Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has lived in Lagos on and off for a decade. In an essay for Esquire’s new Travel & Adventure issue, she reflects on life in Nigeria’s biggest city
Lagos will not court you. It is a city that is what it is. I have lived part-time in Lagos for 10 years and I complain about it each time I return from my home in the US — its allergy to order, its stultifying traffic, its power cuts. I like, though, that nothing about Lagos was crafted for the tourist, nothing done to appeal to the visitor. Tourism has its uses, but it can mangle a city, especially a developing city, and flatten it into a permanent shape of service: the city’s default becomes a simpering bow, and its people turn the greyest parts of themselves into colourful props. In this sense, Lagos has a certain authenticity because it is indifferent to ingratiating itself; it will treat your love with an embrace, and your hate with a shrug. What you see in Lagos is what Lagos truly is.
And what do you see? A city in a state of shifting impermanence. A place still becoming. In newer Lagos, houses sprout up on land reclaimed from the sea, and in older Lagos, buildings are knocked down so that ambitious new ones might live. A street last seen six months ago is different today, sometimes imperceptibly so — a tiny store has appeared at a corner — and sometimes baldly so, with a structure gone, or shuttered, or expanded. Shops come and go. Today, a boutique’s slender mannequin in a tightly pinned dress; tomorrow, a home accessories shop with gilt-edged furniture on display.
Admiralty Road is cluttered, pulsing, optimistic. It is the business heart of Lekki, in the highbrow part of Lagos called The Island. Twenty years ago, Lekki was swampland and today the houses in its estates cost millions of dollars. It was supposed to be mostly residential but now it is undecided, as though partly trying to fend off the relentless encroachment of commerce, and partly revelling in its ever-growing restaurants, nightclubs and shops.
I live in Lekki, but not in its most expensive centre, Phase 1. My house is farther away, close to the behemoth that is the oil company Chevron’s headquarters. A modest house, by Lekki standards. “It will be under water in 30 years,” a European acquaintance, a diplomat in Lagos, said sourly when I told him, years ago, that I was building a house there. He hated Lagos and spoke of Lagosians with the resentment of a person who disliked the popular kids in the playground but still wanted to be their friend. I half-shared his apocalyptic vision; he was speaking to something unheeding in Lagos’s development. Something almost reckless.
So forward-looking is Lagos, headlong, rushing, dissatisfied in its own frenzy, that in its haste it might very well sacrifice long-term planning or the possibility of permanence. Or the faith of its citizens. One wonders always: have things been done properly? Eko Atlantic City, the new ultra-expensive slice of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean, has already been mostly sold to developers, and promises Dubai-like infrastructure, but my reaction remains one of scepticism. I cannot stop imagining the ocean one day re-taking its own.
My house had required some arcane engineering, sand-filling, levelling, to prevent the possibility of sinking. And during the construction, my relatives stopped by often to check on things. If you’re building a house you must be present, otherwise the builders will slap-dash your tiling and roughen your finishing. This is a city in a rush and corners must be cut.
“Nigeria is to Africa what the US is to the Americas: it dominates Africa’s cultural imagination”
Lagos has an estimated population of 23.5m — estimated because Nigeria has not had a proper census in decades. Population numbers determine how much resources states receive from the federal government, and census-taking is always contested and politicised. Lagos is expected to become, in the next 10 years, one of the world’s mega-cities, a term that conceals in its almost triumphant preface the chaos of overpopulation. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country — one-in-five Africans is Nigerian — and Lagos is Nigeria’s commercial centre, its cultural centre, the aspirational axis where dreams will live or die.
And so people come. From other parts of Nigeria, from other West African countries, from other African countries, they come. Skilled workers come from countries as far away as South Africa while less-skilled workers are more likely to come from the countries that share a border with Nigeria. My gate man, Abdul, who has worked with me for six years, is a striking young Muslim man from the Republic of Niger, Nigeria’s northern neighbour. In his small ancestral village, Lagos was seen as the city of shining lights. He longed to leave and find work in Lagos. To live in Lagos and return twice a year with the sparkle of Lagos on his skin. Nigeria is to Africa what the United States is to the Americas: it dominates Africa’s cultural imagination in a mix of admiration, resentment, affection and distrust. And the best of Nigeria’s contemporary culture — music, film, fashion, literature and art — is tied in some way to Lagos.
If Lagos has a theme it is the hustle — the striving and trying. The working class does the impossible to scrape a living. The middle class has a side hustle. The banker sews clothes. The telecommunications analyst sells nappies. The school teacher organises private home lessons. Commerce rules. Enterprising people scrawl their advertisements on public walls, in chalk: “Call for affordable generator”. “I am buying condemned inverter”. “Need a washerman?”
Perhaps this is why corporations are not viewed with the knowing suspicion so common in the West. “Branding” is a word entirely free of irony, and people use it to refer even to themselves. “I want to become a big brand,” young people brazenly say. Big companies adopt state schools and refurbish them, they organise deworming exercises in poor areas, they award prizes to journalists. Even the too-few green spaces in public areas are branded, a burst of beautiful shrubs and plants defaced with the logo of whatever bank or telecommunications company is paying for its upkeep.
This is a city of blurred boundaries. Religion and commerce are intertwined. Lagos has a Muslim population but, like all of Southern Nigeria, it is a predominantly Christian city. Drive past a gleaming modern building and it might be a bank or a church. Huge signboards advertise church programmes with photos of nicely dressed pastors, and on Sundays the city is as close as it can get to being traffic-free, because Lagosians are at rest, back home from morning service. Pentecostal Christianity is fashionable, prayers are held before corporate board meetings, and “We thank God” is an appropriate response to a compliment, or even merely to the question, “How are you?”
This Christianity is selectively conservative, it glances away from government corruption, preaches prosperity, casts ostentatious wealth as a blessing, and disapproves of socially progressive norms. Women are to submit to their husbands. Hierarchies matter. God wants you to be rich. But it also unites Lagosians; people who attend the same church become surrogate families, and together they attend large vigil services more exciting than music concerts, where urbane men and glamorous women sing praise-songs deep into the night and in the morning return to their well-paid jobs in the high rises of The Island.
In Lagos, ethnicity both matters and doesn’t matter. Lagos is ancestral Yoruba land and Yoruba is spoken widely, but it is also Nigeria’s polyglot centre, and the dream-seekers who have come from all parts of the country communicate by Nigeria’s official language of English and unofficial lingua franca of Pidgin English.
Some areas are known as ethnic — the Hausa sector where working-class Northern Muslims live, the areas with large markets run by people from my own southeastern Igbo ethnic group — but none of them are affluent. With wealth, overt appeals to ethnicity retreat.
My cousin lives in a lower middle-class area, heavily populated by Igbo traders. Once, on my way to visit her, the car stuck in traffic, a hawker pressing his packs of chewing gum against my window. Gabriel my driver of 10 years said to me, “Ma, your bag.” A simple reminder. I swiftly moved my handbag from the back seat to the floor, pushed it under my seat.
My cousin was robbed in traffic on her way home from work, a gun to her head, her bag and phone taken, and beside her people kept slow-driving, face-forward. And now she has a fake bag and a fake phone that she leaves on display in her front seat whenever she drives home, because robbers target women driving alone, and if she has nothing to give them they might shoot her.
My brother-in-law was also robbed not far from here. He was in traffic on a bright afternoon, his windows down, and someone shouted from the outside, something about his car, and he looked out of the window and back to the road and in that brief sliver of time a hand slid through the other window and his phone was gone. He told the story, later, with a tinge of admiring defeat.
“To live in Lagos is to live on distrust. You assume you will be cheated”
He, a real Lagosian who had lived in Lagos for 40 years and knew its wiles and its corners, and yet they had managed to fool him. He had fallen for the seamless ingenuity of Lagos’s thieves. To live in Lagos is to live on distrust. You assume you will be cheated, and what matters is that you avert it, that you will not be taken in by it. Lagosians will speak of this with something close to pride, as though their survival is a testament to their fortitude, because Lagos is Lagos. It does not have the tame amiability of Accra. It is not like Nairobi where flowers are sold in traffic.
In other parts of Lagos, especially the wealthy areas on The Island, I wouldn’t hide my handbag in traffic, because I would assume myself to be safe. Here, security is status. Lagos is a city of estates; groups of houses, each individually walled off, are enclosed in yet another walled fence, with a central gate and a level of security proportional to the residents’ privilege. The estates not blessed with wealth lock their gates before midnight, to keep out armed robbers. Nightclub-goers living there know not to return home until 5am when the gates are opened. Expensive estates have elaborate set-ups at their entrances: you park your car and wait for the security guards to call whomever you’re visiting, or you are given a visitor’s card as identification, or you are asked to open your boot, or a jaunty guard walks around your car with a mirror lest you have a bomb strapped underneath.
In a city like Mumbai, which is as complicated as Lagos, it is easy to understand why the expensive parts are expensive just by driving through them, but in Lagos one might be confused. Mansions sit Buddha-like behind high gates but the streets still have potholes, and are still half-sunken in puddles during the rainy season and still have the ramshackle kiosk in a corner where drivers buy their lunch. High-end estates still have about them an air of the unfinished. Next to a perfectly landscaped compound with ornate gates might sit an empty lot, astonishingly expensive, and overgrown with weeds and grass.
I live in Lekki and dream of Old Ikoyi. British colonial government officers lived in Old Ikoyi starting in the Twenties, a time of mild apartheid when Africans could not live there and could not go to the “white” hospital, and could not apply for high-profile jobs. Today, Old Ikoyi has about it that stubborn, undeniable beauty that is the troubled legacy of injustice. With its leafy grounds, and trees leaning across the streets, it reminds me a little of my childhood in the small university town of Nsukka, an eight-hour drive from Lagos: quiet, restful, frangipani trees dotting the compound, purple bougainvillea climbing the walls.
And so I find myself wishing I lived in Old Ikoyi and mourning its slow disappearance. Gracious columned houses are being knocked down for tall apartment buildings and large homes with unintentionally baroque facades. “Beware of Lagos”, I heard often while growing up on the other side of Nigeria. Lagos was said to be a city of shallowness and phony people. There were many shimmering, mythical examples of this, stories repeated in various permutations, with the characters from different ethnic groups, and small details changed: the suave man who drives a Range Rover but is penniless and lives on the couches of friends; the beautiful woman who parades herself as an accomplished business person but is really a con artist. And who would blame them, those self-reinventors so firmly invested in their own burnished surfaces?
“You can talk your way into almost any space in Lagos if you look the part and drive the right car”
Here, appearance matters. You can talk your way into almost any space in Lagos if you look the part and drive the right car. In many estates, the guards fling open the gates when the latest model of a particular brand of car drives up, the questions they have been trained to ask promptly forgotten. But approach in an old Toyota and they will unleash their petty power.
Snobbery here is unsubtle. Western designer logos are so common among elite Lagosians that style journalists write of Gucci and Chanel as though they were easily affordable by a majority of the people. Still, style is democratic. Young working-class women are the most original: they shop in open markets, a mass of secondhand clothes spread on the ground under umbrellas, and they emerge in the perfect pair of skinny jeans, the right flattering dresses. Young working-class men are not left behind, in their long-sleeved tucked-in shirts, their crisp traditional matching tunics and trousers. And so Lagos intimidates with its materialism, its insolence, its beautiful people.
A young woman told me that when she was considering entering the Miss Nigeria beauty pageant she decided not to try out in Lagos, even though she lived there. “Too many fine babes in Lagos,” she said. And so she went to Enugu, her ancestral hometown, where she believed her chances were better.
Young people complain of the dating scene. Nobody is honest, they say. Men and women perform. Everyone is looking for what is shinier and better. “Why do you choose to live in Lagos, then?” I once asked a young woman. Every time I ask this of a young person dissatisfied with Lagos, they invariably look puzzled to be asked, as though they assumed it to be obvious they would never consider leaving. Everybody complains about Lagos but nobody wants to leave. And why do I live here? Why didn’t I build my house in Enugu, for example, a slow, clean, appealing city in the southeast, close to where I grew up?
“Lagos has a dynamism. An absence of pallor. You can feel it in the uncomfortable humid air”
It is clichéd to speak of the “energy” of Lagos, and it can sometimes sound like a defensive retort in the face of the city’s many infrastructural challenges. But Lagos does have a quality for which “energy” is the most honest description. A dynamism. An absence of pallor. You can feel it in the uncomfortable humid air — the talent, the ingenuity, the bursting multi-ness of everything, the self-confidence of a city that knows it matters.
The only real functioning Nigerian port is in Lagos, and business people from all over the country have no choice but to import their goods through there. Nigerian business is headquartered in Lagos; not only the banks, and the telecommunications and oil and advertising companies, but also the emerging creative industries. Art galleries have frequent exhibitions of Nigeria’s best artists. Fashion Week is here. The concerts are the biggest and noisiest. Nollywood stars might not shoot their films in Lagos — it’s too expensive — but they premiere them in Lagos. The production of culture works in service to Lagos’s unassailable cool.
There are some things of conventional touristic appeal. The last gasp of Brazilian architecture in the oldest parts of Lagos, houses built by formerly enslaved Africans who, starting in the 1830s, returned from Brazil and settled in Lagos. The Lekki market, where beautiful sculptures and ornaments blend with kitsch, and where the sellers speak that brand of English reserved for foreigners. The National Museum with its carefully tended flowers outside the building and inside an air of exquisite abandon. The Lekki Conservation Centre, a small nature reserve, with bounteous greenery and some small animals. The first time I visited, with a friend, I asked the ticketing person what we might hope to see. “No lions or elephants,” she said archly. The highlights are the gorgeous birds, and the monkeys, and the sheer surprise of an oasis of nature in the middle of Lagos’s bustle. The nearby beaches are dirty and overcrowded but the beaches one reaches by taking a speedboat across the waters are clean, dotted with beach houses, and flanked by palms.
The restaurants in Lagos are owned by a Lebanese “mafia”, a friend once told me, only half-joking. Nigeria has a significant Lebanese presence. They very rarely inter-marry with Nigerians, and I sense in some Lebanese employers a unique scorn for their Nigerian staff, but their roots in Nigeria are firm. They are Lebanese-Nigerians. And they own many restaurants, and their mark is obvious in the ubiquity of the shawarma. Young people go out for a shawarma. Kids ask for shawarmas as treats.
There are, of course, Nigerian-owned restaurants. The chains with basic, not untasty food, the mid-level restaurants that dispense with frills and serve the jollof rice one might have cooked at home, and the high-end restaurants that labour under the weight of their own pretensions. There are quirky shops that cater mostly to a new Lagos tribe, the returnees: young people who have returned from schooling in the US or Europe with new ideas, and might for example suggest that a thing being “handmade” were remarkable, as though hand-making things were not the Nigerian norm. They represent a new globalised Nigerian, situated in Nigeria, au fait about the world.
It is the breathing human architecture of Lagos that thrills me most. For a novelist, no city is better for observing human beings. On Sundays, when the roads are not clogged up, I like to be driven around Lagos, headed nowhere, watching the city.
Past bus stops full of people with earphones stuck in their ears. A roadside market with colourful bras swinging from a balcony, wheelbarrows filled with carrots, a table laid out with wigs. Fat, glorious watermelons piled high. Hawkers selling onions, eggs, bread. In gutters clogged with sludgy, green water and cans and plastic bags, I imagine the possibility of a clean city. Lagos is full of notices. “This house is not for sale” is the most common, scrawled on walls, a warning to those who might be duped by real estate shysters. Near a mosque, where a fashionable young woman in jeans and a headscarf walks past, is this in green letters: “Chief Imam of Lagos Says No Parking Here”. From a bridge, I look across at shirtless men fishing on flimsy canoes. The secondhand books spread on low tables have curled covers, copies of Mastering Mathematics beside How to Win Friends and Influence People.
On these drives, I think of how quickly fights and friendships are formed in Lagos. A yellow danfo bus has hit another and both conductors have leapt out for a swift fight. People make friends while queuing — at banks, airports, bus stops — and they unite over obvious jokes and shared complaints.
At night, there are swathes of Lagos that are a gloomy grey from power cuts, lit only by a few generator-borne lights, and there are areas that are bright and glittering. And in both one sees the promise of this city: that you will find your kin, where you fit, that there is a space somewhere in Lagos for you.