Two American brothers attempt to drive from Ghana to Nigeria. Along
the way, it becomes clear that the main rule is that there are no
- Dan Hoyle, Special to The Chronicle
Monday, December 19, 2005

Heading for Nigeria

Dan Hoyle, a San Francisco native, created the solo shows
"Circumnavigator" and "Florida 2004: The Big Bummer." He is in Nigeria
on a Fulbright scholarship gathering material for a third show about
oil politics. His brother, Jonah, a writer now based in Anchorage,
Alaska, joined Dan for three weeks on the hunt for stories. Dan had
also run out of PowerBars, trashy novels and Ziploc bags (all crucial
items for travel in Africa). This is Part 1 of a two-part series of
the brothers' attempts to get Jonah to the Lagos, Nigeria, airport on

"What? There's no way to change the ticket at all?" Jonah, my senior
brother, yelled into the phone. Somewhere in Paris a man was sitting
behind an Air France counter, and his computer was telling him that
changes were not permitted. "But that seems pretty stupid if we are
trapped in Ghana. Do you understand that we are literally trapped?
They bumped us from our flight from Accra to Lagos this afternoon and
so there's no flight till tomorrow afternoon, and that will be too
late. So that seems pretty f -- stupid to me!"

Jonah isn't the type to swear on the phone. There are people who swear
to strangers on the phone, and there are people who don't. Jonah
doesn't, normally. I do. I'm the hot-blooded younger brother. I sat in
a chair in front of a TV showing a Ghanaian music video in Sue's Inn
in Accra, Ghana. It had taken us three hours and 30 phone calls to
get through to an Air France official. We had assumed the flight from
Port Harcourt to Paris was changeable, and we would just putter around
the beach a few more days. "Well how much is it going to be to buy a
one-way ticket from Lagos to Paris?" Jonah asked. I stood up next to
him. Jonah's eyes grew big and he wrote down $1,300. I shook my head.
"No. Tell him to confirm the flight," I said. "We'll just have to go
by road."

My friends at the U.S. Consulate had told me about traveling by road.
They said it was about a six- or seven-hour drive. But they had
diplomatic license plates and diplomatic passports, so I knew it
wouldn't be quite the same. We arrived at the Accra main motor park
just as it was getting light the next morning. There was a big,
air-conditioned bus we could take, but it would drop us at the
Ghana-Togo border and we'd have to board another bus. We needed to
pass through Togo, then Benin, enter Nigeria and get through Lagos
traffic to the airport to catch the last flight to Port Harcourt,
which we thought left around 5 p.m. But we didn't have visas for Togo
or Benin, and I had never tried to enter Nigeria by land.

"We want go Lagos," I said in pidgin to the man behind the desk in the
motor park office. As chaotic as the motor parks can be in West
Africa, in Nigeria and Ghana at least, they are highly unionized. On a
blackboard were listed the license plates of their entire fleet,
including two that were listed as "wanted." If those cars are ever
found, they will be dealt with harshly. Enforcement is one of the most
organized aspects of the unions.

"It's 250,000 cedis per person," said the man behind the desk. About
25 bucks. "But you will have to wait till it fills up."

"No, we want go now, now," I said.

"Then it's 1.2 million cedis," he said. "This is your driver."

A man whose name we would later learn was David, dressed in jeans and
a T-shirt, gave a short nod and stood in his most formidable stance. I
looked him in the eyes and did my best to coax out that reservoir of
humanity that was all we could count on. He led us through lines of
parked cars to his, a red Volvo with a completely cracked windshield.
As soon as we shut the door, a flock of men started squawking at every
window, their mouths open, begging for "some-ting small for me." David
began handing out small bills, and to ease the congestion, I began
doing the same, until the crowd dissipated to a manageable two or
three, small enough so David could pay one person to beat them away.
The car bumped over the curb and onto the road, and we were on our

The first three hours were a breeze. At the Ghana-Togo border, we
stopped to change money, getting about $150 worth of CFA francs. And
David picked up his cargo. Transporting cargo (i.e. smuggling)
represents the profit margin for drivers on the Accra-Lagos circuit,
but we were supposed to have paid enough to eliminate that component.
But two men were counting out small packets of a brown liquid, placing
them in black plastic bags and storing them in the trunk where the
spare tire usually is. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a hint of
Chinese writing. Soy sauce. No doubt it's cheaper in Ghana than
Nigeria. We were smuggling in about 20 pounds of soy sauce.

We also picked up our border clearing agent. He hopped in on the Ghana
side, hopped out on the Togo side, and directed us to the correct
registrars and immigration officers. Ghana immigration stamped us out
quickly enough, and as per our driver's instructions, we gave him an
unsolicited tip of 20,000 cedis (about two bucks).

The Togo side was the first act of our three-border show. A man
resembling a modern-day grim reaper, in a black Lycra hooded
sweatshirt, black sports pants and high-top basketball shoes, strutted
around with a thin stick, poking people and trying to intimidate them
into stopping to let him shake them down. He had no official authority
though, and his stick wasn't very big. So he couldn't get many people
to stop. A large man in a baby blue Sean John sweat suit bounced past.
The sweeper, who was sweeping the Togo side of the border, essentially
moving cigarette butts back and forth, called after him, "Hey, you my
DJ! Yeah." The most unexplainable was a man shuffling around holding a
pair of pink plastic hands that held a white egg. By his posture, it
was unclear if he was selling them, or if he had just bought them, or
whether he was paid to walk around the border with a pair of pink
plastic hands that held a white egg.

And, of course, there was the immigration officer, presiding over the
circus from a lone wooden desk perched above the wide road that ran
next to the gentle waves of the Atlantic. His uniform was full of
pockets, some with buttons, some with zippers, some with flaps, and
his wooden desk was full of stamps. In West Africa, where the
nation-state is still an idea, a very new idea that rarely supersedes
the old systems of tribe and extended family, it is easy to argue that
these ratty uniforms and old stamps are what hold countries together.
Togo was grabbed by the Germans during the scramble for Africa, and
was then shoved off to the French and British, as were all of
Germany's African colonies, after World War I. Africa wasn't ready for
the nation-state when it came, and I'm not sure it is even now.

The walls were clogged with posters of Faure Gnassingbe, the
president's son who recently "won" the election (after his father,
Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled for 30-some years, died in February.)
The man with many pockets mumbled in French that it would be 35,000
CFA francs (about $70), and then proceeded to paste in stamps
amounting to 30,000. Apparently there was an expedited service charge.
But when he gave us back our passports, with Togo transit visas pasted
in, he had one last question. It was in French, so our clearing agent
gave me the translation: "He wants to know what is there for him." I
peeled off another 3,000, pushed it into his palm, smiled, and said,
"Merci." Our clearing agent then smiled and slightly tipped his head.
I gave him 2,000 and tipped my head back at him. We had Togo visas,
lots of soy sauce, and it was only 10 a.m.

We blew through Togo in an hour, past a series of cement factories and
other industrial wonders. Of course there was none of the sense that
one was in a different country, as when one crosses from France to
Spain. "Why can't Togo and Benin just become one country?" Jonah asked
from the backseat. As if in answer to our query, the Togo-Benin border
felt almost routine. We stopped to pick up our clearing agent; "My
senior brother," said David, and I turned around to see a man with a
thick smile who most certainly had never been introduced as David's
senior brother. Nevertheless he helped us stamp out of Togo and into
Benin, which featured a lot fewer portraits of the president and many
more wall calendars. It was as comforting a sign of political
stability as any.

But then David's "senior brother" didn't get out after the Benin
border. It didn't sit right with me, but I obviously wasn't in
control, so I held my tongue. We were making good time, we had gotten
visas for the two countries we had lacked and our Nigerian visas were
good. We began to worry, in a confident way, about Lagos traffic. Then
David dropped the bomb. "Do you have money plenty?" he asked. "We have
some money," I responded. In addition to our cameras, Jonah and I each
had $600 in hundred-dollar bills.

David told us to give him our money. "These Nigerians, they will take
all your money. They see American, they will take you to one small
room." My throat went dry. "I have seen it with my own eyes, they take
five hundred, one thousand dollars. Those Nigerians are very wicked
people." It is the common comment about the Nigerian character.

"I don't think we should give him our money," I said, turning around
to Jonah, "I mean, would they really just take our money?"

Jonah shrugged. "I don't know, man; it's not hard for me to imagine."

Indeed, it was very easy to imagine a line of thick Nigerian men in
sunglasses and black berets, shaking a stick at me, as I sat on a
small stool in a small room, my money dancing out of my pockets and
into their hands. But I bet against my imagination, which is known for
overactivity, and shoved my dollars in my sock the same way I used to
do when heading out on Muni to the baseball card shop as an

The wooden shack was in the middle of the road, and even before we
came to a complete stop in front of it, a man thrust his large belly
in front of our car, and stuck his arm through our window.
"Passports!" he said, and turned his face away. We quickly handed them
over, although he had no uniform on and the shack had no sign above

"That is the one small room," David said, lowering his head.

"Now go collect your passports," David's alleged brother said from the
back, still smiling broadly. We shuffled in, and, to my relief, there
was a man in uniform. When we explained we were students, and I made
some small joke, and they laughed enough, the chafe from the dollars
in my sock subsided. The small room wasn't worth the hype.

We stamped out of Benin (1,000 naira, about $7) in record time, and I
began to feel a surge of confidence. Nigeria was my home base, the
system I was most familiar with. I had cell phone reception and
numbers of people in the U.S. Consulate in Lagos to call. So when a
couple of pretenders asked to see our health cards, and he began
shaking his head in showy disapproval before he even looked at it, I
went on the offensive.

"That health card is correct sir," I began lecturing, shaking my phone
at them, "and if it's not, you can tell me who I should call to figure
out what's wrong with it. Should I call the University of Port
Harcourt, should I call my people at the U.S. Embassy, or should I
call my friends in Nigerian immigration? You tell me."

The Nigerian immigration officers weren't really my friends, but I had
given them a good dash when they renewed my visa last month. And I was
feeling it.

The Benin health unofficial officials recoiled. "Let them go, let them
go," said one.

"It's not compulsory, but anything for my office?" cooed the other.

"No, I've given you enough," I barked, and pushed my way past them
like a hero breaking through police lines at the fire scene in a
Hollywood movie.

"Hello? Hello!" somebody else was calling us, but I strode past. It
was getting close to 3 p.m., we were an hour from Lagos, and we
couldn't be stopped by every tout along the way. David tapped me on
the shoulder. It wasn't a tout; it was the Nigerian immigration
officer. We handed over our passports. I think I was panting. The
Nigerian immigration officer gave them a quick look and began shaking
his head. "Who is going to pay for these people?" he asked David.
David shrugged. "They will pay for themselves."

The officer kept flipping through my passport without looking at any
particular page, and kept shaking his head. "That passport is
correct-o," I broke in, and as soon as I had, I realized I had messed

He became perfectly still for one second, letting the rage well up in
him, and then shot back. "Was I talking to you?"

"Sorry sir, I beg-o, I'm sorry, it's been a long day, no vex, I beg-o,
I be small boy now." I ran off my best pidgin, but unlike in recent
weeks when it had begun to flow, it sounded like baby talk.

"Up against the wall!" he shouted. "I'm not looking at these passports!"

I shuffled over to the wall, where Jonah had been calmly standing,
hands behind his back.

"I'm not looking at those passports!" he thundered on. "Maybe when I
close my shift, a new person can come, but you can wait there all

Jonah shook his head, and teeth gritted, commanded me to "chill out,
you're not in control here." I fell into a shamed silence. I had
messed up. I had gone on the offensive, but I had miscalculated. We
were in Nigeria now, and when one goes on the offensive, one has to go
all the way. Even if I called my friends at the consulate, it would
take them an hour to get there. We couldn't afford that type of delay.
Had I just cost my brother $1,300? Had I, the fearless leader, been
too fearless? I leaned back against the wall, and blew out a long
breath. For the first time on the trip, I felt like the immature
younger brother.

On the road to the Lagos, Nigeria, Airport --
We had busted through the beggars at the motor park in Accra, Ghana, at dawn, loaded up on black market soy sauce in Togo, and kept our wits about us and our hundred dollar bills in our socks through roadside shack shakedowns in Benin. It was only 3 p.m.; still time, in theory, to get to Lagos, Nigeria, by 5 p.m. so Jonah could catch the last flight to Port Harcourt, meet up with his Air France flight home, and not have to spend $1,300 on a new ticket.
Then I talked back to a Nigerian immigration official. So now we stood in the afternoon heat, stripped of our passports and denied an official to grovel before. Our chances of reaching Lagos on time were slipping away. The shame at having let down my older brother grew to a proportion I hadn't experienced since I struck out to end the game with the tying run on base at Day Street Park when I was 10.
But as my short 25 years of life have taught me, not only does "stuff happen," but "stuff works out," and just as the sweat of despair began coating my body, out came a second immigration officer, who promised to help. He would play good cop.
"Now you go prostrate for him O," said the still enraged "bad cop." I bowed deeply and prepared to kiss the ground in front of him. But he waved me off, asking the more important question: "How are you going to thank me?" I thanked him with 1,500 Naira ($11), and showed him my letter of introduction from the University of Port Harcourt. Jonah then unwrapped his acceptance letter from the University of Alaska. "Oh, you study Niger Delta history? Uniport boy?" I nodded and grinned. We had struck on our best defense to all challengers: student status. Soon we were walking along the line from table to table, slapping down our passports and our letters identifying us as students for officials from every agency in Nigeria that ever had a letterhead. I was too nervous to ask under what pretext the Nigerian Veterinarian Society had established their own immigration checkpoint.
But the fun had only just begun, because we were now crossing into Nigeria, headed toward Lagos, a city where some 15 million people live, but surely no more than three million are gainfully employed. For the next hour we were stopped every 50 meters. David would pull over, and we would wait at the window with our letters at the ready, answering questions about Bush and Schwarzenegger, while David shuttled the bags of soy sauce to different places around the car. As we got farther from the border, the checkpoints became less official while the sticks became bigger. Boys waving large wooden clubs were shouting us to the side of the road, then running over to lean in and begin the questioning drill. But the letters survived one unfolding and refolding after another, and we kept moving forward.
We were, of course, sitting ducks, and no matter how much goodwill we gained by the fact that I was studying Nigerian history (which next to chopping Nigerian food and stumbling through sentences in pidgin have gained me as much grassroots goodwill as any debt write-off could among average Nigerians) we were still two white guys in a car with Ghanaian license plates. We were obvious prey for the Lagos predators. Finally our weakness was exploited. "Oh boy, now clear dis moto!" shouted somebody. The street was so clogged with cars and people that David wasn't able to drive fast enough to make a getaway. He pulled over to the side of the road again. "Now why you don't put your seat belt, eh? You done f -- up now!" David was ordered out of the driver seat and the yeller got in the front seat. Another passenger joined the back seat, and we were now being driven through the city by one of the many people who most certainly was not gainfully employed. I felt hope slipping away. And I began to prepare what I thought was appropriate behavior for a kidnapping.
We were driven down an alley and into an empty parking lot. As we pulled in, a crowd of men cheered our arrival. I began to have a clear vision of Jonah and me walking out of the parking lot in 10 minutes wearing only our boxer shorts, sans cameras, money and passports. A short man poked his head through the car window. It's always the smallest man who does the transaction; even when I was 11 years old it was always the little guy who would take my two dollars, while his thuggish cousins stood behind him. The man began speaking in a very calm voice.
"Hello. Good afternoon. Do you know why we have stopped you? You see, in Lagos we are very concerned for the safety of our motorists, and your driver was not wearing his seat belt. And because in Lagos we are very concerned that no one is injured on the road, we are putting very strict fines on those who break the law." Most likely someone was getting stabbed down the street, and in a few minutes someone might get run over, and no one, certainly not this man, would have been looking out for the safety of any of those people. "So you see," he continued, "the fine is 25,000 Naira ($180), and we are very strict with it. Normally, we would impound the car for two days."
The fine was big, but there was no guarantee that once we paid that we'd be let go. If they discovered Jonah's video camera, if I said something stupid again, we'd be sunk. We had made a helluva run, I thought. Somewhere in the annals of Accra to Lagos attempts, ours would rank high. Certainly Jonah would miss his flight. Then a miracle: "I will resolve the situation for you." I whipped my head around to see a man in black, the color of authority, even more so if it is plainclothes black, nodding his head and helping us out of the car. David, our driver, would deal with the situation. I felt badly about leaving him there, but he was a veteran of these negotiations. He would probably leave in three hours time with a little less money and a little less soy sauce.
We were released onto the streets of Lagos. My cell phone read 4:30 p.m., still time, possibly, to catch the last flight to Port Harcourt. "Should we take a taxi?" Jonah asked. Ahead of us on the road one could see a snarl of stalled traffic -- yellow Nissan buses, Mack trucks and potholes. "No, we gotta take bikes," I said. We hailed down two motorbikes, which are the only way to get anywhere when Nigerian traffic gets bad. "We want go airport! Domestic airport!" I shouted over the roar of horns, touts, and engines. "Now how far?"
The bike driver leaned back. "It's far O. Maybe 45 minutes." I shook my head. "Maybe 30 minutes," he reassured me. If I had shaken my head again he might have said 10 minutes. We decided to go one passenger to a bike, even though I often ride two. But the bike is less maneuverable with two. "If you lose each other," I screamed at the drivers, "take my brother to the airport. I don't need to get there, just take him." We climbed aboard and roared away. For the next half an hour we zoomed between potholes on pieces of road as thin as the tires, twisted between trucks and buses, ducked the gaze of touts and possible attackers, wound up on ramps onto freeways, and came to skidding stops when the traffic suddenly jammed. Then Jonah and his red-shirted driver were out of sight. "Oh boy, you no see am?" I asked. My driver looked around. "Don't you just worry," he said. And then he turned around on the freeway and began driving back toward oncoming traffic, around a blind turn. "I no want die O!" I screamed into his ear as we squeezed between an oncoming truck and the edge of the side railing. "Don't you just worry yourself," he assured me, guiding the bike off the freeway and through Lagos back alleys where our main competition for space was now people, thankfully. Speeding through the swarms of people, hugging my legs to the side of the bike, I remembered what it was like strolling through Delhi, India. The overwhelming crowds were the same, but instead of the wonder of colors and shapes that flow past in Delhi, the twitch of faces and the lurch of bodies in Lagos just felt menacing.
My bike driver finally gave up. He couldn't find Jonah, and he couldn't find the airport. But it was now getting dark, and when I looked at my watch, I realized that I hadn't calculated the time change from Ghana to Nigeria. We had gained an hour along the way. It was 6:15 p.m., Nigerian time. I found Jonah at the airport a half-hour later, after another motorbike and another taxi (his first motorbike had made it). His face was covered in gray exhaust, and over the red cut on his nose he sustained when he passed out and fell off his chair from food poisoning early in the week, he was well on his way to creating a veil painting. He puffed on a cigarette and smiled. The last flight to Port Harcourt had left more than an hour ago. "We would have gotten here at the same time if we had taken the afternoon flight from Accra," Jonah observed. A journey I had heard took six or seven hours, and hoped would take eight or nine, had taken 13.
We spent our last Naira and took a cab to the international airport, which was close by. We needed one more miracle: to make Jonah's unchangeable ticket changeable. We were directed to an office behind all the counters where a long line snaked out into a dimly-lit hall. It wasn't the type of hall where dreams come true. Jonah got in line while I went around to other airlines asking how much a single ticket to Paris would cost. Then Jonah got to the counter. Twenty-four hours earlier he had pleaded with a man who was sitting behind a similar Air France counter in Paris, and gotten no sympathy. But this time, Jonah was talking face to face with the woman behind the Air France counter, and this time, his face was covered in blood, sweat and grime. And this time he had a real story to tell, one of checkpoints and soy sauce, of border agents and small rooms, of no-seat-belt fines in empty parking lots and a motorbike ride through the eighth ring of hell, commonly known as Lagos. He didn't need to swear. She listened, her eyes narrowing, perhaps on his bloody nose. "Let me see if I can talk to my manager," she said.
She disappeared behind a door, but already we knew we had won. Somebody signed off on it. Most likely they didn't check with the guy in Paris who said it wasn't changeable. "I'm not celebrating till I get on the plane," Jonah said, holding onto his boarding pass. I gave Jonah a big hug, and my brother, normally not one for long hugs -- after all he's the older brother -- gave me a long squeeze back. "Thank you for coming," I said and gave him a kiss on the neck, which is about as far up as I can reach. My older brother is about six inches taller than me. I watched him pass through security, then he gave me a wave, and was gone. I strolled out to the airport curb and began negotiating another cab fare.