A Lagosian State of Mind
I travelled to Lagos in April 2017, to visit a good friend from university.
Before travelling there, I had a vague sense of excitement backed up by solid socio-economic facts – Lagos is Africa’s most populous city and its biggest economic region. And, if my Nigerian friends in the UK were anything to go by, I expected Lagos to be full of colour, culture and character.
If only I could get past the airport officials upon arrival, I would have a shot at enjoying myself. However, it turns out that getting into Lagos wasn’t too difficult (costly visa process aside). It was leaving that was hard; in part because the airport staff found plenty of reasons for me to give them ‘something’ before they’d let me leave with all my possessions, but most importantly because Lagos is an exciting place to be and I wish I could have stayed a while longer.
I was mostly based around the wealthier parts of the city; Lekki, Ikoyi and Victoria Island. I must admit, in these areas it doesn’t feel like there are 21 million Lagosians hustling around you. Yet, regardless of the area I was in, wealth was a close neighbour to poverty – the good, the bad and the ugly. I was used to seeing vast social inequalities from my prior trips to Kampala and Nairobi, but the main difference in Lagos is that the wealthy areas were very wealthy indeed.
I spent most of my time around an ambitious group of young Nigerians who had either lived or studied abroad. They were busy creating their own versions of Lagos, pursuing their own ideas of leisure and culture in community; whether it was a film club, a surf club, a skate shop, a swim club, a juicing company, an art exhibition or a film project, they were creating their own rhythms of alternative culture. These ventures are significant generative acts because they extend society further, creating extra cultural space for young Nigeria to grow into.
Lagos is bursting with creativity, intelligence, vision and a ‘just do it’ entrepreneurial spirit. Nigerians travel all over the world and the diaspora return with many commercial ideas that are tested on the large market. The plethora of things to do in Lagos was very impressive. Yet in the same breath, Nigeria is also proof of the need for collective action to channel these talents and experiences into improvements that can benefit the greatest number of people. How can one of the biggest oil producers in the world have multiple power cuts a day? How can a city with so many mansions and 4x4s accept sub-standard infrastructure? How can a country that advertises church conferences like rock concerts tolerate such levels of corruption from its public officials? From speaking to people about these contradictions, one gets a sense that anything is possible in Nigeria if only the government gets its act together. Yet when these conversations are probed further, the political problems of the country would somehow be traced back to the very roots of the nation in a semi-pathological or self-conscious way. On my Air France flight back to Europe I watched an excellent independent film ‘Green White Green’ which reflected poignantly on this narrative.
During the day I would spend some time watching cable television. TV often reveals the mainstream interests of a nation – its way of thinking, conversing, dressing, aspiring and laughing. I saw a staggering wealth of Nollywood films, daytime soaps and afrobeat music videos. It was interesting to see familiar genres I knew from the UK/US being interpreted in interesting ways; the family drama series, the hip hop music video, the romcom. I genuinely think the wider Nigerian creative economy can become world class within a generation – whether it’s art galleries, fashion, literature, music or film. In the words of Asa, at her memorable concert in Eko Hotel, “People are coming here from all over the world because they like what we have”. Nigerian media is already consumed all around the continent. However, I also saw shows from other African countries on Nigerian cable TV. It is my hope that these forms of inter-African dialogue, mediated by TV screens, will be the precursor for long-lasting and more tangible inter-African trade.
Now that I have been to Lagos, it does feel like I’ve earned my stripes. Travelling the rest of Africa doesn’t seem as daunting as it once did. I am eternally grateful to my good friend and his gracious family for their amazing hospitality, prayers and love. More than all the other fantastic things there are to see and do in Lagos, I would want to come back and practice my Pidgin English interjections – Howfar! Abie! Oga! Sha!