Tuesday, April 10.
In the beginning, God created the universe; then He created the moon, the stars and the wild beasts of the forests. On the sixth day, He created the Nigerian and there was peace. But on the seventh day, while God rested, the Nigerian invented noise.
-Peter Enahoro, How To Be A Nigerian
It is with no small measure of courage that I’ve learned to cross Awolowo Road these first few days, that kinetic avenue unfortunately separating me from the promise of delicious chicken and jollof rice at Mr. Bigg’s (“I’m hot…I’m delicious…I’m Mr. Bigg’s”), my early fast-food joint of choice in Lagos. The relentless flow of minibuses and saloon cars and beat-up sedans and muscular SUVs is further complicated by the ubiquitous okadas, the daredevil motorbike taxis which seem to accelerate in direct proportion to the amount of congestion ahead. Traffic surges and surges and continues to surge. “They will stop for you,” says a man, with perhaps exaggerated confidence, as we step into the street together. “But sometimes the road is free, and they speed.” He laughs. “Then you’re on your own.”
Commotion, a noisy, restless clamor, defines the public theater of Lagos life. Things are done in high volumes, demonstrably, with body language not only articulating but amplifying whatever degree of joy or anger, whatever sense of grievance, whatever private sorrows, the speaker is feeling. Example: a middle-aged woman is standing on the side of Awolowo Road. She has a baggy face, fleshy arms, her body is crammed into a blouse and skirt two sizes too small. Untold woes have been inflicted on her feet by a pair of cheap heels. She has the tired look of a career bureaucrat, a processor of forms in du- and triplicate, a lower cog in the machinery of some government bureau. Life was already full of disappointments, daily indignities. Now a minibus has rear-ended her car, shoved it onto the sidewalk. The damage is not cosmetic. Look! She appeals to the crowd, shows us the dents in the side paneling. We are invited to imagine the cost of repairs. Her case is taken up by other passersby. Yes, these taxi drivers are so reckless! In fact, just last week…. The woman is getting worked into a state. She points an accusing finger at the driver. She is lucky it was just her car. It could have been so much worse! Now the driver must defend himself. He is a slender man, prematurely aged, his face like bark on the Tree of Life. There are children at home, and another on the way. No doubt he is calculating the costs of this delay. Already he has lost a dozen fares, it will take half the morning to recoup his losses. And soon the police will arrive, he will have to dash the officer in charge. He throws his hands up, his face is a scowl, a rictus of misery. Woe is the man’s native element; it gives his face a look of martyrdom, it raises him into the higher spheres of suffering. Did none of us see the car that cut him off? The okadas he struggles so hard to avoid? And that woman was driving so slow, the traffic backed up all the way to V.I. He circles her car, tongue clucking, inviting us to see it with fresh eyes. Look at this dent here, and here. The sedan is like an old work boot, it has been thoroughly lived in. Who can say if the damage is new, as she claims? How can anyone but God be our judge?
“Lagos parades her agonies,” wrote the poet Ogaga Ifowodo. The city is an open wound, the days’ dramas are on full display. I stop for a coffee at Jazzhole, already searching for a sanctuary from the morning’s noise and heat. The place feels archival, well-catalogued, as if the records and CDs and books on its shelves are less a matter of commerce than historical preservation. The owner, a handsome, middle-aged man, is behind the counter, flipping through a stack of vinyls that a customer has brought in to sell. His eyes move swiftly over each album cover; when he finds a name of note he removes the album from its jacket, wipes a rag across the surface, tilts it in the light. He has the air of an archivist or academic, the disciple of some obscure musical sect, a man of discriminating tastes. The seller stands there nervously, hands clasped before him, like a supplicant. A high-life record, Decca label, crackles and spins on a turntable. In the back of the shop a young boy of 12 or 13, the owner’s son, swats at the bookshelves with a feather duster. He has a precocious air, something cackling and impish. He is teasing an older girl who sits in the café, reading a magazine. Later in the week I’ll hear a woman, a friend of his mother’s, giving him an inquisition. “Do you know there are 12-year-olds who design websites? You need to train yourself!”
The door opens; a young man enters with his head hung low. The energy in the room has shifted, as if a performance is about to begin. The owner’s wife, hunched over an accounting book and a pile of receipts, suddenly sits up tall. Her face is haughty, imperious, crowned with her life’s successes. “Today you are going to do some serious work, oh,” she says severely. The boy has been rehearsing his lines all morning but is suddenly struck dumb. He is diminishing before our eyes while she only seems to grow, acquiring magnificence. She recites her grievances, his infinite betrayals. The shop opens at nine, but it is already well after ten. It is no time for excuses, for complaints about go-slows over the three mainland bridges. “All I want to hear is, ‘I’m sorry,’” she says. Her presence is suffocating, there is no space for apologies. She is only gathering force. If he takes her for a fool, oh, he’s going to learn his lessons the hard way. Her arm rises and falls, beating the air as if conducting a well-known arrangement. “Look at how you walk on the ground,” she warns him. In the rear her son snickers, doubles over at the waist, burying his face in the feather duster to hide his mirth. Already he is looking forward to a repeat performance later in the week.
Awolowo Road is stifling; it has trapped the sunlight and amplified the midday heat. I stop to buy handkerchiefs from a kiosk, an old, barefoot man sitting on a mat inside, taking money from the outstretched hands reaching out to him. “Give me MTN,” says someone. “Give me Airtel.” Bullied, harrassed, the man sits there unflustered, doling out airtime and change like a cave prophet dispensing koans.
I flag down an okada and ask the driver to take me to Bar Beach. He’s a young man in his early-20s, a hard-contoured youth with a cracked helmet perched atop his head. There’s an extra helmet wedged between the handlebars, but when I gesture to it, he demurs and jerks a thumb for me to get on. “Security is my priority,” he says. Which doesn’t explain why he’s the only one who gets to wear a helmet. We sputter along the road’s shoulder, dodging rocks and potholes and the okadas which scream past, drivers hurling invectives our way. Finally we merge into traffic. The cars are pressed bumper to bumper, angled in such a way that every intersection in Lagos looks like a massive pile-up. Then your head start to ache because car crush dey for your head, Fela Kuti sung in “Go Slow.” Lorry dey for your front, tipper dey for your back, motorcycle dey for your left, taxi-moto dey for your right. Somehow our okada slips between the bumpers, skirts along the sidewalk, briefly zips onto the wrong side of the traffic median. No, Lagos’ motorbike-taxis are not for the faint-hearted. Perpetual motion is the cardinal rule on which the species is dependent. When an okada comes to a stop in front of us, the reason unclear, my driver curses, “Ay, stop contemplating!” We force our way past and reach another logjam: a small, battered sedan is straddling two lanes, occupying the precious inches that allow the okadas to thrive. “What is wrong with this motorist?” says my driver. He inches us forward. “Why are you hindering us from proceeding?” We break free from traffic and are quickly hurtling over Falomo Bridge. On Victoria Island, the road is flanked by high-end hotels and car dealerships. The new Porsche showroom – the company’s second on the continent – gleams like an uncut stone. “There’s a big market here,” a Nigerian businessman told the UK Guardian last week. “For example, I have a Bentley, a Porsche and a Ferrari, so I can easily buy another brand-new one.” Alas, life for the Nigerian super-elite does not come without its woes. “People don’t travel by road anymore, they go by air,” the man told the reporter. “So the Ferrari in the garage hasn’t done 500 miles in three years.”
Bar Beach is a long, unlovely promenade of chop stalls and informal bars shaded by beach umbrellas. Groups of tough, husky women are sitting in the shade, keeping a wary eye on their coolers. At night, the place is a notorious hang-out for prostitutes and area boys, but by day, the beach is uncrowded, serene. At one table is a group of rastas deeply engaged in some rasta discourse; further down the promenade, men in business suits, looking unharried by the heat. Behind them dozens of concrete pylons are piled in the sand, forming an ugly, post-apocalyptic barrier between the chop stalls and the beach. In the distance, across a narrow channel, the first stages of land reclamation are underway to build Eko Atlantic: a futuristic city of office towers, broad boulevards, plazas and marinas that developers say will become the financial epicenter of West Africa by 2020. In this impossible city of sprawling shanty-towns and go-slows, of neighborhoods rising like swamp creatures from the lagoon, Eko island’s bold promise of open spaces and first-world infrastructure defies everything Lagosians have probably come to expect from their city. One of the developers described it to TIME as “the new face of Africa.” Nigeria’s country head for the World Bank likened it to Hong Kong.
At the end of the promenade a group of boys are playing a rag-tag game of football, small chunks of cinderblock used to mark the goalposts. I wonder what role the young and jobless, the shiftless area boys, will play in Africa’s Hong Kong. When they see me approaching they come over to slap my hand and bump my fist: first a couple, then a swarm, grinning, laughing, arguing in pidgin English. After just a few moments, I’m surrounded. It is an uncomfortable position to be in. There is a hostile edge to some of the boys, a meanness that I’ve traveled far too much to ignore. Smiling stupidly, overdoing the goodwill, I slowly extricate myself from their aggressive greetings, imagining how easily things might go bad: their bodies pressing ever closer, a hand reaching into my pocket. Further along the promenade, I can see necks craning in my direction, bystanders alerted to the proximate threat of adolescent mischief. It is comforting to be back in a country where community policing isn’t outsourced to SWAT-style security outfits with 24-hour armed response teams; where it is a matter of people looking out for one another.
Wresting myself away from them, finding a bit of breathing room, I find myself tailed by just a solitary boy on the beach. We stand there looking at the waves, the distant figures of massive cargo ships chugging toward foreign ports. He asks if I want to go for a swim. “If I go for a swim here, I’ll end up in Ghana,” I say. His face twists into a question mark. Further along the beach, a young man laughs. “That’s a good one,” he says. He’s wearing black slacks and a purple button-down shirt and a pair of polished shoes that wouldn’t look out of place on the terrace of the Protea Hotel. I point out that he’s not exactly dressed for a day at the beach, and he smiles. He had a business meeting at twelve, he explains, but he was stuck in a go-slow. By the time he reached the meeting place, the man had already left. He has time to kill: the man – a potential client – is wrapping up another meeting on V.I. They’re going to discuss the design of a website that this young man, a media consultant, would like to build. He extends his hand and introduces himself. His name is Phil. When I tell him I’m a writer his eyes light up. He says he is a poet, too.
I’m often drawn to those curious souls whose faces are turned outward, like ports of call, ready for all comers and adventures. Phil and I achieve a swift kinship, as if we’d arrived at Bar Beach at this pre-arranged time to pick up the thread of a conversation we started months ago. Walking back and forth along the length of beach, the sand sifting into our shoes, we discuss the prospects for writers in Nigeria – a country with a rich literary tradition that is nonetheless beset by all the woes of the developing world. Phil, a youthful thirty-something, fears that the literary space for his generation is diminishing. He’s helping to organize a monthly poetry reading at a bar in Maryland, on the mainland. In recent months they’ve attracted young poets from across the country. It seems, in its own way, like an act of defiance, of self-assertion, in a city that the poet Odia Ofeimun said “undresses in cheap perfume, demanding to be loved in a slush of coins, dross and paper money.” Among this city’s high priests of commerce, its flyover crooks and conmen, its bank barons and telecom tycoons and street hustlers and strivers, a young poet must roam the earth like a medieval flagellant, one of Onookome Okome’s “miserables of hopeless sighs.” Phil, raised a Christian, turned away from his parents’ faith and was reborn a humanist, dazzled by the possibilities of a single day in a single human life. “I believe every day,” he says, “scriptures are being written.”
Lagos, its rough-and-tumble gospel, the driftwood slums, the millionaires clubs and billionaires clubs, the concrete brutalism of a ‘70s oil boom that gave rise to much of its derelict sprawl. “If Lagos were a person,” writes Noo Saro-Wiwa in Looking for Transwonderland, “she would wear a Gucci jacket and a cheap hair weave, with a mobile phone in one hand, a second set in her back pocket, and the mother of all scowls on her face.” An ugly beauty, or a beautiful grotesque. I wonder if I was predestined to be drawn to Lagos, if my longing to embrace this African megalopolis is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“You’re going to like this town,” a friend says to me that night, over drinks at Bogobiri.
“I like it already,” I say.
“You’ll like it more.”
The house band is playing high-life tunes; the lead singer, a middle-aged man in a denim shirt and a Yankees cap, has a lustrous face, like polished brass. Empty beer bottles litter the tables. It is early, the night barely starting. Assembled around our table are participants in an upcoming conference on intellectual property law, an attempt to bring coherence and structure to the chaotic Nigerian film industry. Among them is Chief Tony Okoroji, a local legend whose pioneering efforts to enforce copyright laws in the music industry have revolutionized the business. Hardly anyone can pass our table without paying Chief Tony his due reverence. The band, too, stops midway through the set to show its respect.
“We’d like to dedicate this one to the Imo State man in the house,” says the singer, spreading his palms out wide.
The drummer beats his snare; the guitarist plucks a few chords. Chief Tony tips back in his seat, his face lit with reverie: he is a boy again in the village of his youth. Eyes half-closed, sweat shining on his cheeks, he begins to mouth the words, then joins in at the chorus. Others take up the song with him. Their voices swell, carrying the band to the finish. As our applause peters out, Chief Tony rises, approaches the singer, and lays a thick wad of notes on the bill of his baseball cap. The singer brings his hands together. We whistle, show our appreciation. Another round of drinks appears on our table. Kunle Afolayan, Nigeria’s hottest filmmaker, arrives for a drink. So does Makin Soyinka, son of the Nobel Laureate. The night is deepening, the possibilities are endless. Joburg, my return ticket in five weeks’ time, seems a long way off.
Carried away by the festive spirit, I announce to the table my intention to see more of the country: to travel to the Delta, perhaps to the north, by bus. There is incredulous laughter, a shaking of heads. Kidnapping seems less a threat than an inevitability. I laugh, playing along. Wouldn’t it make for a great story, I ask.
“We’ll write the story,” says a friend, a lawyer, “after we raise the funds for you.”