Sunset over Abuja (photo credit Alicia Lisa)

So you want to move to Abuja?

“You’re doing what??!!” my friend screamed over the phone. “Estas saliendo de Guatemala para meterte in Guatepeor!!” she continued, quoting the saying in Spanish, “salir de Guatemala y meterse en Guatepeor”, which literally means “to leave Guate-bad and end up in Guate-worse”. It is a somewhat politically incorrect play on words for Guatemala, as in Spanish mala means bad and peor means worse. This was the response from my friend Mary, when I told her that I was leaving Santo Domingo for a job in Abuja. I laughed off her doomsday prediction then, but secretly I wished with all my heart that she was wrong about my decision.

I have dreamed of visiting or living in Africa for many years and when the opportunity appeared I grabbed it with both hands. I can be a very indecisive person, but this was one time when I had no hesitation. With my family, I broke the news in stages, as I knew it would come as a shock that I would want to move thousands of miles away to the place that sent dust and hurricanes to the Caribbean and was allegedly full of fake princes who contacted you by email to marry you under false pretenses. But, I knew this is where I had to be. I wanted to shatter those negative perceptions and stereotypes and experience any part of this amazing continent for myself. I declared my intention to live in Africa in March 2018. Just over a year later, I was living my words.

Was my friend right that I ended up in “Guatepeor”? Were my family’s concerns validated by my experiences? No way! One thing I have learned from moving around, is that there is power in choosing. I was miserable for months living in one of the most beautiful locations in the world in Santo Domingo, until I chose to love the experience. There was no way I would choose to have anything less than my best life in a place that I had dreamed of being in for almost half of my life.

I cannot say that I am in love with Abuja (my heart already belongs to Santo Domingo), but I do enjoy this place — all of it; the good, the bad and the different. I have had my share of wahala (“problems” in pidgin English) adapting to life here and in all of it, I have chosen to learn, enjoy and be open to everything that my decision to be in Abuja has brought to me. And so for anyone choosing to move to Abuja, this is my take on my experiences here so far, as a single, professional Caribbean woman choosing to make a life here for a few years.

#1 Do not rush to choose your accommodation. Leases tend to be for one year at minimum and it is possible to negotiate a better rate if you take it for a longer period. If you need pet-friendly accommodation, the choices will be more limited and usually more expensive. Breaking your lease can be tricky, but it is easier if you have someone ready to take up the remaining time on your lease. I was so anxious because of what I had heard about security and quality of housing that I rushed to choose a place before moving and before deciding on the lifestyle I wanted. It was a painful and an expensive learning experience. Plan for a short stay apartment for the first couple of months before signing long term if you can; so you can understand the market and the location of activities that are important to you, for example Wuse 2 and Maitama are more expensive but closer to bars, cafés, restaurants and clubs.

#2 Your safety and security are paramount. Keep up to date on news and developments related to your safety and security. Good sources would be through connections to embassies, international agencies and expat groups with access to information that is reliable and up-to-date. Also do not compromise on this aspect when choosing your accommodation.

#3 Learn some pidgin. Nigeria is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. Depending on the source of your information, the count of the number of languages range from 200 to 500. While the official language is English, it is not spoken by everyone, especially those with lower levels of education and outside of urban areas. Nigerian pidgin, an English-based creole is more commonly spoken by all education levels and classes — learn some basic words and expressions. It will be helpful in your interactions outside of your expat circles and also help you access while enjoying more of Nigerian culture, including the flavorful sense of humor or to read/ listen to BBC news in pidgin.

#4 There are more food options than you think. I do not like Nigerian food except pepper soup and yam chips — please do not judge me. It was not a consideration at all when I moved here. For those who do, you will find all the naija food options that you want in Abuja, and I was surprised at how diverse the local cuisine is. If you cannot handle pepper, ask for milder options of local dishes. If you have seafood allergies, be careful as ground crayfish is used in many dishes as a flavoring. For those who are not excited by egusi, swallow and jolof, Abuja also has an emerging food scene that really has grown in the last three years. It is not as sophisticated as Lagos yet, but with many places popping up constantly and food influencers growing in their numbers, the city is becoming a foodie’s playground with many Nigerian, Lebanese, Indian, Spanish, Caribbean and fusion cuisine options, along with cafes, grills and gardens with their own niche offerings. Bonus info is that there are many cottage type businesses with diverse, high-quality food options that are not well marketed. For example, some of the best pastries, hands down come from a small home-based business in Gwarimpa, referred to me by my trainer.

#5 Enjoy the bespoke and personal touches. Especially due to the pandemic, I started actively looking for ways to safely access services. Tailors, beauty services, cooks, drivers, florists, candles, veterinarians, carpenters, laundry — the list goes on of goods and services that can be adapted to your tastes and preferred mode of delivery. A little research on social media and referrals from friends and neighbors can open a world of relatively stress free and customized services for you and your household. For everything else, there is Instagram.

#6 Social media is a great resource. IG, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok — get on all the platforms you can and access reviews and recommendations on the services and activities you are interested in — real estate options, sale of used cars, furniture and equipment, which can further connect you to communities of other expats, salsa dancing, walking groups, dog lovers, etc.

#7 KFC does not have its own delivery service. So yes, I got scammed — my family was right. I love KFC (again no judgement please!). I like to try KFC in every country I visit to compare to the best KFC in the world which comes from Trinidad and Tobago. However, while many restaurants and fast food places have their own delivery service, KFC does not. As of the date of writing this article, regardless of how legit it may look, the only KFC delivery available online is from Jumia.

#8 Understand what works and what doesn’t work here. Don’t be that angry foreigner who complains about everything (like I was at first). Like many places, some things work and others don’t. Find what goods, services and activities are efficient here and enjoy them. The ones that don’t, learn how to work with, through or around them. Health is one of the most important services that does not work — bring your supplies of medication, even basic vitamins, pain killers and cold medication if you can. When these are available and genuine, they are very expensive. The quality of internet service and electricity is poor. Have at least two internet service providers as back up and in choosing accommodation, ensure that either 24-hour service is guaranteed or invest in back up power supply. In addition to this, consider buying UPS devices for your most sensitive (and valuable) electronics. What works? I enjoy that I can pay for many services, even ride sharing (Uber and Bolt) that may be worth the equivalent of USD1, by bank transfer in just a few seconds. I also enjoy that I can have almost anything delivered to and sent to my doorstep. The delivery services were good pre-pandemic and are even better since.

#9 Prepare for the weather. It is hot — very hot. For me there are two seasons — hotter and dry, then hot and less dry. This is not like the heat in the Caribbean which is moderated by a lovely balmy breeze most of the time. It is still, dry, and intense. I struggle even after two years here. Harmattan, which is from November to March, drains me with the extremely low humidity — my skin cracks, there is dust everywhere, static electricity gets me every time I touch anything, and the hottest time of day drives me almost to madness without air conditioning. But the mornings are lovely and cool and you can plan to be outdoors (heat and dust permitting) without fear of getting rained out. The rest of the year is cooler but the occasional showers, when they come, are very intense and remind me of mini hurricanes with impressive displays of lightning. Luckily the weather forecasts are pretty accurate so you can manage your outdoor activities accordingly — and bonus, there is no dust!

#10 Attend a Nigerian wedding. Yes they are big affairs. I once went to a small one and there were over 500 guests! Get dressed up and enjoy Nigerians in their element. After all, life is to be celebrated and what better place than a wedding with music, food, family and friends who are family? (to be enjoyed responsibly given that we are still in a pandemic).

…the adventure continues. The reality is that the COVID19 global pandemic has impacted my freedom to explore the country. I have been more risk-averse to possible exposure than many of my friends. I am looking forward to updating this article when we return to full normalcy.

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Alicia Lisa

Alicia Lisa

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Alicia is a small island girl who is using her voice to share her experiences.