Letter From Lagos: Life in the Land of the Paradox

Cristal and crushing poverty, $2,000 designer bags and folks living on a dollar a day. In this city of 13 million, everybody has a story. Even a JJC -- a Johnny Just Come.

Traffic in Lagos (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty)

LAGOS--I just passed from JJC status here in Lagos. A JJC is an expression bestowed upon a newcomer, a Johnny Just Come, in this city that is a series of islands.

I arrived to work in this metropolis in August 2009. Every day has been an adventure to a higher or lesser degree, especially since I drive myself -- but that's another story for another day. You see, that's the thing with Lagos. It's a place of high highs and low lows. There is little room for the middle ground. The so-called ''centre of excellence'' (according to my license plate) is all about the great paradox.

Lagos and her people inspire either passion or dissent. At 13 million strong, it's experiencing both growth and tremendous growing pains. It's a city where wealthy women carry $2,000 handbags to pick up their children from ritzy schools, comfortably installed in the back of chauffeured Mercedes Benzes. It's also a city where women clad in flip-flops pass by on foot, carrying bundles on their head and balancing babies on their backs. It's a city where $500 bottles of Cristal are popped inside the club, while drivers who wait for their ''ogas'' (bosses) outside the club drink 25-cent ''pure water'' out of plastic bags.

Yes o, Lagos is the ultimate paradox. The ''o'' at the end of a phrase adds emphasis to a sentence; it punctuates the speech of both captains of industry and men whose work is to push heavy wooden carts up and down Ajose Adeogun Street, a street that could be compared to Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. ... o.

What most people overlook is the fact that  ''Nigerian'' is both a verb and a noun -- a nationality and a state of being. I first visited Lagos back in 1993 and fell in love with its vibrant people and culture. Well, that is after I cleared customs at Murtala Mohammed Airport.

Metaphorically speaking, you actually ''enter'' the Federal Republic of Nigeria anytime three or more of its citizens gather together. Somehow, those national traits of  resourcefulness, brilliance, arrogance, shrewdness and swagger assert themselves everywhere in the world: boarding gates, edge cities, the workplace, university campuses.

As in any developing country, some people exist here on barely 150 naira a day ($1.00), while some people can afford to ''spray'' money, hundreds of dollars at a time, unto the foreheads of people at a party. Spraying is an art form, involving ''clean'' or new, naira notes, which are then showered upon the object of one's attention. You can ''spray'' a singer at a club who's performing a song praising you. Or you can ''spray'' the bride and the groom when they dance at their wedding party.  It's done to show respect and appreciation -- or simply because one has the means to do so.

You would never ''spray'' a politician, but you could ''dash'' them. A ''dash'' is a monetary gift, legal or illegal; it's also slang for a tip. Of course, a lot of people want a ''dash'' just for doing their job. But I digress.

After months of a dangerous political vacuum, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan was finally president of Africa's most populous nation. His swearing-in was greeted with a collective shrug. I'd call that bad luck.

Recently, the BBC aired Welcome to Lagos, a three-part documentary series. Many Nigerians took umbrage at its portrayal of Lagosians living in abject poverty, squalor and despair in slums along trash heaps.