HAVING confirmed that my travel insurance would cover the cost of replacing the half a tooth I’d parted ways with in Nairobi, I set off for Jomo Kenyatta airport with my fellow stranded travellers at 4am the next morning, so as to avoid the sea of people and vehicles that would flood the streets shortly after light.
Kenya has been the site of a number of devastating terrorist attacks over the years, with the most prominent of those coming from Al Qaeda and Al-Shabaab. This tragic recent history has obviously informed security arrangements at the airport in Nairobi.
About a mile away from the airport building, all of us had to disembark from our minibus at what looked like the M7 Toll Plaza in Mountrath. The interior of many vehicles were searched while others had their undercarriages inspected by soldiers with mirrors on the end of what looked, for all the world, like selfie sticks. Meanwhile, everyone bar the driver of each vehicle had to walk through a metal detector to the side of the plaza and have their hand luggage x-rayed.
Upon arrival at the airport, it was not possible to get into the building unless one could show their passport and proof of their flight booking. Having shown these, everyone was once again put through a metal detector and their luggage was x-rayed for a second time.
After checking in and receiving our boarding passes from the airline desk, all passengers had to go through the most rigorous of the security checks, which involved all of our hand luggage and shoes getting x-rayed while each of us went through a full body scanner.
I was particularly worried about having to take off my shoes, as I had six US$100 dollar bills hidden under the insoles, which constituted my total budget for the Nigerian trip and an embarrassingly significant proportion of my funds for the entire African excursion.
A friend who travels regularly to Nigeria for work had informed me that it is almost impossible to obtain Naira outside of the country and the best currency to use for the exchange when there is dollars. The same friend also told me that it would be best to avoid a situation where Nigerian Immigration officers asked to check your luggage upon arrival and found such a quantity of cash.
On top of that, I’d been warned of the dangers of Nigeria by a multitude of people – none of whom had ever been there – prior to my departure. Drunk on paranoia, I figured that, in the event of someone attempting to mug me, the soles of my shoes would be a good hiding spot for my cash.
However, I didn’t anticipate having to remove my shoes, with their worryingly loose insoles, and put them through an x-ray machine in Nairobi. I’m sure it isn’t a crime to carry money in your footwear but I didn’t relish the prospect of having to explain why I was doing so. Thankfully, x-rays don’t pick up money and none of the Immigration officers found my shoes interesting enough to warrant a closer inspection.
In contrast to my state of anxious anticipation, the plane from Nairobi to Lagos had an almost party atmosphere. I seemed to be the only non-Nigerian on board and people seemed happy to be headed home. The single aisle of the plane was thronged with passengers for most of the flight, with people telling stories and laughing loudly with one another while the airhostesses were kept busy delivering complimentary mini wine bottles.
On one of my trips to the bathroom, one of the aisle occupiers, who was as gregarious as he was enormous, grabbed me by the hand.
“Mister, it is a beautiful day to be alive, isn’t it? If only I wasn’t so ugly,” he said before tilting his head back and roaring out loud.
“Oh don’t believe that, you’re a handsome devil,” I said back to him, conscious of both my tightening bladder and sounding like an awkward interloper. He laughed again and gave me a big hug before leaving me on my way to the back of the plane.
Despite all I had heard about the perils of Nigerian Immigration, the process upon arrival at Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos went very smoothly. The first official you meet after disembarking is a nurse, who checks your vaccine passport to ensure you have gotten your shots for yellow fever. Then you pass through a series of queues where border guards check your passport and visa, the latter of which I had secured from the Nigerian Embassy in Dublin several months ago.
On top of your vaccines and visa, another essential when travelling as a Westerner to Nigeria is having a driver booked prior to your arrival. The moment I walked into Arrivals, I felt like the hottest ticket in town with all of the offers of transportation I received.
Through my friend that frequents Nigeria for work, however, I had already organized a driver who met me just outside the terminal building. We greeted and began the ten-minute walk to his car. Within two minutes, I was soaked in sweat.
The attention prompted by my luggage, Western clothing and complexion continued on our way to the car, but this time for my custom in currency exchange rather than as a passenger. We walked through a narrow lane with a building site for a new terminal on one side and makeshift structures, housing little shops, on the other. All along the route, men made offers to change out my dollars, with some going so far as to wave huge stacks of Naira in front of me.
“Hey Whitey, Whitey, you want Naira? Good rate!”
“Whitey, cash exchange, Naira for dollars, you want?”
Along with the verbal offers, many of the vendors made a staccato hissing noise at me, which was a little unsettling at first. I came to learn, though, that this is a very common way of attracting someone’s attention in Nigeria, which almost everyone uses and it doesn’t carry the same rude association that it would in Ireland.
As well as transporting me to my destination around two hours away, I had arranged with my driver in advance to be brought to one of the black market currency exchange locations a short distance away from the airport. It is possible to exchange dollars for Naira in Nigeria but the rate is far better through the black market. At around the time I arrived, the bank rate was around 300 Naira to the dollar while I bought my Naira at a rate of 460 to the dollar.
The black market was only a few kilometres from the airport and was located in a hub of brown-stoned, one-room basic buildings that were surrounded by sandy soil and a ten-foot high wall, next to the motorway. It was 10am and the place was full of people, some selling wares, most of them standing around talking and observing every car and person that came in through the one entrance to the enclosure.
We drove right in and through the crowd of people with not an inch to spare on either side. Whether for good reason or not, paranoia once again struck me as I became intensely aware of being the only non-local in sight, having been driven here by a local driver and obviously in possession of cash for exchange.
A man with a large satchel slung over his shoulder climbed into the back seat and greeted both of us. He asked me how much I wished to exchange and when I told him, he piled large stacks of Naira on to the seat next to him.
I provided him with my dollars but before he handed over the Nigerian currency, he said that there was a problem. Some of the dollars I had provided, he claimed, had been produced in years that aren’t accepted by Nigerian banks. He pretended, quite convincingly, to be unsure how things should progress now that we had reached this roadblock.
Fully aware that this was an attempted swindle but also conscious that my only option was to take it, I privately accepted that I was going to get something of a knock-down rate for my dollars.
For a moment, though, my pride overrode the anxiety that I had felt and it became important to me that he knew I was aware of the grift, even though I was going to accept the outcome. After he pointed out the ‘issue’ with the dollar bills, we sat in silence for ten seconds, me turned around in the passenger seat facing him in the back, scratching his head in faux befuddlement.
“I know what you’re doing,” I said. “You obviously want to knock a little off the value that you were giving me so what price are you thinking?”
As it turned out, the con only cost me the equivalent of about 15 dollars.
(EDIT: After publishing this article, it was pointed out to me, by a more experienced traveller than I, that there actually is an issue with exchanging dollars from certain years. For the sake of honesty, I’m going to leave the original text as it was first written but please know that finding this out left me feeling very foolish and retroactively rude. In my defence, I had asked my driver after leaving if the guy had played a trick on me and he had answered in the affirmative. I can only presume something got lost in translation).
Once the transaction was done, and my moxie had subsided, I became very conscious that I might have pissed off the guy with my forthrightness regarding the trick he had pulled. As we departed, I asked the driver if there was a risk that someone in the market would phone a buddy a short distance out the road and tell him that we had a substantial amount of money in the car.
“No, that won’t happen,” he responded. “I come to him here all the time and if that were to happen, then I’d stop coming.”
So with some solace drawn from the protection of the free market, we started the 100km journey to Abeokuta. There, a truly historic occasion was about to take place, the opening of the first presidential library in the history of Africa. Also in the making, I desperately hoped, would be some worthwhile research interviews.