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Reporter's NotebookPage 1 of 3
Before visiting the MSF Mission in the Niger River Delta, I spent a few days at an MSF orientation course. All MSF volunteers attend one of these two-week sessions. I was there for two days. One night at dinner I found myself seated next to James.

James was from Nigeria, and like most people from Nigeria he was very big. Anyway, in the course of conversation I mentioned I had never been to Africa. He spooned more of his personal mixture of very hot, dried African chili onto his chicken, lifted his eyebrows and asked me how long I had been a journalist.

I told him. "And you've never been to Africa? Hmmm." I said that was why I was insisting that MSF send me to Africa rather than Uzbekistan and added that I was hoping to be sent to the Sudan. He shook his head, "That' s East Africa, man. West Africa is the real Africa. Nigeria is the real Africa."

I remembered that conversation when MSF suggested I go to Nigeria.

Nothing bugs a reporter more than finding that you have to resort to a clichˇ because the clichˇ is true. A few hours in Nigeria and I knew I would be reduced to using this one: "It' s not the heat, it' s the humidity." There is nothing to prepare your body for the shock of the climate in this stretch of West Africa, just north of the equator. The numerical demarcations of the heat: 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day -- 90 to 100 percent humidity every day -- simply don't tell the story. Anything you have ever read in novels is absolutely true.
"nothing bugs a reporter more than finding that you have to resort to a cliche because the cliche is true"
This African heat turns the most energetic of Europeans into sloths. Lassitude, a wonderful word and one I hardly ever use in the cool, moist part of the planet where I make my home, immediately sprang into my mind. Lassitude described my inner feelings and outer behavior. There is no sleeping in this heat. You get a fitful REM or two but at some point in the night you roll over under your mosquito net and the squish of your body parts, slathered with sweat, skidding against one another wakes you up and there is no getting back to sleep.

The only original way of telling you about this heat that I can come up with is imagine how you feel on the fifth day of an East Coast July heat wave, just before a Canadian high pressure sweeps down from the north and dries everything out. Now imagine every day is like that fifth day - and remember that north of Nigeria is the Sahara. No mercy coming, then.

I prepared for Nigeria by reading Karl Maier's informative "This House Has Fallen." But no amount of reading can prepare you for this country, Africa' s most populous, potentially wealthiest, probably most corrupt. The Maier book begins with an extended description of the traffic chaos in Lagos. Lagos, a huge port on the Atlantic Ocean, is the country' s biggest city. It is also one of the world' s biggest: population nine million and rising by the hour. Nigerians are famously aggressive businessmen. It took less than two minutes for me to be hustled. Walking off the plane into the terminal I was struck by the call of nature. I ducked down a flight of stairs to the men' s room. The attendants immediately offered to sell me drugs and from the lift of their eyebrows I think they were offering to sell me other forms of pleasure as well.