My Introduction to Lagos
“Dr. Karen Wilson?” I was standing on the line having just completed a 20 hour journey to Lagos that was surprisingly easy to make. I flew from Southern California’s multiplicity of languages and cultures to the African Diasporic hub of Atlanta – by this I mean it was full of Black folks. Then I traveled from Atlanta on to Lagos and into a Black World with a multiplicity of languages and cultures of its own. I heard my name as I was considering how to navigate immigration and customs. The US Embassy had alerted their staff who are stationed at the airport to assist those carrying out the business of the US Department of State. So, two kind and efficient Nigerian woman assisted me: one with my bags while the other undertook a discussion with a customs official that looked as if it could have gotten a bit sticky if I had been by myself. God bless Fulbright! Then the embassy driver took me on to a hotel for an expensive, but much appreciated, night of repacking and rest.
More than once I told someone in those first few days about Herman Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno, a fictionalized account of a real event that happened around 1826. A group of enslaved Africans mutinied while being transported by ship from one Spanish speaking country to another. When discovered by a Yankee Clipper Captain – not too bright but full of racism and good intentions – a ship full of men, women and children kept up the charade of enslavement for 10 hours. When they spared the navigator’s life, they told him to take them to “some Negro country.” “And look how long,” I said, “it has taken me to get here.”
I first told this story to Mrs. Chinenye Uwadileke, the person who shepherded me through the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy in Lagos. She heard me well, and she told me, quietly, “You are welcome.” Then she moved me through my necessary appointments with a sure and experienced hand.
One of the most amazing parts of this journey has been my surprising friendship with Ivor Miller, PhD, a person that I have never actually met. Dr. Miller was the Fulbright Fellow in Calabar before me, and he has been incredibly generous with introductions and advice. And so I was blessed in Lagos with an introduction to Ms. Bunmi (pronounced Boo’-me) Akingbehin,
a friend of Ivor’s to whom I
returned a damaged computer part. She provided me with a car and driver, offered me a place to stay for the few days that I was in Lagos in her lovely home, took me to the Balogun Market to purchase beautiful fabric at a reasonable price, and even helped me to find and purchase a gift for the Vice Chancellor of the University of Calabar when the one that I had gotten previously wound up deep in my California storage facility. Funmi, (Foo-me) one of Bunmi’s company’s drivers and also a friend of Ivor, took me out and found me a phone, made sure that I got to change some money, took me on a diligent search for the Ghanaian Embassy, and regaled me with stories of he and Dr. Miller in Lagos restaurants. It was a wonderful stay, and I had a lovely time.
Lagos was my first taste of Nigeria: creative and energetic, incredibly old and remarkably new. Cell phone advertisements line the highways, while the design of the canoes paddling the Lagos Lagoon is centuries old.
Many young men – and a few women – hustle to sell anything possible on the street.
Tuesday morning business on the move
They are at your car window as soon as the car slows down. Bunmi says that during the evening rush hour, you can buy your dinner between work and home, including the meat! It is evident that there is much poverty here, and although these sales are supposed to be to some extent illegal, I have never heard anyone actually complain. And for all the poverty, I have as yet seen no homelessness. That doesn’t mean it’s not here. Lagos has been a major city for a long time.
When the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century, they found a thriving economic and civic hub that the Yorubas called Eko. The Portuguese called the city, Lagos (lahgos), or Lakes, and the name stuck. In claiming the name, however, the Nigerian pronunciation is Lehgos, so that both the city and the name is their own. For myself, I liken Nigeria’s capitol, Abuja to Washington, DC in the United States, while Lagos is like my home town of New York City. Both Abuja and Washington are governmental centers, while commerce and capital flow through Lagos and New York.
The parallel still works just fine for me.