Monday 26 July 2010

Writing About Lagos

After living in England for five years, the worst things about Lagos have become my favourite: the smell, the heat, the rancidity, the traffic. To digress, I love sitting in Lagos traffic now. Driving in other countries is sterile in comparison. You leave your house, you enter your car, you get to your destination. In Lagos it's more like, you leave your house, you enter your car, you buy MTN credit, you stop okada to ask for directions, you buy roasted corn, you pass two men fighting in front of their rumpled cars, you get stopped by traffic police for loading credit while driving, you plead temporary insanity with one thousand Naira, you see the fight has grown to ten men wey the matter no concern, you buy Lucozade boost, you get to your destination.

When I left Lagos five years ago, it was many things but never overwhelming. Lagos was Lagos, full stop. While editing, my agent pointed out that I had too few descriptions. Readers liked the atmospheric stuff, they wanted to taste a place, smell it, feel the dust in the back of their throat, all that jazz. My response was wonder. What kind of person would want to smell Lagos, or taste it, or have harmattan crawling in their throat?

I started writing descriptive passages that same night and this was when Lagos began to overwhelm. You see something clearly until you try to hold it. What does Lagos really smell like? It is smelly, we know but what does smelly smell like? Bad but bad is not good enough, too vague, what are the shades of smelly, the ingredients that make you drive past and hold your face? I don't know. I've written about the smell in Lagos, the traffic, the reflecting heat that bounces off walls but I still don't know. I've written about touts and policemen and the signs chalked on empty walls and the nice grass in Ikoyi and broken flats in slums and the mud in the markets but I still don't know.

Hopefully those of you that know Lagos will recognise it in what I've written. There was a five year remove so pardon the holes. For those of you that don't know Lagos, if my Lagos is fantasy, then hopefully it will be a readable, likeable fantasy.

Eko oni baje!


  1. Lagos- Characterized by hot afternoons under the scorching sun and if you are lucky, you'll be priviledged to make your 3 hour 5 mile journey from Ajah to V.I in the comfort of your car with an AC, constantly making effort to overcome the thoughts of how you would be able to afford to fill up your tank.
    You get to your destination and hopefully the mayguard is able to recognise you as there is a high chance that he must have been drinking out at Mama Kingsley's Beer Parlour. He does, but not without a small fee- 100 naira you had kept aside to by roasted Bole in preparation for your journey back....

    There are so many stories to tell about Lagos, everyone has a different perspective, each perspective constructing a different story. Millions of people from different spheres of life come under one umbrella as Lagos. We are who make Lagos what it is.

    Welcome to Lagos.

  2. I completely agree with the last part of your comment. When you think of the different perspectives on Lagos, it becomes seriously daunting to try and describe it. No matter how hard you try, millions of people will always be left out of the umbrella and scowling in the rain. C'est la Lagos. You just have to love it. :)

  3. The thing about Lagos though is that everyone can relate to pretty much every experience. You talk of having to pay the mayguard with your bole money and I think "...that has happened to me before", or being stopped by the traffic police "...yup that has definitely happened to me too!". And even if it hasn't, Lagos is so relate-able like that (for people who have been there), and for people who have never been to Lagos, I think the best description of Lagos would be a place where ANYTHING can happen! Any stench, sight, fight or confrontation is too crazy to be the norm in Las Gidi! And that's why we love it!

  4. I haven’t been to Lagos in 7 years!, I know it has been a while, I'm not sure how I can call myself Nigerian anymore, but yet still I remember the place so vividly, the okada, the taxi’s, the overloaded buses and the smell!....The smell is something quite unique, a smell I would recognise from anywhere, its pungent, its in your face, but yet so delicate, hints of kerosene fill air, but then its laced with a stagnant water smell with a touch of roasted suya. It may sound unpleasant but I feel a sense nostalgia come over me when a relative come back to London with the scent of Lagos on their clothes. I tried to describe the smell to my Scottish-Chinese born colleague who is now fascinated with Nigeria and I struggled, I can never give a description that does it justice.
    JH Babe

  5. @ JH Babe lol. Lagos scent does stick to people's clothing in a gross nice way. And pele o, 7 years is a long time.

    @Lola, I still am yet to experience the sublime experience of bribing a mayguard with bole money but hopefully, soon, the pleasure will be mine :) And yeah, anything can happen in Eko.

  6. I am yet to discover this country you live in, 'asbtw', which does not possess this phenomenon we like to cal traffic. D


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