I made the opportunist decision to visit Nigeria after I arrived in Benin and realized Lagos was only a hundred-something km from Cotonou. What I didn’t know was that it would take nearly 7 hours to drive that distance, and only with a lot of luck since I hitch-hiked a private car of some white business men from the border. I’m actually not sure if it sped up or slowed my journey, since their tinted-windows, air-conditioned jeep probably attracted more hassle than normal. We got stopped over and over, sometimes by officials in uniform for passport checks, yellow-fever certificates, or luggage search, and sometimes by a random guy blocking our way with ropes or spikes that only disappeared after a small bribe.
People had been warning me not to go to Nigeria, and my hitchhikers laughed when the found me walking between the borders saying I was traveling through, explaining that “Nigeria is not africa my friend, it’s another world.” The rumors about dead bodies lying in the side of the street and getting picked up every morning for med students to dissect is apparently true, but the value of life doesn’t come from a violent society, just a very chaotic environment. The traffic jams rival the worst I’ve ever seen in LA, and the rule of thumb is basically to get to wherever you’re going as fast as you can. The best drivers in he world are probably Nigerian, since they can calculate the exact location of the front, back and sides of their car down to the exact millimeter, as the push their way into the smallest space just ahead of the next car to ensure they get the right of way. In theory you also have to know the rules of traffic well enough to be able to break them, and have the experience of a few car accidents to know how to avoid them.
My couchsurf host Bolaji explained why the traffic was so bad with two simple explanations – one is that all the shitty cars and second hand buses that get rejected in the rest of the world come to Nigeria to die. So the number of break downs and flat tires and cars who don’t care whether or not you hit and scratch them dominate the road. The other reason is that only the main roads an big highways are thru-ways; for security, none of the side streets lead anywhere but dead-ends, or the streets are in such bad shape that you can barely drive them unless you’re in a jeep and going at 10km/hr.
But despite all the chaos, I enjoyed Lagos. It was a city that could rival Miami or Rio de Janeiro, if any government officials or urban planners could get their shit together to figure it out. It was the first city in Africa where the towering high rises sat on paved roads all marked with street signs. The ocean, lagoon and waterways mark the cities charming coastal location, but the stinking stagnant water and burning garbage piles scattered throughout force their ways into sight everywhere you go. The gutters are more like mini-canal ways, wide enough for half a car to fall through, and filled with neon-green water that can’t possibly be naturally dyed.
The population census of Lagos is between 9-20 million, as if some 10 million people could be strangely unaccounted for. Apparently local people don’t take well to the consensus guys showing up and asking too many questions, so every time they try to count, they stop a few murders later.
A lot of Nigerian stories are probably heresay or intimidating exaggerations, but I can say the Nigerian people are still wonderful and I never felt unsafe in Lagos. Getting my visa was the weirdest experience, since they didn’t have the slightest idea why I was applying for a tourist visa or what “business” I had in Nigeria, but I’ll say that Nigeria just needs more tourism – it’s an exciting, massive place that a little exploration would probably uncover a lot more friendly stories.
Lagos is one of the richest, most developed cities in Africa, but starkly contrasted by the majority of Nigerians who spend their whole lives trying to reach riches. You can fly almost anywhere in the western world on a direct flight from Lagos, but still the planes only come in filled with business men and investors. In a country with some of the best education available in Africa, still the University of Lagos has been on a 5 month strike without any teaching. A lot of it doesn’t make sense, but I’m still grateful to have come here for a first-hand glimpse into this chaotic, complicated mega-city. Bolaji explained that in Lagos, there is chaos everywhere, but if you look closely at the chaos, there’s order in it, and that’s what you have to work with…. That’s how they’re surviving.