Tuesday, May 1.
The human engine must come into the shop now and then for the occasional tune-up. These weeks in Lagos – loud, loutish, bullying, an invigorating kick to the head – have left me battered. The cost has been physical, emotional – financial, too. Daily life in Lagos is exorbitant; a decent cup of coffee – the Super Unleaded that keeps my engine thrumming, to extend the metaphor – costs N500-700, or close to five American bucks, forcing me to resort to low-octane Nescafe in order to cut costs. Food, too, has been a constant drain, without a kitchen at the AAF to cook for myself. Seven U.S. dollars will buy me a chicken leg and some bland jollof rice at a Western-style fast-food joint. (Calibrate these costs against your own daily expenditures, readers, and you’ll get a sense of what it means to be a freelance writer.) Instead I’ve been frequenting a hole-in-the-wall in the Falomo Shopping Centre, Ofada Hut, where a plate of beef stew and jollof, or a tongue-scorching plate of ofada stew, is just half the price. The downside, of course, is that the food is prepared Nigerian-style: drenched in palm oil, deep-fried, and liberally peppered with red-hot chilis. This scorched-earth campaign has ravaged my taste buds and intestinal tract; there are days when it seems there’s a faucet attached to my bowels. No doubt I was a sight those first few days, mopping at my brow with each forkful of jollof I shoveled into my mouth. Slowly, though, my body has adjusted; I can almost feel my taste buds straining toward each chili now, like a plant phototropically yearning for sunlight. I’m reminded of Lucia, a housemate in Ouagadougou, who had spent large portions of her childhood in Lagos. She had developed a taste for Nigerian food, and there was no going back: everything else seemed bland by comparison. And then there is the narrator of a story in E.C. Osondu’s Voice of America, who says, “Any white man that eats pepper must return to Lagos.”
Leaving Lagos might pose the greater challenge. Add to all this stress the debit-card misfortunes that have plagued me since leaving Joburg. Here I was a victim not only of fraudsters, but of my own cosmic stupidity – an unwavering faith in the guardian angels who have watched over me through years of hard African travel. In Africa, it seems, even the guardian angels have a dark sense of humor. I had arrived at O.R. Tambo on the morning of my flight to Nigeria, cleared customs, and only realized minutes before departure that I’d be touching down in Lagos with all of R100 – about twelve U.S. dollars – to my name. This seemed like a foolish gamble, even by my standards. But the last of the ATMs were on the wrong side of immigration; my only option was a forex bureau, which offered to give me American dollars withdrawn against my bank account in the U.S. This they did – along with an additional $700 that, I discovered two days later in Lagos, had been used to purchase tickets to Cape Town, pushing my bank account into the red. As I was coasting over the Gulf of Guinea, pondering all manner of misfortunes that might lie ahead in Nigeria, a con artist back in Joburg was perpetrating that most common South African fraud: the cloned debit card. The bank was quick to credit the money back into my account, but my card was cancelled. Now a fresh challenge: finding a way to get a new card to me in Lagos. Even in my dire situation, the bank refused to send the card direct. I had to find an intermediary. Fortunately, luck was on my side: a Canadian friend, a filmmaker, had a co-producer who was flying into Lagos from Vancouver the following week for the AMAAs. The card went to my parents in Brooklyn; my father, the perennial ass-saver, Western Union’d it to Vancouver. Days later, I gratefully met the producer and my new debit card on the red carpet at the Eko Hotel.
Within the week, at an ATM on Awolowo Road, that card, too, had been cloned. Two cards in two countries, in the span of four weeks. (Those guardian angels, yukking it up again.)
There was a way around this newly visited trauma: the bank, as it turned out, was temporarily able to “unlock” a previously cancelled debit card. Each time I went to the ATM, I had to call my bank’s fraud prevention squad, answer their rote security questions, and have them unlock the card long enough for me to withdraw money. Picture me red-faced and sweaty, calling an international number at exorbitant rates on Nigeria’s shoddy mobile network, while the traffic roared by me on Awolowo Road. (For security purposes, I could only call from the ATM, and the bank rep had to stay on the line for the duration of the transaction.) Withdrawing money became a terrific ordeal, and would continue to be, for the remainder of my time in Nigeria and Cameroon. But still, I could get my money. In my usual half-assed, hand-wringing way, things had come together.
But the stress was still there; life had become a daily exercise in managing it, calibrating the pressure valves, letting off just enough steam. Drinks, of course, were involved. One night I was out on V.I. with my friend Tolu, an Edinburgh-based architect who was back in Lagos on a short-term consulting gig. Our group consisted of a bunch of hard-drinking revelers with the sorts of bland jobs you would expect in any great metropole: two architects, a lawyer, a couple of civil engineers. It was after midnight: the preening hour in Lagos, when the city’s long-stemmed beauties gathered in the warm glow of conspicuous spending and mutual, if bitchy, admiration. We were at Likwid, an upscale lounge that, in the span of the following hours, would get increasingly packed with attractive young Lagosians in European clothes and American-tinged accents. Tolu lit a cigar, eyeing a nearby table of tall girls in short skirts. “They’re drinking Belvedere, so we can’t send them a bottle of Belvedere,” he said, his tone disconsolate. How seductive his life appeared to a vagrant writer! If only my biggest problems consisted of figuring out which bottle of top-shelf liquor to send to a bevy of beautiful, tipsy girls. The night was draining me; I had steered clear of the Belvedere but was spending N1,000 for each can of Amstel. I had burned through my last naira and had to dip into my last-ditch reserve: a solitary hundred-dollar bill that was supposed to get me through the week. The bar couldn’t change it; I had to appeal to Tolu’s brother, who exchanged it at a favorable rate, barely putting a dent in the stack of thousand-naira notes in his wallet. While I was ready to raise a white flag on the night, though, Tolu was stalking the dance floor in predatory circles, his temperature rising by degrees of mischief. “Anything the night brings, the night brings,” he said.
You will not find me my slapping my forehead in Lagos or Kampala or Nairobi at such high-end shenanigans; I had seen enough of this life already, understood well that for a growing class of Africans, a bottle of Belvedere, a flat-screen TV, a well-stocked refrigerator full of European beers and imported condiments, were considered the normal trappings of a successful life, just as in the developed world. Well, these were my spiritual kin, in a sense. It’s hard to divorce a contemporary American male from the circumstances of his upbringing, and a certain degree of material comfort remains, after all these years, the elusive benchmark by which I judge my life. (Not for nothing have I found a cozy home in Joburg, where I can approximate a New York lifestyle at a third of the price.) It is impossible to adequately describe to an American who has never set foot on African soil the profound sense of contentment, of spiritual well-being, that I feel whenever I leave behind the clamor of some African street for the fluorescent-lit confines of a Shoprite or Nakumatt, the shelves abundantly stocked with canned goods and hair care products, the workers diligently affixing price tags to the toothpastes and deodorants. Outside is African chaos, is uncertainty and Gomorrah; but in those safe havens of commerce I can find familiar name brands in orderly aisles, or buy a kilo of tomatoes without engaging in the bloodsport of bargaining with some slit-eyed market woman.
Yet a certain type of ambivalence persists. Too much time in Bogobiri among the aje buttas, or lunching with the technocrats in power suits at Chocolat Royal – the menu a pastiche of Western standbys and international whimsies: Philly cheese steaks, Italian subs, teriyaki, yakitori, something called the Bora Bora Pacific Salad – and you risk falling into the somnolent trap of the “sleepy middle classes” I’d heard lambasted last week. Here I remember the joke about the man who ordered a glass of room-temperature wine in a Lagos restaurant which, when delivered, was cool to the touch – a chill that matched the temperature in the air-conditioned dining room. Reality is a DIY construct; no doubt the waiter had watched the processional of Range Rovers and Mercedes Benzes pulling into the parking lot each day and assumed that life in Lagos’ higher spheres and tax brackets was a hermetically sealed, air-conditioned affair. And wouldn’t have been too far off the mark. What could be a greater sign of material success than the ability to bend the weather to one’s whims – to keep the swampy, malarial heat of the tropics at bay with the flick of a few switches? The besuited officials in dazzlingly shined shoes who scurried from their air-conditioned cars into their air-conditioned banks and homes and offices lived in a bubble kept at 18°C; the messiness, the tropical squalor of Lagos, was always on the other side of the window pane.
I’ve enlisted the help of the pavement pundits to keep a sense of equilibrium. It is never difficult, in an African city of soaring unemployment, to find a group of garrulous men on a shaded bench or beneath a shop awning, discoursing on the day’s events. Often they will congregate by a newspaper stand, scanning the headlines for conversational fodder, firing off polemics like a low-rent version of the Sunday morning talk shows. I have encountered these men – itinerant day-laborers, out-of-work taxi drivers, ersatz security guards, rangy youths with useless certificates from unaccredited schools – on street corners across the continent. (The women, who are usually too engaged with keeping the house, looking after the children, and managing the market stall for such idling, exist in a different sphere entirely. Yet any frequenter of an African market will appreciate how well these gossipy multi-taskers can keep both the household and the rumor mill running.) I often wonder what a difference it would make if this continent could harness all that wasted manpower. What a difference for the environment, too. No telling what all that hot air and bluster and CO2 is doing to the ozone layer.
In Lagos I don’t have to go far: just steps from the front door of the AAF, under a tattered MTN beach umbrella, a group gathers daily, as faithful as congregants at Sunday mass. “Problems, crises, bombings, bombings,” begins a typical harangue one morning. “Our only prayer is to solve these problems.” They are mostly in their 20s, skinny, hard-contoured youths in cheap market clothes imported from the Far East, knock-off approximations of a globalized, urban youth style: distressed denims, t-shirts with mindless slogans, belt buckles festooned with dollar signs. They treat me with the natural deference of Yoruba youths to their elders, greeting me as “oga”: an elder statesman, a white man no less, lending the assembly some gravitas. Today’s speaker is selling airtime from a small leather manpurse around his neck. Occasionally he will break from his discourse to tear off an MTN voucher, stuffing small denominations into his satchel and scratching off the PIN with a coin. “I voted for this Jonathan, but not again,” he says. Murmurs of assent from the groundnut gallery. There is no power at home, he says, his house has been without water for three days. Still, the president only offers idle promises. “Already he started the campaign for 2015,” he says. I ask if he thinks Jonathan will win again, and he huffs. “He will do how we Nigerians do,” he says, making a few complicated hand gestures that seem to imply the stuffing of ballot boxes.
The sun moves, the shade shifts, the bodies are rearranged to make the most of the growing shadows. Someone’s baby arrives, a small gurgling boy with milk stains on his shirt. Everyone brightens, coos, clucks their tongues. Already at their age, there is pressure to marry, start a family. The strains on fatherhood here must be immense. A driver I meet down the road sighs when he talks about the challenges of raising his three children. “I am not an M.D. of a company,” he says. “For a driver, the money they pay, how can I train more than three?” He makes an elaborate show of patting his pants and adds, “The pockets are dry.” Lately he has been planning a trip to his village in the east: he has a fiancée waiting for him there, and their wedding day is just weeks away. But it’s been months since his last visit; the pressures are too great. The last time he went home in his Sunday finery, freshly arrived from Lagos, his relatives accosted him with their financial problems, their bottomless needs. “Everyone that sees me, they ask, ‘What did you bring me?’” he says. “I just think, ‘Please, just let me go. Let me go.’”
Later that week I’m careening down Awolowo Road in the back of a tuk-tuk – a Keke Marwa, in Lagos parlance, in honor of the military governor of Lagos State who brought the three-wheeled vehicles here in the ‘90s. Beside me is Tochukwu – T.C. – a man I’d met at the AAF earlier in the week. He is a gentle, moon-faced, garrulous jack-of-all-trades. Occasionally he helps with setting up new exhibitions at the gallery, but with nothing on this week, he’s offered to accompany me to Lagos Island for the afternoon. He came to Lagos from Ebonyi State, an Igbo province in the east of the country. His first trips to the city were with family – wedding parties, funerals, the endless formal engagements of Nigerian custom – but by his late teens he began to travel here on his own. In his 20s he moved to Ajegunle, a notorious Lagos slum, and then to Lagos Island, under the stewardship of a distant relative from his town. His oga, he says, was a good businessman, a good man. For newcomers thrust into the hierarchical structure of Lagos life, such stewards guarantee safe passage; they act as a frame of reference in whatever enterprise one might hope to embark upon. The lanky boys selling sunglasses and celebrity gossip rags on the Falomo Bridge have their oga as a guarantor, insurance for the wholesalers who supply them with merchandise that they won’t vanish with the day’s earnings before the supplier receives his cut (usually about 90 percent of the profit). T.C.’s uncle taught him the clothing business, traveling to Italy and bringing back leather shoes and belts and stylish clothes that they sold from their shop. It was a five-year apprenticeship, and then T.C. was on his own. He stayed in the garment business, selling quality imported goods – not the cheap Chinese replicas he scoffs at in the markets. The Chinese had come and ruined everything, he says, but still, business was good. He moved out of Lagos Island and onto V.I. For a while, he helped curate exhibitions at a local gallery. He is 36, still single. “I am patient,” he says, as we step out of the Keke and dissolve into the market crowds. “There is no hurry.”
Around us, though, there is nothing but hurry and bustle. Though we have no appointments later in the day, no schedule to stick to, T.C. walks briskly through the streets, as if energized by the rush and clamor. Lagos Island is loud, constant, relentless: the honking of horns, the thrum of generators, the ambient noise of thousands of voices raised in the din of human commerce. (“City of sonorous chaos,” wrote the poet Chiedu Ezeanah, “out of which destitute music growls.”) Once this place was as placid as the lagoons surrounding it; when the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, today’s metropolis was just a string of fishing villages and farms. It grew swiftly as Lagos emerged as one of the major hubs for the West African slave trade. By the time the British arrived in the mid-1800s with a view toward stamping out the trade for good, they had determined that occupying Lagos was “indispensable to the complete suppression of the Slave Trade,” an occupation that they undertook, in the colonial parlance, “not without some reluctance.” Having established this vital beachhead, they quickly pushed into the interior and developed trade links with neighboring kingdoms. Before long these territories were amalgamated into the British Protectorate of Nigeria, which would join with the Lagos colony in 1914 to form the Federation of Nigeria. Immigrants flocked to Lagos – the de facto and, later, administrative capital – from across West Africa, joining the ranks of freed slaves and their descendants returning from Brazil, the West Indies, and the newly independent state of Liberia. Lagos Island’s mixed-up, mottled character was established in those early years – a character still reflected in the island’s architecture, with its Portuguese and New World influences – and the city mushroomed as its commercial importance grew. By the 1880s the city already had a railway and telephone links to Britain; by 1898, its increasingly jumbled streets were lit with electric lights.
New arrivals from the interior must have been struck by the city’s size and dynamism, this awful harbinger of the modern world. A century later, as Lagos swells to improbable proportions, the place is still overwhelming. It is impossible to name all the sights, the bewildering avenues of retail, the souq-like labyrinths of merchandise piled floor to ceiling, the endless chain of supply and demand. T.C. steers me across the street, into a market for imported clothing: cheap Chinese knock-offs of last year’s fashions, oceans of denim, headless mannequins buttoned into frumpy blouses. The sellers are young men in jeans and Nikes, affecting hip-hop postures. “Oyibo!” they call out. “Oyibo!” “White!” They chase after me with stylish loafers, cut-rate imitations of some European design, holding them up to eye-level for further scrutiny. Three men stand in a line, each holding the same white communion dress on a hanger, staring dolefully past the disinterested crowds.
Traffic is sluggish, the okadas and Kekes reduced to a crawl in the face of this human logjam. We duck beneath some rickety scaffolding and squeeze into a narrow alley, and it is like we’ve crossed a border, arrived at some new frontier. The shops are selling bright bolts of fabric, colorful prints on Dutch wax cloth. It is the province of womanhood, of brides-to-be: the customers are pinching lace cloths between their fingertips and shushing the infants on their backs. The faces you meet here are shrewd, impenetrable, prepared for the pitched battle that comes with every transaction in Lagos. A beggar passes us, reciting Koranic verses in Arabic through a megaphone. Gutters are carved into the alleyways, brimming with dirty run-off from the night’s rains. “Pure water!” a woman calls out, carrying a plastic basin full of water sachets on her head. The stalls are endless: you could blanket the Gulf of Guinea with all that fabric, the colorful prints that are covering Nigerian haunches from here to Maiduguri.
There is a method to all this retail madness. The markets are carefully organized; beyond the shaded alleyways, the dark alcoves protecting those bright fabrics against the color-devouring sunlight, we step into the open air. Now we are surrounded by dry goods: tins of sardines, cans of Milo, sacks of rice and sugar that load-bearers will heave onto their heads before staggering into the pressing crowds. The shops are arranged identically, the products, the prices, are exactly the same. How does a merchant turn a profit amid such sameness? Perhaps it is the sheer demographic weight of Lagos commerce, the numerical conviction that no amount of sellers can ever meet this megacity’s demands. I suspect, too, that there are internal politics, subtle allegiances: a woman newly arrived from some distant village will probably seek out a kinsman for her business. The kinship ties in Nigeria are strong, advantageous. Even in this city of 15 million, a newcomer can hope for a soft landing.
Stepping through this crush of human traffic, prodded and squeezed on all sides, we arrive in a vast haircare emporium: wigs, shampoos, dyes, miles of extensions. A fat, haughty woman is trying on a wig, preening for a small hand mirror. “It’s too short,” she says. “It no look good.” The attendant scurries off. His face is an asterisk of concentrated passion; there is no whim, no demand he won’t cater to for the sake of the sale. He comes back with his arms full, a great ball of synthetic hair, as if he’s hugging an acrylic Labrador to his chest. The woman begins to try them on, frowning into the mirror, refusing to grant him the small advantage of her pleasure. Finally, a hint of a smile cracks her face. “Give me this one black,” she says, jabbing with her fat finger. The attendant stuffs it into a shopping bag. “Another one,” she says. “Give me this one brown. Another one.”
And so it goes. Leaving this galaxy of wigs and extensions we enter the jewelry market, its glass display cases neatly stocked with cheap earrings and bangles and gold wristwatches. T.C. stops to flirt with a young woman. (“This one does not know me,” he says, as we turn away. “She sees we are the same tribe.”) Nearby a neatly dressed man with a jeweler’s loupe bends over a wristwatch, his fingers fiddling with a small screwdriver. He pauses, looks up, smiles. I am met with many friendly greetings and marriage proposals. Moving back into the open air, we come to a street that seems entirely overrun by wall clocks in different shapes and sizes; just as quickly, we turn onto a street lined with hundreds of children’s bicycles. No commercial need goes unmet here. Another block is crowded with copy machines; further still, dozens of hospital gurneys and wheelchairs on the sidewalk, coated with a thin layer of dust. Whatever isn’t readily available on the street is likely to come your way on the head of some rangy youth knifing through the crowd: socks, belts, water sachets, mangos, wooden stools, knots of ginger, dried fish, prawns, Lucozade, soy milk in recycled water bottles, slices of watermelon and pineapple, peeled oranges, loaves of white bread. Wheelbarrows push past us, loaded with apples and blue jeans and cellphone accessories. With the lunch hour upon us, husky women trundle by balancing wooden tables on their heads, laden with the pots and plates and takeaway containers they will use to dish out the afternoon’s meals.
The raucous energy of this street carnival exists in a vacuum of sorts; Lagos Island is a husk of abandoned office towers and derelict buildings, relics of a decades-long decay since the government moved the capital to Abuja. The Societe Generale Bank is boarded up; the Savannah Bank building – a black-glass tower of failed aspirations – sits vacant, awaiting tenants. Across from one teeming market we pass the weathered shell of the Bristol Hotel. In its colonial-era heyday the Bristol was a choice spot for visiting dignitaries. According to a well-known story, a colonial office official of Sierra Leonean descent, one Ivor Cummings, arrived one March afternoon in 1947 with a white English colleague. The official inquired with the Greek proprietor if there was a reservation in the name of Cummings. The hotel owner said that there was indeed a reservation for a Mr. Cummings and, turning to the colleague, asked when he would arrive. The two men were outraged; when Cummings identified himself to the flummoxed proprietor, the Greek scurried off, leaving a black clerk to deal with the fall-out. Flustered, the clerk tried to explain to Cummings that blacks couldn’t be admitted into the Bristol – a delicate task, no doubt, from one black man to another. A bellicose Cummings stormed off. Later that day hostile crowds poured into the hotel and trashed the lobby. The Greek proprietor was forced to flee the country.
I’m a sucker for such tales of colonial-era come-uppance; they are like period pieces furnishing the living room of my imagination. Closing my eyes I can picture bespectacled Cummings in his suit and Oxford-knotted necktie, an air of erudition about him, a set of matching leather suitcases at his feet. This is just the latest in a long string of indignities; hard to imagine the love and loyalty binding him to a crown that regards him as second-class. Behind him a queue of white guests is growing impatient. The bellhops circle nervously. The clerk at the desk, buttoned into his colonial-era vestiture, is grappling with the humiliating task of turning this dignified black man away. These two men inhabit different spheres entirely – Cummings makes trips to London, hosts garden parties attended by foreign dignitaries – yet here they share the common stain of their blackness. The red-faced Greek removes himself from the scene, eager to avoid any complications. The color rises in the Englishman’s cheeks. Genteel Cummings, in that mosaic-tiled lobby lined with potted palms, a fountain tinkling musically across the room, raises hell. No blacks! “You mean as guests? For you are black yourself,” he accuses the clerk, according to one account. Perhaps here the clerk burns with a secret pride; aware of the greatness of the moment, he is privileged to be laid across the sacrificial altar, to be the vessel into which Cummings pours his rage. When the mob arrives that night, maybe it’s the clerk himself who stokes the flame.
It is hard to conjure that vanished world on the delirious streets of Lagos today. The colonial gentility, the haughtiness of white privilege, is long gone. One blogger, recounting the Cummings story, told of the broader protest movement it sparked: it was, in effect, the death knell of the pre-independence era in Nigeria. In the years that followed the country was swept away by a tide of nationalism, and by the pan-African fervor ignited by Kwame Nkrumah; black consciousness, black identity, became the rallying cry for a generation of activists and future leaders. The radicalness of this moment in time is impossible to fully appreciate half a century later; today’s identity politics in Nigeria are played out against a backdrop of class and tribe. Blackness is an obvious fact. I wonder if the fissures formed by these newer divisions will create the same unbridgeable divide that race did 50 years ago. Class consciousness, after all, is the subtext of most encounters on the streets of Lagos. An example: on the way back to Ikoyi, our danfo gets stuck in a go-slow off of Awolowo Road. The driver, undeterred by the line of cars ahead of us, pulls into the empty lane of oncoming traffic, hoping to speed to the intersection before the light changes. We’ve almost reached the corner when an SUV turns into our lane. It is a muscular, polished vehicle, and the man behind the wheel – athletic, well-dressed, exuding class signifiers that are apparent even from our vantage point – is understandably put off by the danfo blocking his way. His facial muscles tense, and for a moment, I have the sense that this is just one small scene in a larger drama. The recklessness of this city’s danfo and okada drivers is one of the Lagosian’s favorite talking points, a scab relentlessly picked at dinner parties. No doubt the man in the SUV has been cut off, bullied, harassed by these daredevil drivers before. It is a point of principle that he stand up for himself today. Besides, he has the law on his side. He inches forward. The danfo driver, cursing, puts the vehicle into reverse. He waves his arm violently out the window, but the SUV continues to advance. The cars are backed up in our lane; there’s no chance for us to merge back into traffic. The driver’s rage is complete, consuming. A crowd has begun to gather – no telling which way this stand-off will go. As we back down the block a traffic cop approaches the vehicle. “I just wan buy fuel,” says the driver, gesturing to a gas station on the corner. He seems convinced that the logic of this statement is irrefutable – that to drive 200 meters down the wrong side of a two-way street is justifiable, if there’s fuel to be had. The cop is lenient; he lets us merge into the flow of traffic without writing a ticket. As the SUV muscles past us, the driver regards our danfo with the sort of mute, wrathful judgment of some Old Testament patriarch. Our own driver seems shrunken, chastened. There is no telling how often he has had to swallow his pride when confronted with such an overt show of superior strength. Yet when we reach the corner, his face breaks into a broad grin. He whips us through the gas station, cheating the flow of traffic, and cracks a joke at the cars stuck at the red light behind us. However briefly, he’s come out ahead.