This is Lagos – the bigger part of the city

Nigeria is suddenly on everyone’s radar. Over the past couple of weeks we have seen the Shell Sorry campaign launched in The Hague; the BBC2 drama “Blood and Oil” set in the Niger Delta; the Channel 4 Unreported World documentary on the aftermath of the Jos violence; and now another documentary on the “ingenuity” of Lagos’s poor to earn a living on the streets of this mega city of 14 million. – “Welcome to Lagos“. [BBC2 15, 22, and 29th April]. In truth no one knows how many people live in Lagos or any other mega city for that matter. I am trying to feel positive about this film and happy to see the focus on Lagos entrepreneurship. Every city has its own uniqueness, its own culture, vibe and market. But I dont think the poor of Lagos are any different from those in other cities. Poverty requires inventiveness if you are to survive and with the over consumption and waste of the rich there is always a market, however small. But still there is something very special about the mega market city of Lagos. One of the things I love about Lagos and Nigeria in general is the presence of a seemingness never ending 247 market. Everyone is on the some kind of hustle whether to sell you a service or a product. There is nothing better to take away the sting of Lagos traffic than to spend your time buying groundnuts, oranges, airtime, water, loo paper, sausage rolls and knowing if you car over heats someone will be there in a minute offering to fix it.

Back to the piece in the Guardian. The author adopts a surprise that poor people will do anything to earn a living? And even more shocking is they are “normal”.

“They are normal people doing what they have to do to survive”

What is normal – how do we measure normality and why would poor people be less normal than anyone else? Are the rich, the middle classes normal?

The series looks at life on the Olusosun rubbish dump, the workplace and home to more than 1,000 scavengers who sift the garbage looking for recyclable material. This is a vibrant, self-policing community living next to a mosque, a barber’s shop and three cinemas. The film-makers also take us to Makoka lagoon where 300,000 people live on water and in squatter camps on the beach. It is soon clear that most Lagos residents will do anything to earn a few dollars a day, from back-breaking labour to sharp business deals, because there is no welfare state to provide a safety net.

What does he expect poor people to do? Its disingenuous to imagine because people are poor they are not capable of organising and policing their communities. The Havard architect Rem Koolhas documentary “Lagos / Koolhaas” which I recently saw in Lagos, is similar in it’s bewilderment of how the city manages itself and people negotiate their daily lives. A problem with many westerners who visit Africa, is they are so used to their own form of order which is often extremely boring in it’s predictability, they lack the imagination to see beyond the apparent chaos. Buses parked haphazardly without any obvious sign of where they are headed may appear chaotic as opposed to neatly lined up buses in the bus park with visible signs of the destination. But there is a method it’s just that they dont know what it is!

Here is a quote from an essay “This is Lagos” by Nigerian writer and poet, Chris Abani which speaks to the similarities of cities and the second quote is on Lagos itself. [The African Cities Reader]

Years later, in another restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, over dinner in Little Tokyo, Gaby Jauregui tells me how much the Lagos I write about in my novel GraceLand makes her yearn for her Mexico City. In that moment I realise how much cities are not just geographical locations but psychic spaces of existential melancholy and desire. That we are always listening to the city inside us: Lagos-London-Istanbul-Los Angeles- Mexico City. There is only one city in the world and I guess Italo Calvino is right: it is an invisible city. And yet these invisible cities of the melancholic soul are geographical places of real joy, of concrete despair and of inventiveness that people who live away from the urban will never fully understand.

This is Lagos.

What Rem Koolhaas and I suspect Will Anderson [I reserve the right to change my mind when I see the film] do in their films is, they miss the underbelly of Lagos – the Lagos of Abani’s Graceland. The short quote below captures some of the cruelty and inequality that exists in Lagos and other cities where the rich and poor rub each other in a rawness and at the same time are as distant from each other as Lagos is from Amsterdam.

Somewhere in another Lagos slum, a child is peeping through a crack in the wooden wall of a shack built on stilts in a swamp. In the distance, a line of skyscrapers rise like the uneven heart of prayer.

In the shadow of highrises, behind the international money of Broad Street, the real
Lagos spreads out like a mat of rusting rooftops.

In Ikoyi Bay, boats dot the sea, sails like lazy gulls catching the breeze. Across the bay,
the millionaires’ village that was once Maroko sits in a slight mist. I think it is the ghost of that lost place haunting the rich to distraction so that even their twelve-foot high walls, barbed razor wire or broken glass crowning them, or the searchlights, or the armed guards, cannot make their peace with the moans of a woman crying for a child crushed by the wheels of bulldozers. Or maybe it is just the wind sighing through palm-fronds.

In Ikoyi, the money is quieter: the thing here is not the house, it is the land and the fescue lawn and the trees and the quiet swish of water against a boat docked at the end of the garden. The poor go out of their way to drive past them. Everyone can dream.

Underneath the government-sponsored billboard that says Keep Lagos Clean, a city of
trash, like the work of a crazy artist, grows exponentially. Even when under Abacha there were no stamps in the post office and almost no landlines, mobile phones and Blackberrys never stopped working, and online banking was never more than a click away. This is the thing here. With or without the government, life goes on and goes
on well. Maybe in spite of the government.

Esther, 24, lives in a house built on Kuramo Beach, a tiny spit of sand attached to Victoria Island, Lagos’s most upmarket neighbourhood.

“I’ve just finished reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. One of the film crew left me her copy when she said goodbye. I thought it was beautiful and exciting, and I want to read the next one in the trilogy, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere. I pray to God that he will provide one. I love to read so much.

“This is me, outside my house on Kuramo beach. It’s a small stretch of sand attached to Victoria Island, one of the most upmarket neighbourhoods in Lagos. Everyone thinks only drug addicts, armed robbers and prostitutes live here, but they never come to find out the truth. I’ve lived on the beach for almost eight years. There’s about 1,000 of us here. Shopkeepers, motorbike taxi drivers, even businessmen who work in banks. My best friend, Lati, runs a cinema house next to where I live. We watch Nollywood movies, and all the Chelsea matches. I could never be friends with anyone who supports Manchester United. They are the Red Devils. They are devilish. Maybe they are using their devilish substance to win all the major trophies they have been winning. I hate them. Their nickname is very bad. Up Chelsea! Blues for life!

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