Exploring the many faces of Lagos

Yes, we are coastal and really should be investing more in water transportation instead of choking our roads with more cars than they can carry, giving juice to our infamy as a traffic-jam capital. Yes, there are 17 million of us and sometimes this means there aren’t enough houses to go around (or not enough competent officials in the Works and Housing Ministry, or maybe explain the problem is never this simple).

But these aren’t the only songs on the album of our lives. There are many more stories about us in this megalopolis that admittedly should no longer be in its infancy. There are many stories about us, of our lights and sounds, of the threads and stitches that bind our industry, of our histories, of our lives today. These stories exist in little pockets and corners you don’t hear about.

In 1997, in Ikoyi, an affluent suburb of Lagos, I used to take long walks on Glover Road, Macpherson Street and McGregor Avenue – the names relics of an English colonial past. I’d walk past tall palm trees, houses with large front lawns and gardeners working dutifully with their shears and mowers. The palm trees’ leaves swished and bent to the music of the wind. The houses had tall, jet-black, foreboding gates and taller walls with too many bricks to count. There was calligraphic lettering on the walls that showed the allotted number of each house. There was almost always a Beware of Dogs sign beside the number.

Everybody seemed to stay indoors. Cars would pass by at long intervals. The sand was brushed to the sides of the concrete roads, which bore no open wounds. There was almost always electricity. A dictator was our self-appointed king at the time and bar a courageous few, we were an obedient, silenced and fenced-in people.

My siblings and I found our protest against the system at the video store at the end of our street in titles like Titanic. It was our way of breaking the fence, of taking a stand. I wasn’t allowed to watch the movie because I was just seven, but I watched it anyway. I marvelled at the simplicity of Rose and Jack’s lives – how their tragedy was being kept apart by social class structures and how Jack, like thousands of other travellers on board, dies as a result of someone else’s carelessness. I wondered if they knew anyone who had been killed as Ken Saro-Wiwa had for the crime of fighting for his people.

My siblings and I also protested in our own way by listening to the decadent rhythms of Sir Shina Peters, the wise strums of King Sunny Ade and the brazen Afrobeat recriminations of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. We would sometimes turn the record player on after finishing our homework or after watching the 7pm news. Both were considered sombre assignments, after which a distraction was essential – the first because we didn’t want to dwell on the correctness of our answers and the second because we didn’t want to dwell on the reports of disappearances, dead bodies on the streets and mass poverty.

Lagos was wellbeing. Lagos was the venom. Lagos was the cure.

Then my parents divorced. Life changed. We moved to the Lagos Mainland, to an area with tin roofs and congested housing. In 2005, as I grew up I’d take short walks in Fadeyi, Onipanu and Palmgrove. The apartment buildings huddled close together like Lego blocks. There would be half-naked children playing in the street – in its muddy holes and by its constipated gutters – beside the many stalls and kiosks that sold tomatoes, smoked fish, Indomie Noodles, cigarettes, airtime, eggs and expired drugs.

Our neighbour was a mosque and my alarm was its 5am call to prayer. “Sometimes I wish mummy stayed with daddy,” I would think. Lagos can amplify your circumstances and remind you of exactly where you stand on the social ladder.

I went to secondary school in Yaba, home to the University of Lagos and Yaba College of Technology. On its busy streets, dotted with computer literacy centres, schools, language-training advertisements, I learnt to be properly positioned at the bus stop so that when the yellow and black danfo bus headed to Fadeyi rolled in, I’d run up and deftly jump in ahead of other eager commuters.

I also learnt to smartly negotiate hordes of people at the busy Yaba Market, where clothes, baby ointments, carpets, forex, mani-pedis and timed rounds of sex with prostitutes were on sale. I also learnt to avoid the scourge of pickpockets.

Today Yaba is home to a new kind of school – record-breaking, globally acclaimed start-ups, raising world-class technology leaders.

Lagos is the diamond. Lagos is the rough.

Today, I am at Rele, a contemporary art gallery in Onikan. The walls are lined with bronze, canvas, photographs, plaster casts, wood, paper and lithographs – all collectively worth millions of naira. Victor Ehikhamenor, whose work is exhibited here, was invited to the Venice Biennale.

I will soon leave the gallery for a dinner in honour of a young fashion designer launching his label. I will drive on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi, past the City Mall where international brands such as TM Lewin and Pierre Cardin have set up shop. Not far from here are the Ermenegildo Zegna and Hugo Boss stores with their shiny windows. Many more are coming, I hear. News of Nigeria’s burgeoning middle class was their invitation.

I will drive past many developments in progress – luxury condominiums, skyscraper office buildings, whose asking price I hear starts in the region of $1 million per year, and I’ll wonder who will be leasing or (gasp) buying them.

I will listen to Orezi’s Shuperu, which will tell me, as usual, that I must hustle, try everything and then perhaps good things will come my way. He reminds me that one only lives once. When I get to the dinner, there will probably be open gossip about last weekend’s much-photographed wedding of Dolapo Oni to Prince Gbite Sijuwade, where royalty wedded entertainment. There’ll be talk about how much was spent on the champagne, live band and the bride’s make-up.

There will be quieter gossip about this young designer, for whom we are all gathered. There’ll be speculation about how well he’ll fare as he joins the now-saturated pool of local designers, fighting for the attention of the same consumers. Some may bemoan the lack of a textile industry that could at least have supported his work. Some may scoff at the viability of fashion design as a career to begin with.

Lagos is reaching for the stars. Lagos is the song that croons: “if at first you don’t succeed…”

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