x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Confronted with mortal danger in a Nigerian mall

Around Africa: What a pity it would be, as we're passing through some of the more dangerous parts of Africa, only to be killed in a freak mall accident.

National Mosque in Abuja. Scott MacMillan for The National
National Mosque in Abuja. Scott MacMillan for The National

I pass summary judgement on Nigeria, Africa's largest country by population, after mere days. It has nothing to do with e-mail scams or "dash", the local term for small bribes, for we experienced none of that. The realisation comes to me under the dribbling flow of a hotel shower on our last night in the country before boarding a boat for Cameroon.

"This place tries too hard," I announce, emerging from the bathroom. "Give me a cold shower with a bucket and charge me accordingly, and I'll be much happier." The three of us - Roger, Luke and I - have crammed ourselves into a double for the night, Luke graciously sleeping on the floor, God bless him.

Roger mutters something about pricing structures. He works as a strategy consultant for the hospitality industry in London when he's not slumming on long journeys in Africa or elsewhere. Rather than fleapits, the cheapest Nigerian accommodation options have resembled three-star European hotels - minus the ability to maintain the facilities.

Described as a "handy budget option" by our guidebook, Calabar's Nelbee Executive Guesthouse set us back close to US$70 (Dh257) for a double, yet the shower doors have fallen off their hinges and the toilet doesn't flush properly. They've tried, they've failed, and they've passed the cost onto the consumer.

Abuja, our previous stop, had been similarly dear. Constructed from scratch in the 1970s with proceeds from the first oil boom, Abuja still has the air of a purpose-built capital, standing a world apart from the rest of the country. On the main road between Abuja and Lagos, the former capital, lunatic drivers swerve around crater-sized potholes, while orderly Abuja boasts smooth asphalt roads with painted divider lines.

We searched the capital in vain for budget accommodation, knowing we'd have to spend a week waiting for Angolan and Cameroonian visas. At a restaurant hidden in the back of a building near our hotel, we chatted up the manager, Lynda - or Chichi, as her friends call her - a Lagosian with a penchant for designer footwear. Chichi paid nearly $400 (Dh1,470) for her Gucci trainers. She racked her brain when we asked what to do in Abuja. There's the shopping mall, an amusement park and, well, that's about it.

"There's nothing here. It's not like Lagos," she said.

By now, the Africa trip has become a cast of familiar characters, graced by odd cameos from people like Chichi. We compare notes with Rob Gorczynski, another overlander from London who's riding down the west coast of Africa on a BMW motorbike the size of a fully grown wildebeest. Rob's become a familiar face by now, for he's turned up in nearly every place we've passed through.

Rob's literally been driven off the road a few times in Nigeria. He's found drivers decidedly more reckless here than anywhere else on the route. "There are no bikes, because petrol's so cheap here" - yes, there's one thing in Nigeria that costs something short of highway robbery - "so you're really the lowest of the low. Often you'd get an oil tanker coming the other way, taking over your side of the road, so you'd have no choice but to get off the road entirely."

We confront our own mortal danger at the shopping mall Chichi mentions. Silver Bird, which rises from a construction site, bears the signs of an almost-finished attraction. The "bargains" at the English-language bookshop bear price-tags roughly equivalent to what you might pay in London. While we're browsing, a sound like giant tumbling dominoes reverberates through the mall. Two massive slabs of marble cladding have fallen four stories from the face of the elevator shaft, smashing to pieces on the floor of the atrium right among the shoppers.

No blood is spilt. I think what a pity it would be, as we're passing through some of the more dangerous parts of Africa - religious pogroms are still a common occurrence in Jos, about 200km to the north-east, and the two war-torn Congos still beckon - only to be killed in a freak mall accident.

In fairness, I spend less than a week in Nigeria, and it would take years to understand this place. As for teeming Lagos, which rivals Cairo for the status of Africa's largest metropolis, we've bypassed it entirely. The very mention of Lagos causes many travellers to quiver, though whether we skip it from outright fear, convenience or just to avoid the hassle, I'm still not sure. (Roger's only words about it were: "No. Absolutely not.")

As with every place on this journey, I absorb a series of fleeting impressions that says less about whether I like Nigeria - and I'm paraphrasing a well-travelled friend here - than whether Nigeria, at a particular moment in time, liked me. Did it? I still don't know. Cost and falling slabs of marble aside, friendliness was the norm. I look forward to returning one day with a fat expense allowance.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com