“You are welcome!” When we leave Nigeria this week this phrase – one that is uttered as often as hooters are used in downtown Lagos – is certainly one of the things I’ll miss the most.
For the last two and a half weeks two of the three members that make up the MAPA rich content team have navigated our way from virtual to on-the ground to experience the “other” side of the project, joining a team of volunteer mappers in Nigeria and swapping desks and laptops for Cruisers, tents and GPSes.
Our mission in Nigeria was to map all the national parks – a mission we were very excited about. Nigeria does not exactly make any “countries you most want to visit” lists, but it boasts rainforest, savannah, and wetlands hosting an amazing diversity of animals, including the lovable Mandrills and the world’s most threatened great ape: the Cross River gorilla.
On top of that we were in for a cultural treat: Nigeria is home to more than 300 tribes, with a remarkable history of ancient kingdoms and beautiful present day crafts and cloth. From a rich content point of view, we were very excited to learn more about the work that Nigerians put into preserving their own natural heritage – they certainly have their fair share of challenges to deal with –the troubled Niger delta, for example, has seen more than 7,000 oil spills in the last 40 years.
But in Africa everything is determined by the rains, and the weather gods were not smiling upon us this time around. We had arrived a little too early to start with and this has been an unusually wet year. By the time we got to Old Oyo – the first national park on our list, we were told that we weren’t going to experience much of the Nigerians parks. And we would soon confirm that for ourselves.
Having already resigned ourselves to the few dirt tracks that were doable (would you cross this river?) in Old Oyo’s northernmost corner, we mapped exactly 320m of one such track before we found ourselves stuck door deep in sticky mud.
What followed probably epitomizes our Nigerian experience so far: wet parks, hungry insects (a good ration of our blood is flying around Old Oyo and Kanji Lake national parks as I write this) – and incredibly helpful and hospitable people.
Within minutes of getting stuck the entire field staff of Old Oyo was there to help us dig, winch, dig, tow, jack, drain, dig, chop dry wood and dig some more. They would stay with us the whole day, desperately unhappy that this was our experience of their park (despite warning us about the wet roads before) and feeling as despondent and defeated as we were when, by 4pm, we still had not managed to get the old Cruiser out. Well, not all of us showed despondency. To our great amusement one staff member was chopping and scurrying left, right and centre. “He’s new” his colleague explained. “To the park?” we asked. He shaked his head and smiled: “To today”.
As “today” drew to a close, the cruiser still stuck up to her snorkel in fine, sticky sediment, we awaited the arrival of some truckers from a nearby village, who would eventually get us out with a “manual” high-lift jacking system (we had no high lift jack of our own and are definitely NOT fans of air jacks in mud) comprising tree trunks and multiple bottle jacks.
Despite our disappointment at not being able to map Nigeria’s national park system – we’ve already made the decision to head for the (drier) parks of Northern Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso – the kind of helpfulness we had experienced in Old Oyo is exactly what has made this trip a thoroughly enjoyable one.
When we came to Nigeria, many of our friends and family were somewhat concerned. Several foreign embassies warn against travelling here, kidnappings are common in parts, none of our banks will allow us to use our bank cards here, and we have been told horror stories about police roadblocks.
Our experience of Nigeria has been nothing like we were warned it might be. Sure, maybe we won’t go for a paddle on the Niger delta or hang out under the flyovers at Lagos Island at night, but we haven’t felt unsafe and have been assisted by everyone from the folks from the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, to strangers on bikes who gave directions, to park officials to hotel managers to new friends made in Abuja who invited us into their homes for lunch.
I have never heard “You are welcome” so many times. After nearly three weeks here, we certainly feel it.