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WE World: Lagos, the African Way of Civilisation

Lagos, October 2011

After two years in and out of the third largest city in the world, Rem Koolhaas called the Nigerian wen something ‘at the forefront of a globalising modernity’: “Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos.” Constantly on its insane evolution hoping to strike off the notorious reputation as one of the least liveable city, Lagos itself is a soiled, earthly dream chaser; and Ren Wan witnessed from it Civilisation in the African Way. 

I regretted right at the moment as I got the visa after a gasping interrogation at the embassy. Pole-apart from what I had expected, that embassy visits were nothing more than form-filling and queues, this time to the Nigerian one ironically offered more. I got stone-cold questions, hostile attitudes, though I had every (bizarre) required documents stated on the embassy website, including an “invitation letter” signed by my Nigerian contact.

The tiny glass at the counter divided me and the well- attired gentleman with the resemblance of Nelson Mandela, who threw to me what an FBI officer would smear over a drug dealer’s face. From my actual identity to my purpose of visit to my ‘potential conspiracy’… every razor sharp question cracked from his black lips made me feel like a prisoner without cuffs, or a smuggler who tried to get into the American border. “Good People. Great Country” This tagline on a poster at the door came into my sight as a wry joke.

“You will see why he has that attitude.” said a British- Indian merchant who was there to collect his visa, because few Chinese girls go to the country alone who aren’t going to meet her Nigerian lover. It was going to be his third visit to Lagos this year. I revealed the purpose of my visit, as a desperate attempt to relieve my pre-travel paranoia. “Good luck, and it is indeed a place for a good story.” The statement was supported by another guy present, a native Nigerian who came to extend his visa in Hong Kong. He was a young black guy in his late twenties, who happily showed me a picture of his Chinese wife and his kids. Lagos is a metropolis, I felt pride between his words, everyone in Nigeria wants to be in the past two years. And his statement was not without supporters.

As the most populous city in Nigeria, Lagos was indeed a name often seen on international press in the recent years. “A global city” was a united answer I had heard. It was a time right after the bomb attack in Abuja, people said the capital was no comparison to this “merely less-developed” megacity. They called it an economic centre of the largest country in West Africa, a cultural hub with great lifestyle despite the notorious title as the world’s third least liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It is the future

Hong Kong of Africa, Onno Ruhl, country head for the World Bank said to TIME last year. But I did not see any similarities (or potential ones) with my homeland. I saw a bizarre sovereignty of African civilisation.

Africa takes centre stage

It was scientifically proven that humankind evolved from black skin; which means black is the origin to all skin colours the civilised world represents to date. That means the black clan gave birth to all fruits civilisation has given us – from the art of fine dining to state-of- the-art technologies. While we from this part of the world are blessed with surplus of materials far beyond satisfaction of our basic necessity, this vast piece of land was once victimised under absurd Slavism, and is still the last runner on the racecourse of civilisation. But like a famous African proverb said, until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story; the face of Africa only has a western narrative.

At a seminar stage, Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist, once called for a new look at Africa. “Africa has immense opportunities that never navigate through the web of despair and helplessness that the Western media largely presents to its audience,” he said with determination. “As a consequence, the Western view of Africa’s economic dilemma is framed wrongly. The wrong framing is a product of thinking that Africa is a place of despair.” Truism stays with him. G.W. Fredrich Hegel, 18th century German philosopher, once declared with ignorant arrogance that Africa was not part of world history because the black had no individuality. Google stories on African and one will find besides wild getaways the missing of basic sanitation infrastructures, bony hands begging for succor, Somali pirates, kidnaps of Westerners, brutal and helpless scenes from Congo and Blood Diamond.

But as the continent, blessed with abundant natural resources and enviable landscapes, slowly gets rid of the third world status – only 33 remain the least developed category to date; we have seen on the global stage inspirers and change-makers from the ‘wild land’. In 2007, TED organised an Africa-themed event with insightful talks by such significant figures as William Kamkwamba, who invented a windmill to generate electricity for his poor community at the age of 14. Seyi Oyseola built a solar-powered mobile hospital. Last year, we applauded to three African Nobel laureates. In an Africa-themed exhibition at Kiasma in Finland, photographer Baudouin Mouanda tastefully captured African chic. This part of the world actually rocks.

Global city in a great country?

Autumn heat was still steaming the city airport. Black gentlemen, looking spick and span in his suits, effortlessly made his way through the crowd of puzzled foreign visitors into a rusty yellow cab and disappeared into the vast megacity. Welcome to Lagos, the Centre of Excellence – the stately neon light box was losing its glow to the everyday blackouts. Nothing but the word ‘chaos’ was valid.

Those close to the authority fashioned diplomatic affability to just-landed Chinese investors, humbled themselves to push their guests’ luggage through the Customs counters, and happily received monetary rewards from the yellow hands. By exchanging merely basic hellos and all that jazz, policemen outside the airport helped your vehicle stop for a few bucks in return.“This is the way how things work here,” William Lui, a food factory owner from Hong Kong, whom I luckily ran into at the airport, said as he settled me in his car. Lui after that offered me his transportation throughout my stay, because cab drivers might take ‘white people’ – it was a black or white world, no yellow – to shaded alleys and rob them. Not only ‘white people’, my local photographer assured me. He wouldn’t ask for directions at night as well. Besides the local market cramped with cars and pedestrians, shops and restaurants had armed guards stationed at the gate. There was no such thing as ‘window shopping’ and ‘menu checking’. Furious traffic jam happened every morning and evening and it is almost a daily routine to be stuck in the middle of the chaos of roads and have your itinerary naturally cancelled. One night I was forced to cancel my dinner appointment because I stayed on the roads for four hours. What Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s national pride and music mogul from Lagos, once sang in ‘Go Slow’ in 1972 – Lorry dey for your front // Tipa dey for your back // Motorcycle dey for your left o // Taxi-moto dey for your right // Helicopter dey fly fly for your top o – is still the best depiction of its everyday cityscape.

More. One step on Bar Beach, the city’s beautiful white sand public beach, and you would be asked to pay, whilst many others set their own stalls on sand as bars and restaurants. The “magnificent architectural masterpiece” Lagosians prided themselves on, is the National Theatre with a musty odour. The city’s biggest shopping mall is the size of our community centre. Hawker stalls creeping along roads did not really expect customers. Recent news in Daily Times Nigeria mentioned a study that revealed 22% of Lagos drivers tested positive to drugs like cocaine and marijuana. And this is what they called a great country and a global city.

Lagosians, souls of the city

Temitayo, a young Nigerian writer in her mid- twenties, showed me her article about her homeland, ‘The Lagos Devil, she called it. It reminds me of a woman in labour, groaning and screaming curses at her husband and the gods that made the seed fertile. She wrote with paradoxical affection. Love, anxiety, anger, and fear all rolled in one ball, I feel for Lagos, but, unlike the pregnant woman who delivers a child; I don’t know what Lagos will bring forth!

With a majority of the cityscape barred behind guarded high walls, roads became the only mirror of the city, its people – and they call themselves Lagosians – its only soul. Despite the broken roads, incomplete infrastructures, and the everyday

blackouts, Lagos nurtures the most notable spirits humanity would celebrate. Enthusiasm has its best glow under the silver sky of the fuel-clogged city. Without much left by their ancestors, a local journalist friend Jennifer Ehidiamen told me, Lagos is up to the making of the young generations. “Those before you must have worked really hard to make sure your generation enjoy a good country. That is what most Nigerians are doing,” she said. “Most young Nigerians are working hard and dreaming more, so that the next generation will not go through the same hardship. So it is like a seed one generation sow for the next to reap and nurture for posterity. If old generations in Nigeria had kept this in perspective, we would have been spoilt too.”

Positivity does rule this place. The ‘World’s Happiest Place’ sign soaring at the airport, as a Guardian journalist once recalled, may have its point. An international survey revealed that Nigeria’s positivity index was 70, whilst UK had a tragic -44.

Will Anderson, who did a documentary on Lagos, said Lagosians never see themselves as victims; they are tireless aspirers. Hawkers wandering around the streets may not have good business, but they were rewarded with laughter and chats with neighbours. A young gentleman who arranged my interview with a governor, owned an I.T company, while he was actively developing the emerging movie scene of Nigeria. We call it Nollywood, he said and immediately jumped to ask about the popularity of websites like YouTube in China. I marvelled at his packed schedule and the speed of his tapping on his Blackberry. “Because the city has high unemployment and bad traffic, going freelance is a mainstream,” he said. “You find entrepreneur on every street.”

Children whose family could not afford their education were satisfied with fierce football games on abandoned space with bare feet. Learning that I was from Asia, one kid came to me and asked with excitement how much more advanced China is than Nigeria. My answer might be a disappointment, yet he said with pride: we are almost there.While signs of a developed place in our world are about infrastructures, destination landmarks and civil services; the way Lagos defines civilisation is hedonism and naively bold visions. Like what Nigerian scholar Michael Eucheruo wrote in his book Victorian Lagos, this is an out-and-out international city like Amsterdam and Paris. Albeit the shortage of infrastructure, Lagos is thriving as a cultural and economic hub in West Africa. The tireless operation of the oil mine right next to the city’s main bridge strikes as a hope for future. Like Rem Koolhaas said in 2005 in Lagos Wide and Close, this place does not reflect despair, it is in fact where the civilisation heads to – the aspiration to build a better place.

Text by Ren Wan
Issue #37 BLACK is on the shelf now.