Return to Lagos
by SARATU ABIOLA
I have come back to Nigeria many times, but not like this. Usually it's after a month or two away after a summer in somewhere, bracing myself for the blast of heat as I exit the plane. One time, I boarded a bus from Accra to Lagos at seven in the morning; I slept my way until Togo, but woke up at each border to eat the local street food and see, just beyond, the deep, shining blue of ocean just off the beach.
That was my easiest return; during my internship at a microfinance organization, I had three months of Accra sun and nightlife to reacclimatize myself to life in West Africa, to remind myself of life before farmers' market brunches and hour-long hang-outs at coffeeshops, of the pointlessness of wiping the sweat of my forehead, of the heat of hot peppers and roasted sweet potatoes after work, of how much I liked the music of languages I did not understand, and of my distaste for instant coffee.
This last return, however, was a one-way ticket. I crammed my last five years into suitcases and cardboard boxes. I left for London a day before my visa expired, before pushing my way into a humid Lagos evening. As the fact of my leaving slowly dawned on me with the crawling past of days and weeks, everything began to look like an image of itself taken from afar. I watched everything, from dinners and long walks to bellini brunches, turn from its vivid blue to a dreamy sepia, as though I was looking at myself in an old photograph that I had only just taken, and wondering how quickly this picture was aging and fraying at its edges. I had spent four years in college, and a year after that working in the U.S. I have traveled and made friends there. This return was more permanent.
Back in Lagos now, I have an older pair of eyes. Nigeria is no longer a place of childhood imagination and birthday parties. Though I do not see this as where I came of age, the fact that it is my home has become more true than at any other time in my life.
It is always understood when you leave Nigeria as a Nigerian that you will return at some point. There is family, after all, probably weddings or, worse still, funerals. And it's not like every minute you are away you aren't wondering what new club has opened, what new slang people are using, what new artist is making waves. Diaspora Nigerians fresh from weeks of partying in Lagos return to regale you with stories of change and mobile phones, of parties that could make Fitzgerald dizzy with jetsetters and entrepreneurs. Nigeria is an escalator of a country, forever moving upwards towards another level that is shinier, more luxurious than the one we left behind. We are a people in transit, living our lives as though forever stuck in the London-to-Lagos terminal in Heathrow. We always seem to be going somewhere, always seem to be moving.
But you have to have been gone for about twenty years to fall for this trick.
What strikes me most about Nigeria is not what's changed, but what's stayed the same. More precisely, how much has stayed the same. It is this constant state of movement that makes what stays the same so poignant.
Nigerian films are actually a very good example of this. No matter how much nicer the houses used for the films are, how much more money the actors make, how much more popular the films get, the films are and always have been cautionary tales, one-dimensional portrayals on marriage and the dangers of living an ungodly, heathenish life. Europe has its monsters and folk tales. America has its superheroes. Nigeria has Jesus. Religion has shown itself to be the length and breadth of our collective imagination, providing answers to questions that we seem to have. That has always been the case. It has not changed. Not one bit.
Clerks in offices gather round the television set when they should be working during the day; that's just what happens. I was watching a Yoruba film the other day while doing some printing. A woman decided to flee from the home she shared with her husband because she was tired of enduring his beatings and incessant cheating. Nollywood films tend to take to heart the notion the passage somewhere in the Book of Matthew where Jesus praises the righteous, the children, and the suffering "for theirs in the kingdom of heaven."
Perhaps Nigerians collectively so approve of the portrait of the long-suffering wife because we see ourselves in it. If a leadership and its people are a sort of marriage in which a nation is born, the home in which Nigeria inhabits has not been a happy one for a long time. The Nigeria of my mother's youth, with its top-class universities and good, clean buses and roads and lending money to England with currency worth more than the U.S. dollar is unrecognizable when compared what we see now.
She used to go to Tafawa Balewa Square and Kingsway Mall to shop on weekends. She took buses – clean ones, with uniformed conductors, even tickets! When she was younger, she would say, her voice low and the corners of her mouth turned down in the opposite of a smile, Ile dun. Literally, "home was sweet." But my generation was spared the slow decaying of our home. We did not have to watch the paint chip off the walls, the growth of moss in green streaks along the fences, the bats swooping their way in at night and splattering our floors with shit. We never had to see it happened. I have not known Nigeria any other way. I have no idea if that's a good thing or not.
Indeed, so much has changed between then and now. Military regimes that cared more about stripping the Niger-Delta for its oil than catering to the needs of its people; people silenced to death by one military despot and another; people fleeing from Lagos to London; people crossing the Sahara desert to be treated like shit in North Africa or Spain or Netherlands; people trading their bodies for money in brothels in Scandinavian Europe and Italy; people trading in their advanced degrees for taxi cabs in NY.
Five minutes after arriving in New York, I met Niyi, a cab driver with, as he put it, a sixth sense about fishing out Nigerians in a crowd. He was pleased to finally be able to speak to someone in Yoruba, and happily told me about his moving to New York from Lagos six years before. He could take care of his mother and brother back home much better in New York as a cab driver, even if he had to trade in his chemical engineering degree from the University of Lagos to do it. It's a familiar story in Nigeria. A lot of us do resettle and make our own happy endings. Some of us do travel abroad and make lives for ourselves that we couldn't dream of in our own homes. Who knew that you could sustain a coffee addiction and a gym membership on a taxi drivers' salary? Niyi joked to me. He'd like to one day move back home to his family. Of course he does.
There is a good reason only 37 percent of Americans own passports; nobody if they can help it really wants to leave their home, and even less would do it willingly for particularly long stretches of time. But our leaders are never home, and we as a collective have mastered the art of sitting at home reading bible verses and waiting for Jesus to fly in and save us, Superman-style. Suffering and smiling, Fela once said. Our home has crumbled a long time ago, but we somehow can't find our feet to leave. Even those of us who do leave, like Niyi, find that we are still living in it.
I was done with my printing when the film was finishing. One of the women gathered around the television, a heavyset woman in her thirties with penciled-in eyebrows and ruby red lips, spat orange seeds into her palm and shook her head. 'God knows best, sha." A clerk, after handing me some documents to take to my boss laughed at her, "You mean you will stay if man beat you like that?"
"No!" she exclaimed. "When I haven't forgotten the way to my parent's house, I will go and let somebody come and beat me and bring his girlfriends to our matrimonial bed?” Everybody in the room laughed. The channel had switched to commercials, after which another film would begin. Nobody made any move to leave; they always stayed for both afternoon showings.
That is how to watch Nigerian movies, with a wink and nod, a roll of the eyes. This is how to watch Nigeria.
I remember listening in on long conversations on Nigeria between family friends in Los Angeles, and laughed at some of the things they would say. The searing heat of Abuja that leaves your body bathed in sweat if you stood outside for more than ten minutes meant our skin always looks fresher. A constant source of irritation for me, like not having 24-hour electricity, would become a source of unpredictability, something that forges strength in Nigerians and fortifies our sense of get-with-it-ness. Ghanaians were pansies, they'd say, for expecting their government to tell them what hours they would not have light, and to abide by the schedule. Nigerians are the best and brightest in the world, they would tell me, and talk about those white people their kids went to school with who did not know left from right, or those black Americans who got pregnant at the age of 16. On some Nigerian websites and platforms, people wax poetic about their Naija Pride and envisioning a country better that it currently is, and how all we have to do is band together. Take initiative. Dream big. Take a stand.
In the eyes of so many Nigerians, I do not see my country at all. Some among us talk like we have never had our heroes, but we have. Gani Fawehinmi, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana, so many of them. They have lived. They have died. They have been tortured and imprisoned. We were not always so collectively docile. Films about Jesus the Superhero would never have taken root in Nigeria of the 1950s, the 60s, the 70s. Apathy has joined the rapidly declining list of things that poor people can afford; we are the only ones who can afford to hope. This hope makes us overestimate our number and distracts us from the reality that the escalator is not moving up quite as much as we like think. Our progress, so much ours than everyone's, draws attention away from the intractable problems that are the bane of Nigeria.
But I now live here. And I am one of these people. Unapologetically so. To our credit, nobody in Nigeria romanticizes being poor. Being driven in the air-conditioned comfort of my car to school in the mornings, or to a friend's birthday party in swanky Lagos neighborhoods, or to lunch somewhere on the island, or to a hang out with friends on weekends, there were street children or older men with bodies bent over with leprosy begging for money. You hear casually about guys who have had their first sexual experiences with prepubescent housemaids that may not have thought they had the choice to say no. You hear about those girls from villages in central-eastern Nigeria who move to European countries to work as prostitutes. Unlike well-to-do people in developed countries, we all have some foggy idea of what it is like to not live with the luxuries we have.
The triumph of wealth here is how far one can remove oneself from Nigeria while living in Nigeria. People who can afford to run their diesel-powered electric generators round the clock. They make sure to travel out of the country every year. And while internet in Nigeria has its vagaries, you are never without a BlackBerry subscription, iPad, or internet modem for your laptop. It's not like things always run smoothly; the cell phone network may be problematic for hours, maybe even days; you may be living in a place with a petrol scarcity because the government wouldn't pay oil workers; a diesel scarcity could interrupt your near-constant electicity supply. Nigeria's many inefficiencies will find a way to insinuate themselves into your life. Wealth does not change that completely; it just makes Nigeria work harder to get in your way.
At the Nnamdi Azikiwe airport in Abuja, I overheard two seemingly wealthy businessmen in conversation. One was tall and skinny with his new iPad on his lap, looking around him to see where he could charge his iPhone. The other was dark and pudgy, in an expensive-looking blue suit with a red tie. The man in the suit tells his friend that he voted for the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. He nods in approval when he realizes that his friend did, too. "It's not like it matters who you vote for. I don't expect Nigeria to change much in the next 5 to 10 years. All I know is that I will make money, and so will you."
I got up to board my flight, feeling slightly disgusted with the sentiment, but finding it true nonetheless. All situations, however dismal, create their own interest groups, people who depend on their existence. These interest groups, however little they number, get stronger the longer the status quo persists. These people, men and women and the children of men like these, number to probably no more than 10 percent of the country, and it is to them, to us, that Nigeria is another country, a much different one than the one most people live in. It's true that nothing monumental might happen in our immediate future. It is true that our current crop of leaders, having established a business friendly-enough atmosphere to satisfy the needs of those who it will be unwise to leave discontent, will probably do no worse than they have done now. But I don't know this for sure. Nobody a few years ago would have predicted the revolutions currently sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, after all.
All I knew, on that day, with my bag strapped over my shoulders, is that I had a flight to catch. I know that when I arrive in Lagos, the traffic between Airport Road and Toyin Street would have eased up considerably. I knew that I had a room in my hotel waiting for me, with a bed with white sheets that I couldn't wait to dive into. I take comfort in these small certainties. They keep me from asking helpless questions, from throwing my hands in despair. I need it, especially I'm reminded of everything that contributes to making a life at home seem so pointless. I spend much of my days like this, not looking too far ahead of me, or much farther behind. Regardless of what happens in a week from now, or a year from now, that much is true. And because I am fortunate, it is enough.
Photographs by Femi Adagunodo.
"Sorrowing Man" - City and Colour (mp3)
"Hope For Now" - City and Colour (mp3)
"Silver and Gold" - City and Colour (mp3)
The new album from City and Colour, Little Hell, will be released on June 7th and you can purchase it here.