I have just spent 5 days in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria and the most populous metropolitan center on the African continent. I spent my time there going around with my local friends, and I’ve written up my thoughts and observations below – my guide to Lagos:
Lagos is connected by air to several major airline hubs in the African and Middle East regions, as well as a few cities in Europe and the Americas. I got into Murtala Muhammed International Airport (IATA: LOS) in Lagos by Ethiopian Airlines, via Addis Ababa.
Upon landing in Lagos, I was rather surprised by how poor the infrastructure is at the airport. Frankly I expected something a bit more developed after reading about Lagos’ efforts in developing itself to be the “international city” on the African continent, but reality was quite different from online sentiment. The airport is small, basic, crowded, and not modern – comparable to a small airport in a county-level town in China.
The visa-on-arrival process gave me a rude awakening to the ridiculous inefficiencies of African bureaucracy. Visitors applying for visa-on-arrival must have the letter of approval arranged prior to arrival, and upon landing at LOS I was taken into a windowless room with about 10 other foreigners. Here I handed in my passport and letter of approval and sat waiting for 45 minutes, while the 6-7 staff slowly flipped through our documents. One officer, while in conversation with another, oddly pointed at my watch – prompting me to quietly wonder if it was bribery time already.
Eventually, it was sorted and I had to pay $95 USD for the visa – the visa is listed as $75 on the government website but they put up a piece of paper on the wall of the room saying there is a $20 “service charge”. It appeared that they only accepted credit card (VISA/MasterCard) and not cash (for obvious reasons perhaps).
Lagos – The City
If you look at the map of Lagos, it is broadly divided into “the islands” and “Mainland”. The islands include Lagos Island/Ikoyi, Victoria Island (“VI”), and Lekki, while the Mainland is everything to the west of Lagos Lagoon.
The islands are the more developed and more modern districts of Lagos. Ikoyi is known as “old money”, and is a neighbourhood for the Lagos elite with big mansions (often unoccupied) and estates. Victoria Island is the modern commercial hub of Lagos, while further east the districts of Lekki are more recent residential expansion zones. Most multinational businesses, fancy restaurants, and shops can be found on Victoria Island.
The Mainland is the gritty Lagos, consisting of many neighbourhoods of varying development. On the coast of the Lagos Lagoon are the impoverished communities of Makoko – when you drive along the Third Mainland Bridge over water you will see this community of floating rafts and wooden shacks, existing under the Lagos haze. Further inland you have districts like Yaba, which is a humble neighbourhood of mostly slums, dotted with a few enclosed estates. Most upper middle class Nigerians live in these “estates”, which are higher standard walled residential compounds complete with big gates and security. Further north on the Lagos Mainland is Ikeja, another important center in Lagos, complete with residential zones and fairly modern commercial strips.
My first impression of Lagos as my plane landed at LOS was the endless haze shrouding the city, akin to the hazy air you would see in places in India or China. Unlike air pollution in Beijing that is full of industrial pollutants, the air pollution in Lagos feels more like a mix of dust and diesel exhaust. Nonetheless, Lagos is enveloped in this yellow-gray haze, which also traps the sweltering heat of the city and makes it feel like an oven. There are very few trees in Lagos, which certainly compounds the problem. But then again, all developing nations go through phases like this, where the environment is a temporary afterthought in the face of economic advancement. I was told also that in the wet season the air gets a bit better.
Eat and Drink
I am a huge fan of African food in general, which is heavy on meat, rice, starch, and spices. If you live for those heavy and hearty meals that occasionally also burn your turn, Nigerian food is right for you.
Some of my favourites include mainstay Naija (“Nigeria” as called by the locals) foods such as egusi soup and pounded yam. You simply cannot go wrong with this combination. Egusi is a meat and vegetable stew typically consisting of goat meat or beef and cowhide, mixed with something akin to spinach or kale, and seasoned in spices (mildly spicy). Pounded yam is a dense white slab of dough-looking thing made from yam, which you tear off piece-by-piece with your hand and use it to dip into the stew as you would with tortilla chips in salsa.
For those who are conservative you can stick with grilled chicken thighs and rice. Ask for regular rice instead of “jollof rice” if you cannot handle the heat. If you are more adventurous, then there are many other meat options you can try. I had everything from Fisherman’s soup to cattle gizzards to goat head (“isi ewu”), and they were all delicious. Another one of my favourites is “suya” – BBQ’d beef chunks covered in suya spice, similar to grilled kebabs of the Muslim world. All of these meats are typically smothered in hot spices, so be warned!
For drink, I highly recommend trying the local palm wine. The palm wine is tapped from the palm tree in sap form and then diluted to a reasonable alcoholic concentration, and it appears as a turbid white liquid. Palm wine tastes a bit like a sweeter version of fermented rice wine and is absolutely delicious. For beers, you can find a few brands of lager popular in Nigeria such as Star and Gulder, but also there is a Nigerian locally brewed Guinness which is 7.5% alcoholic content, twice as strong as its Irish counterpart.
Things to Do
Lagos is not a tourist city at all, and honestly does not offer much in terms of things to do. Also, being in Africa, the general standard of living is still very poor and you do not have the lifestyle comforts that you have in Europe or Asia, for example cafes on every corner, plentiful restaurants, etc. Navigating Lagos is a planned process, and you need to pick out your destination and simply make the long and tedious journey there, preferably by car – Taxify is the local app of choice. However, there were certainly some things worth doing and a couple of places that I found to be very worth visiting.
Lekki Conservation Centre – My favourite place in Lagos was the escape to nature. LCC (as they call it) is a nice conservation park on the east end of Lekki district that offers a nice walk among jungles and swamps, a canopy walk above the tress, and free-roaming tropical animals. During my 2 hours there, I witnessed peacocks strolling casually in the parking lot, monkeys skipping between trees, a tortoise eating grass like it’s his last meal, and A CROCODILE chilling in swamp water literally just off the side of the path (I got closer to snap a photo and the Naija people walking by thought I didn’t care about death). Anyway, LCC is a good place to hang out if Lagos has got to you, and the entrance fee was merely 1,000 NGN.
Nike Art Gallery – Pronounced “NI-KEI” – an impressive art gallery comprised of fantastically intricate statues made out of recycled metals and tools, as well as countless pieces of Nigerian folk art/paintings. Everything in the gallery is for sale, albeit expensive. The staff there were friendly and never tried to hustle anyone to make a sale. It’s a peaceful setting that surely appeals to artistic types. Entry is free.
Watch Football (Soccer) with Locals – As a football fan myself, I was keen to catch some English Premier League matches at local bars, and it was an enjoyable and atmospheric experience. Local style Nigerian pubs are usually outdoor with plastic tables and chairs, served by cold beers and Nigerian street food like suya. Nigerian football fans are passionate and hilarious, and they never fail to entertain with their discussions and commentary.
Music and Dance – Nigerians love their music and dance, and will happily take every opportunity to “Shaku Shaku”. The Nigerian music scene is very lively with hot new dance tracks being played all over the city. If you are into the Afro/hip-hop rhythm, definitely ask your friends to take you to a party. There are also often pool parties being organized at venues on the islands.
Following my arrival and departure experience through Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), I now claim it to be the WORST airport I have ever been to (through 30+ countries and 50+ airports). The departing process didn’t take as long as the arrival process, but it was just full of annoyance.
First, there is a queue outside the departure hall simply to get inside, followed by a relative lack of order at the check-in desks (most people do not follow the queue and just squeeze up to the desks). After that you have immigration and security check, at both points which the staff asked me for “Christmas presents” (=bribe/tip, for readers who are unspoiled), and I firmly said I have nothing for them. As I was on my way to the Heineken lounge after going through security, the janitor passed by and asked me for donations also, and I simply ignored her. Then, even more irritatingly, there was ANOTHER security check at the boarding gate, at which point I was forced to dispose of an unopened bottle of water I had just bought. Pure ridiculousness. I understand that they may be concerned due to several security incidents that have occurred in Nigeria, but the staff’s obsession over a pen (“sharp object”) or medical pills rather than something potentially dangerous was just pure vexation.
Thank god for Turkish Airlines that departed not only on-time, but even early. I guess the airline staff also couldn’t wait to get the hell out of this godforsaken airport known as MMIA or LOS.
In conclusion, Lagos displays the fabric of Africa in all its glory, in both good and bad. It certainly isn’t a place that any non-black foreigner can just walk in and stroll about freely like a backpacker – you need to have local friends to guide you in order to have a remotely comfortable time in Lagos. This is not some sort of discriminating generalization but the simple truth – non-black people will constantly draw unwanted attention from the locals, most of which will be attention of financial interest. In other words, don’t expect to walk around inner city districts and have your personal space to be respected. Also, service does not exist in Nigeria (except for in a few upper scale restaurants in VI), so be patient and do not be surprised by long waits and confused orders.
I can say that my trip to Lagos was an eye-opening experience. Having lived in the comfortable West or the somewhat comfortable Asia Pacific all my life, I had no idea about the low reaches of poverty. I supposed I had expected Lagos to be more modern and metropolitan, perhaps owing to its status as the biggest city in Africa and one of the most rapidly developing. The reality was quite different from my imagination, with most parts of the city (especially on Lagos Mainland) being in utter poverty and a state of third world affairs – rubbish strewn across the street, barely functional vehicles that scream “death trap”, and shantytown housing. This gave me a whole new perspective, and I now understand the stage of development that Nigeria is in. Things will take time, but based on my friends and people I met in Lagos, there are many progressive and ambitious young individuals who want to play their part in changing this massive nation for the better.
They have their work cut out for them though, as the mindset and attitude of people are the most difficult yet most crucial thing to change. There exists such a widespread mindset among the locals (excluding the upper middle class and the elite) to ask for handouts/donations/bribes from people (especially if you are an “oyinbo”, aka a light coloured person) without contributing any quality work or service, which is not only irritating but really must change if the society is to move forward. As colonized people around the world have found out over many centuries of experience, if you cannot help yourselves, then nobody else can. Asking for handouts and charity only result in losing leverage and ownership to other capitalists in the long run, as nothing in this world is free.
People must start taking responsibility on an individual scale, and thankfully there are people who are determined to be part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem. Hopefully over time, the hard work of these local heroes will drag Nigeria from its deeply tangled web of corruption and fuckery.
Don’t get me wrong though — I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and what I learned from my 5 days in Lagos.
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