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An honest conversation over a plate of red yams

Renewing my work visa in Nigeria for the first time was a gruelling ordeal. The nearest immigration office to my forest camp was in Jalingo, which was usually a full day’s travel away. But this time it would be an arduous seven-day roundtrip.

The trip started with a three-hour trek out of the jungle. Sometimes there were people with motorbikes offering a precarious ride. But not this time. The track from my forest camp to the nearest village was full of trenches and boulders – so few people would risk damaging their precious bikes.

There were two rivers to cross and in one of them, hippos and crocodiles floated nearby. I opted to cross in a canoe rather than risk losing a foot.

Crossing the Gam-Gam River

After crossing the two rivers I managed to flag someone down for the last stretch into Gashaka village.

I waited in the village for two hours later, while project staff prepared the Land Rover for its trip Serti, the nearest town. When the Land Rover was ready, I hopped in the back along with bags of rice and jerrycans of fuel. Hanging out the Land Rover I mostly avoided a slap in the face by overhanging branches.

A short while into our trip, the Land Rover spluttered to a stop as the fuel filters became clogged by dirt in the low-quality diesel.

Our mechanic removed the fuel filter, swilled some fresh diesel around his mouth and blew it through the filter to clear it. It worked. We were back on track heading to town.

A little further down the track, we started climbing a small hill. With the recent heavy rains, the surface was muddy and slippery. The driver slammed the accelerator while gripping the steering wheel to keep the vehicle straight. But it was no good. The Land Rover slid off the track and one wheel dropped into a deep trench. The driver tried to accelerate out but all we did was dig a deeper hole. We had to wait for another vehicle and more hands to pull us out.

By the time we reached Serti, it was too late to continue the journey to Jalingo. That night I barely slept. I sat at the foot of my bed watching rats race the cockroaches along the headboard as they each brought scraps of food back from the nearby kitchen.

Very early the next day, I lumbered toward the breakfast shack in the motor park. After some oily eggs and very sweet coffee, I was ready to find a taxi. I checked the condition of the tyres on all the taxis before settling on one with ‘adequate’ tyres. I squeezed into the rear seats of a Peugeot estate wagon with nine other people and enormous bags of cassava (a staple vegetable in the diet of Nigerians).

There were mostly ladies sharing the ride to Jalingo with me. Their dresses were colourful and wildly patterned. One lady wore a small nose piercing which matched the sparkles on her lilac and fish-patterned dress. Another lady smelled of sweet vanilla and burnt caramel.

Avoiding the potholes, we swerved and heaved our way for five slow hours along the road toward Jalingo. By the time I reached Jalingo, I was dizzy from the mix of vanilla and exhaust fumes. But I managed to drag myself into another taxi to reach the Nigerian Immigration Service on the outskirts of town.

The gates were shut! Apparently, the offices closed early on Fridays.

Exhausted after the trip I flagged a motorbike taxi and returned to the centre of town to meet some local friends at the Green Beach Resort. Pizza, ice-cream and beer have never tasted so good.

The next day I arrived at the immigration service early, hoping to get my visa renewed and return to camp by late evening. But none of the officers had arrived yet.

“They’ll be here soon,” a young woman told me as she rinsed some plastic buckets with dirty water.

Five hours later, they arrived.

I pounced on an officer as soon as he entered the empty room I was waiting in.

“I’d like to renew my work visa, can you help me?” I asked.

“I’m not authorised to do that, you’ll need the permission of the zonal coordinator,” he said.

“And is he here?” I asked.

“No, he lives in Makurdi,” he replied.

Shit, I knew Makurdi was six hours away.

“Is he coming here, to Jalingo, today?” I asked.

“No,” he said and walked away, leaving me alone once again.

I waited another two hours before speaking to an assistant to the zonal coordinator in Makurdi. He agreed that his boss would renew my visa, but I would need to send my passport to him.

An officer said he would travel with my passport for 5000 Nigerian Naira (£11). But there was no way I would leave my passport with anyone. I’d just been waiting over seven hours and achieved little.

At 6 am the next day, with the sun just breaking through the morning haze, I leapt into another overfilled taxi heading to Makurdi.

When I arrived in Makurdi, I went straight to see the coordinator, a round-faced, short, elderly man with dark sunken eyes.

He asked me what I was doing in the national park. I remembered what Klaus, the director of our monkey project, told me to say when I was asked this question.

“I’m working on a health-related study for the local community living in the forest enclave,” is what Klaus wanted me to say.

Klaus told me that I should never say that I am there to study animals. If I said that I would never get my visa renewed and I would destroy any hope of the project getting visas renewed in the future.

But I disobeyed Klaus, refusing to say that I was doing a health study. I was proud to be studying monkeys. And I had little energy to lie to this official.

“I’m in Nigeria to study the social behaviour of baboons,” I replied.

I passed him a small brochure that explained what I was doing. There were glossy images of baboons, chimps, snakes and hippos. His dark eyes lit up as he smiled, flipping the pages.

A younger officer entered and delivered some lunch for the zonal coordinator. He offered to share his lunch with me because he wanted to know more about my project.

We shared a small plate of red yams, dried fish and some green leaves, that tasted a bit like bitter spinach. He was diabetic and told me that the red yams are better than cassava at controlling his insulin levels.

We talked for two hours. The old man told me all about each of his twenty children by three wives; they were all successful. As our conversation was winding up, he said,

“I’m pleased that you told me the truth about what you are doing in Nigeria. I know you’re not health workers.”

I left his office satisfied, with a belly full of yam and a new visa stamp in my passport.

It still took me another three days to get back to my research camp in the forest.

Over the following year, I returned to Jalingo to renew my visa another three times. And each time it took less than an hour and no travelling between towns.

By being honest about the work I was doing in Nigeria I saved time, money and energy. And probably improved the reputation of our project.

Few people would argue that being honest in business is a good thing, but there are many ways we can be dishonest that aren’t necessarily apparent.

In the feedback I’ve received from my clients, honesty and integrity are the most frequently praised aspects of my service.

If I agree to a deadline, then I will do my best to stick to it. If I need more time to finish a task, then I will let my client know as soon as possible. And I won’t use excuses for not finishing on time.

Sometimes a client asks me to do work I am not skilled enough at. Rather than tell them I can do it and mess up the job, I tell them I cannot do it. There is always plenty of other work I can do for my clients.

And sometimes I make mistakes. But when I do, I claim it, apologise and do everything I can to correct the error. And I learn from this so that I don’t make the same mistake twice. It’s not about being perfect but doing my best.

Honesty builds trust and stronger relationships. Not only will you have long-standing clients, but they’ll trust you enough to recommend you to their friends and clients.

To give a referral is a big deal. It means that someone is willing to vouch for you and the service you provide. But most often, clients are recommending you, not the services you provide. They trust you.

Be honest and truthful, and you’ll build a solid reputation that will attract plenty of clients that you’ll work with for years.

By David P. MacGregor

Living and working the good life in France with my wife and dog.