‘Nigeria is a country largely misrepresented’

By: Dorcas Egede – The Nation

Having won a grant to do a story on the demolished Artists’ Village in Lagos, the visit to Nigeria was going to be Maria Groot’s first, accompanied by her partner and photographer Frederik Buyckx. But the Belgians did have their fears, influenced more by what they had been reading and hearing, which she said turned out to be ‘largely misrepresented.’ They had a chat with Dorcas Egede.

Over visited a city or country for the first time? Then you should be familiar with the thrills and shocks that come with such adventure. Beginning from the time you conceive the idea, to the time you embark on it, the actual trip and your return trip; you sure would have a story to tell.

Freelance reporter, Maria Groot, 33, had a truck-load of concerns thrown at her when she first mooted the idea of visiting Nigeria, the famed giant of Africa.

“With all the insecurities bedevilling Nigeria, are you sure you really wanna do this?” Some asked, unable to understand the restlessness of a reporter.

Others counselled, “Why not visit Senegal or Ghana? These are relatively safer countries…”

At the embassy, authorities queried: “Have you ever been to Nigeria before? Do you have a host? Do you know him well enough? What if he’s a ritualist who just killed a woman last week? How about someone to take you around town? What if you are abducted?”  The questions were endless.

Groot, who hails from the Netherlands, but moved to Belgium 11 years ago said the people’s worries were tiresome; their concerns disconcerting. And she nearly got sucked-up in the fears and concerns, which worsened when securing a visa became an uphill task. Maria had secured a grant to do a report on the demolition of the Artists’ Village in Lagos, Nigeria and she had very limited time working out the travel arrangement to fit into the grant’s budget.

“I applied for a tourism visa two months before this trip. I had to go to the embassy four different times, and it’s not in my home-town; so I had to travel by train,” said Groot. Admitting that her repeated visit to the embassy was partly her fault, she said, “I’d actually thought I only had to fill out the online application forms because there had been many questions, including physical attributes for easy identification. But there were other things I ought to have done; like get an invitation letter from someone in Nigeria, which I didn’t take note of.”

Groot however wasn’t discouraged by the trepidations, although she admitted to feeling a little flustered when the visa process was ongoing. “For the first time, I wondered if the trip to Nigeria would turn out right.”

Having had a first-hand experience of Nigeria and her people, would she say the things she had heard and read about Nigeria were true? Groot’s honest answer was, “I think Nigeria has a rather bad reputation. She is largely misrepresented. Coming has made me know better. The most interesting part of my experience has been with the people. I have met really warm people… Nigerians are very interesting and intelligent people. They warm up to you very easily. The first reaction when you meet someone for the first time is that of uncertainty, then in the next five minutes we are already laughing and having discussions. They ask questions about Belgium and tell you many things about Europe. They are very informed about global matters. That struck me.”

However, there was something Groot found both unsettling and comforting. “There seemed to be many security men around. I have never seen so much security in my life. Every single building has like 10 people taking care of security. I honestly don’t know how that makes me feel. Safe and unsafe all at once. First, it sets off an alarm of danger; then again you feel people are there to protect you, should anything go wrong.”

Being a graduate of Arts, Groot who is a freelance reporter in Belgium, writes about everything from security issues to immigration. She albeit has a soft spot for matters relating to arts. So, apart from going to see things for herself at the demolished Artists’ Village, she and her partner, a freelance photo journalist, Frederik Buyckx, visited a number of arts arena in Lagos.

“We visited Mr Shilon, the arts collector. He had a whole lot of artworks in his collection. We spent about an hour going round, and we didn’t even see half of his collections. He allowed us take a few photos, but there were restrictions, I think depending on the artwork. We also visited Nike’s Art Gallery, the University of Lagos’ Arts Studio, Jelili Atiku, Terra Kulture, Bruce Onagbhakpaye, Freedom Park…. We received a lot of presents, bracelets, t-shirts, dolls, a whole lot of fanciful stuff.”

What is that one thing that will for a long time be etched in their memory? Buyckx, speaking for the first time, said, “I visited Makoko and it was very impressive. It wasn’t the most beautiful sight. And even though it’s an obviously impoverished area, it looked very idyllic. While I was there, a dead girl was found. It was a very intense moment. The villagers gathered together with their leaders. It was a moving sight to behold.”

Groot had a hard time putting a finger to that one thing. Too many happenings had left very strong impressions on her. Finally she exhaled: “Sounds of Lagos is a Friday evening event in a little theatre in the Artists’ Village. We were invited to watch them perform. It was a really wonderful experience. There was this mixture of amateur and professional stage artists, dancers and rappers; practising and performing. During the performances, there were electricity cuts and people just kept doing their thing without light and music. That, for me was remarkable. Even though there are lots of challenges, people just find a way of creating something out of nothing. We felt very welcome, had a very wonderful dinner and even red wine.”

They also had a fair share of the long waits in the city traffic. Buyckx said, “First of all, there is so much traffic jams, which we experienced right from day one and still experience. We have a private chauffer who carries us from one point to another. This gave me a kind of strange feeling because in our country, we move around freely. Being driven from gate to gate almost, we didn’t get the chance of connecting with the streets and people walking on them. Sometimes, I ask if we could stop somewhere, maybe the market. And the driver says, ‘No, no, no! The market is too dangerous. There may be area boys…’ We were always kept in our safe car and that felt very strange.”

The Belgians definitely enjoyed food the Nigerian way, Buyckx in particular. He especially loved suya (spicy grilled beef). “I had pepper soup. I tried swallow once (semo); but I preferred the rice. I asked for jollof rice, but it wasn’t available.” Said Buyckx. Groot who seemed the less enthusiastic, having found the meals “really spicy, like crying spicy.” She however enjoyed one particular meal prepared by their private cook. “Yesterday she prepared some kind of sauce from beans with which we ate fried plantain (dodo). We had a lot of vegetables too.”

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