More than a year has passed since the following event happened. I’ve held off on writing about it for fear the person discussed would see the post, but I think that risk is now small and I think there are lessons (that I discuss at the end) that others can learn from this. Though this experience was extremely scary, I do have a bit of fondness for the story because the culprit is a European, not a Nigerian.
Before I started my Lagos fieldwork a friend did me the favor of sending out a mass email to his friends to see if anyone was willing to rent a room to me for a few months. A European man responded, saying that he lived by himself in a large house in a high-end housing estate, and would be happy to let me stay in one of the bedrooms for free. I was thrilled. Lagos is expensive. This offer was to save me thousands of dollars.
The house was nice and my room was perfect. The European man had an interesting background working in Africa for the past two decades. He had almost been killed in Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon. He had been shot at in Maiduguri, imprisoned in another West African country. He had crazy stories that he shared with me in the evening. After two or three days at the house, though, I realized this man was a little odd. He spoke English fluently, but his comprehension was not good. He was insecure about this, and so rarely let me speak. He was not talkative in a quirky way, he was talkative in a super weird way. He would, no exaggeration, talk at me for an hour or more, where the only noise I would make was “mmm hmmmm.” I didn’t understand this man, having never met anyone like this before.
Prior to my arrival in Lagos, Boko Haram had sent this man videos that threatened him by name. As a result, the Nigerian government provided him with a personal police officer/body guard/driver. The European man rarely left his compound, but when he did his full-time police officer would drive him in a police truck. I rode with them twice, and it was so uncomfortable. The European man treated the police officer like a child. He patted him on the head, an extremely offensive action in Nigeria. He yelled at him whenever a commercial came on the radio, as the police office was supposed to be in charge of changing the channel whenever the music stopped. The European man yelled, or rather screamed, at his other staff not infrequently. When I first arrived at the house the security guard picked up my suitcase and carried it literally one step inside the house. The European man screamed at him at the top of his lungs, saying that he had not asked permission to enter the house. It was insane. This screaming happened frequently for all manner of reasons. The man was clearly living in a state of fear, but if he was going to get hurt it would be at the hands of his staff, not Boko Haram.
I had already started to consider moving out, but had no place to go. About five days into my stay I was taking a taxi to a meeting when I realized I had left my wallet in the house. The European man had asked that I keep him updated on my comings and goings so he would know if and when he should be worried. I didn’t mind doing this, and actually found it a little comforting that someone was keeping an eye out for me. I texted him something like “Just FYI, I left my wallet at the house. I’m coming back now to get it.” When I arrived at the house the European man had left his neighboring office and was waiting for me outside the house. He started screaming at me, telling me that I had to stop bothering him. I think he had not understood my text, thinking that I had asked him to come to the house to help me get my wallet, or something like that. Maybe he didn’t know what “FYI” meant. He was just screaming and screaming at me and not letting me say a word. “I HAVE A JOB. I AM BUSY. YOU HAVE TO STOP BOTHERING ME.” After a minute or two of this he stomped inside and crouched in front of his safe and started fiddling around with the lock. I had no idea what was happening, but in my frightened mental state imagined he was getting a gun.
I ran upstairs, got my wallet, and left. I was shaking. I asked the taxi driver to drive outside the estate and just wait. I sat in the car with him for 30 minutes, and then asked him to take me back to the house and wait. I had to get my stuff and leave. It had been raining, and the house was dark. The generator was not on. Whenever the European man was home he turned the generator on, so I assumed he wasn’t home. The guards let me in. I didn’t tell them what I was doing. I went into the dark house and called out the name of the European man, just to make sure he wasn’t there. No one responded. I ran up to my room, feeling my heart racing. I turned on my cell phone flashlight and threw my belongings in my suitcase, packing in probably 6 minutes. I ran downstairs. The police officer and security guard had seen the man yell at me, and saw me with my luggage. They realized I was moving out. “You can’t move out,” they told me, “Mr. _____ will be so upset.” They were trying to be nice, and what I was doing–moving out without saying goodbye–was probably a locally offensive thing to do. I told them I didn’t want to bother the man anymore, but they were gently insistent that I stay. “You should at least go say goodbye to him,” they said. I said he wasn’t home, but they said that he was. He had been inside the house while I was packing, and just sat in some dark room quietly. This fact freaked me out beyond words.
The door to get out of the compound was locked. I demanded they let me out, but they didn’t move. They watched as I walked inside the security house, took the keys off a table, and unlocked the gate. No one stopped me. I ran out to the taxi and, shaking, had the driver take me to a hotel. I didn’t leave the hotel for two days.
Complicating matters, the European man had asked that I bring him over some iPads and iPhones. I had given them to him, but he had not yet paid me. I was owed thousands of dollars, and was spending $2000 to stay at a hotel for two weeks. I sent the man a nice email apologizing for moving out in a hurry, and asked for the money. I received no response for 7 or 8 days. I then sent a slightly more aggressive email and his (very nice) assistant appeared at my hotel after a week with a money-changing man. They came up to my room, and the money-changing man literally emptied out a backpack of Naira on my bed. Thousands of US dollars is a lot of Naira, as the largest bill is $6. I felt like I was in a movie.
Thank God I have never seen this man since I left the house.
I think there are some lessons from this experience. One lesson I have taken away is to get out of a situation when you have the first hunch it’s bad. Another: there are some really weird expats in Africa and you shouldn’t think everything will be ok just because a person comes from a culturally similar background. Also: I was so lucky that I was able to afford to stay in a hotel for two weeks. I can’t even imagine how horrible it would have been had I been financially unable to get out of the situation.