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

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Well, I've seen parts of that Lagos, and it should not be denied. But I do agree that there is another side of the story. And it should not be denied, either. But why wait for others to tell your story? Africa's most prolific writers are connected to this soil by birth or heritage. I think the most influential group of people representing Lagos and Nigeria in all its complexity today are its writers: Teju Cole, Sade Adeniran, Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Uwem Akpan. So I was shocked at a recent book reading to hear an author, the winner of a major literary prize in the United Kingdom, describe how she had to self-publish her book in Nigeria. Never mind that Lagos is home to well-established newspapers, radio stations, publishing houses, television networks and movie studios. It wasn't until the author's book won international acclaim that she got any attention for her work in the land of her birth. There goes the old paradox again.

Advertisement

Lagos is a hub of the Yoruba culture; I've been drawing from its deep well. One proverb says, ''Destiny has no cure.'' To the people back home who know me well, it is not surprising that I live here.

I've long been fascinated with Nigeria. In 1977, when I was a girl growing up in Stamford, Conn., Nigeria hosted Festac,  a groundbreaking arts and cultural festival. I remember reading Ebony magazine with my dad and looking at an ad for Festac.  The man featured in the ad was dark, had lovely white teeth and was playing the drums. He was, simply put, beautiful. My dad told me that Festac was a good thing and that I should always be proud of Africa. I was instantly hooked. I finally had a chance to go to Festac land in 1993. Since that trip, I've filled three passports covering lots of ground in Africa, Asia and Europe, first working as a radio producer and then as a teacher. My first post was Douala, Cameroon, and I enjoyed my stay there. But Nigeria is Africa's giant; it has an attraction factor that is hard to resist. Living here was inevitable; my destiny has no cure.

Advertisement

It is here that I feel most at home. I have a rich circle of friends — Nigerians, Cameroonians, Ghanaians and fellow expats from Greece, Pakistan and Italy. Some are married and most of my single friends are travelers, just like me. They are doctors, lawyers, NGO workers, teachers, musicians and artists who love music and love life. Together, we do yoga, take salsa classes, sweat through Tae Bo, play tennis, write and listen to reggae on Sunday nights.

Until I open my mouth to speak, I could be a Nigerian, full stop. Most people treat me with respect and consideration, though I still don't have a lot of luck with people in the market. Even though we supposedly speak the same language, they tell me that they ''can't hear'' me that well, and hey, I really don't understand them that much either, but we all try. I've also been accused of using ''too much grammar'' or too many words.

Advertisement

But some things transcend language. I've laughed at Basketmouth, a popular comic here, although I barely understood his Pidgin English. I've cried listening to singer Asa's Yoruba lullaby despite the fact that I didn't understand a single word.

What I kept close to my chest is that for me, driving, especially here, is both liberating and daunting. It's about exercising control in a place where I sometimes feel powerless.

Advertisement

So when I make my daily drive down a main thoroughfare called Ozumba Mbadiwe Avenue, I am holding on to a piece of the old me in my new city of choice. Plus, I get to blast my CD of the day as loud as I want to and test the sound of my newly acquired pidgin. (I'm determined; there will come a day when the folks at the market can ''hear'' me.)

One of my colleagues calls me Omowale, a Yoruba word for ''the child who has returned,'' and I wear it as a badge of honor. But—and there is the paradox again—my time here has made me embrace my African-American heritage with more pride than ever before. So whether one calls me Ngozi (Igbo for blessing) or Adedayo (Yoruba for ''God has crowned me with happiness), I'll always be that curious girl with the glasses from the west side of Stamford, the girl who first fell in love with Nigeria through an ad in Ebony.

Advertisement

Debi Williams is a teacher and former radio producer who lives and works in Lagos. She hopes to dream in Yoruba one day and master the art of making Party Jollof Rice.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter