Abuja, a city of contradictions

MAIN ATTRACTION: The Zuma Rock stands outside the  federal capital of Abuja. It's a must-see  feature in central Nigeria
MAIN ATTRACTION: The Zuma Rock stands outside the federal capital of Abuja. It's a must-see feature in central Nigeria

Hearing that after landing in Abuja we would be visiting a hill which shares a name with President Jacob Zuma really piqued my interest.

Located 37km west of the Nigerian capital city, on the Kaduna-Abuja highway, Zuma Rock, which is in Zuma Worls, is a sight to behold.

And there's the Zuma Restaurant at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, where we stayed. Clearly cashing in on the fame of the 725m tall monolith, the restaurant does brisk business as it attracts mostly international tourists and well-heeled locals.

"Zuma means 'horny'," the driver of a shuttle ferrying us around said in a Nigerian accent.

"It means horny?" I chuckled.

"Horny, from the bees," he clarified.

"Oh! Honey," I exclaimed.

The excursion was made possible by South African Airways, following a recent launch of direct flights from OR Tambo International Airport to Abuja's Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.

The dry and dusty weather we encountered on arrival in central Nigeria did not appear to deter the vibe on the streets, including keen informal markets, as we drove out of the airport.

While international tourists preferred travelling in metered taxis or buses, locals were ready to hop onto hundreds of motorcycle taxis outside the airport.

Some motorcycles could be seen carrying four people without helmets.

In fact, during my four-day stay in Abuja I never saw anyone wearing a helmet on the motorcycles.

As we hit the road, it also became clear that Abuja does not have many traffic cops.

Some sections of the speed camera-free highway do not have road markings. Normally this would make driving nearly impossible, more so during peak hours. But in Abuja this is the life. The local drivers negotiate the packed road with ease as they give each other space when necessary.

There was no shouting and screaming that we are accustomed to in SA; they only hoot to display displeasure against bad road users.

The road from the airport is also lined with large structures resembling motels.

Our guide, Usuagwu Chikezie, pointed out they were actually houses of the rich, each with more than 10 bedrooms.

Usuagwu also pointed out other structures either half-done or stuck at foundation level. He said those were recent but owners have stopped building owing to the falling price of oil, and also to the newly elected government's active measures against corruption and cuts on spending.

Three hours after our arrival at the hotel, we were taken to Jevenik Restaurant in Wuse Zone 2 for our first lunch in the country.

It proved difficult to enter the premises as some clients had parked where they weren' t supposed to park. Inside the restaurant, most of the seats were occupied as patrons cosily mingled with each other amid the aroma of fish curry .

We were ushered into an upstairs dining room for a two-course meal of spicy Nigerian delicacies.

Usuagwu explained that palladium, pictured, which is similar to pap, should be rolled into a small ball, dipped in a sauce or soup, and then swallowed whole without being chewed.

Other delicacies on offer at the eatery included fried savoury rice, chicken, beef curry and farmed catfish.

Jevenik manager Kaycee Odu said the eatery catered to the upper middle class, which included top government officials and business people. Strangely, he said it was busy during weekdays and not on weekends.

As we drove back to the hotel, we passed a group of car window washers - like the ones we see in Joburg main roads. The difference is that in Abuja they appeared younger, about 13 to 16 of age.

The second day of the excursion kicked off with a 90-minute visit to Zuma Rock, which we learnt is the second largest monolith hill in the world.

After the brief visit, we proceeded to another 90-minute stopover at the homestead of Sarikin Ushafa, the chief of Ushafa village, well-known for pottery.

We were welcomed with a song and dance by a group of young men and women, while the skillful pottery artists showed us how they make their products.

On the third day, we went to the market at the Centre for Art and Craft, where we were shown how the colourful Nigerian shirts are produced. But at R800 an item, the good-looking shirts were out of my reach. I was not alone; no one from our group bought a single garment. Overall it was an enjoyable visit to the heart of Nigeria.

Sibanyoni's trip to Nigeria was sponsored by South African Airways