NOTE: This article appeared on this blog a few years ago. Since I wrote this, I have been back to Lagos several times.
Interestingly enough one of the more recent sources of information on Lagos which resonated heavily with me was by an American journalist – George Packer’s – writing an article on Lagos entitled the Megacity in the the November 13 edition of the New Yorker Magazine
Now the New Yorker is not a magazine I usually read a friend who subscribes told me that there was an article on Lagos and asked if I would like to read it…out of curiosity and doubtful that it would actually be accurate reporting, I reluctantly agreed to take a peek.. I admit that Brian Ross’ recent ABC news piece on scammers in Nigeria has made me cautious about reports on Nigeria from foreign journalists so I had prepared myself for the worst.
I needn’t have worried. Though not particularly flattering, the article is honest…brutally honest. For a Lagosian who has not lived in Lagos for so long, it was pretty disappointing to read that the same set of issues continue to plague the city, but also pretty uplifting to read about the resoluteness and determination of awa omo eko. Mr Packer did not make the sprawling ‘one-shoe fits all’ generalizations that we sometimes read in news articles about Nigeria, rather he is does an in-depth analysis of the situation in Lagos in interviews with everyone from city officials to the man on the street who is just trying to survive. Anyone who has lived in Lagos can relate to the issues that this article raises.
It begins with a description of how the island and the mainland are connected by the Third Mainland bridge ‘a looping ribbon of concrete passing the Lagos lagoon over the floating slums beneath it‘ Reading that sentence, I am reminded of an evening years ago when returning from work on the island to home on the mainland, I encountered the worst kind of traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge – as the cars jerked forward, you could feel the bridge rattle underneath you and with a heart full of patience and mouth full of prayer, I contemplated my fate – at the worst the bridge might collapse under the weight of all the cars – the rickety and the sleek – and we would all perish in the water of the Lagoon…at the best we would survive and live to tell the day. Like most people in Lagos, who confront the daily grind comprising of orisirisi nkan (all sorts of things) – we survived.
A number of characters are featured in the article one of which is Adegoke Taylor who provides a profile of the Nigerian graduate trying to make ends meet as he seeks the perfect job. According to the author, the young man arrived in Lagos from his home-town Ile-Oluji in 1999 with a mining degree and encounters a number of brick walls as he unsucessfully tries to find a job in his area of expertise. He engages in every odd job imaginable and even joins the ranks of Nigerians who fed up with the country try to check out to make ends meet elsewhere – unfortunately he is denied a visa both at the American embassy and the British High Commision. Empathizing with his situation is not difficult, but this quickly turns into pure rage as Mr Packer then describes how Adegoke tries to scam him with a cock-and-bull story of a million and a half pounds buried under a tree somewhere which he and his business associate are willing to give Mr Packer in return for the equivalent in naira. The journalist is clever enough to read between the lines and explains it away by writing – …a business opportunity had come in the form of an American and he would be regarded as a fool locally if he not tried to exploit it.
Tut-tuting about Adegoke’s apparent lack of judgement in trying to pull one over this foreign journalist…I analyzed his situation and became even angrier but not with him but with the set of events which led to him being in that situation in the first place…at their initial meeting he tells the journalist that he came to Lagos in order to escape the dullness, stagnancy and monotony in his village. Thus, highlighting the fact that the migration to Lagos by people not just from neighboring cities in the country but from outside the country continues to be fueled by an economic desire to improve one’s lot in life. Assuming, there were job opportunities in Ile Oluji which would be able to make Adegoke live a sucessful and modern life…I doubt if he would have to do all that he has to do to survive…while not making any excuses for the young man’s attempt at scamming…still, it is sad that after several years and with billions of dollars in oil revenues ($50 billion in 2005 alone), none of the governments in Nigeria have thought to improve the quality of life in rural areas and raise their economic prospects making them more attractive for young people like Adegoke. Rather they are content to keep them – rural with just the bare necessities and watch as more and more people migrate to Lagos where survival is often hit or miss – and where the city has deteriorated into a quagmire of chaos where you can find the most beautiful housing developments miles away from some of the worst slums in modern civilization.
Slums like Maroko which was razed by the State government in 1990 leaving thousands of people homeless and destitute with no compensation for their loss of livelihoods. A decade and a half later the former residents of Maroko are still seeking some form of compensation. Mr Packer describes meeting the leader of the Maroko Evictees Committee during his time in Lagos, who gives the journalist a letter to deliver to the governor of Lagos which lists their demands for compensation. This letter is delivered to Bola Tinubu when he is met by George Packer in his residence in an upscale neighborhood in central London. A foreign journalist delivers a letter to the governor of Lagos – from the people of Lagos -in a foreign country . No prizes for guessing when or if the demands for compensation by the Maroko Evictees Committee will be addressed.
All in all, the article is one of the best that has come my way in a long time and I admit that it left me with a deep feeling of nostalgia for Lagos..from the description of the all-too familiar agberos to the father of five who travels from a neighboring city to come to Lagos to scavenge in a dumpster who summarizes his situation by saying – If you don’t find some help, you have to help yourself.
Once you have lived in Lagos, chances are you can survive anywhere no matter how chaotic or organized. Lagosians are the perfect picture of resilience personified not allowing anything to get them down and taking what life throws at them in stride.
To put it all in some lively perspective, here’s the music video of some of Lagos’s best – Dare Art Alade in a collaboration with JazzMan Olofin and a number of talented musicians who collectively call themselves Storm All Stars paying tribute to Lagos in this music video called Eko Ile
Special thanks to fellow blogger BellaNaija who featured this video on her blog in December and who took also the time to give me a quick e-lesson on uploading videos