Shopping malls. Landrovers. Imported wine. Gucci-wearing clubbers. Four-hundred-dollar-a-night hotels. This is Lagos.
Four-hour traffic jams. Guys selling clocks and toilet seats on expressways. Soot-covered beggars, legs ravaged by polio, scooting around on skateboards asking for a few Naira outside an ice cream and coffee joint in one of the poshest neighborhoods. Daylight car-jackings in Lagos Island. Families camped out under bridges, trying to make do with very, very little. This is also Lagos.
Lagos is a place where contradictions abound, and after two weeks in this West African city-state, I’m having a hard time quantifying it.
It’s a crossroads for Nigeria’s hundred of tribes and languages. It’s a business center, a place full of mind-boggling human capital. It’s probably the richest and most developed city in West Africa. It has a terrible — and really, quite exaggerated — reputation as a place full of con-artists and thieves.
Maybe it’s easier to quantify Lagos by saying what it is not. It is not an exotic, far away city (in relation to the United States). Culturally, politically and economically, it is intimately entwined with the daily lives of Americans, whether we realize it or not. It’s our invisible next door neighbor.
The main reason for that is oil, which is by far Nigeria’s biggest revenue generator. In the United States, every time you turn on a car, flip a light switch, get on a train or bus or take part in any of the other oil-driven activities that make up Americans’ daily lives, a large portion of the stuff that allows you to do that comes from Nigeria.
That means that Nigeria’s wealth and its well known problems are a shadow to our lives.
In one sense, that is only confirmation of what we know about the world in general in the age of globalization — that it is getting smaller and that we are all directly connected. I think it especially interesting in the case of Nigeria though, because it seems to most Americans to be so far from home. Being here — and being cognizant of the economics behind so much of what there is to see — I feel anything but far from home. When I go to the four-story Silverbird Galleria mall and watch young, smartly dressed Nigerian professionals mix as Rihanna and Usher thump through the sound system, I feel how closely this country holds itself to the United States, intentionally or not. Everywhere are the traces of a bond. Nigerians I have met look to the United States as a place of remarkable opportunity, much more than in quite a few other countries I have visited.
It’s a connection I want to explore more deeply. The root of the connection must certainly be oil, the lifeblood of the American lifestyle. Its reverberations are complex and, I think, probably affect corners of Nigerian life that would at first glance seem completely unrelated to our lives.
When one considers some of the less “clean” things that happen here, that might not be a very pleasant thought. On the otherhand, anything that makes us acknowledge our interconnectedness is also an opporunity.
I hope to develop the idea further in later posts!