I am amazed by the luxury cars that regularly toil their way through the choked streets of Victoria Island, Lagos. Porsche Cheyennes, Jeeps and Land Rovers are the car of choice for ex-pats and wealthy Nigerians. The car favoured by oil industry executives is an armoured Land Rover, capable of withstanding an armed assault. Taciturn Nigerians trained in security driving ensure the privileged, like me, survive their journey in what is reputed to be one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Amongst the many hazards, dying in a high speed car crash is not one of them. We crawl along, with barely an inch between us and the next car.
This stationary mode of travel is a Godsend for the hawkers who tap on the black tinted windows, wanting to sell pirated movies, magazines, sweets, fruit, nuts and bottles of soft drink. Particularly heart breaking are the beggars, many of whom are blind or polio victims. They tap on the car window, putting their hands on the glass to peer in. We are under strict instructions not to open the windows or get out of the car under any circumstances, although I’m assuming we can bolt if the car is on fire. Sitting in a car fortress while turning an impassive face to malnourished and disabled children is the worst aspect of living in Lagos. In time I will become accustomed to the pollution, traffic, noise and stifling heat, but I will never become impervious to those tiny peering faces.
Nigerian taxis are banged up yellow and black sedans bearing the dents of peak hour battle, like broken mechanical bees. I was informed ex-pats cannot use these taxis safely so was amazed to see a young British man alight from one a few days ago, calmly hand over the fare and saunter down the street with his bag slung over his shoulder. Move aside Chuck Norris, the new toughness bar has been set by an unknown skinny British kid, last seen on Victoria Island wearing a Union Jack t-shirt.
The public bus system consists of old yellow mini vans or green and white ones used for mass transport. Passengers hang their backsides out the side door, which is never closed, so they can jump off near their “stop”. It’s not uncommon for whole bodies to hang out of windows during peak hour. The main bus depot on the Lagos mainland near the airport is a crime hot spot run by “area boys” who extort money from passengers for the right to wait at a stop. However much ex-pats worry about crimes such as robbery and assault, the main victims are Nigerians unable to pay the police for private protection.
Small motorbikes and bike taxis are banned in many areas of the islands as they have a reputation for being used in robberies. The option of using small vehicles is gone, so the congestion continues unabated.
Mainland Lagos has fewer cars as many roads are not paved and walking is the most common way to move around. On the mainland it is common to see large shanty towns where the lack of running water and basic sanitation causes disease. Along the main roads on the islands shanty towns spring up suddenly but remain small. The inhabitants set up barber shops, foods stalls, magazine stands, photography booths and other businesses. It is common to see a large board set up in the street with numbers on it and young men sitting around. Apparently this is some kind of gambling game with cash prizes. Even though we live in the “wealthy” area, we are never far from the harsh realities of life in Lagos . I asked about going to the beach which is close to our staff house. It’s a very nice beach, I was assured, but also doubles as a toilet for the shanty towns. Public toilets don’t exist in Lagos, which means typhoid can race through the street communities.
Although life in Lagos is difficult, for many it is preferable to the poverty of a rural village. The growing city provides opportunities for education and employment and draws immigrants from all over
Driving around late at night, with the city lights reflecting on the water, it is possible to sense the bright future that lies ahead for this most idiosyncratic of African cities.