Sunday, 3 March 2013

Visiting Lagos in "Nigerian" Time

I've recently returned from Lagos in Nigeria where I've been working on a major destination development and brand strategy project (of which more anon). I've never been to Nigeria before   and despite having previously worked in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and  Uganda, I was unprepared for the sheer frenetic energy, creativity, movement, noise and mayhem that is Lagos. It could so easily have been overwhelming had it not been for my friend Eje and her miraculous driver Moses who together acted as protectors, guides and translators of language, symbols, culture, fashion, music and culinary delights. 

There were echoes of India in the many and massive traffic jams that we joined and partook of in Nigerian time in that being slow and stationary gives you more time to consider the delights on offer from the jam vendors who gather around stationary cars like bees around a honey pot who will attempt to sell you a cornucopia of things you may or may not need, may or may not like - fruit, flip flops, computer accessories, chewing gum, sweets, drinks, sandwiches, name badge holders, socks, underpants, towels, handkerchiefs, CD's, lottery tickets, ciggies, lighters,  and more that I have forgotten in the blur of purchase opportunities.  And there is entertainment aplenty in every traffic jam as you observe the constantly changing occupants of the small yellow three wheeler taxis and the larger taxi buses whose conductors are constantly touting for passengers and shouting out their otherwise unadvertised routes and destinations, and the antics of the many traffic policemen in many styles and colours of uniform who take great delight in waving at traffic whether moving or stationary.

And if you don't fancy buying anything from the traffic jam markets there is always the roadside, street stall, of which there are tens of thousands in the city. Few kerbside or pavement spaces are left to go to waste; a few square feet or meters are quickly put to productive retail use as a form of street theatre. This culture makes our recent attempts at pop-up retail look a little slow and jaded.

But nowhere else on earth have I experienced driving like this (and that may be down to me being less well traveled than others). At first it was scary, even at slow speeds in jammed traffic, there is no lane discipline - there is constant jostling for position,to capture a temporary almost ephemeral advantage of any gap that opens up which can get you momentarily past the cars beside you or in front of you or ahead of those in your rear. And there is a constant, jarring, but almost musical, honking of car horns by drivers announcing they are behind you, beside you or about to overtake you or cut you up, to let you know they are there.This is driving with all your senses on high alert. But, despite seeing many cars, buses and trucks with bumps and dents, I did not see or experience a single crash or bump,and Moses, true to his name, always managed to part the walls of traffic and find us a way through; miraculous!

I was equally unprepared for the sheer variety and scale of the buildings in the landscape - the makeshift towns of the poor on the Lagos waterfront, their camps on the edge of roads and streets, the decaying buildings of the country's brief Colonial period, the modern international hotels that could be anywhere because they lack any visual language identifying them with the symbols of their host locations, the new commercial office blocks that are neighbours to low cost and slum housing. 

Much of the original coastline has disappeared from Lagos and there is little European style waterfront development with much of it blocked off by the floating wooden housing made from every type of available scrap but just outside the city you can still get a glimpse of what it was originally like at its Botanic gardens where there are still crocs and snakes in the water.

Very ambitious plans are being implemented for a major new waterfront development at the end of Victoria island in the city on the Atlantic waterfront - the EKO Atlantic City, which will completely change the image of this part of the city, and on whats called Banana Island where major investment is being made in new high density residential development that would not look out of place in Manhattan or London's Docklands, as it also lacks any discernible visual symbols or patterns of Nigerian identity.

Many parts of the city looked the same with similar mixes of seemingly unplanned combinations of residential and commercial development, with a chaotic mix of different styles of architecture. If there truly is a identifiable European style city centre I failed to see or find it. No plazas, squares or gathering points; but every street seems to be a gathering point, a place of arrival and departure, a place of exchange, a place of meetings and farewells, loud, colourful and sometimes exotic; a place of energy and a place striving for improvement and new clothes in which to dress its chaotic image.