I was approached to do some media consultancy in Nigeria. I had just left the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) after 18 years to set up my own business, so this seemed a great opportunity.
I spoke to a number of friends and former colleagues. I had heard many of stories about Nigeria, seen the reports on Boko Haram and had my own impressions of sub-Saharan Africa.
The advice fell into two camps: “Don’t go, you’ll get kidnapped or catch malaria. Either way, you’re going to die,” and, “Nigeria is a nightmare. When you arrive, you’ll be swamped by hustlers trying to rip you off, steal your luggage and all your money. If they don’t get you, the corrupt police officers and officials will.”
I was mainly to be based in Asaba, the capital of the Delta State, one of the biggest oil producing states is Nigeria.
In an attempt to be a bit more thorough with my research than asking a few old mates, I contacted the office of BBC Media Action in Abuja.
The fairly pragmatic response was: “We treat the Delta State as a hostile environment. It is an oil producing area and there is a strong risk of kidnapping.
“However, if you have armed security, this risk will be slightly reduced.”
I took this to be reassuring and made sure an armed security clause was written into my contract. I spent some time talking to my wife, Jo, and children about the prospect of going to Nigeria.
Jo’s attitude was: “For God’s sake, this is exactly what you love doing. The more dangerous a place, the better the stories. You’ll be able to show off and bore people senseless about roadblocks, men with guns and how brave you are.”
Buoyed by this, I accepted the work and prepared for Asaba. I got my Visa, all the vaccinations I could fit into my arm and made sure I had a small mountain of malaria tablets.
I really didn’t know what to expect from Nigeria. It is easy to fall into preconceptions that Africa is all about war, famine, corruption and poachers killing endangered animals.
I caught the overnight BA (British Airways) flight from Heathrow to Abuja, arriving first thing on Sunday morning. The flight was made slightly more interesting by the chap next to me hissing at the flight attendant to attract her attention. This did not go down very well.
I was later to discover this is common practice in Nigeria and not considered rude in the least.
Not sure the flight attendant saw it this way!
So, the first challenge and opportunity for anecdotes was here. Running the gauntlet through the hordes of hustlers outside the airport, once I had collected my luggage and passed through security.
Interestingly, this is the first airport I have been to in the world where they check your bags belong to you by making sure your baggage labels match your ticket. I had always thought it would be very easy to simply walk off with the nicest looking suitcase on the carousel. Not here!
Imagine my disappointment when I was almost completely ignored and simply met Yinka, the guy I would be working with. We walked, unthreatened, straight to his car.
We drove through newly completed roads, past new buildings and billboards advertising numerous western goods and luxury items. This is not the Africa I was expecting.
We checked into the hotel, logged onto wifi, I emailed home and uploaded a couple of pictures to facebook, still waiting for this hardship and danger to kick in. Maybe when we go out into town this afternoon, I will see a bit of the real Nigeria.
We certainly didn’t come across it at the couple of bars we went to that evening. I think it will take some time to get used to the isi-ewu (goat’s head pepper soup) and the chilled red wine. But the Star beer is very much to my taste.
The next day, we flew down to Asaba. Again, there was no problem at the airport; it was quite the opposite.
I was struck by the way the airline, Arik, made sure with every passenger that his or her bag was on the flight. I wish this had been the case when I went to Moscow last year and had to spend the first three days in the same clothes, because the airline had lost my luggage somewhere between Heathrow and Domodedovo.
The airport at Asaba is something to behold. It is brand new; everything was gleaming and had that just unwrapped feel. It was relaxed outside too.
The driver picked us up, no hustlers grabbing our bags. This is really not the Nigeria I was expecting.
The runway is being extended to take international flights. Within the next six months, Emirates will be flying in. Warehouses are being built around the site to cater for a mass of cargo.
About 10 minutes drive away, just across the Niger Bridge, is the city of Onitsha, one of the busiest markets in Africa, where you can buy almost anything.
I was to travel in and out of the airport several times in the next five weeks. Each time, something new was completed.
The baggage carousel, sadly lacking when we first flew in, was fully operational the next time. So were the check-in areas and the very plush departures hall.
The next morning was the first venture out. Yinka and I decided to go for a bit of a run. It seemed sensible to set off early, because of the heat and to avoid the risk of being kidnapped or shot at. So, at 6am, we were off.
About a minute into the jog, we approached a group of somewhat hard-looking men with very big guns. They were guarding the gates to our compound. This is not a sight I am used to on my normal runs in rural Leicestershire in the UK (United Kingdom).
Anxious to appear as inconspicuous as possible, I tried to sneak past, not drawing too much attention to myself, convinced I was about to be arrested. But it was quite the opposite, as we were greeted with cheers of “Good morning sir. Well done. How far?”
Once I had composed myself from the shock, very nearly tripping over in a sweaty heap, we continued our circuits. Every time we passed someone, we had the same greeting.
It began to feel as though we had our own troupe of heavily armed cheerleaders (or should that be troop?).
This was quite an introduction to what, I began to realise, was one of the most friendly countries I have been to. This is a genuine friendliness; it is not a means to get to know you and rip you off.
The following few weeks continued to surprise me- and to make me feel very embarrassed about my initial preconceptions. I have been lucky enough to visit a whole range of places in the Delta State. The television and radio stations need some work, but the staffs are young, enthusiastic and very hardworking.
Warri, the oil centre, is a thriving hub that is only going to get bigger with the construction of the largest business park in West Africa.
The sign at our hotel was a bit disconcerting. It asked everyone carrying guns to make sure they weren’t loaded- which was nice.
The University Teaching hospital in Oghara is as well equipped as any I have been to in the UK or the rest of Europe. There are state-of-the-art CT and MRI scanners, a world-class renal unit and 25 paediatric intensive care beds.
The journey to the hospital gave me the first opportunity to see a proper Nigerian village. This was far closer to what I had been expecting- the goats and cattle roaming the dusty roads, the food stalls cooking chicken, fish and corn over open fires and dozens of bars with dodgy looking satellites, advertising the latest football matches live.
When we slowed down or stopped the car, we were surrounded by two groups: The children pointing at me were shouting Oyibo, Oyibo (white man), and teenagers trying to sell anything from palm wine to cola nuts to the latest mobile phones.
Now, I can’t be sure, but I don’t think the iphone 5 I was offered for N5000 (about £20) was as genuine as it could be. All of this was done with great fun and humour. If you chose to, you could buy everything you needed from your car. If you didn’t, that was fine too.
The transport system is far from perfect, but all the roads we have driven on are absolutely fine. The most interesting experience was seeing the suicidal okada (motorcycle taxis) in full force for the first time. They have been banned in the Delta State and replaced by three-wheeled kekes.
But this is certainly not the case in Onitsha, about a 15-minute journey from the centre of Asaba. It could be on another planet.
You drive over the Niger Bridge, enter the neighbouring (Anambra) state and a different world, one where thousands of the small machines ferry people and any goods you can think of around.
We saw one driver with four passengers- two adults and two children- precariously balanced in front and behind him and oil barrels, containing God knows what, weighing heavily on the clearly inadequate suspension.
The drivers are quite mad. We were there for about a minute before our car had its first near miss. We were to have many more in the next half an hour, with the rules of the road, like driving in the same direction on a dual carriageway, simply ignored.
The noise is deafening. As the okadas rev their tiny engines, they sound like a swarm of very loud insects buzzing inside your head. You very soon begin to choke on the fumes of burning oil and petrol.
It was quite a relief to cross back over the bridge into the far more serene and calm home ground of Asaba. The welcome I have had everywhere is stunning.
The one thing you cannot escape in Nigeria is the love of the English Premier League. I have so far failed to meet another Leicester City fan, an obvious shame, but there are millions of diehard Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea supporters.
Watching the Liverpool v Man Utd game at the Asaba Viewing Centre, with thousands of people wearing the respective replica kits, was one hell of an experience, although my eardrums may take some time to recover.
There is no doubting their passion. They may not have been to Old Trafford, The Emirates or Stamford Bridge, but the passion they exuded was clear. I am not sure what ‘come on ref,’ or ‘what was that, you idiot’ is in pidgin (English), but I heard it several times that day.
Nigeria and Delta State are far from perfect. You see great poverty next to immense wealth. There is a long way to go before the full potential of the natural resources and people are used for the good of all.
While I have had no real security problems, we have not been stupid. When going into potentially dangerous areas, we have had armed police officers.
The truth is that Nigeria and Delta State have some problems. There is the risk of kidnapping and malaria. But it is not the place I was expecting.
I am going to find it very strange walking around London and not saying hello to everyone, using elaborate handshakes and bumping shoulders. I will miss it a great deal.
In my view, it is a fascinating country that needs a massive PR (Public Relations) overhaul. I would better find another source of anecdotes about how brave I am for my friends at home in the Leicestershire countryside and at my favorite place in London, the Frontline Journalism Club.
Nigeria has not given me half as many heroic stories as I had hoped. How very disappointing