadly got a terrible reputation when it comes to crime. Friends and contacts who have travelled through Lagos speak of the scams and the urban crime, which traditionally starts before you leave the airport. Political corruption is rife, as is corruption in the police force. There’s extensive poverty and inequality (nothing unique to Nigeria given the places I visit), and simmering tension, both between north and south, and within communities.
Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group, along with other similar groups, are carrying out attacks on government infrastructure, churches, civilians, and foreigners (including, allegedly, the abduction of a French family from northern Cameroun ten days ago). Meanwhile, pirates operate off the southern coast, targeting shipping, and seperatist rebels operate in the Niger Delta, targeting foreign oil interests.
Even some Nigerians I know hesitate to go home. A former colleague, who was from the south of Nigeria, would travel by bus from the northern border to get home to see her family, and was routinely held up and robbed on the journey home. The organization I used to work for had opened an office there briefly, and was forced to close it due to the strong corruption in the place.
Now, let me be clear. No one of these things is unique to Nigeria. Nor do I want to suggest that Nigeria is a universally awful place. In fact it isn’t. For every person I know who’s had a negative experience in Nigeria, I know several others who have loved it- people who have travelled, who have been there for short missions or service trips, people who have lived there and brought up children, both Nigerians and foreigners.
There are some physically beautiful places, and many, many beautiful places.
I have recently finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran War of the 1960s. It is an achingly beautiful story, stunningly written, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me interested in visiting, that my attitude didn’t soften. It should also be required reading for any students of modern African history, given that it addresses one of the most important historical events in one of the most important nations in Africa, which still has echoes in today’s politics.
There are many, many fascinating places in the world, and I don’t doubt for a moment that with the right information, the right contacts, knowing where to go, a trip to Nigeria would be fascinating, beautiful, inspiring. But for me, with the long (long long) list of places I want to see, and go back to, balanced against the hassle of getting to and around those places, Nigeria just doesn’t yet make it into the positive balance. It remains somewhere around the bottom of my list.
When I was living in Maradi, a grubby town on the edge of the Sahara about 50km north of the Nigerian border, an Ivorian friend of mine suggested we take the weekend off and go down to visit Nigeria. I’ve never yet turned down an opportunity to stamp my passport. But my friend had shared just a few evenings before a long story about how as a young man he had been extensively robbed in Nigeria, and I remember looking at him and saying, “Why would I want to do that? No thanks!”
To this day it remains the only time I’ve turned down a chance to cross a border.
To my Nigerian readers, and anybody else who has a soft spot for that country, I welcome your feedback as to what you love about Nigeria, and how my appraisal is utterly unfair and misplaced. Let me know below!
All photography my own.