Welcome to Lagos, though you probably won’t pick Nigeria’s major city as the destination for your next vacation. Nor will any travel agency try to lure you there. There’s an absurd novel out there—Chris Cleave’s Little Bee—that would lead you to believe that Westerners take vacations in the Niger Delta, but they don’t. The entire plot of Cleave’s novel is ludicrous, but reviewers adored the novel the way they adore all African cultures, out of ignorance and at a safe distance. That said, Nigeria has its charms for many of us—much of it nostalgia about the past—and visiting Lagos can be a heady experience. Still, I wouldn’t recommend it for your first trip to the continent.
Nearly fifty years ago, when I first visited Lagos, the city had less than a million people. True, it was already experiencing growing pains—congested traffic and a problem with open sanitation because of its location on a lagoon. Last year, the BBC broadcast a three-part documentary called “Welcome to Lagos,” focusing mostly on the shanty towns that have sprung up during the last fifty years, increasing the city’s population to over ten million. Worse, 600,000 more people are moving to Lagos every year. The estimation is that by 2020, the city will have 25 million people squeezed into it.
The BBC series was met by outrage by many Nigerians, including Wole Soyinka, the country’s Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1986. Soyinka told the Guardian, “There was no sense of Lagos as what it is—a modern African state. What we had was jaundiced and extremely patronising. It was saying, ‘Oh, look at these people who can make a living from the pit of degradation.” Soyinka is right. “Welcome to Lagos” has little balance.
The documentary focuses on one of the city’s many beach areas, the lagoon itself, and a rubbish dump where people do, indeed, eek out a difficult survival. But the images are mainly sensational, dwelling on those areas of the city, where, unfortunately, three-quarters of the people reside. “Government Sanitation Day” is shown, the last Saturday of each month when all residents must help clean up their neighborhoods, but also the on-going demolition of many areas as part of the “Lagos Megacity Project.” Slums are torn down and parks are built, as the city eyes the future. The displacement of people is often inhumane.
More importantly—and the film shows this—Lagos’ slum dwellers are very upbeat about their lives, their future. One of the beach communities supports cinemas, churches and shops—not just shanty houses. There’s a raw energy depicted by the people as they go about their daily lives, a sense of resilience and expectation. One of the older men who lives on the beach says, “You have to be wise to live in Lagos,” meaning smart, but he also adds, “It’s a great place to live.” Various international polling organizations have revealed that Nigerians are some of the most optimistic people in the world.
A man who lives with his family on a house built on stilts in the lagoon has devised a way of raising fish inside an ingeniously built enclosure. He’s proud of his enormous family and his success, and he insists that his entire family eat together each night. But this same man—because of the way the sequence has been edited—also shows the worst of what might be called the documentary’s sensationalism. At the end of the first hour, the camera depicts him inside an enclosure that is obviously his toilet. “If you shit here,” he observes, “the water will wash it away.” Did the BBC need to have his observation be the last spoken dialogue of the first sequence? You will have to answer that question for yourself. Because of the controversy generated by “Welcome to Lagos,” the documentary is unavailable as a DVD (nor was it shown on American TV), but you can watch the entire sequence is shorter pieces on YouTube. Simply Google the title of the documentary, and you’ll be able to watch the three hours of the city’s rapidly growing chaos.
Sefi Atta’s wise second novel, Swallow, is set to the city’s heartbeat, sharing some of the BBC’s sentiments. Tolani Ajao, the main character, describes the street where she lives in Lagos as follows: “Our neighborhood smelled of burned beans and rotten egusi leaves. Juju and apala music, disco and reggae music jumped from windows, and fluorescent blue cylinders lit up the entire place past midnight. Ground-floor rooms were rented to businesses like tailors, notary publics, and palm wine bars; families took rooms upstairs. There were no telephone lines and we had regular power cuts. At the bottom of our walls were gutters, heavy with slime. On our walls we had pee stains over Post No Bills signs. Our sidewalks were blocked with broken-down cars, cement blocks, and rubbish piles as tall as trees.”
Although the city is raucous, Tolani and her house mate, Rose, navigate the city’s environment quite successfully. They’re middle class, both work at a big bank, and their obstacles are not the same as the slum dwellers who largely live from day-to-day. Rather, it’s middle and upper class Nigerians who make their lives uncomfortable, particularly their bosses who see the two women as fair game, even though these men are married. Tolani’s got a fiancé, who is quite faithful to her. Problem is that he doesn’t want to get married and he’s gullible, easily duped by others with more obvious street smarts. Rose has hopped from man to man.
When Rose loses her job at the bank for talking back to her boss and Tolani’s boyfriend loses all of the savings she loaned him for an investment, both women—who have been depicted as strong-willed and determined until that time—make an ill-advised decision to stabilize their finances. It’s at that moment when the novel’s intriguing title comes into focus. The two women can become “mules” and transport cocaine inside of condoms that they swallow. What follows is pretty rough stuff, not the least because of their difficulty in swallowing the condoms and a series of unexpected events.
Atta is unflinching in her scorn for powers that be in Lagos: not just the men behind the drug trade, but men in positions of power, even religious charlatans who pray on the ignorance of the weak. She’s also adept at making her novel more than a commentary on contemporary Lagos, since she includes numerous flashbacks to Tolani’s mother’s earlier conflicts with the all-but-taken-for-granted male-dominated society of a generation earlier.
Finally, Swallow becomes the perfect title for this always engaging narrative of women facing generational issues in a male-dominated society. Swallow your pride? Swallow your past? Swallow it and forget about the way you’re being abused?
Maybe that’s what you need to do to survive in Lagos. Swallow it all and try to get beyond the place where you stand.
BBC: Welcome to Lagos
By Sefi Atta
Interlink Books, 295 pp., $15
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.