One of the nice things about writing on a blog is that there doesn’t have to be any false coherency to your observations. For example, I don’t have to pretend that two weeks in Lagos gave me some kind of general insight into all of Nigeria.
I saw Lagos. That’s it. I’ve lived in Ghana and traveled to N’Djamena, Chad and parts of northern Cameroun, so it was interesting to see the city that is the talk of West Africa, and the crossroads for much of its wealth. But I have to be careful about how much I can extrapolate about the country from my brief visit. Of course, I now have the street cred — a very misleading assumption about travel, by the way, on which authors like Thomas Friedman have capitalized — to make all sorts of claims, and people would probably believe ’em. I’m trying to resist the urge.
In that spirit, let me offer a few snapshots of experiences and observations about Lagos. Even my choice of what to report shows something about the lens through which I saw the city, but I’ll save lengthy meanderings on the nature of subjectivity for another place.
Stilt city in the shadow of the Third Mainland Bridge
There are three bridges that connect Lagos’ business center, a series of islands, and its bustling, residential mainland. The bridges were built in the 1970s, my hosts in Lagos told me, and have not been substantially improved since then. There are probably millions of people that cross these bridges everyday. The Third Mainland bridge gets the most traffic. It’s narrower than an L.A. freeway and seven miles long. The traffic jam it weathers every day is astonishing. Imagine if everyone who lived in Brooklyn had to commute to Manhattan every day, and and the only way to get there was the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s that sort of congestion, but less picturesque. Depending on which way you are heading and at what time, you may find yourself with a couple extra hours to enjoy the view.
And the view from this bridge is an expanding settlement of unregulated houses on stilts in a lagoon. The region is called Makoko, and a guy named Will Connors has just written a very colorful description of it for Slate. Here are two poor pictures of the shantytown, as seen from the bridge (pardon the railing in the front).
People told me that most of the inhabitants of these villages are fisherfolk from the Niger Delta region, something that it was impossible to confirm firsthand, because I didn’t have the chance to go down into the neighborhood. Assuming that these people subsist on fishing, their lives offer a fascinating contrast to the world of finance and oil in nearby Victoria Island. As fishermen glided by in small skiffs with the breeze pushing out their makeshift sails, and I sat, baking, in a traffic jam of harried people, it was hard not to see the stilt-village life — erroneously or not — as enticingly carefree.
Run-in with the Military Police
Somewhere at an intersection on the mainland, my research colleague snapped an innocent picture of passing traffic from the basckseat of a taxi. Unfortunately, the passing traffic at that moment included a truckload of Military Police, who I believe are the police responsible for policing the police. They promptly stopped their truck and ran over to our car, yelling. A portly man with a comically displeased look on his face looked on while a younger, thinner police officer screamed through the window of our car to give him the camera. My colleague obliged. Next, a very well-spoken and polite officer came to the window and identified himself as the man in charge. He calmly asked my colleague to show her pictures to him, and advised her that if she wanted to take pictures of the police, she should politely ask first. “Sorry my boys gave you a scare,” he said, and told one of his men to stop writing information down about the cab (the driver, understandably, was getting a bit flustered when he saw this happen).
Nigeria has been under a civilian government since 1999, but the scope of the police’s and the military’s power still seems a little poorly defined. (Admittedly, everything in Lagos is a bit confusing when you’ve only been there for two weeks.) On the other hand, I suppose they’ve got a right to be suspicious of foreigners taking pictures, after all that Europeans have done to mess with the country.
The interesting part for me was the show of anger and scary yelling, which actually hints that the guys who stopped us seemed a bit unsure of their power, too. In Syria, for instance, where the scope of police power is well-defined (i.e., universal), a foreigner wouldn’t get yelled at for mistakenly taking a picture of something he wasn’t supposed to. He’d just calmly have his camera confiscated.
In the club with my homies
My trip to Jay-Jay Okocha‘s Number Ten nightclub, as well as Insomnia and another joint whose name I forget, was a small sample of the huge Lagos nightclub scene. I have no idea what portion of the population actually has access to such experiences, but I can tell you that it’s enough to pack club after club. Drinks are fairly expensive and include just about anything you could get in New York. Music is Nigerian hip hop like D’banj (inside sources tell me he was a quiet, churchgoing teenager back in secondary school; looks like he’s watched 2Pac’s “I Get Around Video” a few times since then), dancehall and whatever is playing on Hot 97 at the moment. There’s your fair share of out-of-shape, older male foreigners cavorting around rather unpleasantly, but there are plenty of young Nigerian professionals having a blast. Then, some of the seedier clubs (which I did not go into), are on streets lined with prostitutes.
Nike’s art gallery
A much richer cultural heritage can be found at Nike’s (pronounced nee-KAY) art gallery in Lekki. Here, I saw a mindboggling collection of contemporary Nigerian art that ranged from abstract to represntational and deeply inspired by regional art traditions. Nike, the effusive, charming owner, is an artist herself and works mainly in textiles. The gallery is, I believe, an extension of her house, and there are three floors and many rooms packed to the brim with paintings, sculptures, fabrics and jewelry. It deserves a vist.
Whew, that’s all I have energy for right now. I’ll have to do a snapshots, part 2.