Life in Surrey was punctuated by returns to Nigeria where I was born, enforced by parents who were hell-bent on neutralising my Britishness. Reaching our hometown of Port Harcourt involved stopping over at relatives’ houses in Lagos, and even at that young age the big-city charge of the then capital—its noise and swagger—was magnetic, repellent and always unforgettable.
The last time I took an extended trip here was in 2007, at the beginning of a four-and-a-half-month odyssey around the country for my book, Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. There was an organised chaos to it. I was intimidated by the density and impatience of the crowds and the kamikaze okada—motorcycle taxis—that flew at me from every direction. It was a steam pot of vehicle fumes and go-slow traffic jams which vendors weaved through, selling anything from squash rackets to books titled How to Get Fat, while self-styled preachers on the distinctive yellow danfo minibuses laid seven shades of Jesus on their fellow passengers. An urban jungle with the Darwinian survival ethos of Texas and the infrastructure of Kinshasa, where islands of staggering wealth existed without shame in a lake of poverty. If the state were a person, she would wear a Gucci jacket and a cheap hair weave, cruising in her Porsche over rain-flooded potholes. In a nation where the middle class had atrophied and the rich got rich very quickly, the poor were not irrational for believing that prosperity was within their reach. Nearly everyone had a side hustle, with even university lecturers supplementing their income by hawking Chinese cure-all teas on public transport. Rawness abounded.
A while later, I was preparing to fly back to the metropolis and found myself walking past Vogue writer Suzy Menkes in the airport. ‘Is this the departure gate for Lagos?’ she asked me. Twenty years ago I might have assumed she meant Lagos in Portugal. Why would the grande dame of British fashion journalism be visiting African Lagos, whose notoriety strikes fear into the hearts of delicate First World travellers? It turned out Menkes was heading to Lagos Fashion Week, her presence proof that society is opening its eyes to Nigeria’s largest city as a hub of design, art, industry and finance. But while its appeal is often overshadowed by infamy, it had been shining at the centre of its own universe long before the West began to take notice.
Recently, I returned to a Lagos that is better governed and more sedate in certain areas, a place with a vision of itself and where it wants to be. In prosperous neighbourhoods such as Victoria Island and Ikoyi, the okada have gone, replaced by keke—motorised tricycles—while the notorious yellow taxis now compete with Uber. One driver I encountered, Marcel, held a white-collar job at Guinness until he was laid off when the currency plummeted. Today, he uses his car to pay his bills and, compared to some yellow-taxi operators, he is intensely agreeable: the side hustle has been digitised, and the passenger-driver screaming matches of old are diplomatically muted now that both parties have app ratings to protect.
Marcel, like many Lagosians, isn’t originally from here. Nigerians from all corners are sucked into the force field of a city which, if an independent country, would have the fifth-largest economy in Africa. Forty percent of its residents are rumoured to be Igbo from the east—ironic considering it was the Igbos’ attempt at secession that sparked the Biafran civil war of the late 1960s. My parents fled from that very conflict and settled in Lagos for a few years. Since then, it has grown to accommodate people from all of Nigeria’s 200plus ethnic groups who live in a phenomenal harmony that is underappreciated by the world. “Lagos is Nigeria,” one resident tells me.
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