I have spent the greater part of the last six months in and out of Lagos working on old and new hustles. It’s a city I have grown to love and hate in almost equal measures. Attractive as it is with its unlimited opportunities, it also drives me crazy with its lack of order and craziness especially when compared to other cities of its size, and I feel a few pounds lighter each time I exit the Murtala Muhammed International? Airport (after concocting different tales of why I am not giving them anything-ranging from I am a student, aid worker, corper etc.)
As I hustle around the world, I am often asked to describe what living in Lagos is like, and I struggle with how best to explain the contradictions, the boundless energy and the Nepa-induced early nights, the swarm of people day and night, and the lack of a public transport system.
One description i have found interestingly apt (while a bit controversial) is Robert Neuwirth’s description of Lagos in his 2012 book “Stealth of Nations” in which he describes the global rise of the informal economy. I reproduce excerpts from the book below, but strongly encourage you to get a copy!
“To many, Lagos is the urban nadir, the vilest, most squalid and criminal place on the planet. Basil Davidson, the British-born historian of Africa whose love for the continent is palpable in all his works, recalled his emotions when he first touched down in what was then the Nigeria capital back in the 1940s, when the city had a population of about two hundred thousand:” Lagos already seemed to me, as it still does, a perfectly horrible place to be, and anywhere else would be better.”
Lagos is, so the narrative goes, the most dangerous city that isn’t in a war zone, a metropolis of schemers, a dark, desperate, and duplicitous place where every encounter is a potential threat. It’s a story told over and over- and often parroted with perverse pride by Lagosians themselves.
“Today, the city is home to between 9 million and 17 million people, depending on where you draw the lines, and who’s doing the counting. Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities on the planet, with an estimated 3000 people arriving every day. Yet the infrastructure has not kept pace. This makes everything here seem supersized-the traffic jams worse than anywhere else, the pollution thicker, the poverty more appalling…….”
“…..The buses have no route signs, the taxis have no meters (you have to negotiate strenuously if you don’t want to be cheated), and, if there’s a tie-up, people might simply pull onto the wrong side of the road-flashing their lights or honking their horns- and blast the wrong way down the highway. On bad days, Lagos has a Victorian pall, and it seems impossible-and potentially dangerous- to breathe too deeply.”
“……….Lagos has no municipal water pipes. Unless the government suddenly gets a lot more foresighted and interested in investing in infrastructure, it never will. Instead, those who can afford it- and the majority of people can’t—drill deep wells (locals call them boreholes), and pump water up. They filter it, test it, and if tests as good, drink it. For those who don’t have the money, System D invented Pure Water.”
“At first glance- even at second and third- Lagos doesn’t appear to make sense…………………………………………………..”
“To a newcomer trying to take it all in, Lagos seems a vast and menacing swirl of humanity struggling for a buck……………………..
But when you have stayed put long enough, your view of Lagos changes. What had been an undifferentiated mess suddenly becomes sensible—or, perhaps more accurately, comprehensible.
The traffic jams remain intolerable, but at least, they are understandable in a city that has outgrown its colonial infrastructure. The feeling of threat remains, because with electricity seldom available, the nighttime landscape is a series of black holes set between feeble flares of light from the kerosene burners used by the few small-scale merchants who stay open late, but the tales of crime fall away- a part of history, but not current reality.
If Max Weber was right that the “city” is a marketplace, then Lagos is the absolute apotheosis of a city.”
“…Lagos is the world’s largest street market, and everything here——-from buying something to drinking a soda on the street to simply talking with your neighbor—is an exchange…………
Trade may make Lagos seem frenzied and disorganized, it may sometimes appear aggressive and threatening, but trade built the city and continues to define its culture…………….
Spend enough time there and you come to realize that it is exactly this——–the irrepressible hubbub, the hyper-entrepreneurial give-and-take, the ceaseless frenzy of talk and exchange- that holds the city together.”
The author goes on to say great things about the entrepreneurial nature of Lagosians despite all the odds stacked against them, but I particularly found the above descriptions interesting (and fairly objective). What is your take?