So You're Planning A Trip To Africa

A page of advice for travelers to Africa by Scott Bidstrup

Anyone wishing to travel anywhere in sub-saharan Africa, not just Nigeria, would be well advised to do a great deal of reading and research before getting on the plane.

For starters, I would recommend reading the U.S. State Department travel advisories relating to the countries for which travel is being planned, if any are current. The current Travel Advisory on Nigeria makes for some very sobering reading. In reading between the lines, it is apparent that conditions have deteriorated somewhat since I was there. This is particularly true with regards to the armed robbery situation, which is now somewhat worse, and the illegal roadblock situation, which is now far worse. Additionally, the quality and safety of Nigerian domestic airlines, never very good, has deteriorated to the point where travelers are advised to avoid them.

If you've read the travel advisory and that doesn't scare you, then read the Center for Disease Control page on West Africa and it surely will. If you're still determined to go, heed the medical advisories and take the time to have the full schedule of recommended vaccinations. It could save you a lot of misery, even your life.

Advice About Accepting Employment In Africa

If you've been offered a job in Africa and are going there for purposes of employment, there are some things you should know.

First, legal protections regarding your employment you enjoy in America or Europe, simply do not exist in any meaningful way in the vast majority of African nations.

Second, your embassy or high commision may not be able to bail you out if you get in a difficult position, particularly if you are in trouble with the law. So to prevent yourself from finding yourself in a very unfortunate and difficult situation, here are some precautions you should take:

  • Before you accept employment, ask for some names and contact information of people who have worked for that employer in the past. Your employer has asked for references; you're entitled to the same! Contact them and ask what employment with the company was like, and what advice they can give you.

  • If you are not working for an American or European corporation, consider that the terms of your employment may have been or are being misrepresented to you. You're best off signing an employment contract before you depart for Africa and make sure that the corporation you're signing with is a domestic corporation which actually has assets you can have siezed if the corporation fails to pay you on time or fails to reimburse you for business expenses. Don't pay for the plane ticket yourself; your employer should pay for it.

  • Don't even consider going without a round-trip ticket. Most African governments require you to have a return ticket to your home country before you can enter for African employment, and you must be able to produce that ticket any time an immigration official asks to see it. Besides, its literally your ticket home in case the employment goes bad or isn't as it was represented. It bailed me out, and it may bail you out too!

  • Never, but never let your employer hold your passport. First, it isn't legal in most African countries for them to even ask to do so. Second, if they have your passport, you can't leave the country, since it is nearly impossible to cross borders legally without it. You could quite literally find yourself enslaved to your employer! If this should happen to you, your embassy can't bail you out, and neither do you have recourse in local courts for all practical purposes. So never surrender your passport to your employer. If he needs it for processing your employment visa, insist on traveling to the immigration office and hand carrying it through the process yourself. A legitimate employer will understand your concerns, and will cooperate. If your employer does not, get on the next plane and go home! its a very bad sign!

  • Understand the terms of the business expenses you are to be reimbursed for before you go. Make sure that the basic living expenses are covered and the costs of transportation, tool and material procurement, costs associated with doing your job, etc., are all covered. Make sure there is a reasonable method of reimbursement worked out in advance for reimbursing you while you are there, as these expenses can mount up quickly and be difficult to manage if you don't have a method worked out for dealing with them.

  • Make sure you are going to be paid in hard currency, preferably in advance. African currencies are difficult to sell outside their home countries, and often cannot be exported legally anyway. Most African countries have severe restrictions on the exportation of hard currency, so you'll need to arrange to be paid in your home country. The best way to do this is to have your salary paid electronically from the employer's off-shore bank to your domestic bank account. This is easy and cheap to arrange, and is well worth the trouble, as it avoids carrying large amounts of cash around, and trying to explain to customs inspectors that its not drug money.

  • Before you get on the plane

    Get your vaccinations, and be sure you have a properly filled-out vaccination certificate. It must show current vaccination for yellow fever before you will be allowed into the country.

    Bring plenty of money to last the entire trip. At the time I was there, you could import as much foreign exchange as you liked, but you had to declare anything in excess of US$5,000.

    When I originally wrote this essay, I advised travelers to carry enough cash with them into the country to last the entire trip, as wire transfers are difficult, if not impossible to arrange. Now, however, there is a wonderful alternative to this very risky practice. Here is what a correspondent wrote to me in February, 1998:

    "Western Union and MoneyGram are now available. So, money transfer using them is very easy and FAST. I have used both to send money to relatives. Western Union transfers are collected at First Bank of Nigeria, which I think is more bureaucratic and "dash" [read: bribe] oriented than United Bank for Africa, which processes the MoneyGram transfers. Knowing this could come in very handy for someone who has had a sudden parting of the ways with their money or those extra unaccounted for dash expenses. The more money one sends the longer it takes to collect. People shouldn't expect to get it within an hour of transmission like within the US. But the fact that there is an alternative to taking all your money with you is great."

    Needless to say, this service is an enormous help to travelers in Nigeria.

    When collecting on a Moneygram or Western Union transfer, take the cash in hard currency. The smaller volume of notes makes it much easier to conceal, and trading it for Naira is not difficult.

    Conserve cash to allow yourself to pay the "fees" necessary for exit from the country. There is an airport tax and a number of other fees you must pay on exiting, and lots of dashes you'll find yourself having to pay. I'd allow at least US$300 for all these costs. Don't attempt to take more than 50 Naira out of the country; it is a violation of money-laundering laws to do so, and is considered a very serious offense. The airport security will, of course, be happy to relieve you of your excess Naira.

    Never, but never travel to Nigeria without a valid visa stamp in your passport, a current vaccination certificate and a return trip airplane ticket. All three are required for entry into the country, and if you lack any when landing, you'll find yourself in really big trouble. Airport visas are not available in Nigeria, and landing without a visa can cause you to be arrested. A Nigerian jail is not a nice place to be.

    A traveler who had just returned from Lagos (June, 2002) wrote this to me: "The big thing that seems to have changed is dash. We never had to offer a bribe the whole time we were there. Itís daunting to get through the airport, but we definitely didnít have to bribe anyone. We were also stopped a number of times by road blocks, but again no bribe, we were just waved through. " It is possible that this person's experience is unusual because she was traveling with a large corporation whose presence in Nigeria is ubiquitous. But let's hope that it is more general than that, and that this traveler's experience is the result of Obassanjo's much-vaunted anti-corruption campaign showing results..

    When you arrive

    International arrival in Nigeria is always a harrowing experience for a first-time traveler to Africa. The first rule to remember is never, but never, give your passport to anyone but uniformed personnel of the customs or immigration departments. Nigerian airports are positively crawling with touts who claim they can get you through the system easier with their help. Don't believe it. What they are trying to do is separate you from your passport so you'll surrender big money to get reunited.

    The "dash" system of small money gifts has blossomed into an entire system of organized corruption, especially at the Lagos, Abuja and Kano airports. What this means for you as a traveler is that you'd best have a wad of US$20 bills handy, and keep a couple inside your passport for when you hand it to customs and immigrations officers. its not technically legal, but I guarantee it will smooth your passage through customs and immigration. If you wait to be asked for a bribe (and you will be), it will mark you as a naive traveler, and the required bribe will be much higher. If you conduct yourself like you've been through it before, things will go much more smoothly.

    If one of the thousands of touts that hang out at the Kano, Abuja or Lagos airports causes you a problem, report it immediately to the airport security (they're dressed in brown uniforms). He might be able to help, but don't count on it. And of course, he'll expect a dash.

    Civil strife and political instability is a concern. If you are staying in a place where you can do so, it is wise to keep about a week's worth of food on hand, as a coup attempt will result in a 24-hour curfew that can last for a week or more. Those found on the streets in such a curfew are subject to arrest, and even disappearance. This happens rather regularly; there were two coup attempts in the eighteen months I was there.

    The important rules of travel within Nigeria

    1. Never travel alone. Hire a driver as soon as you arrive in the country, and have him drive you everywhere, even on short trips. If you are stopped and arrested, it will be him that gets thrown in jail, not you. That's important. You can always send a Nigerian colleague to the jail and get him bailed out. If you're in jail, you can't do that. Don't count on getting a "one free phone call." That right doesn't exist in Nigeria. Pre-trial detentions can last years, too. You can simply disappear into the Nigerian justice system and be gone without a trace. Besides, if you treat him well, your driver will quickly become your best friend, and his insights will allow you to see Nigeria in ways you never could traveling alone.

    2. Never travel at night. Armed robbery is always a problem everywhere in Nigeria, but is much worse at night, particularly between Bauchi and Maduguri, and between Onitsha and Owerri. It is becoming a serious problem along the Ilorin-Lagos freeway. Daytime travel isn't very safe, but it is much safer than nighttime travel.

    3. Never carry all your money with you. If you get robbed, and they find your money (and yes, they will, no matter how clever you think you are), you'll end up penniless in a country that doesn't know the meaning of the words "credit cards," "wire transfers," "ATM" or "bank credit." If you can't bail yourself out of a jam with cash, you can't bail yourself out. Period.

    4. Make sure there is someone you know and trust who knows where you are at all times. Never travel without someone knowing you are going, and what your itinerary is. Check in with that individual when you get where you're going. Making a long distance phone call in the country isn't always easy, but its ridiculously cheap and can be well worth it to reassure your colleagues you're safe.

    5. If you're going to spend any time on one spot, get to know the local expat community. Your fellow expats can be your lifeline in an emergency and a terrific resource. Spend lots of time with them, and become their best buddy. They often can help you out when no Nigerian can. You're all in this together. If you're going to spend a lot of time in one place, getting to know the local police chief and inviting him to dinner occasionally can get you out of a lot of trouble later on.

    6. Never, but never drink the water. That should be obvious, but you'd be surprised at the number of travelers who violate this rule. Always drink bottled spring water ("Swan" water is nearly always available and is cheap), and use it for brushing your teeth. Make sure the seal on the bottle is intact before you accept it from a water seller. Otherwise it is guaranteed to be refilled and probably contaminated. This is especially true of hotel restaurants and room refrigerators.

    7. Eat the food cautiously. Most travel books will recommend that you never eat salads or uncooked fruits or vegetables. The principal risk from doing so is contracting hepatitis A, cholera or typhoid. Except for cholera, effective vaccines exist for these diseases, and if you're prepared to deal with it, cholera isn't a threat (the local chemists sell "Unicef salts" which, when properly mixed, will help you through an attack). Of much greater concern is "Montezuma's revenge" and you'll get it if you spend any time there, guaranteed. I never traveled anywhere without Imodium tablets, which seems to work best, and was often glad I had it with me. As you spend time there, though, you will build immunity and the attacks will become less frequent. I can now travel freely anywhere and not worry about it.

    Recipe for Suya

    This isn't a perfect replication, by any means, but it will get as close as possible with American ingredients. At least it will give you a flavor for some local Nigerian food:

    2 tbsp. peanut powder, finely ground from dry roasted peanuts in a coffee mill or food mill

    1 tsp. ginger powder

    1 tsp. cayenne powder, as mild as you can find

    1/4 cup or as required cold-pressed, unrefined peanut oil

    1 1/2 lb. cut up chicken pieces or beef for shiskabob

    Mix powdered ingredients thoroughly in a bowl large enough to accomodate the pieces of meat.

    Wet each piece of meat thoroughly in the peanut oil, then 'bread' them thoroughly with the powder mixture (it's "suya powder," which you can purchase pre-mixed in the market once you're in the country).

    Skewer the pieces with shikabob sticks and roast slowly over open flame or barbecue until meat is done to taste. Serves 3.

    An excellent, authentic companion dish is corn on the cob, shucked and then roasted alongside the suya.

    It will certainly make your life much more pleasant, not to mention interesting, to try the local food, especially the luscious tropical fruits that abound in Nigeria, as well as the local specialties, such as suya and the deep-fried sweet potatoes sprinkled with the local spices. One of my favorites was roasted ears of corn and chicken suya, both purchased from street vendors, and together, they make a lovely meal. If you're worried about disease, you can have your cook wash fruits and vegetables in a bleach solution before preparing them for you. I used about a teaspoon of bleach in a gallon of spring water and can't recall I ever had a problem from prepared food washed in this manner.

    8. Register with your embassy or consulate when you arrive, and keep your registration current. Make sure they have some way of contacting you. It will help them help you, in case you're caught in a riot, war or natural disaster. Besides, if they get to know you, they'll work harder at bailing you out of a jam because you're a friend. But don't expect them to help you out of a legal mess; that they can't do. When you're in trouble with the law, you're on your own.

    Crime and civil strife

    Armed robbery is a serious problem in Nigeria, as detailed above. Although the new government is making inroads into the problem, it is still serious, and the possibility it could happen to you is quite real. The best defense is to be prepared. Ask around in the expat community for local advice. They will be your best source of information on dangerous roads, precautions to take, etc. There are serious ethnic tensions in Nigeria, and ethnic riots occur periodically that can go on for days on end and kill hundreds, even thousands. As an expat, you are generally safe, as their argument isn't with you. But if you get caught in one, or find yourself driving into one, try to get out of town as quickly as possible. Don't hang around trying to see what is going on.

    Making friends with the local police chief is a really good idea if you are going to be in one spot for any length of time. Invite him over for dinner occasionally, get to know him and his wife and children, and you'll be well rewarded in an emergency. When I found myself in the Bauchi riots, the police chief came looking for me and escorted me out of town with a station wagon full of AK47-wielding cops with their rifle barrels poking out of each window. It was an eerie feeling, driving through that riot, knowing I was protected and no one else was. The police chief can also be your friend when a rogue cop tries to extort you over some minor infraction. Happened to me twice.

    Preparing for riots and/or a coup

    If you'll be living in a guesthouse or a house you rent, make sure your house staff keeps at least a week's worth of food for you and them on hand at all times. Take care of your house staff, and they'll take care of you. Keep after them about it; often they'll let things slide if you don't.

    The reason for the week's worth of food is that curfews are often declared during riots or coups and coup attempts. They are often 24-hour curfews that can last up to a week. Not having food or drinking water on hand can make your life very miserable for what will seem like an eternity.

    A few words about malaria

    For all the horror the AIDS epidemic has caused, it pales in comparison to the devastation caused by malaria. Every year, more people die of malaria than have died in the AIDS epidemic since it began. Malaria is indeed the greatest infectious disease epidemic the world has ever known, causing far more deaths than even the Black Plague. Europe did not consider Africa to even be habitable until quinine was discovered in the middle of the 19th century. It was quinine that made European conquest of Africa possible.

    In the U.S. or Europe, you'll get lots of conflicting advice about malaria. Most of it will come from doctors who may have studied malaria in medical school and have never even seen a case of it, much less practiced medicine in a malarial region. Here are the practical facts about malaria in Nigeria that you should know.

    There are six known species of the malaria parasite, of which the most serious, Plasmodium falciparum, is also the most common in Nigeria. It accounts for about 85% of cases in the country and nearly all the deaths. Unfortunately, P. falciparum in Nigeria is rapidly becoming resistant to most known drugs. P. vivax, the second most common species in Nigeria, is far less severe, but can become chronic.

    Malaria infections come in two flavors: blood and cerebral. A blood infection will make you miserable for several days or weeks, and if serious enough, may even kill you, but it is cerebral malaria that is to be feared. It is an infection within the brain, and is very serious if not treated promptly and aggressively, and with the right combination of drugs. Most cerebral infections in Nigeria are caused by P. falciparum. Most often, a cerebral infection is the result of an untreated blood infection. P. falciparum infections rarely rebound as P. vivax often does; if you get it a second time, its almost certain you've been reinfected.

    If you won't be in the country for more than a few weeks, you would do well to take prophylactic drug. Don't bother with chloroquine, the cheapest and most widely prescribed prophylactic. Most malaria in Nigeria is now thoroughly resistant to it. Additionally, long term use can lead to retinal damage, causing a loss of night vision, or, in some people, chronic liver damage.

    Your first clue that you're coming down with malaria will be when you'll want to reach over and turn off the air conditioner. Pretty soon, you'll have chills alternating about every hour or two with fever and profuse sweating. Within hours, in a serious attack, you'll start to get drowsy and delerious. If you experience an attack like this, seek medical attention immediately. The most serious varieties can kill within just a few hours.

    Most expats who have lived in Nigeria for any length of time will tell you that you are better off not using prophylactic drugs against malaria at all. The reason is that most don't work anymore, and most have some fairly serious side effects when used for long periods. Additionally, some will cause mild but chronic illness in certain people. The biggest reason for not taking prophylactics, I was told, is that chloroquine and its numerous analogues merely hold the malaria in the liver, allowing it to build into a more serious attack when the attack finally happens. It was suggested to me by numerous expats with many years of experince with living in Africa, is that the best thing to do is allow the first attack to happen, but be prepared to treat it quickly and aggressively so it doesn't get out of hand. An attack can occur in a few hours, not giving you time to seek medical attention. So be prepared to inject yourself with a dose of chloroquine or fansidar, and take a course of Halfan to kill it. Subsequent attacks will generally be less serious.

    If you are going to be in the country for a long period of time, say a few months or so, and you insist on using a prophylactic against malaria, there are only two that I would even consider, and both are fairly new. The first, called Doxycycline, is by far the safer of the two. I would recommend it in preference to the other unless you have some reason you can't take it. Doxycycline is less well-promoted by the manufacturer, so your doctor may not be aware of it. Ask him to look into it. The principal side effects are vaginitis in women and photosensitivity.

    The alternative is widely promoted. It is called Lariam by its manufacturer, and is known generically as mefloquine. It is considered reasonably effective, but...

    A caution about mefloquine...

    The problem with mefloquine is that it can kill you. I don't mean to startle you, but it must be used with great caution. If you're not a kidney disease sufferer and haven't had any siezures or history of mental disorders, you're qualified to cautiously try it. But be aware that potential side effects can include serious illness that can last for years, blood abnormalities and even cardiac arrest if mefloquine toxicity is allowed to follow its course, so great caution is indeed warranted. Especially considering that side-effect frequencies ran as high as one in five in some trials!

    To determine if you are likely to have a problem with mefloquine toxicity, which would be impossible to diagnose in an African medical setting (where it is apparently not widely known or understood), is to cautiously try a course some time before you go and see what happens.

    It is important to not eat any grapefruit or drink any grapefruit juice within a few hours of taking this or any other oral drug. The reason is that there is a substance in grapefruit which can cause your system to absorb much more of the drug than you otherwise would, possibly even leading to an overdose. It is especially important in this test, since it is important to know how you are dealing with a normal dose and a normal level of absorption.

    With the awareness amd permission of your doctor, take one pill and one pill only. Wait a few days and see if you have any diarrhea, mood changes, strange or bizarre dreams, feelings of tiredness or otherwise unexplainable fatigue or other symptoms. If so, do not continue! You probably have a toxic reaction to mefloquine and should not attempt to use it on your trip. If your reaction is severe, notify your doctor immediately.

    If you pass that test, take another pill a week after the first. If still you see no otherwise unexplainable symptoms within two weeks of your second pill, have your doctor check you over (and preferably do a blood count); if he pronounces you fit, you're probably good to go.

    Additionally, another problem with being on mefloquine is that it disqualifies you from taking what is currently one of the most effective treatments for malaria, which is a course of a drug called Halfan, known generically as halofantrine. The interaction between halofantrine and mefloquine is to depress the heart rate to dangerously low levels. I had malaria seven times while in Africa, and each time it was Halfan that finally quelled the attack. Not being qualified to take it, is something I would consider to be a serious drawback to the use of mefloquine, which isn't even close to 100% effective in preventing malaria anyway.

    Inasmuch as Halfan, or halofantrine has been shown to cause sudden heart failure in a few rare cases, it should be used with caution, and only as a last resort if better drugs are not available. While it has few other side effects, the risk of cardiac failure associated with it means it is no longer recommended by most parasitologists, so be aware before you take it, and make sure that there are people around you that can get you to medical attention if you develop symptoms after taking it.

    A new drug, considered very effective for the treatment of acute malarial infections, is Malarone, manufactured by Glaxo-Wellcome. It consists of two drugs, Atovaquone 250 mg. and Proguanil 100 mg. in tablet form. It is considered so revolutionary, that Glaxo-Wellcome has pledged not to commercialize it, but work with charities in distributing it in malarial countries. It is reputedly low in toxicity and has few side effects. The bad news is that it is not approved for sale in the U.S., so you'll have to contact Glaxo-Wellcome (1-800-334-0089) to find out where you can obtain it. The more bad news: the going price is about $6 a pill, so its best not to consider it as a prophylactic, but a means of treating an attack.

    If you need a drug to purge your liver of vivax malaria on your return home, most European pharmacies carry Primaquine, which will do the job nicely. It is somewhat toxic to the liver, however, and should not be used by people with liver disease or as a prophylactic, as it once was.

    Drugs which I and my colleagues found useful in fighting resistant strains are halofantrine and metacaffiene. Both appear to be effective against cerebral malaria should you contract it. Neither is immediately effective; both take several days to quell an attack. You should ask among the expats when you get there what they currently recommend. In addition, an intramuscular injection of chloroquine will help quell an attack, though it seldom will halt one outright anymore. It is useful to have that very painful injection, as it will make your life more bearable while the halfan or metacaffeine are taking effect. I never got much relief from fansidar, one of the more common injectables. If you ever receive an injection, for any reason, insist on watching the doctor remove a disposable needle from a sterile package. It is your only assurance that the needle hasn't been previously used on an HIV carrier, and subsequently on you without adequate sterilization.

    After you have been in the country for awhile, you will build a degree of immunity to malaria. I found that each subsequent attack I had, especially if I took halofantrine quickly, became less and less severe. In all, in a year and a half, I had seven attacks, the last not even causing a fever, but just a few muscle aches.

    Artemisine, a new drug derived from sweet wormwood, a relative of the sage brush of the American west, has caused some excitement. its effective against most strains of malaria, and its cheap and widely available. The bad news is that it has been shown to cause nerve damage in lab rats, so that's why it's development was discontinued in the U.S. But the Asian manufacturers continued with the development, and its now widely available in the tropics. No word on whether or not the nerve damage problem was solved, so its best to presume not, and avoid the drug, except possibly as a last resort.

    Permethrin treated bednets are an effective prophilaxis for malaria, since the species of mosquito that carries it is usually active only between about 2AM and first light. The other mosquitoes that will plague you all day long aren't carrying malaria. Because of this, the use of a bednet that has been dipped in insecticide will offer a 90% or better level of protection, according to the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, bednets are not widely available in Nigeria, in spite of their effectiveness. If you want to use one, you'll have to take one with you. Ceilings in Nigeria are often nine feet or more and often not suitable for hanging bednets; plan accordingly in your purchase.

    Permethrin treatment of bednets is probably the best prophylaxis, but it is ineffective if the bednet has holes in it or if the permethrin treatment is old and has lost its effectiveness. Check your bednets frequently for holes. Bednets should be retreated with permethrin every six months. Since permethrin is not widely available in Nigeria, it is best to arrange for a sufficient supply to last your visit if you're going to be in the country for more than six months.

    Typhoid, cholera and other diseases

    Typhoid often causes symptoms that are easily confused with malaria. You should always be suspicious of a diagnosis of malaria if the attack came on slowly, especially if the chills seem isolated to only parts of your body such as an arm or a leg. Malaria will usually hit you within a few hours, typhoid building slowly over several days or even weeks. If you suspect typhoid, insist on traveling to a clinic where lab work can be done and have a malaria test to find out if that is what you really have. The strains of typhoid that are widespread in Nigeria can kill, but they take their time to do it. You'll have plenty of time to get to a lab if that's what you have. Fortunately, there is now an oral vaccine available for typhoid that produces immunity in 70-85% of the people who take it. I highly recommend a full course before you go; it takes only a week and can spare you much misery.

    Cholera is the last major worry. It is a very rapid killer, and can kill within just a few hours of first falling ill. Unfortunately, there isn't any effective vaccine for it, though some countries require vaccination with the currently available, but largely ineffective vaccine. The good news is that the treatment is simple, cheap, highly effective and widely available. Always travel with a few packets of "UNICEF Salts" which you can get from any chemist (pharmacist) in the country. If you have a sudden bout of serious diarrhea, mix up the contents of the packet in spring water as directed on the packet, and drink it. Keep drinking it as long as the diarrhea lasts. Cholera kills from dehydration, but simply drinking water will make it worse, not better. You must drink what chemists call an "isotonic" solution, which the UNICEF packet, properly mixed, will provide. If you do it properly, the diarrhea will gradually subside, and you will have survived one of the world's worst killers in a country where it claims a substantial portion of children. Even if your diarrhea isn't cholera, the UNICEF treatment is about as good as you'll find there for most diarrheal illnesses anyway.

    Yellow fever is common in the country, but you're required to have a current yellow fever vaccination before you can get into the country, so if you've done your homework before you go, you shouldn't have a problem.

    Meningitis is a problem in the north of the country, especially during the dry season. You should be vaccinated against it before you go, even if the travel clinic doesn't think it is necessary. Insist on it if you are traveling to the north. Lieshmaniasis exists, but isn't a serious problem; sleeping in a second-story bedroom avoids the insect vector (a sand fly that stays near the ground). Sleeping sickness is spread by the tsetse fly, and while it exists in the country, it isn't a significant problem for travelers. Onchoceriasis and schistosomiasis are also endemic, but both can be avoided by swimming or bathing in untreated water. When bathing, be sure you place a tablespoon of bleach in the water and mix it well before you climb in. It will help prevent infection from these waterborne diseases. Rabies is endemic in the country, but it isn't much of a concern unless you will be handling animals. Avoid handling any wild dogs or cats while there (both are common). Bubonic plague is endemic, but not a serious problem. Make sure your residences are as rat-proof as you can make them (which may not always be easy). Rats are very common, even ubiquitous, but they are not particularly large or aggressive. The enormous (three-inch) African cockroaches infest virtually every building you will be in. Carry a can of "Rambo" aerosol insecticide with you when you travel (its available everywhere in the country), and when you see cockroaches, spray them from the side to kill them.

    Dengue fever is endemic, but not terribly common. Why is a bit of a mystery to public health officials, because all the conditions for its rapid spread are common throughout the country. It is a mosquito-borne disease, and the mosquitoes that spread it are everywhere in the country, even in the deserts. Yet dengue is not a serious problem. Nevertheless, it should not be dismissed as a possible diagnosis if you come down with a mysterious fever.

    The Center for Disease Control recommends, and I concur, that you should have your childhood vaccinations brought up to date along with the special ones mentioned above. You'll be exposed to many virulent strains of things you thought you were immunized against, and if you're not immunized properly, you can fall victim to exotic strains of such things as measles, diphtheria and whooping cough.

    HIV, and the disease it causes, AIDS, is widespread in Nigeria. When I was there, the official statistic was one infection per 250 population, and one prostitute in seven in Lagos was infected. It is probably much worse by now. In central and southern Africa, it now infects as much as a third of the population. In Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa, whole villages have been abandoned because of this disease.

    AIDS in Africa is a disease that knows no sex or sexual orientation. Women are even more commonly infected than men. If you're going to mess around, be sure to use an imported condom of known good quality that is not expired nor has been exposed to excessive heat. Locally made condoms are cheap and widely available, but are not particularly comfortable and the quality control is not to be trusted.

    Never slap an insect that lands on you. Always flick it off instead. There is a curious little bug there, quite common in the evening, known as the "acid bug" that secretes a strong acid if slapped. It will cause a festering wound that will take months to heal. There is another flying, biting insect that has a hard exoskeleton and won't even be injured by the hardest slap. The only way to rid yourself of it is to flick it off. It's not common, however.

    Speaking of unpleasant insects, you should always have all your clothes (including underwear and socks), towels and bed linens thoroughly ironed after being laundered. The nasty little tumba fly that is widespread in Nigeria likes to lay its eggs on wet laundry hanging out to dry. When its eggs come in contact with your skin, they hatch out and the tiny maggots burrow into and find a fine lunch in your soft, sweet, juicy flesh. Should this happen to you, gently squeeze out the little bugger. The wound will quickly heal if the maggot comes out as one piece and the wound isn't infected. You can spot an infestation as a small sore with a tiny, festering hole on one side. Carefully squeeze your little guest out through that hole. A similar insect, the human botfly, has been reported in the south of Nigeria, but is not common. It lays its eggs on the abdomens of mosquitos, who then drop them off on you when they bite you. The eggs hatch out and burrow into your skin, where the maggot will grow to an inch or more before crawling out. They're singularly difficult to remove, and may require medical attention.

    Fungal infections are a problem, especially for the clean-shaven and especially during the rainy season. If you wake up in the morning and find a fungus growing on your face (or anywhere else, for that matter), carefully remove all the fungus you can find and apply Canesten cream to the area. Wash your hands thoroughly to avoid spreading it. This should take care of it nicely, usually within a day or two. Don't wait. Fungal infections progress with amazing speed and can quickly get out of hand if not attended to immediately. Canesten is something I never traveled without. It is widely available at any Nigerian chemist, and is quite inexpensive. The chemist may look at you a bit strangely if you're a man; the stuff is normally used by women to treat yeast infections.

    Venomous snakes are common in Nigeria and so it pays to be prepared. The spitting cobra will try to spit its venom in your eyes, and, should it be successful, you should wash your eyes quickly and thoroughly with water and seek immediate medical attention. Failure to do so can lead to blindness or death. The other, most common venomous snake is the night adder, whose bite is seldom fatal, but it will make you wish it was. It's bite is extremely painful and will take months to heal, and you'll be in agony the whole time. Green mambas like to drop out of trees and onto their victims. Always look up when walking under a tree in Africa. When bitten by any snake, apply an "ace" bandage to the affected area as tightly as you can. This will serve to immobilize the venom and will buy you time to seek medical attention. Don't do the X-cut and suck out the venom bit. The wound you create will only serve to facilitate spread of the venom, and you won't get enough out to make any difference. Besides, it will be a great entry point for all manner of unpleasant infections. Leave the X-cut bit to the movie cowboys who don't know better.

    Scorpions are common, particularly in the savannas. The elephant scorpion is a particularly nasty customer, a sinister jet black, and growing four to six inches in length. Always shake out your clothes and shoes before putting them on in the morning. If bitten by one, seek medical attention immediately.

    Prescription Medicines

    If you get stopped at a Nigerian Drug Enforcement Administration roadblock, you'll be asked to show all the drugs you are carrying. Be prepared. Explanations won't do; if you're carrying any pain medications stronger than aspirin or Tylenol, injection needles, or ampoules of any indictable drug, you'd better have a written explanation from your doctor. Remember, this is a country where you're guilty until you can prove yourself innocent, so you'd better be prepared to do just that.

    Most basic prescription drugs (though not all) are available in Nigeria, though as alluded to below, counterfeits are a serious problem. If your health requires access to any medication, you're well advised to take enough with you to last your trip. The exception is antibiotics, which are widely available and much cheaper than in this country. In a nation where infectious disease is widespread, the pharmaceutical industry has seen its market and filled it. You can get a more broad spectrum of antibiotics, cheaper and more easily than in the developed world. And nothing requires a prescription, though you may be interviewed by a pharmacist before being allowed to purchase it.

    Counterfeit drugs are a serious problem throughout West Africa. Here's how to avoid them. Ask around in the expat community about reliable 'chemists' and only purchase from one recommended by the local expats. When purchasing, check the expiration date and make sure its not printed with the rest of the label. Look for labels that are cleanly and carefully printed; avoid drugs with sloppily printed or poorly packaged inserts. Look for drugs that say they were made in Nigeria. Nigerians avoid locally-made drugs and so the counterfeiters usually claim manufacture in Europe or the U.S. The drugs made (usually only packaged) in Nigeria which are honest about it probably were made by the manufacturer the label says they were, and should be reliable.

    Internet Access within Nigeria

    The Internet has finally arrived in Nigeria in a reasonably big way. There are numerous providers now available in Lagos, some in Kano and probably in other cities as well. its not cheap, though. Expect to pay about US$70 per month for dialup access. I know of four major ISPs in Nigeria, at least two of which offer national service. You may wish to check with Hyperia, Microcom, Cyberspace, and Linkserve for information as to what services are available, where, and at what cost. Most dial-up POPs are in Lagos, but even if you have to dial in from across the country, the cost is minor, so it shouldn't stop you. Understand that the line quality is poor, so connection speeds will be limited unless the ISP has a local POP. For the wealthy, there is even wireless Internet available in some areas, where high speed downloads are possible!

    Most major universities in Nigeria now have their own dedicated circuits to the Internet; if you're lucky enough to get access to a university computer system, you may be surprised at what services are available to you.

    The government is making an effort to modernize the telecommunications infrastructure in Nigeria, and hence the internet situation is a rapidly changing one. Please, if you have current information about the Internet situation there, email me with what you learn, so I can share it with others who read this page. I'm always eager to learn what's going on and share it with the readers of this page.


    Well, good luck.

    As should be obvious by now, you'll need your share. I don't want to leave you with the impression that Nigeria is nothing but danger and disease; of course it has more of either than most of the developed world. But it is also full of warm, friendly, and very happy people, and you'll have some truly incredible experiences. You'll bring back stories that your friends and family will find difficult to believe!

    For the first few weeks, the dangers you sense around you will have you on constant guard, and you'll be living on a constant adrenaline rush. But eventually, you'll adjust and begin to relax, and when you do, you'll find yourself in a really exiting and truly fascinating place.

    Have a good time, and be sure you take in the local cultural festivals, try some of the local food (making sure its served steaming hot, of course) and meet the local people. Visit the historical sites and tourist attractions (Yankari National Park is well worth a special trip), and enjoy some really beautiful scenery. Going to the trouble will ensure that your chances of enjoying your trip will improve from good to guaranteed.

    When you get home, write me. I'm really interested in what's going on there, and how your observations compare with mine. I'll look forward to hearing from you!

    I'm always interested in news from Nigeria. If you've traveled there recently, or have reliable, recent information, please write to me. I'd love to have updated information and recent news for this page.

    A Warning About Doing Business in Nigeria or With Nigerian Nationals

    Nigeria is rapidly becoming known as the business fraud capital of the world. Of particular concern is a scam known as the "419 scam" (after the Nigerian statute that makes it illegal).

    The way the scam works is that you will typically be contacted by someone who may be representing themselves as the agent for a Nigerian corporation or government agency, who will suggest to you that if you can put up a "transaction fee," "performance bond," or similar sounding fee, to enable the scammer to complete a transaction within Nigeria, he will give you a share of the money allegedly due him.

    This scam is often operated even by government officials. It is never legitimate. If you have been the recipient of such an offer, DO NOT SEND MONEY OR COMMIT TO ANYTHING until you have read and absorbed information at the 419 Coalition web site. This site is sponsored by a company which the Nigerian nationals have attempted to scam several times (happily without success), and it has started this organization to help spread the word.

    Books I highly recommend (which, if you wish, you can buy from by pursuing the links here):

    The West Africa Travel Guide by Alex Newton published by Lonely Planet, is probably the best travel guide going for the casual traveler to Nigeria. Unfortunately, like all travel guides to Africa, it leaves a lot to be desired, but is the best bet going I've yet seen. So take it with you, it could help. I know it helped me.

    Tropical Gangsters by Robert Klitgaard is the travelogue by a man who has lived in Equatorial Guinea, and it will give you a good idea of the experience of expatriate living in subSaharan Africa. His experiences were not too different from my own.

    The Open Sore Of A Continent by Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize winning Nigerian author, gives his thoughts on Nigeria's plight and what it will take to fix it.

    Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a prize winning author, is a book that gives a feel for the results of the cultural imperialism of the Christian missionaries at work among the Ibo of south-central Nigeria.

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    Copyright © 1999 by Scott Bidstrup.
    Revised 5/24/00