Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lagos Adventures

I went to Lagos for work as part of a team doing a study on healthcare waste management and injection safety. It was a national study for a large international organization, and it involved visiting 10 hospitals in Lagos State and interviewing a variety of environmental and health officers in the local and state governments. I was supposed to be there for a week, but due to a number of delays in the work, I ended up staying two weeks. And what an adventure-filled two weeks it was! I could probably write a novella from all that happened, but I will just share a few highlights.

First of all, Lagos is pronounced like you're saying the words lay+goes. Not lah-gohs. Think of Legos (a children's toy in the US), if that will help you remember.

Secondly, I heard more about Lagos prior to visiting than any other city in the world, possibly with the exception of Istanbul (which I still haven't visited but sincerely hope to). The most common adjectives Nigerians had used to describe Lagos to me are stressful, loud, dirty, chaotic, rowdy, and congested. Great reputation, huh? People talked about how fast-paced it is, how there are constantly people everywhere, how bad the traffic is, how there is something going on 24/7, how intense it is, and how you can pretty much get anything you want there. Lagotians say they thrive on the energy while non-Lagotians say they can't stand the place.

All this sounded a lot like NYC to me.    

The adjectives, the descriptions, and how two people could look at the same place and one would say it energizes them and another would say it drains them. NYers look at the chaos and intensity of the city and smile, while non-NYers grimace.

I thought for sure after living in NYC that I would do just fine in Lagos.

I thought wrong.

It was probably the most stressful two weeks of my life. Which is not to say I didn't have great experiences, learn a ton, nor that I can't look back and laugh at the absurd experiences. But alas, it was seriously. intense.

Now, a fair amount of the stress came from the nature of the work we had to do. As I said, it involved visiting 10 hospitals (where we interviewed 3 individuals) and interviewing local and state officials. They were spread out across the State (Note: Lagos is a city, but it's really a state), and the traffic situation made it a logistical nightmare. There were a number of other challenges with the work that I won't go into, but suffice it to say, doing the work in the Lagos environment was challenging.

Another portion of the stress was transport related. It's legitimately absurd to get around Lagos. By any mode of transportation you name. If you take a car or taxi, you'll likely sit in traffic for at least an hour to get anywhere. If you're going a long distance, it could easily be 3, 5, or 7 hours depending on the time of day. On more than one occasion I overheard someone say they left for work at 5am and didn't arrive until 11am because of traffic. If you take one of the forms of public transport (various kinds of buses and marwas), you have to figure out how to navigate the routes (no maps), and you will likely be crammed into a small hot space with far too many other people. If you walk, you have to be super mindful of your person and possessions (though that's the case everywhere all the time). If you take an okada, you have to pray fervently that you don't die.


With those options, you can imagine it's a tad bit stressful, particularly for a newbie.

During my two weeks in Lagos I utilized all of the aforementioned modes of transportation. Our team supervisor had a car, which I rode in when I was working with him (we would often "divide and conquer," so sometimes I was with him and sometimes with the other gal). On those days we usually sat in traffic for 2-3 hours. When working with my other teammate, we didn't have a car, so we would take public transport. We took many small buses (something like a 15-passenger van), though never the large ones or molues, as well as marwas (essentially motorized rickshaws for 4 passengers). Here is a picture of the small buses, one from within the bus, and another from inside a marwa.


And then there were the okadas. A necessary evil, in a way. Given that they are not regulated, and any dude can just decide to buy an okada and drive people around on it (with or without training) they're incredibly dangerous. Even if they were regulated, the roads are terrible, and offensive driving is the way of the Nigerian driver, so you're quite vulnerable sitting on the back of a motorbike. Without a helmet. However, they are incredibly useful if you want to get places with any amount of timeliness. They can glide through traffic jams and really pothole-y roads that are difficult for standard vehicles to navigate. There were times when I got somewhere in 20 minutes on an okada, and it easily would have taken two hours in a car. Given the time constraints on our work and the logistical issues of going all over the city, it was a helpful option. Though they're trying to ban them in Lagos, as you can see in the pictures above, they're everywhere. I counted that I took 20 okadas over my two weeks. Just for good measure, I took a photo with the first one.

Yes, my first okada ride in Lagos was at night. 

Moving on. Since we had to go to hospitals all over the city, I saw a ton of Lagos. Imagine having to go to 10 hospitals spread out across Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Yea. Lagos consists of the Mainland and the Island, and almost all of my work was on the Mainland. For those who know the city, I did work or spent time in Surulere, Mushin, Ikorodun, Ejigbo, Agege, Osodi, Ladipo, Imimu, Ojota, Yaba, and Ikeja. Not sure if they're all spelled correctly, but alas. Here are a few pictures so you can see some of the different types of houses and cars, as well as the ubiquitous garbage and satellite dishes. Of course, this doesn't even remotely begin to cover it all, just a few places that were of interest to me.

I only went to Lagos Island to interview one individual at the Health Service Commission, and it was on my tenth day in the city. It was literally like going to a different country. I had heard that it was this completely "other" place, a land of smooth roads, tall buildings, fancy stores, and big houses. I didn't go into the residential areas, but you can see even from these few pictures that Lagos Island is a radically different kind of place. 

To get to the Island you need to cross the Lagos Lagoon over one of three bridges. We went across the Third Mainland Bridge to get there. It's about 7.5 miles (or 12 km) long! While crossing to the Island, on your right you can see a slum called Makoko, essentially a fishing village on stilts in the Lagoon. It's an informal settlement, and the government recently destroyed many houses giving only 3 days notice to residents. I learned about Makoko a few years ago on a BBC Documentary entitled Welcome to Lagos. I have issues with the documentary because the three-part series essentially shows the three worst areas of Lagos, as if that "defines" Lagos. It would be like doing a "documentary" of New York City and highlighting a neighborhood in the South Bronx, the garbage dump in Staten Island, and the worst neighborhood in Brooklyn. Not exactly representative. In any event, I was interested to see it in person. It's far enough from the bridge that you can't get great pictures, especially while in motion, but here is one, as well two pictures of a neighborhood in the swamps along another one of the bridges. As with any major world city, the contrast between the vast wealth and immense poverty is striking.    

Lest you think my time in Lagos was all work and no play, let me close with a few of the more fun adventures I had while in Lagos. The first week I stayed at the family compound of gal on my team, and there were lots of kiddos between the ages of 6 and 10 living there. I had a lot ton of fun playing games with them and letting the girls play with my hair.

While staying with that family, I attended my first Nigerian funeral with one of the brothers. We didn't attend the service or burial, just the celebration/party, at which there were easily 1,000 people. Lots of music, lots of dancing, lots of food. For funerals there is most often a fabric that is chosen and you can buy it and sew it into any kind of attire and wear in solidarity with the family. It was fascinating to see more than half of the people wearing the same fabric!

I also attended a Sallah celebration. The hallmark of this celebration is each family slaughtering a ram (to represent the ram God provided to Abraham in place of his son). Driving around the city that day, we saw loads of rams being slaughtered in front of houses, as well as rams tied outside houses waiting to be slaughtered. In this case, I believe several families had come together and purchased a cow. But they still put a ram in front of the house, as well. I have a closer picture of the skinless dead cow, but I'll just leave you with this less bloody one.

As you know from my last post, I also enjoyed a lot of wonderful food in Lagos (including at the funeral and Sallah celebration). One that I didn't mention was puff puff, my favorite Nigerian snack. Delicious fried dough. These women make it fresh every morning and were kind enough to let me take their picture to remember the deliciousness. 

So, that ended up being a bit longer than I intended, but like I said, it was still a fraction of all that happened. Now that I've actually been to Lagos I can attest that everything people said about it is true. It is stressful, loud, dirty, chaotic, rowdy, and congested. But if you can manage to sort through all that, it's also a thriving, dynamic, and fascinating place, with adventures around every corner. Perhaps some day I'll go back and experience life on the Island, but I'm glad that the first time around I experienced Lagos as I did- in all of its gritty glory.


Abayomi Oguns said...

You write really well. Being a non-Lagosian myself, means I can relate to every bit of you adventure. You said nothing about the bus drivers and their assistants (conductors). You're sure you were in Lagos?

Liz Spangler said...

Thanks Yomi! Haha oh I did indeed have some entertainment courtesy of the bus drivers and the conductors. But like I said, I was only able to capture a small percent of my Lagos adventures in this entry. :)