Postcard from Lagos – a white Christmas in black Africa (Nigeria)

By Ian Cochrane, December 25, 2013

Christmas Greetings

Christmas Greetings

I’ve been stuck in Johannesburg traffic for an hour now; finally pulling off the treadmill of Rivonia Rd, and into the Nigerian Consulate compound – open Tuesday and Thursday mornings only – to be greeted by a mountain of a security man casually swinging a semi-automatic and demanding I stop.

“You cannot be bringing your car in here, and must certainly be parking outside.” The voice is classic Nigerian: all gravel and English gravitas.

I poke my head out the window and twist in my seat to peer back over my shoulder and from where I’ve come; now a stationary stream of morning peak hour traffic. There’s surely nowhere to park out there: the road so narrow, one lane each way, an insignificant uneven footpath propped on a high concrete kerb. There’s a nonplussed shrug of those great shoulders. “Ah,” he offers, “you must be improvising.”

30-min later  I’m risking life and limb to veer clear of a gaping stormwater drain and pull to one side, mounting the kerb with a sickening crunch of the hire car underparts.

Homeward bound - Lagos, Nigeria

Homeward bound – Lagos, Nigeria

The security guard nods as I pass; happier now as he swings his gun from one hand to the other – those black hands the size of plates – me shuffling a mass of paperwork in a green plastic folder. Inside I wait, surrounded by fellow would-be travellers that prefer to shout rather than quiet conversation. By the time I reach the counter, there’s little time left. “A visa?” There’s a serious frown happening behind that glass panel, “You applied on line?” I answer yes, but am greeted by a sigh; a copy of my printed receipt turned around, then on its side for better inspection. I’m already prepared for the worst, but am taken aback by a startling white smile. “But you are lucky Sir, for we do have another form, and shall be most happy to see you again next week.”

When leaving, my security friend waves with one hand, gun hanging loosely in the other. I again bemoan the Jo’burg traffic, and my chances of being in Lagos by Christmas. It’s October already. There’s a frown as he listens, and that now familiar African shrug. He leans close. “Traffic? Here?” He turns, following my gaze to the bedlam outside. “As you are travelling to Nigeria Sir, I’m thinking you must learn to be an optimist.”

***

Lagos roadtrain

Lagos roadtrain

It’s Christmas Eve, and here I am with my girlfriend in Lagos: the fastest growing, most vibrant and populace city in Africa;  Nigeria a booming country of 170-million.

A battered, belching, clapped-out minibus lurches at 90-deg just in front, having come from the complete opposite direction, crossing the bump of a median strip, on this flooded, potholed river of a road. A cavalier conductor wears purple tennis shoes and green shorts, propped precariously on one leg from what’s left of a rear bumper. The other leg hangs clear. He waves with his free hand, spruiking fares as he goes, a shrill tin whistle poking from the corner of his mouth. I wonder how he stays on.

“Lagos traffic? Not so bad Sir,” says Innocent; a recent City ruling banning motorcycle taxis, but resulting in an explosion of yellow tuk-tuks reminiscent of an extended stay in Mumbai. And it’s my visit to that city – also of 20-million souls – making all this oddly familiar.

Taking a tuk-tuk

Taking a tuk-tuk

Innocent is our driver, slightly built: a “good Christian man” with a wife and 3-kids. Innocent is surprised when I ask if he’ll work on Christmas Day. “But of course Sir; there is no food for lazy man.” The music of National treasure Fela Kuti blares from a boom box on the passenger’s seat up front, Innocent’s car radio broken.

From a palm-lined sandy peninsula beach we head for Lekki Market, more flooded roads, busted speedhumps and countless corrugations: a beat up car on a forlorn corner, a water-filled coke bottle on top – a sign this car is for sale.

Narrow market aisles are lined with ramshackle and rusted lean-tos, rickety trestles loaded with exotic African wares, the darkest carvings and masks, paintings and woven placemats; wooden planks with piles of potatoes, pumpkins and plantains. The smells are earthen, humid and dusty. A cluttered shed of a bottleshop sells Chivas, local Star beer, and boxes of South African wine.

I’m reminded of a Jo’burg local, when I first broached the subject of me moving to Lagos: him calling Southern Africa “Africa Lite.”

Lekki sunset, Sahara sand - Lagos, Nigeria

Lekki sunset, white Sahara sand – Lagos, Nigeria

I studied Johan’s face closely, but this man gives nothing away. Finally he cleared his throat, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “You are really going? Mmm…now…..THAT is Black Africa.”

So, it’s finally Christmas Day and we sit gazing out the window, our visit coinciding with the arrival of Harmattan winds, a seasonal visitor here, dumping tonnes of Saharan sand on Western Africa and shrouding Lagos suburbs in a thick white Christmas fog.

The omnipresent generator kicks in just outside, a voracious city’s power supply often failing. There’s the crow of a brave Christmas rooster and the enticing aroma of roast chicken and thyme from the kitchen. We share a bottle of Moet Imperial Rose.

Innocent’s open Christmas card sits on a wonky rosewood coffee table. “Heavenly Blessings shall be poured on you and your family. If there is anyone who plans evil against you and your family members, the evil shall go back to the sender…..Amen.”

14 Comments

  1. johannesburg says:

    Awesome post.

  2. Janene says:

    What a fascinating tale, as usual. I always feel like I’m being entertainment but learning something, too. What an interesting adventure. I had to chuckle at that bus but felt bad that that poor man had to work during the holidays!

  3. jerseylil says:

    Seasons Greetings Ian, and again, an excellent post! So glad you made it to Lagos to spend Christmas with your girlfriend, despite the hassle to get there. I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when I read how the security guard told you, “As you are traveling to Nigeria Sir, I’m thinking you must learn to be an optimist.” I empathize with you on that improvised parking. When we loved in San Francisco (North Beach) we often had to improvise parking. At that time we had a Ford Bronco II, a good-sized vehicle, and we learned “creative parking” on narrow streets and hills, although always a challenge.

    You described Lagos so well that I could picture the impassable traffic, the “battered, belching, clapped-out minibus,” the street scenes and wares, the earthen smells, Johan and Innocent. I was taken by Innocent expecting to work on Christmas Day because “there is no food for lazy man,” and Johan remarking about Black Africa. Innocent’s Christmas card was nice I think, and a positive message.

    Great photos. The Lekki sunset is startling in its sand-swept fog, yet there is a beauty in the image. Wishing you a very Happy New Year, my friend!

    • IanC says:

      Ah yes JL,
      Although that level of creative parking can be an acquired skill, I’m quite sure the driving here is not…for me anyway.
      Compliments of the season & all the very best to you & yours JL.
      Cheers, ic

  4. What a wonderful word picture you paint Ian. My brother has spent his entire working life in sub-Saharan Africa, but I’ve never been. I should have done so when I was younger.

    • IanC says:

      Thank you Dennis.
      Yes, I can certainly see a traveller like you visiting here. With all its problems, there does seem to be an air of optimism.
      Thanks again for the visit,
      & all the best, ic

  5. Ian, had to look up ‘spruiking’. Reading your exotic posts, I’m getting vocabulary lessons as well as lessons in history, geography and humanity. Hope it was a very merry Christmas for the two of you.

    • IanC says:

      Thanks NP.
      Yes, the English language really is quite something: such a mix. & I’m sometimes never quite sure of the ‘Englishness’ of a word in other corners of the world. It is such a well-travelled lingo!
      & belated well-wishes & Christmas cheer to you & yours also.
      ic

  6. umashankar says:

    I was teleported to Jo’burg in a flash and thereon to Lagos. I always marvel at the choices you make about people and places in your travelogues. The impossibly tucked in Nigerian Embassy at the end of a treadmill of a road, the mountain of a security guard nonchalantly shuffling a semi-automatic, the battered, belching, clapped-out minibus, the cavalier conductor in green shorts and purple shoes and the innocent driver called Innocent, not to mention his Christmas Card, -they represent the culture and ethos with an uncanny precision.

    I also loved the lyrical carriage of imageries, vivid and expressive. Potholed river of a road, busted speedhumps and countless corrugations,hands size of plates….rickety trestles loaded with exotic African wares, the darkest carvings and masks, paintings and woven placements; wooden planks with piles of potatoes, pumpkins and plantains.

    If I could visualise Lagos, it’s not because of the swarm of tuk-tuks or humans or the analogy with Mumbai, it’s more due to the images your pen can invoke.

    • IanC says:

      So glad you liked the Lagos travelogue Uma.
      I suspect you inhabit a travellers’ world as I do. Jo’burg? Yes, it really did all begin there.
      Cheers, ic

  7. It’s sad how laziness has been vilified, isn’t it? Working to live can be just as bad, or even worse, as living to work. I hope you and your gf had a very merry Christmas in Lagos, Ian. Glad you got that visa snag worked out!

    • IanC says:

      Thanks Kris.
      There certainly is a time for sitting back, relaxing, or just taking the world in.
      All the best to you, Brad & those wonderful boys of yours.
      Cheers, ic

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