In this series called #NaijaChat, we explore Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. We draw from our recent travels to two of Nigeria’s most important cities to highlight different aspects of the local culture. Using perspectives from Lagos and Abuja, we share insights into her people, their successes and struggles, and their future. We aim to start a social conversation and provide some insight to our readers about Nigeria.
Quote: Eneke the bird was asked why he was always on the wing and he replied: “Men have learned to shoot without missing their mark and I have learned to fly without perching on a twig.” – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, 1958
Part 1: Making sense of Nigeria: A Lagos Perspective
The dissonant sounds of a typical Lagos morning were jarring yet familiar; engines revving at 5 am as workers began the daily contest to beat traffic, the sonorous voice of the ogi (corn meal) seller as she extolled her wares and the tooting horn of the newspaper vendor announcing the day’s latest news.
From the small balcony overlooking the rooftops of Surulere, I watched the city awaken. I was home.
As I write this, Nigeria is currently in the grip of a crippling economic recession. The Nigerian Naira is in crisis. With foreign reserves depleted and a simultaneous drop in global oil prices (oil revenue accounts for over 80% of the country’s revenue), Nigeria’s mono-economy is teetering on the edge of a man-made precipice.
To further complicate matters, the government continues to grapple with the volatile security situations in Nigeria’s troubled North East (Boko Haram) and dysfunctional Niger Delta regions.
However, life goes on as best as it can. At Ojuelegba, a major bus garage in Lagos, danfo (mini bus) conductors call out routes to different parts of the city. “Ikeja, Maryland”, one shouts as his gruff voice competes against another screaming, “Ketu, Ojota, Mile 12!” In the intractable Lagos traffic, hawkers deftly weave between vehicles, avoiding calamity as they try to sell commuters everything from sausage rolls to household furniture.
To these ones, government is but a distant and hazy concept. They, like everyone else, must find their daily bread. Like a boxer who finds themselves backed up against the ropes, Nigerians keep punching above their weight.
This is one country where defeat is not an answer. The hustle is real.
Lesson from a Lagos runway
Lagos is home, it is the city of my birth. Its unbridled energy keeps drawing me back to its shores.
While Abuja may be the ‘heart of the nation’, Lagos is its soul. Its pulse indicates the healthiness or otherwise of the nation. This is the place Nigeria’s cacophony of hip hop musicians brag about, where bread hawkers become overnight celebrities and a city which has the ability to both frustrate and delight in equal measure.
We managed to obtain tickets to attend the 2016 Heineken Lagos Fashion and Design Week at the historic Federal Palace Hotel on Victoria Island. Successfully navigating bumper-to-bumper traffic, we arrived ahead of the stated time of 5:30 pm, a mistake in hindsight as the show did not begin until three hours later. However, the unscheduled interval provided an opportunity to watch the buzz and build-up.
From our vantage point, a sea of camera light bulbs flashed endlessly, capturing the vibrant colours and eclectic styles on display. A DJI Phantom drone hovered above like a monitoring spirit, capturing the drama below.
Beautiful, bone-thin women preened and pouted, while chiselled young men made up the rest of the cast of compelling characters. In trendy Victoria Island, skinny seemed to be the new ‘cool’ and the voluptuousness of the Nigerian woman was a rare sight.
Activity in the main tent picked up eventually. Nigerian designers including Kiki Kamanu, Deji Eniola, Amede, Fruché and Gozel Green showcased their talent, ingenuity and creativity, combining local and imported fabrics and materials to create attention grabbing collections. A bevy of beauties and male models strutted soullessly up and down the catwalk feeding the audience’s hunger for Instagram and Twitter posts.
However, beyond the fashion was an undercurrent of innovation and productivity that somehow manages to sustain itself despite a lackluster economic environment and the absence of policy-driven support for small businesses. This was the true Nigerian spirit on display.
A conservation story with potential
Lagos is one of the fastest growing cities in the world with a population touching 15 million at the last count. This puts unhealthy pressure on its (mostly) colonial era transportation infrastructure and the residents who have to use it.
A combination of incessant traffic jams, noise, pollution from generators and car exhaust fumes and a creaking waste disposal system creates a feeling of being in a cauldron. Lagos is a city desperately in need of lungs and Lagosians a people desperately needing to breathe.
Over the weekend, we headed to the Lekki Conservation Centre, located on a peninsula along the extensive Lagos Atlantic coastline. Established in 1990 by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, the primary aim of the project is to preserve biodiversity in an urban environment and promote ecotourism.
With sponsorship from corporate bodies, the centre provides a much-needed green artery for the city. It is home to a variety of animal and plant life as well as the ‘longest forest canopy walkway in Africa’. This was the closest thing to a natural park we would find in this part of the country.
A young woman greeted us as we walked into the main auditorium. With no proper reception or induction process, we parted with two thousand naira (approximately US$7) and were left to figure out our own way around the place.
A raised wooden walkway meandered through lush wetlands where we spotted a few monkeys. Without any material to refer to, we had no idea what species we were meant to be looking out for. Eventually we ended up at the start of the forest canopy walk (officially: 401 metres long and 22.5 metres high).
In under an hour, we completed the skywalk which turned out to be the highlight of our visit (the rest of it was underwhelming). The opportunity to briefly escape the urban jungle into the soothing arms of nature was a welcome experience.
The Lekki Conservation Centre is a commendable example of Nigeria’s potential to develop her tourism potential. With a desperate need to wean her economy off the current dependency on fossil fuels, the entire country offers a rich and incredibly diverse natural environment that is ripe for adventure travel. Sadly, Nigeria’s tourism story continues to be one of missed opportunities and untapped potential.
Peering into the Banana bubble
Having satisfied our thirst for nature, we drove back towards the cacophony of Lagos life but not before taking a self-guided detour through Banana Island near Ikoyi, Lagos. According to a 2011 Forbes report, this is Nigeria’s most expensive residential area where many of Nigeria’s super rich live or have properties. It has become a symbol of grandeur and obscene wealth.
We entered the gated community (artificially created from reclaimed land) after bluffing our way through security and drove around in circles, admiring its wide, well paved streets, green spaces, water front properties and architectural masterpieces and monstrosities.
Nigeria is a country of paradoxes. As the world’s sixth largest oil producer, she exports her own crude oil and then re-imports the finished products for local supply to her own citizens.
Banana Island in all its dollar-denominated glory mirrors another such paradox; a wealthy community built on artificial land and living in a bubble which many on the outside wistfully dream of and claim as ‘their portion’ in long-winded prayer sessions.
Disruptors in a disruptive environment
A few weeks before our visit, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had visited Lagos to promote his company’s interests in the Nigerian technology sector. Nigerian social media was awash with memes of Mark’s unassuming approach (Nigerians are used to seeing important people through a maze of AK-47s and sirens) to his visit.
However, more importantly, his visit was notable for the spotlight he brought to a growing hub of technology start-ups and ‘disruptors’ located in a part of Lagos called Yaba, dubbed ‘Nigeria’s Silicon Valley’.
Nigeria is one of the world’s most talented countries but is also one of the most disruptive environments for startups. Inconsistent government policies, lack of access to basic capital and poor infrastructure combine to frustrate the efforts of the country’s brightest minds, many of whom eventually emigrate to more favourable climates.
With the lack of foreign exchange and a weakening economy, Nigerians are starting to look inwards. Local goods and services are fighting for their place alongside expensive foreign imports.
The local technology sector has great potential to develop uniquely Nigerian solutions to Nigerian problems. For young Nigerian entrepreneurs however, this can be like swimming against a rushing tide.
The bird and the hunter
As we headed to Freedom Park, a cultural centre in downtown Lagos, I recalled Chinua Achebe’s (1930 – 2013) acclaimed work, Things Fall Apart (1958). In this literary masterpiece he shares an Ibo proverb about a bird that had learned to fly without perching because hunters had learned to shoot without missing.
In Nigeria, although the persistent hunter (of economic instability) has learned to shoot without missing, the birds (Nigerian entrepreneurs) have learned to fly without perching.
Every time the ‘system’ conspires to stifle her potential, her proud, indomitable spirit fights back through entrepreneurship, force of will and sheer guile.
This is Lagos. This is Nigeria. This is our story.
Continue reading our #NaijaChat series with Part II (Understanding Nigeria: Abuja, A City in Search of A Soul)
Do you live in Lagos? We would love to hear from you.
In what ways do you think Lagos captures and reflects the spirit of Nigeria?In what ways do you think Lagos captures and reflects the spirit of Nigeria? #NaijaChat Click To Tweet
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