During 2003/2004 and in 2013 I lived and worked in Lagos and in both periods I tried to record my experiences. I did this because I had the feeling that there was something missing in the way the regular press portrayed Nigeria. My perspective, of course, is only a small piece of the kaleidoscope, but I hoped to be able to broaden the picture somewhat for those at home in the Netherlands. Of course, I believe that journalists see things from a very different perspective. They have access to places and channels to which I have no access, but conversely my work enabled me to see things in a new light. I have done my best in capturing the things that I saw, sometimes as a letter to loved ones at home, and other times, more of a story and as such, they are stylistically a bit diverse.
On this blog, Chuka Nwanazia has given me a platform to share my stories and letters, for which I am very grateful. Another extra sound in a polyphonic choir.
It is now raining almost continuously. There is sudden rise in thunderstorms, where the rain falls heavily on the streets and it’s so dark you can no longer see where the sea starts from the beach. The air is humid and the streets collect water like a stagnant stream, constantly rustling, day in and day out.
In a bend of the road, on a fenced land with a large tree on it, the branches of which form a roof and spread out over the fence, there is a bicycle shop belonging to some street boys. They practice with their worn out BMX and rusty mountain bikes on a fence of discarded boards and crates. In a self-trimmed corner they can hide and sometimes hang their clothes to dry.
They have all kinds of bikes, and on a heap of concrete, there is a colourful children's bicycle, as if to say: "here, bike for sale!" Sometimes there are only two or three boys, sometimes a whole bunch of them. And that’s when they play street football.
Then, one day, the boys are gone, and the bikes too. It is all empty and very quiet.
But the rain, remains.
Every day, when it’s dusk, the nightwatch comes. He parks his moped and quickly gets ready for work. He then spreads his robe and puts tea in an old aluminum jar. His flickering oil lamp casts varying shadows on the wall. The mat is already rolled out in the dark room behind him. He carefully places his arrows next to each other, his bow against the wall. The radio crackles softly.
Nightwatches in Nigeria are predominantly from the Hausa tribe in the north of the country and are also usually muslims. They guard estates, houses and offices with their bows and arrows and are usually seen with battery-powered flashlights.
Old Refinery Road
Heartland Delta: the temperature has dropped a little, there is a languid wind, but it remains oppressive and gloomy. It seems as if this is a place where there is no past or future, no chronology - only the now! The ships are completely silent in the harbour. Scattered on the quay are bent screws, rusty anchors, wooden crates and disassembled pipes. There is also a messy heap of metal and tugboats discarded at the edge of the harbour are herded together like cattle. Lagos is far away from here.
To avoid the terrible traffic, our guide takes a shortcut. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a mistake because construction work is being done on the road which is rather narrow and unpaved as a result. There are huge pits and puddles everywhere because of the rainfall. Traffic jams, decrepit tractors with trailers trying to pass, heaving and slaloming through the pits. SUVs trying to avoid the traffic jam via the roadside, worn-out taxis, (mostly Golfs, Passats and Mazdas) and every once in a while, a police blockade with armed policemen in helmets all over the place.
Profile: There are groups of young men all gathered on the way side. Along the highway are shops, concrete buildings in all shapes and sizes (sometimes unfinished and with concrete reinforcement piercing from the roof). Huge billboards that portray life as it plays out in another world. Furthermore, the highway is littered with tractors that look like they were involved in accidents, burnt-out tankers, broken trailers, loose engine blocks and detached cabins through which bushes grow. Everything is black from the engine oil as far as the eye can see. There are abandoned petrol stations with broken pumps that look like strange scarecrows. There is also green vegetation with scrub, palm trees and the remains of tropical rainforest, like rising walls. Halls of corrugated iron where wood is cut. Furniture workshops where poorly looking sofas and huge armchairs are placed outside: “American Furniture” a signboard next to them reads!
Close to the water and the creeks are small villages amidst swampy green fields with shelves on poles in-between as a walkway. There are telephone and electricity poles all around the villages. A woman dances in a tiny room to inaudible music, in a house of which the front half has been demolished and only some fragile remains are left of the walls. Little children scurrying around barefoot.
A few teenage boys can be seen with palm oil and fat on their shirts, worn-out shorts and slippers: the uniform of the poor. If we get stuck in traffic or do not progress according to schedule, the policeman accompanying our guide steps out of the car and begins to gesticulate with his gun while shouting orders at other road users. Bystanders see it as: business as usual.
The airport premises is full of soldiers, paramilitaries and policemen and women. The atmosphere is nervous and some flights are either delayed or canceled as a result of the shortage of jet fuel. There is frustration everywhere and people are busy making calls while dragging their luggages, effortlessly switching between agitation and acceptance. Finally, we're in the air and the urban chaos of Port Harcourt is left behind. Flying over the city provides a wonderful view of meandering creeks and rivers, the beautiful green forest - where there are tiny roads, some isolated villages and oil loading stations.
It is a coming and going of cars: fence open, chain down, chain up, while Hausa radio remains clamped to the ears. Cars gleam in the sun as drivers look for ways to outmanoeuvre each other on the busy Lagos roads. The generator is on and noisy and that is something you can also hear from other houses down the street. The nightwatch brings his hands to his ears and bows and then kneels. I hear his voice from the distance reciting his prayer. For a moment everything around him stops. The wind makes the leaves rustle. Afternoon prayer is a common practice in Lagos.
My Trip to Olu's now 98-year-old father: A promise I still had to keep to Olu, a journalist friend of mine. Ibadan is about one and a half hours or maybe two hours drive from Lagos (depending on the traffic). I am a bit worried because we are forced to depend on our admittedly very reliable but also small and relatively vulnerable Toyota Corolla. We know Olu is in Ikeja (my former neighbourhood not far from the airport) and immediately set off to his house. He welcomes me with a Bible in hand and already has a Sunday visitor. We are soon on the expressway towards Ibadan. This expressway is not much more than a very wide strip of asphalt, with central strip (the familiar red sand) occasionally sand/gravel, without signage, occasionally narrowing and sometimes with very broken and deep pits which are very dangerous! I sometimes wondered how motorists drove in the dark. It turns out to be a frightening affair. The traffic in and around Lagos is not suitable for people with a weak heart. This is another story: driving in Lagos is very hard, where not only huge holes have to be avoided, but also stationary or moving taxis and buses, as trucks stiffly stay on the left or choose any part of the road as they see fit. Some of these trucks come in all shapes and sizes, but are invariably special in nature: completely without windows, loose bumpers, etc.
On the way, there are huge cattle markets selling goats and cows. There are also small shops selling vegetables, mobile phone cards, furniture, always bordered by endless parked trucks, cabs tilted for repairs, or simply just left there. At strategic locations, are men with landrovers or jeeps that serve as tow trucks, huge truck tires scattered all over the place as the owners usually enjoy their deserved rest on a bench or a piece of cardboard in the shade.
After an hour and a half of traveling and sweating, we finally arrive in Ibadan. Olu's father lives in a suburb - what is a collection of sloppy houses on a hillside. First we find our way between the usual shops that consist of stones or clay houses, corrugated roof as goats walk freely in and out and there are children everywhere playing. Scattered across the vicinity are some of the older houses which in contrast to Lagos, has a design which is derived from something the Portuguese came up with when they first landed on the city. Our car had to stay downstairs because we had to climb the slope with rocks and dirt path, where you could find Olu’s father’s home at the top.
In front of the house is a small veranda, with a wooden table and a bench. There is also a dark corridor with entrances to rooms on both sides. We were led into what I think is the guest or reception room, with a few worn-out chairs, a couch, and a huge series of yellowed photos on the wall. It was dark but not stuffy.
A couple of family members came out to welcome us. First was Olu's father's (much younger) wife and Olu's brother, who came out to greet us and introduce themselves. They both take care of Olu’s father. Then the children all came to show themselves while some curiously tried to sneak a peak around the corner. And they were always remarkably polite. It was quite a striking contrast with the children in the Netherlands who usually do not even care to shake your hand. Obviously, the social connection must not be romanticised, but this hassle with children, families and acquaintances coming in and going out made a particularly caring impression on me. I also do not believe that the house had something like a front door. Yet a little different from the quiet and deserted corridors of the Valkenburcht.
Olu's father turned out to be an almost toothless but very clear man who walked a little crooked. His English was a bit laborious but was alright with Olu’s interpretation. They had been out of electricity for a couple of years, so the rusty refrigerator in the corner of the room was now only decoration and light came from an oil lamp in the evening. In the other corner of the room was an old-fashioned wooden music box with two sliding doors that hid a sturdy radio/record player from the 1950s which was said to be functional, but yes, no power.
There was a picture of a man in Arab clothing, which turned out to be Olu's father, photographed on his Hajj to Mecca in 1976. That confused me for a moment, but that's the way things are here: father - faithful muslim, son - ardent christian and avid churchgoer. Nobody makes an issue out of that. Olu's brother showed me a goat hide hanging in the hallway, which father uses to pray. They had probably never seen a white man here, at least, certainly not the children. Either way, they apparently took in this surprising visit. I understood from Olu that his father still happily scurries around, helping to keep the house clean, and faithfully making his daily walk to the mosque. He never gave the impression that he was tired or absent, despite his age. He told us about his pilgrimage to Mecca and his stay with his other son in America in 2003. He was very pleased with the visit and our gifts (just some fruit, nuts etc) and everything was carefully sampled.
Due to how dangerous and tiring the drive back to Lagos was, we chose not to stay too long. At our departure, father decided to escort us down the slope, with only a walking stick (his umbrella) for support. With no further help, he slowly but energetically slid on his slippers and with his umbrella in hand, we all went down the rocky path. Once down, he said goodbye again, shook hands, asked when I would be traveling back to "my country" and gave us some of the fruit we had given him for our journey back to Lagos. Impressive!
The way back went along the same lines as the way we came. The only difference was that we were a little alarmed by traffic from the other side, as a truck had lost a load of cement bags while trying to make a turn. This led to a virtually obscuring cement dust cloud and a series of cars that were clearly at full speed all coming to a grinding halt. One or more of these bags had been received frontally by a truck. Ten minutes later, it was on our own side of the road: a truck climbed the top of a bus at full speed, the bus in the roadside was launched and the truck had lost the whole cabin with groups of disabled people on the side as some men tried their best to put traffic back on the right track.
Seeing a truck completely separated from its own cabin by a bus on the roadside is a particularly disturbing sight. It confronts you with the fact that every mistake you make here, on the traffic, can be fatal. It doesn’t matter if the mistake is yours or that of another, it can be very deadly. It is an understatement to say that I was very relieved when we arrived in Lagos.