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Oshogbo Forest (Marie Javins)

Beware the Sacred Forest of Oshogbo


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20th November 2011

Wander Woman Marie Javins falls into the clutches of a sacred forest deep in the heart of Nigeria

After a marathon day of trying – and failing – to cross to Nigeria, I couldn't bear to get out of bed again at five. Who knew if the Nigerian border would be open today after it had been unexpectedly closed all day yesterday? I hit "snooze" on my iPhone repeatedly for a whole hour.

The front desk clerk at my Cotonou hotel took a 50 euro note as partial payment for my night's lodging, so I didn't have to unsew and untape my ATM and credit cards from the inner calf pocket I'd sewn into my pants using a Zip-Loc bag. My black trousers had seen better days. Namely, Saturday, before I wore them all day in taxis on Sunday. I didn't want to re-sew my valuables into a different pair of pants, so I was considering wearing the same trousers all the way through Nigeria, just leaving the my valuables taped in until Cameroon, where I could safely use a credit card again.

It was already nine by the time I got the zem motorcycle taxi to the shared taxi park and settled into one where the conductor was yelling "Igolo Igolo." I gave all my coins to the zem driver (350 CFA) and then paid a reasonable and correct 1,500 CFA to the shared taxi driver for the hour-and-a-half ride to the border. So far, so good.

One good thing had come out of the mess of yesterday. I'd sorted out that if I went through the Igolo border, 30km north of the notorious Krake border, I could totally avoid Lagos and head straight to Oshogbo, where I hoped to see Osun Shrine.

The down side of Igolo is that there's nowhere near the same amount of public transportation as at Krake. Taxis leave all the time from the main border, but not from this smaller one. So the route I'd chosen was not without risk, though I'd opted for ease and safety over convenience.

This time, when I got out of the taxi at the border and was deluged by people grabbing at my bag, I grabbed it back and walked away. I went to the money-changers, but my changer from yesterday wasn't there, and neither was my helper.

"Border ferme?" I asked a changer.

"Non, c'est ouvret," he answered.

I changed all my CFA to Nigerian naira. Again. And approached a crowd of three fixers.

"Ou est Abdoul Rahim?" I wanted yesterday's guide.

"I haven't seen him around today," answered the oldest guy there, who was probably in his 40s.

"Okay, you take me." I pointed to a teenager. He was about 14 years old, just a kid. The older guy patted him on the back and said something to him in his own language. Probably, "Go get 'em, kid."

The kid carried my bag and led the way at a scamper. He did the same thing the guys had tried to do yesterday at both borders, which is just breeze across without stopping. He led me right into the arms of an official who caught him in a bear-hug before sending both us into the Benin immigration office.

And there is where two women in uniforms, who were more thorough than the men who'd stamped me into Benin, noticed that my visa had expired on April 6.

I smiled pleasantly and refused to budge until my fine/fee went from 30,000 CFA to 10,000 CFA. And then still refused to go change money and buy a visa. They sent a messenger to do it. I was annoyed that I'd already given a hundred dollars or so to Benin for a six-month visa and had only received three months. And after the last few days, I fancied myself done being a travelling doormat.

And with a firm thwack of a stamp, I was out of Benin. The kid led the way again, and some men caught us again. We were whisked into a Nigerian office this time, where three people laboriously copied down a lot of details and asked me what I was carrying. Mostly, they were excited that my passport showed I was 44 and I didn't look like what they thought a 44-year-old should look like.

"You have something for us?" They asked at the end. I'd been warned that I'd encounter a lot of bribery in Nigeria. I naively thought I could avoid paying bribes.

"Congratulations on a successful election," I said cheerily, breezing past them into an office full of men in uniforms.

I waited while two men in the room discussed if I should be given a "tourist" or "transit" visa. One of the bored officers had struck up a conversation with me.

"Where will you go in Nigeria?"

"First to Oshogbo, then to Abuja, then to Calabar, and from there to Cameroon on the ferry."

"Oshogbo? To the shrine?"

"Yes, to the Sacred Forest."

He chuckled.

"What will you do if…" He dramatically stretched his arms wide then swept them together. "…the forest catches you?

"Uh…I don't know…does the forest catch people?"

"Yes, Susanne Wenger. Did you read about her? She came here and the forest caught her for 50 years."

I had read about her. She was an Austrian artist who'd come to Oshogbo in the 50s and stayed there until her death a few years ago. She's spearheaded the rebuilding and artistic interpretation of the Yoruba shrines in the Sacred Forest. She'd even become a priestess in the Yoruba religion. She didn't build these shrines alone, but assisted local artists in planning and creating the shrines. She was one of these rare people who gets involved in a truly local way, not looking for fame or a book contract or patting herself on the back, but for a way to enable local traditions to continue and not be lost.

I heard a stamp, distracting me from my conversation about the Sacred Forest. I was in as a "tourist." The oldest passport officer slowly copied down details from my passport. The kid looked bored.

Back outside, there was one more stop, where I showed my yellow fever certificate. Again, lots of copying down details. This one asked if I was taking the kid along to Cape Town, and I said "Yes". The kid looked alarmed while the immigration guy chuckled. Then, again, a request for "something". Again, a congratulations on a successful election.

And that was it. After about an hour of watching people write stuff down, I was into Nigeria. The kid led me to the final checkpoint, and then I heard:

"WHITE WOMAN!"

Uh, that would be me. I must have missed another official.

I stopped. He checked my passport, and we were off again. The next man who stopped us had a uniform and a gun, and asked for 1,000 naira to let the kid cross over and take me to the taxi.

"OK, I carry my own bag then."

Of course, finding the taxi is the part where I actually needed the kid. He started to take off my backpack.

"OK, 500 naira."

I paid my first Nigerian bribe.

The kid led me down a crowded border street to a taxi for Ibadan, three hours away. He put me in it, and made sure I understood the right fare (3,000 naira).

I had to wait an hour for the last seat to sell. We left at one. In the meantime, the other two passengers had tried to get me to buy the last seat.

"We've been here four hours," they said.

Sorry, not this time. 3,000 naira is 20 bucks.

The driver collected my 3,000 when it was time to go. I handed it to him, and then he handed it back with"I said 3,000."

I looked at the pile of money he gave me. One of the thousands was a hundred.

Did I give him a hundred or did he just pull a fast one? I couldn't swear I'd given him three thousand – but I was pretty sure I had.

I took back the hundred and gave him the thousand. Now I was feeling a bit irritated. Was the driver a small-time con artist? Had I pulled out the wrong money?

We drove out of town. The couple next to me was nice and Nigeria looked green and pleasant. I was just starting to think how clever I'd been to avoid Lagos because the rest of the country was nothing like that, when we started hitting police checks.

We got through the first and second checks okay. The third time, it was a customs guy. He wanted me to give him money.

"Absolutely not."

He got kind of nasty. The other people in the car looked at me. They didn't want to hang around here all day. This wasn't going to be easy, was it?

"Just give him this," whispered the driver, taking 300 naira out of my hand. He came back a minute later. "It's not enough. He wants 500."

Grrr.

The police stopped us over and over. The worst one hassled the young woman next to me, because she didn't understand his English.

He looked right at her and said, "How am I knowing you?"

This baffled her. She shook her head. He then kept at her, asking where she came from over and over and confusing her. "The border," she'd say. "No, I mean before." She was silent and scared by his strange phrasing.

He made her get out and unzip her suitcase. I got out too and tried to engage him. He had a gun and the situation was tense – maybe I could defuse the situation. I offered him a biscuit.

Eventually, the driver whispered, "Give me 200." I did, he passed it on, and we were allowed to leave.

Three bribes in my first hour! I was certainly getting a local experience.

On we drove, over a terrible road, hitting the main expressway somewhere west of Lagos, where I was shocked by the wreckless, fast driving. We passed three huge accidents in the next hour.

When we got to Ibadan, the sun was starting to go down. I thought I'd stay there, but the driver offered to take me the last 90 minutes to Oshogbo.

"You give me 7,000. I drive you."

"No. Take me to the bus."

"Ah. But it's late." He had me there.

"Okay, how much you pay?"

I thought about it. At 3,000 a head, he'd made 12,000 for the three hours ride. So he was asking for 7,000 for a drive of half that. 6,000 was the right rate, but did I really want to pay 40 bucks?

Nigeria isn't cheap.

"Okay, 5,000."

"You give me six." Fine.

We zoomed along, out of the heaving chaos of Ibadan and towards Oshogbo.

"Can I get other people?"

I was tempted to say no, since I'd already paid for the taxi. But then, what's the harm in letting him make a few more bucks? I took the front seat and he picked up four adults, who asked me a lot of questions. Nigerian's reactions to me today have been amused or amazed. One policeman gave me his phone number. At least he didn't ask for a tip.

I had to answer a lot of questions about not being married and not having children. "Don't you want to enjoy a man while you are young?"

"It's okay," I said.

This puzzled them.

"Are you not loving enough?"

I wasn't entirely comfortable with the turn this conversation had taken.

"No... it's..." I tried to think of a way to explain it succinctly in language that would make sense.

"Men don't like me," I said.

They nodded, sort of understanding but not really. But it made more sense to them a minute later when I added, "Anyway, I can't cook. So I need a man who can cook."

"A man wants to taste his wife's cooking. You should learn to cook."

I couldn't win this one and changed the subject to how I could travel on to Calabar where I'd get the ferry to Cameroon.

The same man who had advised me to learn to cook then told me I could easily blast straight through to Calabar in a single day.

"Isn't it unsafe in the Delta? What about the kidnappings?"

"That doesn't happen anymore."

Maybe so. Guidebook info is already a year old by the time the book gets to my hands. But I hadn't researched this online. What if he was wrong? I'd stick to my plan, heading north to Abuja and then back down to Calabar. The long way.

We arrived at Heritage Hotel and dropped me off.

And while I was getting my bag out of the trunk, the driver, who had gotten FIFTY-EIGHT of my dollars today (more if you include what I was now sure was the sleight-of-hand at the start) for the 4.5 hours of driving, asked me for 2,000 more.

"No. I am out of money."

"I am hungry." He motioned at his stomach. He WAS thin.

I sighed and gave him what was left in my pocket – about five bucks, I had to acknowledge that new non-doormat Marie wasn't having a lot of success at being a non-doormat – and checked in.

The hotel? $25 a night. Including A/C and hot water. Sure, the shower didn't work and the ceiling fan was broken. But for $25, I wasn't complaining.

And in the morning, I went to the Sacred Forest. The beautiful sculptures were fascinating and the serenity engaging.

The forest did catch me, even after all the hassle of getting into Nigeria. 

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