The Novelty of Lagos

Eleven years had distorted my memories of Nigeria. Children, depression, abandonment of my PhD, the near death of my marriage all happened in the space between visits. Nigeria 2010 was better than I remembered. So was I.

Chinua Achebe called Nigeria "dirty, callous & vulgar, a place of unrelenting selfishness." It's also a public urinal. Men piss everywhere (and I do mean everywhere!) By day 3, I could only marvel "how is this place not swimming in piss?"

The city is a smelly sprawling sensory assault. Dusty potholed streets, rubbish strewn neighborhoods, green-black sludge in open gutters, epic gridlock, auto exhaust fumes so thick you feel choked, motorways jammed with vendors & vehicles, cars & vans crammed with people. I suppose it was your standard issue 3rd World overcrowded urban experience (although some Nigerians assured me Lagos is in a league all its own... Accra for instance is "lovely").

Despite the frustrations, this time I enjoyed the novelty of Lagos. Its defiance. Its leanness & strength. Its fearless street hawkers. It's cleverness (the traffic is so appalling, people  grocery shop on the expressway). Its vibrantly dressed women. The ever present irony of the glo mobile phone carrier slogan "RULE YOUR WORLD". (Really? rule your world? in a city like Lagos where you rule NOTHING... God in Heaven, the balls it takes to declare such a thing in such a place!). Most of all I enjoyed that our house was an oasis of calm in the middle of all that chaos. In small doses, Lagos is tolerable. 

I never expected this trip to inspire admiration because - let's face it - among Africans, Nigerians are known for taking arrogance to entirely new levels. 

But I did admire them. Grudgingly. And I understood why my African studies mentor said to me years ago Nigerians were "smarter, faster, better looking" than other Africans. It really is survival of the fittest in Lagos. You have to be tough, you have to be aggressive, you have to be loud to make it here. And they are. All of the above.

My father-in-law wants to know if I can live there... even though you'll often hear the locals proclaim "In Nigeria, you will suffer"... even though, after watching hours of Yoruba soap operas that portray women as conniving, cheating, deceitful or evil, I'm convinced the Yoruba don't appreciate, trust or even like their women... can I live there?

"On the fence" is my official position. After 16 years, this answer doesn't satisfy my father-in-law at all.

How would I even begin to approach life in Lagos if it should come to that? I've known since I married this man that he would return one day. Permanently. As the eldest, first born son who found success in America, he is the next in line to assume the office of family patriarch.

So far, the only way I can see making peace with Lagos is to surrender to it. Don't bother asking "why is it this way?" or "why doesn't it do things this way?"Accept it unconditionally, warts, corruption, bad breath & all. And do the best you can to get around in it. 

But by doing that, I'd run the risk of becoming every bit as aggressive & hard faced as its citizens. Hard places make people hard. That isn't who I am or what I want to be.

I keep telling myself maybe when that day comes, when the kids are grown, maybe I'll be ready for an adventure. Maybe, like Paul Theroux, I'd eventually conclude "all news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there."  

My father-in-law is one year older & my husband is one step closer to retiring to Nigeria. But I'm no closer to a decision on whether I could live there. Not yet. God help me.

*repost from my blog The.Me.I.Be (Sep 2010)


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