Lagos, Nigeria — July 6th
I was stunned by the heat and humidity on the tarmac in Lagos. I had been barely awake on the 08:00 flight from Abuja (which left unapologetically at 9:15), bearly registering the sunrise over the hills or the outlying slums and satellite towns we passed on the road out of the city. Those are where many of the people who work in Abuja live — the farther inside the city you go, the richer people get. I should know, living in Maitama, which has been colonized by diplomats.
I was quite out of it, although upon arriving at the airport my gutter-mind was awake enough to make me laugh at Virgin Nigeria’s two, somewhat contradictory, slogans: “Very Nigeria. Very Virgin” and “Touching the right spots.” We stood long at the empty check-in counter until Victor — the James Bond of expeditors — sauntered into some back office and flirted a female attendant into action.
This was only a one-night trip, tagging along while my dad Had Meetings, but after everything I’d heard about Lagos it wasn’t one I was going to miss. A cultural center and former capital, Lagos trails Bamako as Africa’s second most populous city. If Nigeria is truly Africa’s “heart“, you’ll find Lagos at the edge of its armpit. The city clings low to the mainland as far as the eye can see, then spills out, with clusters of skyscrapers, onto numerous islands along a lagoon and in the South Atlantic. Shanty towns blanketed in smog, houses on stilts, and wooden fishing boats line the shores.
Lagos is the L.A., New York, Houston, and Chicagos of Nigeria all rolled into one — and feels like it has as many people. It has the water culture of Venice (minus the grandeur and tourist bent), Miami’s tropical-coast atmosphere, London’s night life, Mumbai’s art scene, and Johannesburg’s soaring crime rate. Above all, it is a place Nigerians both long for and can’t get out of fast enough.
Like many Abuja residents, Ngozi and Abimbola (friends from work) were raised in Lagos, moving North from a city that was overflowing. They both laughed when I asked what it was like. The whole place floods when it rains, they said. The traffic is so bad it can take hours to drive a couple of miles. Ike recalled visiting Lagosian friends who taught him to jump into moving Danfos (share taxis) because the ones there never pull over. They all gestured emphatically and used words like “crazy”. It reminded me of how movie characters talk about the pace of NYC. The verdict seemed to be that I would definitely find it, if not enjoyable, then at least “interesting.”
“Lagos, it’s great to visit but not a very nice place to stay,” Ngozi said. But she was smiling and staring whistfully out the window when she said it.
So yes, walking into what felt like a sauna woke me right up. The traffic really was as bad as everyone had said, but that just gave me more time to stare at the throngs of people. Dad had been to Lagos many times and had gotten into the habit of playing “Go-Slow Bingo” — listing what people were selling in between the stopped cars (rat poison, TV aerials, puppies . . .).
We stayed with D., an old Nairobi colleague of Dad’s now stationed at the U.S. Consulate. Her nephew, Jeff, was friends with my sister but they had mostly lost touch and I had no idea what had become of him.
D.’s house was like some converted colonial B&B. Not even “like” — it probably was. It had once housed ambassadors. Luxurious decor and enthusiastic air conditioning made it an island within the island. Palm trees sheltered the lawn, which backed onto the lagoon. (Fact: Most Americans skip the bridge traffic by commuting on speedboats!)
I got a Jeff update at lunch, where D. served sandwiches that a visiting friend had hand-delivered direct from New Orleans the day before. Oh, the things expats do for comfort food! (There’s nothing we won’t stuff in our hand-luggage, buy in tins, or ship in quantities that will make even the people at CostCo suspicious. My mom once brought my dad a frozen steak in her suitcase.)
D. was in Lagos in the 80s when, she said, “the public power used to work. Now everyone runs off of generators.” There are more people and cars these days, but less stability. I asked if the government had andoned the public works in Lagos for those in Abuja. She shrugged.
“No,” she replied, “they abandoned them all over so they could sell generators. As always in Nigeria, somebody’s making a profit.”
“DO NOT URINATE HERE
Offender will be prosecuted
Post no bills”
— Lagosian sign
Some of the Consulate staff hired a boat to show Dad and me around. They lamented their lack of freedom — they have heavy restrictions on walking outside the compounds and driving after dark. Surprisingly, though, the Americans here seem to be more upbeat than the ones in Abuja. I put it down to the salt air and a constant need to cure their sea legs with margaritas from the community bar. (They drive to work in speedboats! I’m never letting that go.)
My favorite part of the ride was when we passed a huge Chinese ship. The crew, huddled around a fire eating lunch, grinned and waved their chopsticks at us.
Woke to a thunderstorm. I hadn’t quite believed the “when it rains, it floods” stories so it was exciting to see every insane detail proven before my eyes. However, although no street was spared, everything just shifted into Flood Mode and ambled along as usual. The Lagosians didn’t bat an eye. One by one I watched those in the street roll their trousers up above their knees, pick up their shoes, and walk on. Apparently some people make money by “guiding” you through deeply flooded areas — and then making you pay for assistance when you get stuck.
Atim’s job is to maintain cultural ties and foster a friendly atmosphere between the U.S. and Nigeria. While most of her colleagues deal with corruption, Atim is out exploring the spectrum of the African spirit and bringing it home. In her six years in this country she’s connected with intellectuals, artists, writers, singers, teachers, religious figures, and tribal leaders. Her deep love and respect for Nigerian heritage is infectious. As if her grace didn’t command respect already, the Oni of Ife made her a chief — a responsibility she takes very seriously. If you want to understand Nigeria’s true beauty you talk to Atim.
Today, she told me, we would be visiting the home of an acquaintance — Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon, an engineering tycoon, founder of an art foundation, and owner of the largest private collection of West African art. She said this very matter-of-factly, as if we were going on a hike.
What would a real Nigerian prince be like? Was he one of those arrogant oga-types, obsessed with spectacle and looking down on others? “Oga” culture is a huge factor in Nigerian society. In rural areas the title may just a symbol of respect, but the common perspective is that anyone wealthy enough to command the title in the city probably didn’t get that way honestly. It’s ogas who hire police to move people out of their way. Oga mansions on Abuja’s “Minister’s Hill” lord their wealth over those below (metaphorically and geographically) in what a senior diplomat once called “an exercise in Vegas-style barbarism.” The wealthiest Nigerian I had met was the landlord of one of our compounds, who’s condescending attitude had contrasted sharply with the sweet people I worked with. I didn’t want to stereotype, but I can’t deny I was wary.
The driveway seemed to confirm my fears. It was lined with sculptures of all kinds, encircling a lawn on which yet more sculptures were arranged — stone, iron, brass, wood; animals, people, spiritual entities; traditional and modern, realistic and surreal. Peacocks and Crown Cranes wandered freely among them. We passed a catfish pond, a cage of huge snails, and pens for geese, doves, water birds, and tortoises.
We were ushered into the Prince’s office, where he was shouting at someone.
He was tall and well-fed, wearing sneaker-sandals that clashed with his tailored white pants and shirt. He wore a gold watch and beamed over gold-rimmed spectacles as he rushed over to shake our hands. This room, too, was packed with art, which he talked about while Benny — a woman from our group — and I used the bathroom.
It was a workin’ man’s bathroom. The tiny space housed a filing cabinet, a shelf of Nigerian Law books, a stack of small paintings, and several award placards from the Society of Nigerian Artists. I began to suspect I had judged Prince Shyllon unfairly, something he proved over the next few hours.
Bouncing around with a mix of regal pride and friendliness (at one point joking with Benny, who kept calling him “chief” by accident, “I am a prince. If I wanted I could have you prostrated before me, eh?”), I felt him a bit odd but increasingly nice. He and his wife, Funmilayo (the art foundation’s VP, also dressed with a subtle gold theme), shared their mission to “reflect the dignity and creativity of our people throughout the world” and make African art a tool for preserving the indiginous heritage that is being lost in the face of globalization and modernization. Something for Africans to take pride in — not just for foreigners to look at in museums.
“They are tired of the Van Goghs of this world,” he said. “I’m sure the world is waiting for Africa to show its own pieces!”
You can check out his foundation at http://www.oyasaf.org