13 April 2019
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie penned her views (titled “Still becoming, at home in Lagos”) about living in Nigeria’s “megacity”in the current (May/June) edition of Esquire magazine and it was a fascinating account of the good, bad and ugly.
She wrote: “I have lived part-time in Lagos for 10 years and I complain about it each time I return from my home in the US – its allergy to order, its stultifying traffic, its power cuts. I like, though, that nothing about Lagos was crafted for the tourist, nothing done to appeal to the visitor. …What you see in Lagos is what you get”.
She lives in Lekki when she is town and added: “Admiralty Road is cluttered, pulsing, optimistic. It is the business heart of Lekki, in the highbrow part of Lagos called ‘The Island’. Twenty years ago, Lekki was swampland and today the houses in its estates cost millions of dollars. It was supposed to be mostly residential but now it is undecided, as though partly trying to fend off the relentless encroachment of commerce, and partly revelling in its ever-growing restaurants, nightclubs and shops.”
Adichie claims that things are often done in Lagos in “haste it might very well sacrifice long-term planning or the possibility of permanence. Or the faith of its citizens. One wonders always: have things been done properly? Eko Atlantic City, the new ultra-expensive slice of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, has already been mostly sold to developers, and promises Dubai-like infrastructure, but my reaction remains one of scepticism. I cannot stop imagining the ocean one day re-taking its own.”
She also wrote: “Lagos has an estimated population of 23.5m – estimated because Nigeria has not had a proper census in decades. Population numbers determine how much resources states receive from the federal government, and census-taking is always contested and politicised. Lagos is expected to become, in the next 10 years, on of the world’s mega-cities, a term that conceals in its almost triumphant preface the chaos of overpopulation. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country – one-in-five Africans is Nigerian – and Lagos is Nigeria’s commercial centre, its cultural centre, the aspirational axis where dreams will live or die.”
“Nigeria is to Africa what the United States is to the Americas: it dominates Africa’s cultural imagination in a mix of admiration, resentment, affection and distrust. And the best of Nigeria’s contemporary culture – music, film, fashion, literature and art – is tied in some way to Lagos.”
“If Lagos has a theme it is the hustle – the striving and trying. The working class does the impossible to scrape a living. The middle class has a side hustle. The banker sews clothes. The telecommunications analyst sells nappies. The school teacher organises private home lessons. Commerce rules”.
Adichie also had a few things to say of Lagos-style Christianity: “This Christianity is selectively conservative, it glances away from government corruption, preaches prosperity, casts ostentatious wealth as a blessing, and disapproves of socially progressive norms. Women are to submit to their husbands. Hierarchies matter. God wants you to be rich.”
She touches on insecurity in the city: “My cousin was robbed in traffic on her way home to work, a gun to her head, her bag and phone taken, and beside her people kept slow-driving, face-forward. And now she has a fake bag and a fake phone that she leaves on display in her front seat whenever she drives home, because robbers target women driving alone, and if she has nothing to give them they might shoot her.”
“My brother-in-law was also robbed not far from here. He was in traffic on a bright afternoon, his windows down, and someone shouted from the outside, something about his car, and he looked out of the window and back to the road and in that brief sliver of time a hand slid through the other window and his phone was gone. He told the story, later, with a tinge of admiring defeat.
“He was a real Lagosian who had lived in Lagos for 40 years and knew its wiles and its corners, and yet they had managed to fool him. He had fallen for the seamless ingenuity of Lagos’s thieves. To live in Lagos is to live on distrust. You assume you will be cheated, and what matters is that you avert it, that you will not be taken in by it. Lagosians will speak of this with something close to pride, as though their survival is a testament to their fortitude, because Lagos is Lagos”.
The writer called Lagos “a city of estates; groups of houses, each individually walled off, are enclosed in yet another walled fence, with a central gate and a level of security proportional to the residents’ privilege. The estates not blessed with wealth lock their gates before midnight, to keep out armed robbers. Nightclub-goers living there know not to return home until 5am when the gates are opened. Expensive estates have elaborate set-ups at their entrances; you park your car and wait for the security guards to call whomever you’re visiting, or you are given a visitor’s card as identification, or you are asked to open your boot, or a jaunty guard walks around your car with a mirror lest you have a bomb strapped underneath.
“In a city like Mumbai, which is as complicated as Lagos, it is easy to understand why the expensive parts are expensive just by driving through them, but in Lagos one might be confused. Mansions sit Buddha-like behind high gates but the streets still have potholes, and are still half-sunken in puddles during the rainy season and still have the ramshackle kiosk in a corner where drivers buy their lunch. High-end estates still have about them an air of the unfinished. Next to a perfectly landscaped compound with ornate gates might sit an empty lot, astonishingly expensive and overgrown with weeds and grass.”
Adichie also wrote about attitudes towards money in Lagos: “Here, appearance matters. You can talk your way into almost any space in Lagos if you look the part and drive the right car. In many estates, the guards fling open the gates when the latest model of a particular brand of car drives up, the questions they have been trained to ask promptly forgotten. But approach in an old Toyota and they will unleash their petty power.”
She went on to write on the importance of Lagos: “The only functioning Nigerian port is in Lagos, and business people from all over the country have no choice but to import their goods through there. Nigerian business is headquartered in Lagos; not only the banks, and the telecommunications and oil and advertising companies, but also the emerging creative industries.”
The novelist ends her account with: “At night, there are swathes of Lagos that are gloomy grey from power cuts, lit only by a few generator-borne lights, and there are areas that are bright and glittering. And in both one sees the promise of the city: that you will find your kind, where you fit, that their is a space somewhere in Lagos for you”.
Lagos is a tale of two cities. One for the rich and the other for the rest. With bestsellers like Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah, Adichie can afford a comfortable lifestyle in Lagos, with just an artistic curiosity in how the rest has to live. As reggae singer Gregory Isaac aptly sang, “a rich man’s heaven is a poor man’s hell”.