This pretty much sums up my reaction at the time:
- Have you ever seen Lagos on any travel guide’s list of “must-see” places in the world? While Lonely Planet and similar companies fawn over other African countries such as Ghana and South Africa, Nigeria is left on the US State Department’s website under “Travel Warnings”.
- Everything I’ve ever seen on TV regarding Nigeria has involved corruption, civil unrest, poverty or kidnappings. Not exactly the stuff you want to see when your Dad’s job has been transferred and your parents are moving there.
- People’s reaction to hearing the news: 😯 Friends gave me looks of sympathy, acquaintances gave me looks of bewilderment and immigration officers gave me extra scrutiny. Great.
- And most importantly, Nigeria was foreign to me at the time. It was as simple as that. I had no friends in Lagos. I never went to school in Lagos. I didn’t know the name of a single road or neighborhood or shop. Nigeria just wasn’t home.
That was five years ago. A couple visits have changed my perspective and thankfully, I’ve gotten over my initial ignorance. Granted, points 1 and 2 above are not incorrect, but Lagos has a lot more to offer to those who give it a chance.
The first thing I always notice about the city is its energy. It has an indescribable liveliness that I can’t help but immediately succumb to. Lagos is famous for its horrendous traffic jams (or “go-slows”). But there is always so much commotion going on in the streets that instead of feeling impatient and angry (as is the case whenever I’m caught in Manhattan rush hour traffic), I can’t help but be amused. Here, “okadas,” or motorcycle taxis expertly maneuvere through the throngs of cars, vans and buses, transporting just about anyone, from mothers and their babies to men carrying goats, tires and paintings. Taxi drivers yell at their neighbors and passengers animatedly, honking their horns as though in a contest to see who can make the most noise. Street sellers displaying meat pies, jewellery and pirated DVDs run around in the sweltering heat, selling their goods and joking around with one another. And public mini-vans making impromptu stops in the middle of the road cause more uproar, indignation and honking. It is altogether impossible not to join in and laugh at the utter chaos of it all.
In fact, the only word I really know in Yoruba is “wahala,” chaos, which basically sums up each of my visits. I remember the last time I flew to Lagos, a Nigerian lady fainted during our flight. Under normal circumstances, in this situation, help would have arrived and people would have sat in their seats, craned their necks to see what was going on and whispered among themselves. On our flight, immediately, about nine people jumped out of their seats and started yelling for the air hostesses, while trying to edge their way closer to the unconscious woman. One lady on the opposite aisle burst into prayer “Jesus, please help this woman’s soul, let my sister be saved” to which a man in the middle row shouted “Sit down woman! Praying won’t help!” Seated passengers scolded the standing ones. Help arrived but no one could get to the lady due to the crowds standing and blocking the aisles. More shouting ensued. No one took heed of the “fasten seatbelt” signs that had appeared above all the seats. Finally someone yelled into the overhead speakers, the situation calmed down and the cause of the crisis regained consciousness. Any newcomer on the flight must have been stunned. I found myself smiling….yup…definitely headed to Naija.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the people here. Everyone in Lagos seems to live their lives with determination, confidence and surprising enthusiasm. Everything can go wrong and Nigerians still come out driven, hopeful and zealous. People don’t see life as a struggle here; they see it as a challenge, and everyone’s ready to fight. I guess it’s a good way to start my journey. In addition to the obvious joys of spending time with the parents and eating home-cooked meals, I’m reminded every second that even in the face of adversity, it’s possible to be enthusiastic if one has the right outlook on life. After all, as someone once said “Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.”