After a few days here, despite all the doom-laden warnings, I was fairly confident that spotting Nigerian prostitutes wasn’t going to be much of a problem.
The Grand Mirage – a kind of outdoor music venue-cum-restaurant – that I visited on the second night was crawling with them, and in general they looked like a cross between an extra from a hip-hop video and Lily Savage. Lots of leopardskin and neon. However, it transpires that it’s not quite so simple.
Last Friday night, I’d been working at home all day and was left a bit high and dry when none of my colleagues had come back from campus, even though it was getting well into the evening. I didn’t have any of their numbers, so at a quarter to nine I figured that I’d just head off on my own, a little disgruntled that my first Friday night in Abuja was going to be spent alone.
I walked to a balcony bar around the corner (I’ve since discovered it’s called the Ketchup Cafe, which doesn’t really do it any favours). Absolutely rammed and with a DJ playing godawful autotuned R&B, both American and Nigerian. The bar was good though, the waiters and cooks dancing along to the music, and a whole host of people peacocked up for the evening. I sat down and ordered chicken fajitas, although what I actually got was a strange sort of chicken curry. Quite good though, and afterwards I sat finishing my beer whilst making the following notes in my journal:
“It’s very surreal being called “master” and “sir” all the time, but I wonder if my almost stupidly laid back nature (I sometimes think it’s closer to just plain unresponsiveness) stops me really absorbing it, or at least realising how I actually feel about it.
Why am I so unable to respond/react instantly? At least emotionally… I think it’s partly this huge obsession I have with doing the right thing, being proper. Everything is always filtered through that matrix of rules and personally conditioned responses, so that it normally takes me an indeterminate period of time to actually work out what my visceral reaction has been.
Not saying it’s a bad thing, but I do get the feeling that it’s peculiar. Having said that, it’s not standing me in bad stead here, because nothing has fazed me so far.”
As you can see, the prospect of a solitary Friday night that was over by 9.30pm had made me a little introspective. After a couple more pages of these self-analytic ramblings, the following:
“Three exceptionally smart guys just colonised my table, and are drinking from a chilled bottle of Grey Goose. That must have cost a fucking fortune. And there’s the sweetest little kid at the next table who looks like Raymond…
I think these people wonder what the hell I’m doing here, scribbling in a journal. But if I stop writing, I might have to talk to someone… God forbid!”
But obviously, I did put the book down, and decided to have a cigarette and see where it took me. Almost straight away the guy on my left says, “Do you like vodka?” Well, yeah. “Why don’t you join us?” So I did.
Joseph, James & Oye were swiftly joined by Abdul, and two girls who were never introduced. They said very little (not just to me), the entire time I was there. Joseph (the one who struck up the conversation) told me that this was the way all Nigerian girls were. “They want to pretend they’re all this,” ambiguous gesture, meaning innocent, chaste, I think, “that they just want a good Nigerian boy. They even pretend they don’t drink. Ridiculous.” He then persuaded the girl on the left to take a vodka and cranberry, which he achieved with fair alacrity, and tipped a nod to me as if to say – you see?
For the rest of the night every time he saw the level in her glass fall, he was back on her case. She didn’t seem to hold it against him.
Anyway, it turns out that Joseph lives in London and is in Abuja for the week visiting friends. He works for Microsoft, and has just finished three years living in Bangkok. He’s an interesting guy, and makes me welcome, when the other guys round the table don’t really even seem to want to acknowledge my presence. I make a couple of attempts to engage James, but he’s not having it. Although I think, to be fair, that’s mostly because he’s got all his attention fixed on the girl on the right, who’s doing a very good job of not showing whether or not she gives a shit.
Internally I’m involved in a bit of a debate, with the cautious side of my brain saying, one more drink and then go home, whilst the other half is saying, come on, how many chances like this are you going to get? Go with it… And obviously, as the vodka flowed, the more the louche side won out.
Some interesting things discussed – no point learning Yoruba, Ibo or Hausa, Abuja’s too mixed. The best thing you can do is learn to speak broken English. I think he’s right. Abdul doesn’t really speak English, but I get a brief conversation about Arsenal out of him (the four break down as Man Utd, Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea – they don’t have a clue where or what Brentford is). Van Persie sending off, ridiculous, and never a penalty. I feel like we’ve bonded.
At some point during all this, Joseph invites me to join them clubbing. The nightlife in Abuja is amazing, he says, but you have to know where to go. Different clubs are “banging” on different nights of the week. “My friends, they know which ones to go to, and they’ve got one for tonight. There’ll be lots of girls there, you know what I mean?”
I didn’t really, but I nodded anyway, and said “maybe”, as it seemed like an appropriately non-commital response to everything that was being said. And at that point I was starting to flag, still convincing myself that when they headed off, I’d do the same, but home.
I didn’t, and at about half midnight I was getting in a car with Abdul, Oye, and their driver. No idea where we’re going. Joseph and James follow on in a taxi, by now all drunk enough to have been chair dancing to the awful music – epitomised, for me, by a ropey house mix of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston.
It turns out we’re going to the Sheraton (the oldest and supposedly plushest hotel in town), and specifically a club there called “Aqua”. Now, I’d been warned more times than I could remember before I came out to “be careful”. Most notably by Jose, an English language student of mine before Christmas, who had worked in Lagos for nine months and told me, “lots of people will want to have sex with you, and most of them not for the right reasons.” And despite the false sense of security afforded by the transparency of the hooker buffet laid on by the Grand Mirage, I realised quite quickly that I might have jumped a long conclusion from a standing start.
Inside the gates, the grounds of the hotel looked pretty swish, all fountains, covered walkways and uplighting. And there’s people everywhere, dressed to the nines. And this is where I realise that every Nigerian girl there, many of whom clearly aren’t charging, are all wearing body-con dresses that are millimetres away from indecent and towering high heels. They’re also amazingly tall – one girl in particular is a good head taller than me in her stilettos, and she’s got an attitude to match.
At the top of the steps down to the club, there’s an angry doorman, and a scrum of well dressed clientele shouting at him. Doesn’t appear to be any issue, this just seems to be the entrance policy. Until I arrive, at which point there definitely is a problem. Because I have a bag with me. Not allowed. This takes a while to work out, but (bless them) all the guys instantly surround the doorman, with much gesticulating, whilst I’m pressed up against a railing, holding my bag in front of me like some sort of protective talisman. More expressive arm movements, but the bouncer is still making it abundantly clear I’m not welcome.
I pitch in with helpful things like, “What does he think I’ve got in there?” and “What the hell do you expect me to do with it then mate?” Joseph tells me not to worry, and after a few minutes the guy agrees to search the bag. Keith Richards’ autobiography and a blue leather journal are accepted as not posing a major security risk, but now he changes tack. “It’s not me, if the other people in the club see him with that, then… well.” A shrug, as if to say that the dance floor will be whipped into some sort of revolutionary frenzy by me being allowed a bag when they’ve all been denied. Perhaps it’ll raise the spectre of colonialism, who knows.
Anyway, Oye fetches the manager (a friend, of course), who gets the doorman to desist in about 2 seconds, although clearly pissed off that he’s got no dash for his troubles. I agree to leave my bag with a cloakroom attendant, and am allowed to unpin myself. I get the 5 yards to the door, and another bouncer stops me – “no bags”. “Mate, we’ve just been through all this, for Christ’s sake.” Amazingly, this seems to work, and we’re in.
Inside, it’s pretty standard hotel club fare – quite nice to be fair, but nothing spectacular. Except there’s two pole dancers in 80s leather caps that remind me of the Village people, bikinis and high heels. They look bored, and no one’s really paying that much attention, partly because it’s clear that there’s far too much showing off going on everywhere else in the room.
Another bottle of Grey Goose, more cranberry juice, and we install ourselves on the circular seats around one of the podiums, facing out. The guys all pair off amazingly quickly, and I’m left pretty much to my own devices. I’m happy enough with that, and start dancing by myself – even though it’s that Whitney Houston tune AGAIN.
There’s some fantastic people-watching to be done, even if, as I take stock of the other white guys in the room, I start to feel a bit uncomfortable. Most of them are the middle-aged types you instinctively associate with Thailand, all hungry, glittering eyes and t-shirts tucked into Jeremy Clarkson jeans. Across the way there’s two younger lads gawping at the dancer. And you think – just look, or don’t look. The little periods of enraptured, puppy dog longing, mixed with furtive, have-I-been-caught glances around the room are just embarrassing. Mind you, if these two were puppies they’d be the greasy street dog types that you don’t touch in case the mange rubs off.
A Nigerian guy with a beatific smile on his face shows them how it’s done. Just stands there and appreciates for a bit, hands the girl some naira, and wanders off to the bar. Nice work, fella. She responds with a booty shake of extraordinary speed.
Joseph and co. check in on me every now and then, and to be fair they’ve all become pretty protective and solicitous now we’ve arrived here. Although I think at least half of that is just amusement at seeing how I get on with the whole thing.
“You wanna dance with that girl?” Which girl? I hadn’t even noticed… And no, I don’t. Give her a cigarette and dance in a way that makes it apparent I’m not interested.
This tactic does not work with prostitutes, it later becomes clear.
At this point, I’m suspicious of everyone (female) in the room, so I’m figuring that discretion is the better part of valour. And I’m still enjoying dancing, and watching the room. The music remains resolutely awful – another dodgy dance remix of “I Had the Time of My Life” a particular highlight (the crowd, literally, go wild) – but it’s fun to be out, and my Friday night’s working out better than I had any right to expect.
It’s a strange atmosphere. There’s dancing everywhere that would make Patrick Swayze blush and retreat to the corner with Baby, but no kissing, ever, at any point. Precious few wandering hands. Even from the obvious couples. One lady leans on the edge of the podium, chatting occasionally to the dancer, constantly grinding her arse into the guy behind her. She hardly seems to notice he’s there, and he, for his part, is looking round like he doesn’t really care.
At this point, another girl asks me for a cigarette, and whilst I oblige, I’m trying to extricate myself as soon as I can, because I assume the worst. Turns out she’s an English student at Abuja university and just wants to talk. She spends a long time warning me to be careful, “my people, they will take advantage of you”, and I feel a right heel for what I’d been thinking 10 minutes earlier. We chat for a good while, and it’s all very nice, before she wishes me luck and heads off home with her friend.
Fortified by this experience I continue dancing, sipping almost neat vodka by this point, because we’ve run out of cranberry and no one wants to buy any more. I certainly don’t, because the last carton cost me over a tenner. At this point, a really drunk girl stumbles in to me, and so I steady her, and help her on her way. She barely glances at me, and so I think nothing of it. But five minutes later she’s back, and this time she wants to dance. Which is fine, but it swiftly winds up to some serious bogling, and I’m wondering how I get myself out of this. A cigarette break seems like a good strategy, so I repair to the seat, and offer her one, out of politeness. Let’s go outside to smoke, she says, it’s too hot in here. She’s got a point, and I’m still feeling guilty about my earlier assumptions, so I say, OK.
Once we get outside, I swiftly start to realise I’ve made a tactical error. First of all because everyone’s looking at me like I was looking at the other white guys earlier. Another oyibo on the prowl, they’re thinking, and I feel like there’s a sneer on every face. When she gets outside, we sit on some steps, and she tells me to sit on the step in front, between her legs. Why’s that? Because my underwear, it’s like I’m naked and I don’t want all these people to see. Ah.
At this point, I realise I’m in trouble. Oh, you’re so handsome… Thanks. You have a girlfriend? No. You split up? Yes. Why? I don’t want to talk about it. If you were with me I wouldn’t have you going out in glasses. Thanks, love. But then I wouldn’t be able to see. At that point I think she realises that I didn’t take that too well.
It’s my birthday on Monday. All my friends are going to be there, but they’re going to go home after dinner, and I need someone to help me celebrate. At this point, I realise there’s no polite way out, so I just go for “I need to find my friends”. “But you only met them tonight.” Shit, I’d forgotten I told her that. Anyway, I say, they’re still my friends, and I need to talk to them. Walk as quickly inside as I can, cigarette half smoked, blandishments trailing after me. And she still isn’t going to give up.
Inside I tell her I’m leaving, but she’s still not taking it easily. Eventually, something snaps and she just takes my drink and disappears on to the dancefloor. I tell Joseph I’m leaving, and he asks me what was wrong with that girl. I don’t know how to put it nicely, so I say, “She wanted payment.” He looks at me as if to say, why’s that a problem? And I just shrug and repeat that I’m going home. The last thing I hear before I leave is a Nigerian dance cover of “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins. Ye gods.
Fortunately, my bag’s still there, and Oye “walks me out” and finds me a driver. He’s become very protective by now, and has his arm round me all the way to the car. He negotiates for me, says, “We will see you tomorrow” (they want me to go and smoke weed with them at his house – I don’t), and hugs me goodbye.
I arrive home to find that Godwin (our “boy”) has randomly stripped my bed and left all the linen heaped in the corner. There’s no power, so I have to re-make the bed with my lego-brick shaped key-ring torch clamped between my teeth, in the pitch black. It feels like a fitting coda to the evening, somehow.
(images by Matthew Coleman)