The first time I was in Plateau State was sometime in 2008. I had joined my principal and other senior lawyers to hear the judgement over the then Senate President’s election petition. I recall the very chilly weather of the town on the evening of our arrival. I saw people clad in winter jackets. Even though it is located within a tropical region, Jos is renowned to be particularly cold because it sits on a higher altitude. Before the rise of attacks and communal clashes, Jos was once a favourite tourist spot for expatriates and tourists alike, due to its cool climate. Our stay was short. We headed back to Abuja the next day, overly excited, because the judgement was in our favour. While we drove along the outskirts of Jos, chatting, gleefully, about the dynamics of the judgement, I was distracted by a stretch of bare, piled up rock formations across the vast lands we passed. I had never seen anything like it. It was picturesque! For a moment, I wished I could tell the driver to stop so we could appreciate this natural wonder. I turned back and took a last look at it making a firm promise that I would return to visit the tourist attractions of Plateau state.
The rush of excitement that comes with visiting a new place or destination is familiar with every traveler. I had made a list of places, along with another travel enthusiast, of the places of interest to visit in Plateau State. The day came on the 9th of April, 2016. A friend of mine had offered to drive me to Plateau State. We got packed and took off around 6.30am, then stopped at A.Y.A in Asokoro, Abuja, to pick up the tourist traveling with us. It would take another thirty-five minutes or thereabout for him to show up. By then, I was getting impatient as I had a penchant for time. As usual, excuses followed, and some minutes into the journey through Karu, he flashed an Osadebey CD, which I grudgingly slotted into the CD player as I was enjoying some current Nigerian music. But since I was travelling with other people I had to consider their preferences as well, so Osadebey it was as we made our way to Plateau State.
From Keffi in Nasarawa State, we arrived at an army checking point in about thirty minutes and from there to Kwoi in Jaba LGA in Kaduna State, in about an hour. We planned on visiting the ancient city of Nok on our way to Plateau State, so upon arriving Kwoi, we were directed to the road leading to Nok. I had heard and read about the ancient Nok culture, which was considered to be one of the earliest African producers of life-sized Terracotta. In fact, my late mother, Prof. Mrs. Catherine Acholonu, had written that Nok might have been the location of the biblical Tower of Babel; but that is a story for another day. So, over time I had conjured up in my mind this image of a city steeped in history and glory; a city with its people beaming with pride and a sense of contentment about their rich culture and heritage. By the time we arrived Nok, it had begun to rain with light showers. We drove through an old, unpaved, graveled road into a narrow stretch of unattended and untarred pathway. It was rough, slightly muddy and sunken from one point to the other. I starred at the village in bewilderment as our bodies swayed from side to side from the unending gallops. It was unbelievable. Time had stopped here. The people lived in deprivation and poverty. Naked and scantily clothed children scampered along the stretch of huts, gleefully; older people sat, looking morose, in front of their homes and younger men clad in their own latest, local fashion chatted, excitedly. People waved and greeted us as we drove past. There was no other car visible in the area, except for an old packed up vehicle belonging to the village head, which was wedged by large stones. I was aghast at the state of this historical destination.
We were advised at the museum to visit the village head, Mallam Ibrahim, for formal introductions before proceeding with our work. Mallam Ibrahim was a man in his late seventies, warm and receptive, who was relishing his tea and bread as we were ushered into his living room by an elderly escort, who bowed as he introduced us to the chief and kept his head bowed each time he came in to deliver one message or the other to him.
Mallam Ibrahim, a muslim, started by welcoming us to his home and giving us a lengthy and hearty narrative of his life and work. He lamented the neglect of the Nok cultural heritage, and the glaring lack of social services in his community, which he said had been brought to the attention of government, but had achieved little or no results. We thereafter briefed him about our mission to Nok, adding that we would do our best to promote their heritage in order to attract tourism to their community.
When we left Mallam Ibrahim’s home, we again wobbled through the unpaved, sunken road back to the museum, where we met a curator who took us to a section of the museum where the remaining Nok deposits and other artifacts were kept. It was a small room housing a few real deposits and manufactured ones mostly in clay form. A surreal feeling crept through me as I touched one of the real deposits excavated almost a century ago. Nigeria was undeniably endowed with a rich, historical and cultural heritage which was sadly languishing. I thought to myself that if this artifact were to be preserved in a London museum or other international museum, people would throng to behold it; but there it lay, abandoned.
We left the museum, shortly after, to visit other locations. It had stopped raining and as we drove down the road, I relished the cool weather and soft breeze coming from the rustling trees along the way. The village of Nok was surrounded by nature and such lush greenery that the tourist traveling with me exclaimed that he would leave Abuja and retire to Nok. Few minutes later, we arrived at an open compound surrounded by trees. At the entrance of the compound was an old signage stone with a faint inscription, “Bernard Fagg Compound.” Within the compound, at a distance was a small, white house atop a rock. I thought to myself that this was the real House on the Rock. The house was built for Bernard Fagg, the British archeologist, who first encountered archaeological finds of what became later known as the Nok culture. I was fascinated at how small this house was and its simplicity. My own room alone was probably the size of this house. In his room was a long table and an old cupboard most likely used by Mr. Fagg, judging by the state and style of the furniture. Next to the house stood a structural framework of a building, also, on a rock. This was probably the place he came to rest and lose himself in the breathtaking nature around him. It was gratifying to see that the people of Nok appreciated the significance of the history behind the man’s home, which was why it still stood there.
Before we left the village of Nok, we bade Mallam Ibrahim farewell and carried on with our journey to Plateau State. Further into the state, we filled our tank at N150 per litre, which was the cheapest we could get at the wake of the fuel crisis. We were besieged by food-sellers when we stopped to buy some roasted corn and coconut. They had all manner of staple foods ranging from irish and sweet potatoes to onions, vegetables and even straw berries.
By the time we approached Assop Falls about two hours later, it had begun to drizzle again. Assop Falls was simply breathtaking. On arrival, we heard the sound of the waterfalls lashing out on the rocks. There were small huts erected at the entrance where visitors could relax to some refreshment; a staircase which takes you to a point where you would see the falls from a safe distance. The tour guide, we met there, nudged us to climb through the rocks, carefully, so as to capture the falls in full glare. My tour partners, without hesitation, dashed through the slippery rocks and started snapping away. After some encouragement by the tour guide I, gradually, came down the concrete rocks, while the tour guide held my hand, until I reached a vantage point where I saw the falls in all its glory. I marveled at the water, forcefully, lashing out and toppling from the rock formations. It was incredible. I felt the cool mist of the falls against my skin. The forest surrounding the rocks added to the beauty of the falls. The guide took us to another vantage point which was somewhat steep and cautioned us against going closer to the brink. I wondered why there was no barricade erected there to guard against accidents. Assop Falls is a tourist’s dream destination which would have been an amazing tourist site if the required facilities and accident-preventive measures were in place.
We carried on with our road trip from Assop Falls, admiring rock formations, vast land spaces, trees, people, and colourful food crops we saw along the way. Some minutes later, we arrived Riyom Rocks, another top tourist destination in Plateau State located in Riyom Local Governemnt Area, about 25 kilometers away from Jos. It was one of the most enchanting rock formations I had ever seen. I stood in awe before the rock wondering how each boulder was placed atop the other as though appearing in a cone-like shape. No sooner had we started snapping away than the indigenes came charging towards us. First, they came in twos, then threes and before we knew it what appeared like the whole village surrounded us. At least three people claimed to be the village head and confronted us individually on why we came to the rock without their permission. After much entreaties and tipping, they allowed us to carry on with the pictures and even posed in the pictures against their cherished rock. It ended well and after we were satisfied with pictures taken, we bade them farewell and headed to Jos.
By the time we arrived Jos, we were tired and hungry and simply wanted a place to eat and lodge. As we drove through the city, we passed industries like the popular Nasco Group and institutions like NTA. We stopped to pick up a guide whom I had arranged with to give us a tour of the town. To our dismay, it turned out she didn’t know the tourist destinations we wanted to visit and by the time we had missed our way a number of times, dusk quickly fell upon us. The next morning, before heading back to Abuja, partly due to the high cost of fuel in Jos and its environs, we found our way to the National Museum. As we approached the museum, we noticed some fabricated huts erected close-by, which gave the museum an ethnic and cultural expression to it. The museum was quiet; very quiet; probably because it was a Sunday. We met a woman, the curator, who, unreceptively, spelt out the rules for touring the museum. I was amazed at the level of history heaped in this place. There was an array of artifacts such as costumes, masks, old currencies, art, and fine pottery. We also saw relics and articles from colonial times as well as replicas of Nigerian architecture of the old, ranging from walls to mosques and palaces. I remember seeing a pair of old, colourful, finely-crafted slippers made for, and won by a Northern king. Despite the rich, historical heritage the museum was endowed with, it was abandoned, dark and begging for refurbishment.
We headed back to Abuja with the satisfaction that we had seen some parts of Plateau State but it came with mixed feelings knowing that it could have been better. At Assop Falls, there is a need to erect protective structures to guard againhst falls or accidents as well as rehabilitate its recreational facilities for activities, such as picnics and games. Its toilet facility also needs to be reconstructed and kept clean from time to time. A total overhaul of this site is recommended as this would help create revenue for the community. More so, in consideration of the confrontation we faced from the members of the community at Riyom, it would be needful to enlighten and include the indigenes in the promotion of culture and tourism and the preservation of their cultural and natural heritages; provide employment for them as tour-guides or other tourist service as well as set up an organized platform for the collection of tokens from tourists who wish to visit the sites. That way, tourists would feel safe visiting these sites without any confrontation and, in turn, the indigenes would not feel disenchanted.
Apart from being centres of research, education, and public outreach, museums can be valuable sources of creativity and inspiration. Museums in the U.K are well organized and exhibitions well maintained to ensure all products and displays are kept in the best possible state of repair; this will make it possible for many generations to experience and be inspired by them. To this end, concerted efforts should be made to refurbish our museums, from time to time, and upgrade them; engage our children in historical excursions of these museums, which would in turn help shape their minds and inspire them; as well as attract tourists to our museums to help generate income for our local economies.
Finally, Nigeria is endowed with unique cultures, arts, history, and unspoiled natural resources, all of which add up to make Nigeria a most veritable place for tourism. The time has come to tap into tourism as other countries, even here in Africa, have done, not just for economic growth but as a means of experiencing other cultures, to broaden understanding and foster integration.
By Ifunanya Catherine Acholonu
Founder, Save our Treasuress Heritage Foundation
Twitter and Instagram: @SaveTreasures