Lagos: A Vortex of Secret Stories

Image: Joshua Oluwagbemiga via Unsplash (modified)

In this place, reality exists unsettled…

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There is something about Lagos. In this place, reality is warped, unsettled, indecisive on being or not being. More than half of everything that has happened in the world from day zero has happened in Lagos. Many happened first here, too. There is an energy in this city that bursts from every living crevice. There are the smells of the gutter and the occasional dead drunk who found a home in the heap of slimy sewage. There are the ten or more early morning office workers waiting unsuccessfully to board a bus who scramble to squeeze into the back of a moving truck. There are the certain yells and pushing, punches and curses, and there is the young man beside you who prophesies the truck would simply cave in and swallow them up. However bizarre and sadistic the prediction is, this is Lagos, and you cannot doubt the chance of anything happening, or not happening. The unholy noise coming from loud speakers in that party on Saturday that shut down the entire street is a testament to the celebrant whose children will stay at home, school fees hindered, on Monday morning.

There is beauty, a mosaic made, from the millions of pure water satchels squeezed and lying in the wide gutters blocking drainage. You won’t forget the millions of plastic bottles, too, that wait, lying in the ditch, waiting for no one really to pick them up. One day, it travels by heavy currents of rain to another ditch which, with the efforts of its million more compatriots, block another pipe. There is something about this place. There is the natural lawlessness that is almost normal, orgasmic. Today as you stand under the bridge, shielded from the lawless Lagos sun, you see the little boy making funny faces at the traffic policemen. A thin boy of about eleven — but you could be wrong, for in Lagos, no one knows really who’s an egbon or an aburo — makes funny faces at the men. There are two of them standing, bored spectators to the boy’s taunts. And he’s fearless, the boy. You think that you wouldn’t do that had you been him. What if you were caught by the arm and your ears pulled by the men? What if you were spanked and threatened to bring your mama to defend your flagellation? Well, this is Lagos. The boy makes more faces before one of the men wags a finger and warns him to leave. But the boy persists, making more playful faces. Once, you could swear he pulled down his torn shorts, revealed his arse to the men in mock victory and run off again when they threatened to cane him and have his mother come to them to fight. But the little boy returns. You take your eyes away from the scene. You are bored of waiting, but you are not. There is something strange about this place. There’s a soulful rhythm that the hundred molue buses, okadas, maruwas and trucks make; that soulful rhythm that could turn to an orchestra of discord at any time. Lagos is a crazy place. If you’re not ready to deal with the spontaneity, get off, man. Lagos is probably not for you. But this place is for you. You love it here.

A haggard old man creeps from one of the bushes around, pulls down his trousers and watches his pee fall into the pit he stands behind. He waves his penis with vigour as if announcing victory over the gods that work against a man peeing successfully — maybe Gonorrhea or Syphilis. You never know what ills a man here. Here, twice, you have seen dead men walk. What can surprise you again? Is it not Lagos? Eko is the centre of anomalies. The man enters a gin shop and picks a pack of cigarette from a plastic see through bucket, takes out a stick, lights it, watches the white rizzla turn brown, and smokes, the fumes rising into the Lagos skies, another libation to a dead god, another thanksgiving to the elements for the grace to live again. But the libation kills their lungs and their heart. But, hey, who cares? In Lagos, no one really dies. A pack of cigarettes a day never kills you. Here, what kills one is not smoke nor gonorrhea or syphilis, or women. What kills a man here is poverty, the power of knowledge of having nothing and everything at the same time. A man dies here not by what he takes in but by what he is. And Lagosians never truly die. We are a people whose death sentences are paused for too long that a continuation of our trial seems like a fair deal to an acquittance!

Being in Lagos is already a death sentence, you’d repeat within you. You don’t say it then, but you believe it deep down down when you tell your friends across a bowl of foofoo and watery vegetable soup in Mama Eze’s shop, “if I make it here, I can make it anywhere. Man, if Lagos no kill me, nobody fit kill me!” And you believe it strongly. There is the unshakable belief in the inability of Lagos to tame you anymore. Mind over matter. You have become a lord of the place; only that you’re not. You’re only an idealistic poor man sharing a bowl of cheap food with equally very cheap friends. Still, Lagos will not kill you, you know. Do you?

Lagos is full of stories. Hey, the stories abound brekete in every place, every smell, every noise, every picture on the wall, every boy, every woman hawking okpa, every boy selling only chewing sticks. Who sells only chewing sticks? Who chews just sticks here? We have toothpaste, don’t we? But hey, Lagos is one crazy place. Everyone has to survive. Here, your value is determined by how much you work, and if you work at all. And so, boy, you move.

Chewing sticks for sale, hey.

Buy a bunch of six and get one stick free!

But the okpa woman amuses you the more. You thought the meal was an Igbo staple. At best you found it at bus parks by women selling to passengers travelling to the East of Nigeria, to Enugu, Imo, Anambra or Abia. Here’s a story to tell. When the ship settles, it brings along with it its own water. Oh Lagos! What doesn’t this place say? Oh yes, the stories. They abound everywhere. In the beautiful girl who asks you to buy her groundnuts, her lips bending into a smile, a wooing one. You are almost thrilled until you realise who you’re waiting for, and you wave her off. You don’t need groundnuts. You thought you heard her hiss before she walks away. You watch her arse swing merrily in her short red skirt. You adjust yourself. She’s a story in herself. You pen this down in your mind. You promise to write a story about her, about who she was before she came to Lagos. You think about why you just imagined her not from here, and you realise it was her accent. She looked and sounded very Igbo. If you still had that accent here, you were obviously not from here. Lagos tames you and dresses you with its own clothes.

There is a story in the music you hear the now drunk haggard old man singing. His voice sounds pretty good. You are intrigued by stories, this man’s story, and you pry your way into his head to exhume his reality. Does he love here the way you do? Does he see the beauty lodged here, or does he simply live each of his days as they come, hoping to survive one and move into the other? Perhaps he was a singer in his younger days. Perhaps he made some money doing his music. But wait, no one said he was really a musician. Don’t speak too sure. He might have been no one, and the women selling the drinks who you sometimes thought had once been Fela’s “Queens” might not have been. The man has stopped singing. He is taking another shot at the small transparent bottle he holds. He sips the brownish liquid again and continues singing a melody, striking chords of hope.

The painting under the bridge is of Fela, tight white shirt on, his hands straight up, one hand clutching a corded microphone and the other holding a cigarette. It occurs to you that he lived not too far from here. Ojuelegba enjoyed his music first hand when Baba was alive. His Grove is close by, too. The Shrine, demolished more times than you can recall. You see the paintings of Fatai Rolling Dollars and another singer whose name you cannot remember now. This unknown man blows into the muzzle of a trumpet, his lips stiff, cheeks puffed up with forced air. The beauty of Lagos seeps into you. Again, you see the boy. He has returned, only now he is crying and not making funny faces at the men anymore. They are now seated, laughing. Does the boy belong to any of them? Why isn’t he in school, anyways? You stop thinking about the boy. There’s no exciting story about him, you think. The beauty of a person is in their age, wouldn’t you agree? At that age you thought the boy was in, you were only dough untouched by the heat of the world, a story begging to be told. Lagos did enough to add to you a wealth of stories, too many you stopped counting.

In Lagos, you sped off too fast and grew too slow. You thought you were it, but you are simply shit. The bragging rights on how many panties you’d taken off, on how many you successfully went into and those that said no — although that wasn’t said out in the open, for only the victories were sounded; of those you made cum and those that didn’t, by their sheer will or your bland impatience to last; of how much you stole from your boss last Sunday to eat catfish with and buy a bottle of warm beer, warm because cold beer costed extra naira. You couldn’t brag, like the real Lagos big boys you had heard of, of how many bottles you downed and didn’t even get tipsy over. Oh no, you couldn’t, not because you couldn’t hold your beer, but because that privilege is excluded to the Elegushi spenders who bought new cars every month and turned the island red every weekend. And so when you make your first car deal — a transaction between the boy on shift that weekend who leases you the “car on repair” to cruise on and play loud music and return it Sunday night, you taste power. That shit is coke! Power. Real coke. Once you taste it, you feel like a man, a real man now. You can wind down your sides and call in a beautiful chic. And she responds without saying jack! She simply smiles and walks in. Power. And so you grow too quickly here you don’t grow at all. Suddenly, you find that you have forgotten the image in your head of the man in your childhood recollection who frightened your mother in the kitchen that night. You remember your mother’s fright, but you have forgotten his face. And then as you stand there, you realise you have grown well enough now. Didn’t age come with forgetting, with the unique gift of disremembering?

You’re tired of standing, and your eyes search for a place to sit, as you wait. You find a boulder, material for building a demarcation for the road. The materials might never be used, the road might never be demarcated, but the boulder will serve its purpose. You walk down to it, and when you reach it, you look around and prop yourself on it. The aromatic flavours of akara plague your nostrils, and you realise you’re hungry. But then your eyes roam across the beggars along the pedestrian path by the far side of the road. The beggars are mostly Fulani women, dark as death, children hoisted on their backs by threadbare pieces of old dresses. Your hunger clears when you conjecture how hungry these children would be. Cars zip past off and on. In Lagos, everyone is in a hurry to go everywhere and nowhere. Mad men drive, too, so you can’t be too careful to not get hit. Only a lucky Lagosian hasn’t been hit thrice by a moving vehicle. You have been hit six, maybe seven times, and the scar from the last encounter announces its presence with a slight throb, an ache. And this car slows down to where one of the begging groups are. The woman in the car teases the little taunting boy of earlier with a bottle of drink as he jumps up and down the car to ask for alms. Your mouth circle in an O of realisation. The woman makes as if to shove the drink to the boy from her closed window, and then she speeds away, leaving the boy in the trail of construction dust. Serves him right, you think. Next time you don’t go showing your arse to older ones because you want to play.

The boy comes closer to the men again, and you see something in his eyes. In those eyes, you see a catalogue, a magnificent castle of stories that you might not be able to tell in a small book. But you’d be damned if it were only the stories you saw there. This is Lagos. Stories don’t come alone. No. They follow with that flesh-cutting passion to keep living and telling your stories in the only way you can — survival. You turn and see the boy rush again to the men who still sit together. The boy wags a finger at the men, and in response — could your eyes be playing tricks? — they pulled off their trousers, turned around, and in a moment of shame, shook them in the boy’s face.

Across the street that moment, the day begins to darken. Night time comes soon in Lagos. Your girl might never get to make it today.

Written by
Nzube Nlebedim
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