Home Coming: Lagos
An intimate tour of one writer's hometown, one traffic jam at a time.
Identities fracture unevenly. My actual hometown sits somewhere between a pot of jollof rice in the busiest kitchen in West Africa and a dining room table. It gives a shape and border to all the intangibles I inherited from my family and Nigeria – a love of ritual, chaos, food, a confusing matrix of who is actually a blood relative, heat (both taste and touch) – and any opportunity for too many people to gather in a confined space and argue about nothing.
To understand this better, you will need: two cans of chopped tomatoes, one large onion, one red pepper, an overwhelming sense of your own opinions, one scotch bonnet chilli or two, my mother's supervision, three cups of rice, too much thyme and something else I always forget.
My other hometown is Lagos.
Lagos is full.
At any moment, Nigeria's unofficial capital is certain to burst, revealing it's been hiding a smaller, more functional metropolis all this time. By population, it's London, New York and Uruguay combined, with room still to spare for any Latvian curious enough to sample the world's most perfectly seasoned chaos. Lagos is the punchline to a joke that could start: 21 million people unburdened by self-doubt walked into a bar…
Ghana is a great nation – but no one would notice if you swapped Ghana's entire population size for Lagos'. The point is: There are a lot of people in Lagos. None of them are shy.
Lagos is loud and plagued by joy. It sounds like impatience and overfamiliarity. It moves like a culture built on faith and certainty being the same thing. It's stitched to the same vague tones of a dream, where imagination seems to outpace movement, and progress is grounded in intention, if not reality. You're hearing a never-ending scream of car horns, reminding you that at their core, Nigerians love nothing more than to warn you of their presence. Here in Lagos it's understandable, though – everyone is either driving too fast to be preoccupied by your safety or fixed in the bumper-to-bumper traffic that scars every inch of the city; threading through the region's two main hubs: the Mainland and Lagos Island, crawling past districts soaked in wealth and culture, and neighbourhoods where people are literally living in swamps.
In Lagos, thinking small is a sin, as is arriving anywhere on time. You will come to reason that if everyone is running late, then everyone is actually early. Many of your habits will change, in fact. You will become possessed of a passion for using your outside voice at all times, regardless of location and in spite of circumstance – to welcome, to explain, to pray; to haggle, to wish someone well, to wish someone great harm. Live in Lagos and you will learn to speak the local dialect – ‘ Please hurry up; I don’t have time’ – sooner than you wish. You will learn to feign offence when someone tries to hustle you, because you understand that the game is the game, and in the end the house always wins.
You will learn to love how much everyone else loves to dance.
Lagos smells like fresh fruit and diesel. On the weekends, you're never more than half a mile from an MC begging for silence from a crowd dressed in Technicolor fabrics that were individually tailored to scream: "Do you know who I am?" Never answer that question. Plan it right, and you can hit three wedding receptions on any given Saturday. Time it to perfection, and you'll hear Davido sing “If I tell you say I love you, oh…” no less than eight times.
Lagos is highs of 40 degrees and lows of persistent power cuts. Its vistas are framed by large palm trees and an almost 100 percent black demographic. Every day, the piercing sun sprays across its natural grey filter, through a swarm of bright yellow busses, and sticks to what science believes to be the happiest people on earth.
It's hard to know whether the city is a concept or an experiment – but whichever it is, Lagos remains truly humbling; big enough to dwarf any ego. Something about being in Lagos forces you to be of Lagos. It has a way of moulding its own intentions for your life over and around whatever misguided ambitions you had.
That's a sentiment easy to romanticise but can often be exhausting. The unknown physics that propels it is not poetic, but a consequence of nobody taking the time to design it with intent. So instead, Lagos is governed by confidence – an innate, unshakeable certainty that the city is home to Africa's finest; a system of deep faith born from having the world's highest ratio of people to good dancers and a palpable belief that God dey.
The overall return is this constant sense of imbalance. Lagos has everything it could ever need to be the great city. Lagos has no idea what it wants to be when it grows up.
Firstly, you will need to find the blender.
Our family's storage system is based on feeling rather than practicality. At this stage, dad will offer to help – he is a very good cook, but has no idea where anything is. From him I learned never to put anything back where I found it. He can't really help at this preliminary search stage, but don't let him leave the kitchen. If he goes, he is almost sure to become overwhelmed by the warm grace of a nap. The best way to keep him there is to ask my parents about an event they were both present at, but for which they have conflicting versions of events. In our home, history isn't written by the winner, but whoever speaks first.
My grandfather arrived in Lagos in protest against the limited opportunities in the relatively small town he was raised in. The British with their Empire and sweat-drenched suits were still a decade away from allowing their hilariously ad-hoc demarcation lines to become a self-governing Republic. But whatever that new independent nation would become, it would certainly start and accelerate in Lagos.
From him I took my name and a love for highly dense populations and noise; a deep comfort at being boxed in by a jukebox of experiences, an extensive bus network and millions of stories punctuated with “.. and that's how I ended up in this Lagos.” Being in a small town or village for more than two days makes me feel like I've made a mistake. I can't shake the sense that space is a waste of space. All this is rooted in my grandparents' decision to upsize – but also in my mother. She is a people person, a crowd pleaser. Lagos is the perfect home for her. Both she and the city attract waves of raw energy that require you to adapt or stay at home.
By day and night, mum runs the school she built directly next to our home in Ikeja – a relatively quiet residential district on the Mainland, though relative calm is a warped concept in Lagos. For years my morning alarm was three-year-olds screaming through an imperfect, though sweet, rendition of the National Anthem at morning assembly. Occasionally, she folds in some downtime, which she spends pricing large quantities of fresh meat and vegetables – a hobby that offered numerous opportunities for her curious and easily bored son to roam around one of Lagos' large markets, just to explore.
As she would smile and how are the children her way around, I would walk off to take in the show in its entirety – both in people and produce – crafting backstories for anyone who looked burdened by a secret. My curiosity comes at a literal price. At my fastest, I'm a slow walker; at my slowest, as my sister once noted, I may as well be strolling backwards. Add that to my reluctance to haggle, and I present as the perfect mark for a seller looking to squeeze some extra Naira out of a sale – a classic catch and kill arrangement. "They are cheating you," my mum has said many times, with the look parents offer when they're worried their child may never get it. "I know," I would say, avoiding eye contact, as I – transfixed and helpless – hand over four times the price of a mango.
Dad is an extrovert on his own terms, extremely at ease in his own skin, with an urgent need to just be. His current pace is a counterweight to motion – a reaction to spending a lifetime in the military. Now if he could design a perfect day, it would involve a morning nap. He peaks on Sunday afternoons, post church, when even the sun looks strained from a long week, and would occasionally throw out an invitation to go for a slow drive nowhere in particular, just to taste the city without letting it consume you, instead – an easy mistake to make in Lagos. Or perhaps a simple stroll past the high walls that divide Lagos into tiny economic destinies.
There was a time when a Friday evening invite, my school uniform still clinging on, meant picking up suya – small strips of grilled meat coexisting as turbulently spicy and graciously sweet, sliced on the side of the road, served with a side of onions and thick slabs of the northern Nigerian dialect Hausa; then wrapped in sheaths of newspaper.
Suya kisses every corner of Lagos life because it's cheap and unreasonably delicious. It's broken up traffic jams and a thousand-strong weddings that make you question the abstract of family. It's served at kids birthday parties and used to give bougie hotels on Lagos Island a sentience of authenticity. It's even inspired late night trips to far flung parts of south London to dampen a sudden bout of homesickness.
Suya is a dance of still and sudden. You could say the same for Ikeja. At times turbulently spicy, then graciously sweet. The roads that snake through our neighbourhood were peaceful enough for me to learn to drive on, but to walk alongside them, unprotected by a mesh of metal, is to play a game you will ultimately lose.
Open the windows to let the warm air carry in the Fela coming from our neighbour's outdoor speaker system, then chop the vegetables in half and pour them with the tomatoes into the blender, then pulverise until smooth. My nephew can help with this. He's ten years old and has never lost a finger. My nieces are six and five, so I only allow them to handle sharp objects either when my sisters are not in the room, or especially if they are, and I've decided this is a good time to stress them out as revenge for some injustice in our past because Nigerians understand the devastating effects of bottling a grievance. Pour the mixture into a high sided pan with an inch of hot oil. Seasoning is more culture than instruction, so just do your best.
My great-uncle was sad as he gently thumbed through the worn-out pages of the photo album that proved he wasn't young anymore. He considered age his mortal enemy; the conman that tricked him into leaving the 70s.
"Didn't I look great in this three-piece" he said, more as a statement than a question. The only thing protecting him from lingering on each image for too long were the thick white clouds that had permanently settled in his eyes. His thin fingers drifted down the page as light poured into the spacious corridor on the top floor of his home in Yaba – arguably Lagos' busiest district. Outside, the harsh drums of his guard dog barking at nothing competed with the rumblings of the generators that power the city.
If I had known this was our last time together, maybe I'd have said something profound about place and time and eternity, and about all he and my grand-aunt had achieved. Or perhaps I'd have mentioned how much I loved coming to visit them here as a child. I would have told him how exciting it still was to visit Yaba and drive through the impossibly narrow roads hosting rent-a-canopy street parties, past the roundabout with the cinema that the adults always pointed to, and finally to look up at his home of 50 years, the house my mum was raised in, only a few doors down from my dad. Maybe we would have talked about how we both shared a love for beginnings and how perfect that is in a city like Lagos. I hope he would have confirmed, as I still imagine, that at his peak, an outsider could step to anyone in Yaba and ask where Dr Odeinde's house was, and they would point them to where we were sitting now.
I'm certain his thin frame would have lifted in laughter then fixed itself upright in pride when I asked him to verify mum's version of events: that on Yaba's social ladder, they were at the top, and allowing my father to ascend to their height was an act of great charity. I would have checked whether he wanted his house to become a dedicated museum to his life. He would have said yes.
But of course I had no idea. Instead I just smiled back and said, "You still look great," and asked him whether he wanted help plating up the rice and chicken mum had asked me to deliver. "Yes please," he smiled
Minutes later, I stepped back out into the dry heat of Yaba, and crossed a large avenue, and drove past the amala joint that locals complain hasn't been good since it got a card machine, and across from the cinema and I wondered whether I could pull off a three-piece.
After about 15 minutes, add the rice and cover. The rice will be done when it's done. You can only leave it to plump and absorb its bright red elixir. All that's left to do is sit back and wait for the largest socio-economic demographic in Lagos to arrive: Aunties. They run large companies, maintain the social order and mind your business. From the moment they step in, you will be overrun, so nod politely and be agreeable where possible, without committing to setting a specific date for your own wedding.
Very few people could argue that Lagos would benefit from making an enemy of age and time. Or feeling any fear at falling away. Megacities are traditionally motivated by an urgency to be the next big thing invading your Insta stories. But Lagos is in no such rush, betting on the city's main informal economy: optimism – and that no other city in Africa will ever surpass it in size and cult of personality. Still, Lagos Island has always offered clues to the best version of the city's future.
Three large concrete bridges bind Lagos Mainland to a cluster of islands collectively known as the Island. Large plazas tower over high-walled mansions finished in faux-gold because here, a show of wealth and status, real or imagined, is far more lucrative than money.
From the neighbourhoods of Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Lekki, a thriving arts and nightlife scene has emerged, and nourished a new wave of new media savvy creatives who are no longer trying to mimic American artists, but proudly creating work in their own accents. Now the Island hosts your fix of art galleries, club nights and overpriced smoothies flavoured in local spices that were never intended for crushed fruits. It's where you go for artisanal donuts and to hire boats that will speed you and your friends along the Atlantic Ocean to one of the many party beaches sewing the coast.
But ultimately, Lagos can only say it's truly made it when the majority of the metropolis can dip into this pool of prosperity. When thousands of people are not living on houses perched on stilts stuck in a lagoon. Until then, the city's identity will remain fractured into sharp, oddly shaped pieces that when stitched into a coherent canvas from 21 million individual fragments, shows a Lagos that is, if anything at all, remarkably full.
Serve the jollof rice with plantain.