Friday, December 3, 2010

Lagos, Nigeria: One of the Most Fascinating Places I've Ever Been

When I got off the plane in Lagos, I had very little idea what to expect. As I mentioned in my last post on the subject, I had gotten very mixed reviews. One colleague called Nigeria "extreme Africa". Others warned me about the constant mortal danger. And another colleague told me about all the money there. Without actually visiting, it was hard reconcile all of these observations, but now that I have, I can say it all makes sense. Sort of.

Sort of because the more time you spend in Lagos, the more you realize that things there just don't make sense. The only outcome of trying to make events and conditions there seem rational is a sore head. Lagos is a place of extreme disparities, in wealth, in safety, and in quality of life. When I moved to Africa, I was warned of such disparities, but nothing I've seen so far comes even close to Lagos.

Lagos is broken into two general areas: the mainland and the islands. The mainland is extremely poor and extremely dangerous. Walking around there at night is seriously asking to be mugged, kidnapped, or worse. Most mainlanders live in slums, some of which have grown so large that people have started sand-filling the lagoon separating the mainland from islands and building houses on the unstable ground and stilts.

Compare this with Banana Island. Banana Island is an artificially created island connected to the other islands and is home to Lagos's wealthiest inhabitants. Like the slums in Lagos Lagoon, Banana Island was created by sand-filling the body of the water and building structures on top of it. There's only one road leading into the Island from the rest of Lagos. The road itself is unpaved for long stretches and generally looks like it's leading to a dead-end. But when you get out the other side, you could be anywhere in the world. Well, anywhere in the world that has a number of legitimately palatial mansions, luxury apartments, and first-class amenities. I couldn't help being reminded of Robert Moses's alleged architectural attempts to keep poor people out of Long Island. (In a biography, author Robert Caro, accused Moses of building bridges over highways into Long Island intentionally too low for buses to clear.) While I can't say anything for sure, considering how spotlessly developed Banana Island itself is, it's hard to imagine that the Island's proprietors would have an awful lot of trouble finishing this one road, especially when it's the only route in and out of the area.

During my time in Lagos, I stayed mostly on the islands. My hotel was on Victoria Island, and my office was on Ikoyi, both in the safer, wealthier parts of town. I did get to do some field visits to local business owners though, and the vast disparities the city offers couldn't be harder to ignore.


Randy said...

Another VERY interesting post! Thanks, Ben! I was impressed with the description of Banana Island and also with your thinking of the comparison with Robert Moses and New York and out on the Island. I feel very fortunate to have spent some time NYC area in my younger days.

Unknown said...

Thanks Randy!

Uzo.@.Afriqion said...

Very true description of Lagos. Just found your blog and I have a feeling that I am going to be keeping up with your posts.


Unknown said...

Thanks Uzo! That's very kind of you. :-)