Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lagos: The City of Dreams

This is the unedited, emotionally-fueled very first draft of an article that appeared in Mahala 4, 2011. After reflection, this piece is just what I was feeling at the time, most of which I still feel, but can't be taken as a factual depiction of Lagos or Nigeria - I was only there for three days and therefore my explorations were very limited. Rather than seeing it as a critique of others, I see it as a projection of my own inner battles onto the subject matter.
I was tired. We’d barely slept three hours when we landed in Lagos at 10:30 AM local time. There was a raving lunatic of a praise singer on the plane who burst into full song halfway through the flight, and continued despite the side-eyeing. My boss pointed out a burnt out carcass of half a Boeing on the runway. It’s time like these that I wish I were Catholic so that I could grab for the instant comfort of a rosary.  Alas, all I could do was suck it up and be a man amongst giants.

There was an awkwardly nervous energy in the customs queue. I could hear the thoughts running through all of our minds – basically, “we’re fucked.” All my papers were legit and yet I still feared the worst. A plain-clothed Nigerian guy walked up to a sheepish looking Indian guy (probably from Kolkata by the look of things) and whispered some instructions. “Dodgy,” I told my boss. She shrugged. We walked past the duo in the lobby and I overheard the Nigerian guy asking, “How much did you pay?” – it wasn’t all in my prejudiced imagination.

Once we got out the airport, the aura became much more relaxed. For the three days I spent in Lagos, the government officials, policemen and military troopers scared me the most – with their rifles and cold eyes. Nigeria has been and still is a quasi-military regime. The ordinary people are warm, welcoming and friendly except when I whipped my camera out – perhaps they fear the authorities just as much and probably assumed I must have been a spy: dubbel-0-ses-en-twentig: Ho$h Sonop! No. I am a communication strategist here to find out more about Nigerian motivations – what’s all the hype about?

Lagos is a city of over 10 million people and its pretty evident – there are people everywhere. It’s a flat city with few high-rise buildings and no mountains in sight. Lagos is actually a series of islands connected to The Mainland. Victoria Island (V.I. as the local hipsters call it) is like Manhattan City in the 19th century (in terms of infrastructure), with cell phones, SUVs and all the other markers of so-called modernity.

When MTN took the big gamble on the Nigerian economy in 2001, they struck a jackpot, allegedly selling SIM cards for $200 a pop, or something crazy like that. The Nigerians, desperately seeking ‘civilization’ and access to the global world, lapped it all up. Rumour has it that MTN Nigeria not MTN-anywhere-else sponsored the World Cup in 2010, we’re talking about big-boy money here.

Ever since the MTN success story, Nigeria has become seen as a goldmine, for anyone brave and smart enough to make it work. The same applies to the residents who flock to V.I. in the hope of getting their hands on their portion of the riches – building a makeshift community on the lagoon using rubbish to reclaim the land from the ocean. The entrepreneurial spirit is more than alive in Lagos; it has found a new home here.

From the okadas (motorbike taxis) to the event promoters to the street hawkers – everyone is on a hustle. Moët is the most popular drink in clubs and it is drunk like cooldrink – like Slovenian bar manager said: “Nigerians have no respect for Moët.” Entertainment and fashion are the hot industries to be in, with Lagos being more about the music, whereas Abuja is home to the massive Nollywood industry (now bigger than Hollywood and second to Bollywood), or so I’m told. Lagos is about who’s-who, what’s the hottest trend and how much you spent on that bottle of imported liquor. It’s much like Johannesburg, in many ways, and any other big city for that matter, but it’s just a lot more visceral here.

I went to Lagos with a romantic notion in my mind, the rush of the hustle and the potential of Africa to rise to the top of globe. I had a secret wish to become an overnight Nollywood star and leave my somewhat average life in South Africa behind me. I foresaw palatial regalia, as Montle would say.

And this there was, everywhere. Everything from the shower to the carpet of our guesthouse was palatialised – in the tacky sort of décor sense that you find at hotels like 15 on Orange. However, all of this regalia is smack-bang in the face of a crumbling, uncared for, polluted city with an open sewer system and very little being done about it. They say Abuja is much nicer, more organized and well-planned. Apparently, the government in Lagos is different to the national government so Lagos gets no love or money. Fair enough. But with all the money in Lagos no one can tell me they can’t find a way to at least clean the streets. The classic collective action problem: everyone waiting for someone else to do something about it.

I’m not attempting to demean my Nigerian brothers and sisters (for lack of better vocabulary); they only showed me what seems true for the whole of Africa – because they are the most extreme example of what I have come across in most of my travels. The lesson I learnt is nothing new, I studied the modernization theory at university but the academics missed the point slightly. The issue is first psychological and then manifests itself economically and politically.

The psychology of Africa is that of a kidnapped person who ends up loving and needing the kidnapper. West Africa was the primary source of African slaves to the USA. The strongest of its people were shipped and sold to American businessmen. The decedents of those slaves carried the African beat into their music – blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop – but they infused it with the American credos, losing their own culture (through ritualized abuse and torture) and ultimately bowed down to the dream of ‘becoming the Master.’ And now, Nigerian artists and youth are looking to the music video kings and queens for their inspiration – the vicious cycle of identity poverty.

Everyone is so intoxicated by the music video lifestyle that they seem to ignore reality, or at least act as though it doesn’t exist. The reality for Africa is that we still need to get the basics right. We need to build sustainable cities before building flashy hotels. We need to value our culture and heritage – not in antiquated way but in a relevant and progressive way – or else we suffer the worst form of poverty, lack of self-worth. We’re rushing to live the first-world life but all this leaves us with is the instant gratification of luxury products – Moët next to a pile of shit.

 A dream too big can blind the eyes.

Trying to be someone that you’re not is the classic symptom of low self-esteem, and narcissism is the usual response of the psyche to trauma. It is seems to me that as a continent we have still not yet addressed the trauma of colonization and the continued trauma inflicted by our own governments who basically followed in their footsteps, almost literally wearing the same suits – like my favourite local poet, CaCo said: “It must be kak confusing to go from being the abused to doing the abusing.”

This narcissistic disease, present globally but most destructive locally, is the reason our politicians feel comfortable sleeping and making jokes in parliament, getting fat and living removed from reality behind the safety of their estates – the DA included in case the liberals got all excited for a moment there. It is the reason our business people feel no pain in continuing to treat mine workers as technical slaves, units of production in the profit maximization equation. And it’s the reason we all (myself included) sit on the sideline bitching on twitter, but going on as if we have nothing to do with it. I fear that we need to put our music video dreams aside and deal with reality, before the reality deals with us.

I feel as if we need to recognize the wealth that lies in African humanity. I was inspired by the warmth, tenacity and positivity of the people in Lagos – their approach to life is full of power and potential. All we need to do as a continent is channel this energy toward the real things that really matter – health, community and human development – all the basic tenets of the mythical African way; it is not something of the past, it is the future. The Anglo-American sociocultural model of hyper-individualism and materialism is on the brink of collapse; let’s get smart and stop following them blindly into self-destruction.

I met a guy from Accra on my last night in Lagos who called himself Rolex. When I told him how much I love Ghana, he promptly responded: “I love money. That’s why I’m here, in Lagos.” If we continue to love the money, cars and other meaningless items more than ourselves then we are destined to an eternity of slavery to the neocolonial project; our downfall, and their victory. Our debt, their profit.

Hell, we’ll probably drink a bottle of Moët to that too!

Thoughts, words, fears, hopes, insecurities and photography by Takezito.