“I love your Lagos,” the lover said to me after a beautiful day of driving and dining, visiting and ‘art-gallerying’ across my favourite spots in the city of my birth and residence. “It’s very different from the Lagos I used to see.”
Some people have called Lagos one of the worst cities to live in in the world, and they have reason to. But Lagos is, at the moment, my favourite place in the world.
When I am returning to Lagos by air, and the plane brings the city into view, my heart literally begins to race in anticipation. I can’t wait to touch the ground. I can’t wait to drive across the city and onto my street. I have an intense love affair with Lagos.
It’s a stunning reversal of emotions.
In 2017, all I wanted to do was leave Nigeria, and especially Lagos. I found it hot, stuffy, plastic, negative, overpopulated, dirty, dishonest, and close-minded. I couldn’t wait to leave. I had finalized my arrangements to go out of Nigeria on a PhD, stay out of here for up to five years, and perhaps never come back. I wanted a quiet, steady life without drama or tension. Something stable and safe – like academia, in a country that works. Away from the noise and the heat.
A rare opportunity to spend a considerable while in an Ivy League university made it seem like the gods approved. I immediately got to work building a network that would ensure I didn’t return to Nigeria after my programme. But then, as it always seems to do, life threw me a curve ball. My time away delivered perspective and clarity. More than that, for however short the period away, I could finally look at Nigeria without the distance of an observer.
What I saw surprised me: I loved Nigeria.
Not in the saccharine way that politicians speak of loving a country that has delivered immeasurable power and comfort to them while they lie about the outlook, potential and performance of the country on several key indices. No, I realized I loved Nigeria in the way that love is purest: even though it had done very little to earn this love. I loved Nigeria because it is my home: because I know it intimately, I am bound to it intricately; I am of it.
I loved it in spite of all its contradictions, its inanities, all the ways that it has impeded itself, missed its way and collapsed into dissonance.
I remember looking at photos of its elite squeezing themselves into the first row of the ‘biggest’ wedding in the country in the past decade, jostling to be seen, and smiling to myself at the delightful silliness of the whole spectacle. These are my people, I thought. I like them – even with all this drama. I want to be with them.
This is not an unfamiliar position for me. To be liberal and different in Nigeria is to belong to families that disagree with me but whom I have learnt to love, it is to attend churches whose dogma I find revolting but whose rituals give me comfort; it’s to live in a world where prejudice makes even those you respect say misogynistic, homophobic, tribalistic things that you accommodate because you believe that if they knew better, they would do better.
I made a decision to live out my love affair with Nigeria the same way I have done with those I love: To embrace it while standing my ground. To show it compassion while passionate about demanding more. I would stare it in the face through my life and my voice and my choices, and I would dare it to get better.
The past few years have been an exercise in that decision. In returning to Nigeria, especially Lagos, I decided to mindfully curate the life I choose to live here: where I live, where I go, whose energy I indulge, who I do business with, what meetings I sit in, what content I consume.
People often think that to live in Lagos means you cannot avoid the heat and noise. Or at least that you cannot do so and still live a ‘successful’ life. One of the things I am proudest of is that some of my dearest friends have proven these are lies – they live, in this city, lives of calm and peace, lives of introspection and reflection, defined by art and choice.
Lagos, like Nigeria, has suffered the danger of a single story. All many see are traffic jams and okada riders, open gutters and infectious slums. But Lagos is vaster, deeper, wider, bigger than the images that you see above the line. In it can be lived different kinds of experiences.
And it’s not about wealth or privilege. I am writing this just days after visiting the new home of my former assistant in the belly of Surulere. His landlady is a single woman in her 70s who lives alone, renting out the apartment to a certain kind of people whom she intuits are decent and unhurried. It is not a fancy house, and hasn’t been renovated in a while, but there is space and there is care. She rents it out at a net loss, gives all kinds of furnishing she doesn’t have to, checking in constantly on their welfare – on a street where everybody else seems to have that same vibe of unhurried, uncluttered decency and community.
This is not a rarity. When people ask me: How come you live in Surulere? It confounds me: I have lived in Surulere almost all my life. There are people in all kinds of corners here who have been living happy, satisfied lives here for decades. Those kinds of people don’t exist only in Ikoyi or Victoria Island. You find them in the hearts of Ikeja and Omole, Gbagada and Egbeda, Epe and Festac, Ikorodu and Okota. You also find them in Akure and Asaba, Kaduna and Enugu, Port Harcourt and Ilorin.
This isn’t about wealth and privilege. It’s about perspective and choice.
This is also not about pretending that my city and my country do not have a myriad of challenges. I am involved, still, in many causes and campaigns to hold governments and systems accountable for the development they have yet to deliver. I know that more than many. Lagos is not nearly the city it should have become by this time.
But still, Lagos, like life, is a big, huge place. And like life, even in the middle of storm and chaos, you can consciously curate your experience, you can deliberately build the kind of life you want to live in spite of limitation and adversity; you can always design for yourself the life you want – and free up space for joy.
I came back to Nigeria armed with the causes I choose to fight: for difference and diversity, for inclusion and acceptance, for safe spaces and warm relationships. There are those who might moan about having to fight these fights in 2019, and be depressed about why there is yet so much hate and prejudice left, but I am not one of them. I am a happy warrior. I am excited to have this challenge to sink my teeth into, I am inspired by all the ways that we can bring human creativity and compassion as light into dark spaces.
In fact, that’s why I came back. So that with my life, my voice, and my work – by being the fullest and deepest expression of myself – I can cause the kind of change I want to see in the world.
It wasn’t a false and idyllic vision of Nigeria that made me return home to the place I once desperately wanted to leave, and to return with laughter in my eyes and fire in my belly. It was precisely because Nigeria is uneven and frightful, misshapen and slowed down that I wanted to come back. Love is not about getting exactly what you want. Love is about taking things as they are, and helping to make them as beautiful as they can be.
In 2017, all I wanted to do was leave Lagos. Has anything changed about it in the past three years? Not really. Despite the refreshing new architecture, #DettyDecember, a flourishing cultural space for the middle class and my own progress as an individual, you can still objectively describe Lagos as hot, stuffy, plastic, negative, overpopulated and dirty.
Yet, today, I find myself very sad whenever I have to travel. I find myself rushing to get back home despite the many challenges – light, water, roads – that plague it. Which is to say that I realized what I felt about Lagos had objectively little to do with Lagos itself.
“We don’t see things as they are,” the memoirist Anais Nin wrote in Seduction of the Minotaur, quoting the Talmud. “We see them as we are.”
Stephen Covey expounded on this in The 7 Habits: “Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are—or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms.”
“When we change the way we look at things,” the immortal Wayne Dyer famously said, “the things we look at will change.”
This is in fact not about Lagos or about Nigeria at all – indeed, I may yet find myself wanting to leave it again in the future.
This was and is about me.
Lagos hasn’t changed. My heart has. And once my heart did, it finally found that home was always available – here and now – to me.