Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Nigeria Decided

Out With the Old.
Photo: UK Telegraph 
Yes, my wish came true. Finally, after PDP’s 16 years at the helm, another party can finally lay claim.

That said, Nigerians should not for one second think that Nigeria has turned over a new leaf, because nothing has really changed. The idea that Nigerians were presented with a choice at the polls is an illusion, since the PDP and APC are birds of the same feather; and the same corrupt politicians that constitute the PDP make up the APC and vice versa. What’s more, Nigerians recycled an old leader from the past, as they did with Obasanjo, by choosing an erstwhile military ruler.

I’m not convinced this change at the presidency will amount to real change for common Nigerians. For instance, how is Buhari going to rid Nigeria of corruption when his party reeks of it? Who are the people that will constitute his cabinet? And will he permit the prosecution of corrupt party members?

In With the... New?
Photo: AFP
The only good news about this change is that Buhari will ascend power knowing his second term in office wouldn’t be guaranteed if he doesn’t pull his weight.

This presidential election has demonstrated that the days of tolerating incompetent presidents are over. And that if Buhari doesn’t shape up in the coming 4 years, Nigerians will ship him out in the next election, as they did Jonathan.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why You Should Visit The Gambia

I arrive in The Gambia at 7.15pm - 8 hours after setting off from Dakar, Senegal. My plan originally was to explore The Gambia in one and half days, but spending almost the entire day on the road meant I had less than a day, so I slightly alter it.

The original itinerary included a visit to the National museum, a tour of Banjul, Monkey Park, Katchikally Crocodile Pool, Abuko nature reserve, a massage at Coco Ocean spa and lunch or dinner at Ngala Lodge. However, I manage to check everything off my list save for the National museum and the massage at Coco Ocean spa.

Photo: Shayera
Vines Galore. Abuko Nature Reserve
Photo: Shayera
I start out early to Banjul, taking the very first ferry from Barra. This cruise was the only part of the trip I hadn’t looked forward to because, based on my research, the ferry wasn’t exactly a 5-star experience. Everything and anyone boards it - from sheep to cars. I find a tiny space to plant my feet for 30 minutes. Not long after departing, we dock and everyone disembarks. I catch a taxi, negotiate a price and off we go.

Breakfast consists of sausages and Danish pastries, washed down with baobab juice that tastes radically different from the one I had in Senegal. I don’t like this watery, slightly bitter version and quickly refill my glass with wonjo juice aka bissap in Senegal aka zobo in Nigeria, which so happens to be my new favorite drink.

Just resting. Abuko Nature Reserve
Photo: Shayera
With breakfast over, I hail a taxi and begin my tour of The Gambia – starting with Abuko nature reserve. The weather is very warm, as expected, unlike that of Senegal. My guide, the director of the reserve, takes me around the park pointing out different animals, birds and vegetation types. The expedition feels like a practical class in biology. He tells me there are snakes, and that if we’re lucky we might come across some. I tell him I wish not to see any after he narrates a story about getting bitten in his sleep.

Photo Op with the Monkeys
Photo: Shayera
We reach a clearing where I meet a jealous female monkey behind bars. The director explains that only men can touch her, but women can’t. I attempt touching her through the bars and she scratches me – I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Afterwards, we make our way to the hyenas, cheetahs and a cute 6-month old lion. I take the mandatory pictures, but the piece de resistance of the entire tour is the photo ops with the monkeys. The trick is to bribe them with peanuts, and then have someone take pictures as they greedily snatch them from your hands.

Monkeys Undergoing Rehab
Photo: Shayera
The Abuko experience lasts 2 hours, and this is only because I cut it short. I board my taxi and we head to Katchikally Crocodile Pool, which is used for fertility rituals.

My first stop is the museum adjacent to the pool that houses interesting relics from the past. I take pictures and peruse the captions describing each item before making my way to the main attraction - a crocodile christened Charlie.

Lounging Crocks, Bakau
Photo: Shayera
Charlie is the most docile crocodile I’ve ever seen. It remains still, even as a daredevil tourist wiggles one of its limbs. I gingerly place my hand on its back - it’s eerily cold to the touch - and quickly take two pictures before deciding I’ve had enough. I walk to the vivid green pool to take pictures of several crocodiles lounging in the sun.

Photo: Shayera
By now it’s 4pm. I visit the monkey park, which to me is a replica of Abuko nature reserve, but with more monkeys. I decide I’ve seen enough monkeys for a day and leave for Ngala Lodge, after only spending a few minutes there.

Monkey Park. Bijilo
Photo: Shayera
Ngala Lodge is a very beautiful piece of real estate with a restaurant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It is rated highly on TripAdvisor, but the customer service I experience is appalling poor. First, no one approaches me when I walk into the restaurant. And it’s not until I ask random people if they work there that a waiter finally emerges. He presents the menu, I order wonjo juice and some variation of yassa, as chicken yassa isn’t available.

Ngala Lodge, Fajara
Photo: Shayera
Few minutes later, the cashier appears with my order but no hot towel I could sanitize my hands with. I contemplate using my hand sanitizer, but decide against it when I remember my cavorting with the monkeys. Can’t risk getting an infection. I ask for the bathroom to wash my hands.

I emerge from the bathroom shortly to see a crow feasting on my meal! I’m mortified and amused all at once. I chase it away and look for the waiter/cashier. The cashier appears seconds later, saying, with an air of nonchalance, that crows roam the area and that she’ll speak to the chef. Some minutes pass before she informs me that I have to pay for the meal if I want another plate. I decline and ask for my bill for the drinks.

The cashier squeezes her face and walks away. I finish my drink and walk up to her to pay – this is after I notice she’s making no effort to bring my bill. At the counter, the sous-chef asks what the problem is. I tell him, then he asks if I would like to eat. That question irritates me more than the cashier’s constant interruption of my narrative, arguing that I had told her the crow sat on my food, not eaten it. I wonder if she is nuts for insinuating one is better than the other.

And as for the sous-chef, should he be asking or volunteering, seeing a request had already been made to replace the meal?

Anyway, I pay for my drinks and return to the hotel where I actually get to enjoy a meal of chicken yassa with a glass of wonjo juice (notice a pattern here?). Heaven is the only word that describes it.

The Last Supper: Chicken Yassa
Photo: Shayera
With my last supper in The Gambia over, I return to my room, park my belongings, rest for an hour before heading off to the airport.

At the airport, I have a friendly chat with an immigration personnel and the guy in the control room. Both talk about their love for Nigerian football (mirroring the sentiments of the Reserve director), and bemoan Nigeria’s no show at this year’s African Cup of Nations.

I ask them about tribal and religious dynamics in The Gambia. They say Gambians get along peacefully between tribal and religious lines, and that intermarriages are normal more so than in Senegal.

In addition, I learn Gambians don’t speak Pidgin English (which I assumed all Anglophone countries in West Africa spoke), but the inhabitants of James Island aka Kunta Kinte Island speak a variation of English. I also learn markets are overrun with Senegalese with no resentment from Gambians, and that Nigerians run several businesses in The Gambia – this last piece of information doesn’t surprise me.

Through our conversations, I gather The Gambia and Senegal existed as one entity before the Brits and the French tore it apart.

They beseech me to visit Gambia again, promising there’s more to see. I don’t object, because it’s true – there’s more to see, like Baboon Island and Georgetown.

At 2.30am, after several delays, I board my flight to Lagos with a smile on my face, vowing to visit more of Africa.

My next trip will be to East Africa.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Why You Should Travel to Dakar, Senegal

Recently, I gave myself the most awesome birthday present: a solo trip to Senegal and The Gambia! Initially, I was to travel with a friend whose birthday falls in the same month as mine, but when that plan fell through, I thought to myself, why not travel solo? Being that I’d never done so before, it was an exciting proposition that also fell in line with the objectives laid out in my 2015 tab list.

Ile de Goree
Photo: Shayera
Monument de la Renaissance Africaine
Photo: Shayera
To clarify, I’ve traveled solo, but never for several days to a country where I didn’t know a soul, and definitely not for pleasure.

I had long wanted to visit lle de Goree in Senegal, especially after Obama visited the Island. In addition, it’s been a goal of mine to learn more about West Africa by visiting more countries in the region. Prior to the trip, I’d lived in Ghana aside from my home country of Nigeria.

Planning the trip wasn’t much of a challenge, as there was a wealth of information online, albeit written by non-African travelers. Plus, I also knew a friend who’d had visited Dakar. I spent several weeks researching places of interest, taxi fares, cultural sensitivities and restaurants where I could eat Senegalese meals without making a trip to the toilet from food poisoning. Since I had only 4 days (eventually spent 2) to spend in Senegal, every second of it count had to count.

After much research, I settled on Lac Rose, Musee IFAN, Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, Pointe des Almadies, Marche Kermel and of course, the piece de resistance – Ile de Goree. Additionally, I chose a classy restaurant where I’d have my birthday dinner.

With my itinerary sorted, I bought my ticket and counted down the days until my trip.

Of Course it is Africa. Ile de Goree, Senegal
Photo: Shayera
Interestingly, on the day of departure, at the International airport in Lagos, several immigration officers asked why I was going to Senegal and what was happening there. In their minds they couldn’t grasp why I would want to visit a place like Senegal, which struck me as odd. It wouldn’t have been strange if I said I was going to the US or UK, because that’s where Nigerians visit en masse. And maybe that’s the problem. Why not invest your hard-earned cash in Africa (and I’m not talking about South-Africa) and learn more about the continent?

During my master’s program, I recall speaking to a European classmate who had seen more of Africa than I had, and it’s this encounter that made me consider touring Africa once I became financially independent – but I digress.

I had just answered for the third time I was going to Senegal for pleasure, when I resolved to give a sarcastic reply to the effect that I was going there to marry Akon, should any officer ask again. Unfortunately, no one bothered me afterwards.

I boarded my flight to Dakar and arrived at 2am – 4 hours after we’d departed Lagos with a 30 minutes layover in Banjul. Once we deplaned, I went through immigration, grabbed my luggage off the carousel and stepped into the cold outdoors. The chill surprised me, as I had thought the weather would be similar to those of coastal cities like Accra and Lagos. Clearly, I was wrong because outside was about 17 degrees. Quickly, I sought refuge from the cold in a taxi, after hurriedly agreeing to a fare of trios-mille francs. 

At that point, all I cared about was a warm place.

We arrived at the hotel 30 minutes later, where I checked in, had a sandwich and hit the hay stack. The day was promising to be an exciting one.

Sunrise in Dakar
Photo: Shayera
I woke up 4 hours later to watch the sun rise over the Ile de Goree from my window. It was a magical sight to behold. After taking a shower and waiting for the sun to emerge in full glory to dispel the cold, I walked to Marche Kermel – an art market – to feast my eyes on West Africa artworks. Luckily, I met an art merchant who took it upon himself to be my unofficial Marche Kermel tour guide. He spoke some English, so whenever I got stuck explaining or negotiating in my rusty French, I’d say what I wanted to say in English, and he’d translate in French to the merchants. All in all, it was two hours well spent.

At 1.30, I returned to my hotel to drop my newly acquired pieces of art, and then set out to indulge another sensory organ of mine – this time with some Senegalese cuisine. I took a cab and alighted at a Senegalese – Cape Verdean restaurant. It was an unassuming place, but seemed to be popular with the locals. I took a seat and a lady presented a menu.

Chow Time
Photo: Shayera
I quickly perused it and settled for a Cape-Verdean dish of rice and baobab juice. Within minutes, my order arrived, and I immediately regretted my choice of drink. On my table sat a thick, milky liquid that resembled kunu – a northern Nigerian drink I don’t like. My adventurous side, however, decided to take a sip – don’t judge a book by its cover right? That chance was worth it because I loved it! It was on the sugary side – but I didn’t mind – and had the consistency of sour sop.

After lunch, I took a taxi to see the largest statue in Africa – an imposing 160ft of bronze – the African renaissance monument. Accessing it required climbing several flights of steps, which I thought would leave me breathless, panting and in pain once I’d reached the top. Surprisingly, none of that happened – perhaps I have my exercise regime to thank, or maybe not. Inside the museum, a guide explained the monument was constructed in North-Korea, and took 3 years to complete. He also said it is larger than the Statue of Liberty, and points towards it.

Pointe des Almadies
Photo: Shayera
After my museum tour, I took a taxi tour to the upscale neighborhood of Les Almadies before going off to Pointe des Almadies (the westernmost part of Africa) to treat myself to some fresh sea food straight from the Atlantic Ocean. There are several little restaurants overlooking the ocean offering a variety of sea foods, I randomly choose one, but not before sitting in quiet contemplation on one of the many black rocks littering the beach.

After stuffing my face, I took a taxi back to my hotel and I retired for the night. The next was my birthday.

Ile de Goree
Photo: Shayera
I woke up feeling grateful for yet another year.

After taking a shower and eating breakfast, I venture off to the port where I would board the ferry for Goree, where I arrived thirty minutes later.

Goree is an idyllic island of 1,500 inhabitants frozen in time and peppered with ruins and century-old buildings – colonial legacies of the Portuguese and the French. On alighting the ferry, I made a beeline to the infamous Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), where several tourists had already gathered to listen to the curator tell its dark history.

House of Slaves
Photo: Shayera

Historians have argued Goree didn’t play a major role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade as places like El Mina in Ghana, because few slaves left from there. Regardless, one person is one too many.

I snuck away from the group to look around, before returning to listen to the curator. He finally ended by saying slavery persists to this day because the African elite, in league with foreigners, pillage and loot their countries, just like they did centuries earlier.

Statue Commemorating the End of Slavery
Photo: Shayera

As the group dispersed, a slim man walked up to me offering his service as a tour guide. I told him I’m wasn’t interested, desperate to shake him off. But he persisted and even offered to take pictures of me. After a few minutes of looking around, I left with my unofficial tour guide in tow.

He related the island’s history in great detail, taking me to a church that was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Then, we walked slowly towards a ruin that was an observatory post used by the French. We passed several bunkers inhabited by artists before making our way to his studio, where he created an image using sands of different colors.

After the demonstration, I took some pictures around the island before boarding the ferry back to Dakar. I had another trip to make.

Once in Dakar, I took a taxi to Lac Rose aka Lac Retba, and prayed the sun would still be shining by the time I got there. Without the sun, the lake is colorless.

Lac Rose's Pink Hue is Caused by Algae
Photo: Shayera
Luckily, the lake was as pink as could be when I arrived an hour later. I was thrilled beyond words. In my mind that was Mother Nature’s birthday gift to me. I quickly boarded a pirogue, sailed for 30 minutes before returning onshore.

Lac Rose has a salinity of 40%, which increases in the dry season, and Senegal exports the salt harvested from it once local is satisfied. Lac Rose, though not yet a UNESCO world heritage site, is an interesting place to visit.

After a few pictures I made the hour long trip back to Dakar, during which I made the decision to travel to The Gambia the next day. Back in the hotel, I rested for a while before going to dinner at a fancy French restaurant.

The taxi driver, who drove me there, lamented about the current tourist season being the worst he’s experienced, as a result of the Ebola outbreak that’s currently plaguing neighboring countries.

My birthday dinner was a 3 course affair. The entrée was 2 jumbo-sized prawns beautifully decorated. The main meal was couscous and fish – and though lovely, I barely managed to get through half of it thanks to the bread offered earlier. By the time dessert came around, I was stuffed and couldn’t eat any of it and asked to take it away. I spent a few minutes chatting with one of the waiters about Senegal, before taking my leave.

The next morning, I visited the IFAN museum, one of the oldest art museums in West Africa. On the ground floor several interesting works of art, mostly masks, from all over West Africa were displayed, while upstairs was reserved for relics from renowned wrestlers.

Waiting for the Ferry to Cross the Sine-Saloum River
Photo: Shayera
At 11 am, I checked out and left for The Gambia. I was impressed with the roads, which made the trip enjoyable until we crossed the Sine-Saloum river, north of The Gambia. From then on, the road reminded me I was in Africa.

We arrived The Gambia 8 hours after departing Dakar. Normally, it should have taken 4 hours - according to people who have made trip – if only the driver had driven faster than 80km/hr. By then, I was too exhausted to care about the time lost or even about eating.

All I wanted was a bed to lay my fatigued body.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why Nigeria's Presidential Election is a Joke

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) decided to postpone the highly anticipated presidential election for 6 weeks, citing security concerns. Granted, Boko Haram has been relentlessly terrorizing northeastern Nigeria for several months, but is that truly the reason for the deferment?

It should be noted that prior to INEC’s announcement, Nigerian Security Chiefs assured Nigerians that Boko Haram posed no security threat, and that elections could hold February 14. And initially, there were rumors of INEC rescheduling the elections for a later date, because some registered voters had yet to collect their permanent voter’s cards (PVCs).

With all these excuses, it’s not difficult to understand why Nigerians are cynical about INEC’s decision, since they’re aware this is a tightly contested election, and that Goodluck Jonathan has a formidable contender in Muhammadu Buhari. This is the first time in a long time that an incumbent is uncertain about his future. There are no guarantees that Jonathan will remain president after March 28, which seems to be the real reason the election was deferred. Apparently, these six weeks will buy Jonathan more time to campaign and perhaps win over more hearts and minds.

But how can he win hearts and minds when he hasn’t given people adequate reasons to judge him favorably?

Lest we forget, the Chibok girls have been missing for almost a year now, while thousands have been slaughtered under his administration. The government’s inability to find the girls and crush Boko Haram has left people wondering if the captain has abandoned the helm. Meanwhile, Niger, a country that isn’t as rich as Nigeria, was successful in launching an offensive against Boko Haram. Isn’t this a shameful reality that the so-called ‘Giant of Africa’ cannot crush a home-grown terrorist group?

One has to wonder if Jonathan is planning to use the next 4 weeks to A) Find the missing Chibok girls B) Annihilate Boko Haram, or C) Both. If he is, that would be most disingenuous and politically expedient. And should he succeed, Nigerians can then assume he had the intelligence and resources to tackle the insurgency, but decided to play politics with Nigerian lives. In such a scenario, his tactics could be likened to the grotesquely infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in that he had the remedy for the disease that is Boko Haram, but chose not to employ it.

Buhari (L) and Jonathan (R)
Image: thenationonlineng.com

Incidentally, INEC claims to be independent, yet its decision to alter the election date proves otherwise. Furthermore, INEC has failed to put in place suitable security measures to ensure a free and fair election. Case in point, my mother visited a PVC collection unit in Oguta LGA, Imo state to collect her parents’ PVCs, only to be told by an INEC staff that someone had already collected them. He, however, assured her that it wouldn’t constitute a problem should they decide to vote.

But how can they vote without the very document that’s required to do just that? And what sinister plan does Mr(s) Anonymous have for their PVCs? As it is, such lapses demonstrate just how free and fair the upcoming elections will be, and the importance of the PVC readers.

Interestingly enough, INEC had 4 whole years to plan and prepare for the elections, so why haven’t all registered voters received their PVCs? Plus, why were only 3 days slated for potential voters to register?  

Come March 28, I will not vote as having to choose between both presidential candidates is like being compelled to choose between eating the feces of a donkey and a horse. Both choices are unpalatable and uninspiring. Additionally, it doesn’t help that the PDP, the party Jonathan belongs to, and the APC, whom Buhari is the presidential nominee, are two sides of the same coin.

By all accounts, a typical APC member is an erstwhile PDP member. Both parties consist of corrupt politicians, and have no credible manifesto that differentiates one from the other. Therefore, even if Buhari wins, what are the chances that positive change will come? What’s more, Buhari has been branded an Islamic fundamentalist by his detractors, who claim he’s bent on making Nigeria a Sharia state, based on polemical comments he made in the past. If it’s true, that could spell trouble for Nigeria.

The PDP has been in power since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, and its dominance seems to have backfired. In the 16 years that it has held sway, not much has improved for ordinary Nigerians. Universities close for several months because lecturers aren’t paid. The standard of education still remains abysmal, yet Jonathan’s cronies are quick to add that he has built schools, as if that is what ails Nigeria. The transportation system is in shambles, but Jonathan thinks he can alleviate the problem by procuring trains perfectly fit for the 18th century, as proudly announced on his Facebook page.

At what point will the APC, PDP and other lesser known parties stop short-changing Nigerians and get to work? Or rather, at what point will Nigerians raise the bar on what is acceptable and should be expected of any administration? Telling Nigerians that you built roads doesn’t cut it. That is a given.

Paradoxically, the only reason I want Buhari to win is just so that elected public officials would stop taking their first terms for granted. I want them to realize that if they don’t pull their weight in the first 4 years of their tenure, then their second term wouldn’t be guaranteed. I want them to realize that Nigerians will no longer brook incompetence, laziness and nonchalance. I want them to realize that the divide and rule stratagem that has long been the preserve of Nigerian politics has become anachronistic.