A Traveller’s Guide of how to survive

Lagos – Part I

Lagos, just the name conjures up visions of crime, fraud and general mayhem. ‘Centre of Excellence, – the motif on vehicle’s number plates – who came up with that slogan I don’t know, but it’s such a stretch of the imagination as to be ridiculous ! The other and in my opinion, more accurate description is The City by the Lagoon … water is never far away in Lagos, whether it be The Creek, the Lagoon, or the sea, one is always aware that this is a coastal city.

I first started visiting Nigeria back in the early 90s, a dark period and for most Nigerians, a time that they would prefer to forget. Nigeria had been subjected to one of the worst and most vicious military regimes of all time, with Lagos, the economic capital as the backdrop where this was played on its stage, reaching an unprecedented height of dysfunctionality.

The one mental image that stays with any first-time visitor is the light; weak sunlight peering through the early morning clouds that soon burn off as the day heats up. This light is saturated by the yellow colour of the local mass transit system; the danto as it’s known locally. It obtrudes into ones awareness of virtually every street scene in the city. These buses vary in size from 1960’s VW Kombis to 50-seater coaches, the only commonality being that most are totally un-roadworthy, with 50 or 60 sitting and 99 standing, with the conductor hanging out of the aperture where a door used to be, cajoling more to join them on their journey.

I recall one morning driving to work, we were following one of the ancient VW Kombis and seeing the entire engine fall out in the street ! Crowds gathered as the driver scratched his head as to how he could potentially continue his journey.

I have used the term ‘system’, which is a total misnomer as there are simply no urban regulatory mechanisms, which allied to the British inheritance of crazy and copious bureaucracy, resulting in very real retrogressive practices.

Somehow Lagosians (as inhabitants of the city are known) always manage to circumnavigate their way around all this nonsense, continually devising new informal ways of survival. There is an over-developed sense of private enterprise and entrepreneurship, an energy unlike anywhere else.

This creative energy, which many see as a uniquely Lagos thing, is a very powerful and observable mindset that probably typifies the average Lagosian … it could go some way to explain the bizarre cultural logic of this huge and complex metropolis.

It might also be one of the ways that Nigerians have managed to survive and evolve through the decades of military and civilian corruption which is endemic throughout the country. The interlinking of culture, tradition, and spirituality is immediately obvious as you start speaking to a Lagosian. Perhaps this very survival spirit has in some way morphed into a form of immunity against the normal human distress syndrome. This is evidenced by the huge number of ‘churches’ that are everywhere. Walking down a street there will be one every r60 or 70 metres, all promising salvation. At a personal level, the Lagosian sense of freedom, brashness, and natural eagerness to socialise, (Lagos nightlife is legendary !) their pervasive impatience and aggressiveness  All of this means that in some ways they become Lord and Master of their dysfunctional environment and with this, they whole-heartedly believe in their rights to determine what norms are !

Other images of this dysfunctionality are manifested in the continual and tiresome power-outs; no business can survive without a dedicated generator, which kicks in within a few seconds of the main grid power going out. One is rocked to sleep at night in the company guesthouse to the thump of the diesel generator in the garden. The lack of potable drinking water is obvious on the street where small plastic pouches of water are sold for Naira10 (approx 5c) The street vendors run dangerously through the traffic. It is said that one can do one’s entire life’s shopping needs from the back seat of a car in Lagos – everything is for sale on the streets ! And no expat would ever dare drive themselves in the crazy maelstrom of Lagos traffic – all have drivers.

The 400,000-odd fixed line phones serving the entire country of some 170 million – the largest in Africa, with 60% of these are in Lagos, rarely work. The only real way to communicate is via mobile phones, which with a mere 50%+ penetration level is still one of the huge growth opportunities on the Continent.

The city is home to 15+ million people and the only means of transport are the ill-conceived and designed roads, many of which are multi-lane elevated highways, all built on the back of the oil wealth of the 1970s. Sadly however the lack of lane markings, allied to poor design encourages nasty and long traffic jams, known as ‘go slows’. When allied to the natural Nigerian impatience, aggression and total lack of driving discipline result in the notorious ‘go slows’ snarling traffic and rising anger levels of many hours.

Convoys of trucks belching dark clouds of poor-grade diesel smoke and fumes, crawl at snail paces in outside lanes, cars travelling at breakneck speed dodge between them … at night this scene is played out in much the same way as I would imagine Dante’s hell to be. It goes without saying that there are no street lights, and many vehicles have absolutely no lights, whilst others drive on full-beam headlights. Driving is at the best of times perilous, with no law enforcement … at night is therefore even more dangerous. The kaleidoscope of lights and horns blaring is a blur to those on their first visit to the city.

The ever-present roadside vendors and stalls change the scene at night into almost a fairyland of weak kerosene and candle lights, with trading continuing at subsistence level until the early hours. At night one can almost be lulled into the belief that Lagos and its environs are somehow ‘quaint’ and picturesque … the dawn, however, brings the true reality.  

The housing is probably best described as in a state of advancing ‘slummification’. The level of social misdemeanor in the city is legendary; an example of which is the often-seen sign painted on the wall of houses, “This house is not for sale” – a frequent scam being that somebodies house is sold to a poor unsuspecting buyer, without the real owners’ permission of knowledge.

How do people survive in such environments without being mentally crippled, without being totally dehumanised – what possibility is there for transcending such horrors ? Having said this, there are strangely, secure oasis – pockets of calm and tranquillity spread throughout the city; Victoria Island, the main business centre being one.

Music is the way that Lagosians blow off steam, music is everywhere, on every street corner blaring out at a thousand decibels from huge speakers distorting the notes of the fascinating throbbing West African music with its prevalence of drums.

The most famous of all Lagos musicians was Fela Kuti, founder of the Afrobeat movement, he unaidedly defined the spirit of Lagos.

As a human rights activist, he never gave up, no matter how hard the conditions were – believing right up to his death, his right to voice his opinions. His music was considered treasonable under the Sani Abacha regime as it commented on the dictatorship government. He, along with several of his followers were jailed in the 90s for supposed murder. Sadly he died of Aids whilst being held in prison, but his spirit lives on in his music.  

Today he is considered almost a folk hero with his music enjoying a revival, with even a Broadway play ‘Fela’ honouring him. 

The famous jazz clubs in the northern suburbs of Ikeja are well known for their renditions of Fela music and always draw huge crowds. Sitting out under the stars on plastic chairs, drinking the huge 750 ml bottles of ice-cold Star beer to keep cool in the sweltering humidity that is Lagos … listening to local musicians belting out their versions of his music is indeed an experience.

I well recall that first trip back in the early 90s, arriving on a grubby aging Aeroflot Ilyushin jet. Even as a seasoned African traveller, the mayhem and disorganisation of the non-air-conditioned airport where absolutely nothing worked was a shock. Being met by an armed bodyguard and protocol officer at the very door of the aircraft, to be whisked through diplomatic channels thus avoiding the almost constant scams and rip-offs that pervaded the country in those early Abacha days.  

And the humidity, which slapped you in the face like a wet blanket and stayed with you for the duration. I recall on that very first trip, my drive into the city the images I was seeing were quite unbelievable, motion everywhere, noise, smells, crowds and colour. Simply nothing that I could relate to from past experience – it was unique. I now realise that the city was drawing me into its excitement and energy without me noticing it. The way I describe it now is, “the city is in your face all the time”. For all its faults, the city has a heart, a soul, and a raw energy that is singular and eccentric, drawing the traveller back time and time again.

I recall several years ago on a subsequent trip, I took a South African colleague with me to assist with some work. Before our departure he asked, “so what’s Lagos really like”, my response was, “remember, everything you hear about Nigeria is true and nothing, but nothing, quite prepares you for the assault on the senses that is Lagos.  

To be continued …

Tony Lewis, Malvern, 2020

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