Happy birthday to me, I thought. For the occasion, I got a 4am thunderstorm that somehow shut off the water supply to my hotel room. But I had power, so I could see in the bathroom mirror. No fair, I thought. Wrinkles AND zits, that's what I get at 45. No fair at all.
I made my way to the hotel's front gate in the dark, woke up the guard to get out – it was 5.30am – and only had to stand along the road for a minute until a taxi pulled up.
"Inland Waterway," I said.
The driver nodded and I got in, trying hard not to think about all the warnings I'd heard about not taking taxis alone, in the dark, in Nigeria.
So far, it's all been quite safe, I reminded myself. The panicky warnings have been exaggerated.
"Which boat company?" The driver asked when we approached the dark port on the outskirts of town.
"Foka to Cameroon."
He stopped his Toyota and waved me down an alley. The sun hadn't risen yet, and the whole area looked different in the dark from yesterday afternoon; when I could see clearly as I'd purchased my ticket.
"Oh great," I stood looking at my ship when I reached the dock. "I'm on the Endurance."
First, I had to hand over my backpack, which was weighed on a hefty scale and then loaded onto the Endurance. Then, I headed over to a long line at Immigration, which was located in a tiny lit office at the back of what looked like a long concrete storage shed. The sun rose as I waited, illuminating a series of steps and holes to be avoided in the shed. No one in line looked too happy. I guess getting up at five in the morning to stand in line so that officials can glare at you isn't the ideal way for anyone to spend the morning.
Eventually, a man in a uniform pointed at me. I took my turn at walking into the tiny office, where I filled out a form, handed over my passport, and was sent outside again to wait.
I took the opportunity to change money and return, waited some more, and finally was handed back my passport. I was stamped out of Nigeria.
The sun peeked through the clouds but the day was overcast as I boarded the Endurance and found my way up the stairs to the first-class cabin.
Almost all the seats were taken, and I fell asleep as yet-another-absurdly-delightful Nigerian movie came on. The ferry motored off into the Gulf of Guinea, and I woke up to the middle of a movie I'd seen before on a bus.
I've seen bad action movies in train stations, on ferries, and on buses in Bolivia, Jordan and Thailand. But West Africa, thankfully, doesn't seem to know these exist.
Instead, on buses and ferries from Bamako to Calabar, I had the pleasure of watching baffling, quirky, frequently hilarious Nigerian movies. And by movies, I don't mean film. This is cheap-and-cheerful digital video, with melodramatic themes of tragic backgrounds, believable crime, random plot twists, and a surprising lack of cynicism.
Some of these "Nollywood" movies I couldn't make head or tales of. It's hard to understand the soundtrack when you're on a bus and the sound is piped in and distorted a few feet from your ears, and you're wearing earplugs because of this. Plus there's the accent problem. I can communicate only slightly better in English than in French here due to accent differences.
Some of the productions seemed to be heading for a clear moral resolution. But that would be too simple. In Nollywood, the story goes where it wants. I suspect the plot resolutions surprise the movie-makers as much as the audience.
Here are the plots of some of the Nigerian movies I saw.
Movie #1 Sarah is a sweet country girl who lives with her parents. Her father dies suddenly, dramatically, and Sarah runs to get her mother, who finds a doctor, who may have been just driving by, or might have been on call or something. Dad is definitely dead, so the doctor closes his eyes. Mom and Sarah bawl – now what? The doctor takes pity on them, and agrees to take Sarah to be his live-in housekeeper and nanny.
Doctor's wife is pretty psyched. She brags to her friend that she has a housekeeper. The jealous friend points out that Sarah is young and hot. Wife starts to worry.
Kids love Sarah, who plays games with them all the time. Then it looks like the Doctor loves Sarah too. We had an entire scene of Sarah sweeping with a runty bundle of sticks, and the Doctor sits unabashedly admiring her shapely bottom. There is a voiceover of Doctor here. I couldn't quite hear it, but it was something along the lines of, "Sarah is hot."
Wife is annoyed. Doctor brings home a nice frock for Sarah, who is amazed as she's never had anything like it. Wife demands her own frock.
Doctor is at work when the wife drags Sarah out of the kitchen to watch as Wife burns Sarah's new frock. Kids are confused and stunned.
Next, Sarah drops a glass. Wife goes ballistic and beats Sarah, who doesn't bother to defend herself, just cries, "It was an accident."
Wife brutally murders Sarah with a rolling pin.
Wife calls Doctor in a panic. They bury Sarah in the middle of the night.
Then they're haunted. They hear her pounding millet in the kitchen. The ghost of Sarah takes the kids to school. They're freaking out.
Sarah's mother comes to visit and the family says they don't know where Sarah went.
Then one day Sarah walks into the garden, past the guard, fetches the children, and walks away with them. The kids, in spite of the fact that Sarah's eyes are entirely white and she is creepy-looking, go along with her and disappear.
The Doctor and wife freak out and tell the police their kids are missing. The jealous friend is also there. Sarah makes some haunting noises in the next room, the wife confesses, and the police arrest all three. The end.
Movie #2 made no sense at all to me. It appeared to be a romantic comedy, in which the man was always busy. The woman would wait for her phone to ring, and he'd be late, or not show, but then he did show and he asked her to marry him. They were getting ready for their wedding, and then he was walking to his car in the parking lot outside his office in Lagos, and two thugs shot him and stole his car. There was a funeral. Everyone cried. The fiancee walked home with his parents. His mother went inside to sweep with a bundle of sticks, while Dad whispered a plot to the fiancee all about finding out who did this. And the fiancee was like "Okay," and then the movie ended.
In Movie #3, the male character was useless. He couldn't stay out of debt. His parents came to the city from their village and told him he was useless and that if he didn't get his act together, they would disown him. His father then took off his flip-flops and marched off barefoot with his wife.
The man went to his friend for advice. His friend, who was in a wheelchair, told him a story, about how ending up in a wheelchair had been good for him. He'd moved to New York, which had palm trees and low, brown buildings. He'd made a lot of money and enjoyed it, but something was missing. He sat down with his employers, two Lebanese men aka New Yorkers, and said he had to return to Nigeria for a while.
The next scene was the two Lebanese men and one white man in a suit all sitting in a room saying how sad they were that the guy had been in a car accident in Nigeria and could not return to New York.
They shook their heads sadly.
But by staying home in Nigeria in a wheelchair, the man had found a calling of sorts, then married and had children. So the car accident was good.
This cheered the friend up, but about ten minuteslater, he committed suicide. Which was awful, except for the part where while everyone considered his life at the funeral, the wheelchair man prayed and then got up and walked. Amazing! Everyone cheered.
And last, in Movie #4, the movie opens with Pastor, who is in a hospital room where the beds and white sheets are stained with blood. He lifts one to see his bloody, dead wife. The other bed holds his bloody, dead children. He has a dramatic moment, howling and popping his eyes.
One of his congregation suggests that the Pastor is being punished by God. And off goes sub-plot #1, where the man is trying to steal the congregation and start his own church. For purposes of getting money from them, of course.
A member of the choir will hear none of it. She goes to the pastor and tells him what's up. The Pastor doesn't understand.
Then we see her visit her single woman friend. The two commiserate over being single women in their 30s and wish they could get married.
Next, the church elders ask Pastor to remarry, because having a single man around is getting the single women of the church all bothered and competitive. He asks Choir Girl to marry him. Why not? She's a nice woman.
Her friend is outraged. "I want to be married too!"
Then a new member of the congregation asks her to marry him. She jumps at the chance, though Pastor advises her to take it slowly and get to know the man first.
Now we have two newly married couples. Too bad the second one beats his wife. She goes running to Pastor and Choir Girl who say, "For better or worse, remember? Go home." At which point the audience knows everything is wrong here in both marriages.
Then she finds out that her husband is a criminal and goes around robbing people with a gun.
So she jumps off a bridge.
And that's the end of that sub-plot. It disappears just like the alternate-church guy disappears.
Meanwhile, Pastor and Choir Girl somehow go to America, which we don't see, but when they come back, it's like the Pastor watched Blues Brothers and decided the James Brown church scene was a documentary. He sings, he dances, he wears hip-hop clothing while he preaches. He becomes famous. The churchgoers are appalled.
Pastor starts drinking and cheating. He says he's going to Rome, but in reality, he's holed up in an apartment with a Russian woman who likes to dance in front of the TV in her hot pants. Another woman he was cheating with brings the wife over to see this, and the wife is horrified.
The wife conspires with the other members of the church. The two women the Pastor were cheating with have on-screen catfights. One of them reveals she is pregnant.
The Pastor goes to church to preach. He is surprised to find the church empty. The entire congregation has dumped him. His wife is last seen chatting with a friend.
And the moral is: Don't get married. Or maybe, don't go to America. But no one said anything about not going to Cameroon, fortunately. Which is good as that's where I ended up after watching my Nollywood movies on the Endurance.
"Where to?" asked my motorbike-taxi driver at the port.
"The best hotel in Limbe," I told him. "It's my birthday."
"Happy birthday," he said. "We'll go to Savoy Palmz." We zoomed up the hill.
I hope the best hotel has some cake.
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