Celia Jarvis works in international public relations and splits her time between Abuja, Nigeria and London, UK. She has developed a deep appreciation and understanding for Nigerian culture, and as a result, has largely positive experiences to recount of her time in this complex, beguiling country.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in Surrey but lived in Liverpool and Norfolk throughout my childhood, all within the UK.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Abuja, Nigeria and London, England
Q: How long you have you lived in Abuja?
A: I have lived in Abuja, on and off, since November 2009
Q: What do you enjoy most about Abuja, how’s the quality of life?
A: Abuja is a really safe city; although, it is still developing. It has shops, bars, cinemas and nightclubs and is only a short car journey away from the unspoilt areas of Nigeria, such as Jos and the Gurara waterfalls. The quality of life is good here, most people who visit Abuja do so to work. It is the seat of Nigerian politics and the centre of the banking industry, so the government has tried its best to maintain a calm and pleasant city.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: The traffic is pretty bad, in terms of noise, chaotic driving and traffic jams, so, like in Dubai and other built-up cities, people tend to avoid walking, which means that you do put on weight unless you can find another method of regular exercise. Abuja is still under construction and is constantly developing, so some parts resemble a building site and other parts are 1970s concrete tower blocks. Lastly, it is very hard to get the high street chain stores out here, so there are no McDonald's and no Starbucks, although many people would consider that a good thing!
Q: Is Abuja safe?
A: Completely safe and certainly far safer than London. The biggest threat is probably the traffic as there are no clear traffic regulations or speed limits. As with all new places it is best to take precautions and avoid being alone after dark, but this is general advice which I would adhere to in any new city.
About living in Nigeria
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Abuja as an expat?
A: Pleasant accommodation can be found all over Abuja. In terms of areas, you are spoilt for choice. If you have the money the Maitama, Mississippi district most resembles Beverley Hills in LA, with huge white houses, swimming pools, electric gates and very often armed guards!
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Nigeria?
A: If staying in hotels then three-star accommodation will be pretty basic and probably equivalent to one or two stars, back in the UK. Due to the ongoing problems with electricity and the pumping of water, you may find that, on some mornings, a bucket of hot and a bucket of cold water will be delivered to your hotel room for you to wash with. The only way to guarantee a five-star experience in Abuja, is to stay in one of the international hotels. The Abuja Hilton and Sheraton, both fulfill this criteria and will offer a high-quality service with guaranteed hot water and air conditioning, however you have to pay a steep price for it.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: The locals are very friendly and are always eager to network, either for business or fun. Because Abuja is the capital of Nigeria, you will find that many of the residents studied in the UK or the USA and will have a good knowledge of your country, so you won’t be short of things to talk about. There are plenty of expats – English, American and Lebanese. I met many through my work, however there are clubs you can join in Abuja (sailing, polo and golf) which will ensure that you meet expats if that is what you want to do. Due to the small nature of expat groups, they will undoubtedly be delighted to meet you, a new face in a group can really freshen things up. Friendships are made very quickly amongst expats, and I am pleased to report that many of them endure the test of time and distance.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: Certainly it was! Nigerians are naturally very friendly and welcoming people, and there is a big expat community who will also be delighted to make your acquaintance.
About working in Nigeria
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: My working experience was within a Nigerian organisation which mainly employed Nigerian people, with only a few expats. Nigerian’s greet each very warmly every morning, making enquiries in to the state of a person's health and how they spent their evening. This is the standard way to greet all your colleagues, so it can take a while to get to your desk and on with your day. The electricity and the Internet can be a bit hit and miss in Nigeria, so unless your company can afford to run a generator there will be times when the only thing you can do is chat to your colleagues or tidy your desk. Lastly if you are holding a good position within an office, then you will probably have both a driver and a person who goes out on your behalf to fetch your lunch for you. This can take a bit of getting used to but rest assured it is considered normal. When Nigerian’s visit the UK they often marvel at the number of men in suits who are walking towards the tube station rather than being chauffeured home by their driver.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Nigeria?
A: Health care is very poor in Nigeria, and however lovely the scenery and people are, it is still considered to be one of the most medically dangerous places in the world. Therefore, be sure to take out full travel insurance, including repatriation and emergency evacuation insurance, and make sure it is kept up to date and correct. It is essential that you get all your jabs and have started your course of anti-malarial tablets before you arrive in Nigeria, most people favour Maladrone as they have no side effects, but any good health clinic will be able to advise further. The hospitals are all private, so they will cost, but the standard is very poor. If you need to have an injection then you must buy your own syringe and needle kit from the hospital shop. To be on the safe side, many visitors to Nigeria pack their own medical emergency kit, including needles as this ensures that they are not at risk from the spread of HIV. However, throughout my many trips to Nigeria, the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to me health-wise, was a slight swoon from the heat, I recovered quickly after half a can of Coke.
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: The reality of living in Nigeria is, thankfully, very different to how the British press depict it. As long as you take sensible precautions and are fully insured, then you should have an enjoyable trip. The weather is good and the people are friendly, so you won’t be lonely for long in Nigeria. Also, for various reasons, expats who work in Nigeria don’t tend to stay out there for many years, so, as with all things in life it’s best to enjoy it and make the most of it whilst you can. It is a cliché but it’s true that living in a different culture in a different country is hard work, but it also broadens your horizons and expands the mind – there aren’t many countries as populated and interesting as Nigeria.
► Interviewed July 2011