Esquire (UK)

Lagos by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


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 evergrowin­g 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.

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 toofew 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 trafficfre­e, 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.

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. Highend 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?

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 tuckedin 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?

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 handmaking 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.

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