Abuja, Nigeria: Happy to Leave

I'm writing from Nigeria -- not with an email that uses the word "barrister" and attempts to scam you out of thousands of your hard-earned dollars -- but rather as a visitor to this country that regularly turns up as a punch line on late night TV. It is not my favorite place to be, at least not in the capital city of Abjua where I am working for 10 days.

While Nigeria is clearly an undeveloped country, here it attempts to hide behind flashiness. There are broad avenues that sweep past tall, modern buildings that would be at home in the States. But many of the cars on the roads are barely drivable, and there are few working stoplights. Battered green taxis ply their trade everywhere; they are cheap but dangerous -- most lacking seatbelts -- as they weave in and around other cars. Without crosswalks or stoplights, pedestrians appear to be in mortal danger every time they cross a road. Most of the large buildings bear the names of corporations or banks.

This is a nation made wealthy by the discovery of vast stores of oil, and it would appear by the buildings and roads that its citizens are sharing the wealth. Unlike Nairobi, for example, there are few slums and beggars evident. But, unlike the oil, much remains below the surface here.

The poorest residents of Abuja -- including many of the workers who staff the people who work in the tall buildings -- have been forcibly moved to the outskirts of town where many live without running water or electricity. You would see them if you gazed out the window of your car as you travel from the airport into the city center. The women with infants strapped to their backs balancing heavy bundles on their heads, the men sitting under trees looking at you with hollowed eyes.

Abuja is a planned city, designed by three American firms; while they may have gotten the infrastructure right, they forgot about the heart. And because everything dates back only to the 1970s, this is a place devoid of much history or charm.

There are speed bumps in the middle of major thoroughfares that invariably result in flat tires and disabled cars by the side of the road. The incessant honking of horns can be maddening. The oil wealth has brought with it inflated prices. We visit Amigo Market where the expats and wealthy shop and are horrified by the cost of food -- fresh fruit is prohibitively expensive and a small container of yogurt is almost $4. Outside the market young men hawk everything from bananas to pirated films on DVD. In a nation where some people are getting rich, everyone is desperate to make some money.

There's something sad about Abuja. I've traveled in other parts of Africa and Southeast Asia where I've seen great poverty but I always sensed a spirit of hope and strong community. I don't see that here. Abuja is a harsh place without much warmth. Sure, people say hello and appear to do what they are supposed to do but there is little extra effort expended. Perhaps it is simply soul-sapping to see the corruption and wealth that surround and confine them without providing sustenance to all.

And then five days into my visit, I spend a Sunday evening at a gospel-and-jazz service at Abuja's largest church, House on the Rock. It is Pentecostal and resembles a low-rent American megachurch. Cheap plastic chairs -- maybe 1000 of them -- fill the cavernous space facing a huge stage with disco lights and several Jumbotrons. My two colleagues and I are the only white faces, but congregants are welcoming. We are given seats of honor in the second row behind the preachers, and a clear view of the singers and band members who fill the stage.

There is no preaching, no sermon -- only heartfelt music. Amazing, soul-calming music. Trumpets, saxophones, drums of many kinds, guitars and bass. There are tribal drummers whose increasingly frenetic beats are a traditional call to worship and singers who sway and raise their hands and eyes to God as they exhort us to turn our lives over to Him. Congregants are on their feet, clapping and dancing and swaying to the music. One woman faints and is carried off. It is a beautiful evening, even when we are singled out by a preacher as new "converts" -- a Jew, a Quaker and a reformed Angolan Catholic -- and applauded as our faces appear on the giant screens. It doesn't matter. I am being transported into the soul of a place that I feared would hide that part of itself from me.

The next day there are power outages and those damned car horns and the knowledge that wealth is so unevenly distributed in this country that claims to be working against graft and corruption. But I hold tight to the evening that neither my religion nor my skin color nor my nationality kept me from becoming part of something uplifting and communal in Nigeria. I suppose there is hope hidden in the corners of everywhere.

And, on my last full day in Abuja, an explosion rocks the UN compound across the street from our hotel. Black smoke billows from the building where people labor each day to bring peace and development to this nation and others. Within hours, we're told, a suicide bomber with a radical Islamic sect drove his bomb-laden car into the building. It is Ramadan. I suppose the bomber didn't see the irony. Eighteen people are dead and scores are injured. The sirens that day seemed to go on forever. And, as I head to the airport for the first leg of my flight home, the driver says there are many people still trapped in the rubble of the building.

I am racing home, trying to stay ahead of Hurricane Irene which is predicted to lash my neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. I'm more than ready to face the destructiveness of nature; it is the cruelty of my fellow human beings that is far more frightening.