On entering a major Nigerian city, you’re likely to encounter some aged signage that welcomes you to the city and encourages you to enjoy yourself. For example, in Calabar, the welcome sign reads, “Welcome to Calabar. Come And Live And Be At Rest.” But in Lagos—Nigeria’s most populous city and its former capital—you get simply, “This Is Lagos.” The subtext is clear: This is a no-nonsense city. Lagos will not coddle you or gush mushy endearments. A common expression here is “shine your eyes,” which loosely translates to “keep your eyes peeled,” or “always have your wits about you.” Lagos does not suffer fools gladly.
“This House is Not For Sale” is another message found throughout the city, this one painted on many Lagos residences to discourage a common scam. It often happens that a country bumpkin, a Johnny Just Come (or JJC, as they are called here), will arrive the city with more money than street smarts. A devious Lagosian will spot one of these JJCs and convince them to part with a huge sum of money in exchange for some fake ownership documents. It is only when the newcomer returns the next day to move into the home that he realizes he's been had.
In Lagos, when a visitor asks for directions he is often told that the address he is looking for is really quite close, he'll get there soon, if he just keeps going. In fact, the place may not be close at all, but Lagos’s residents would never say that. In a roundabout way, this is a way in which Lagosians express kindness. By telling the person that he'll soon get where he’s going, he is encouraged not to give up, but to keep trudging through the muggy Nigerian heat.
Perhaps because of its sass and brashness, Lagos remains the city to which people bring their dreams. Elvis, the protagonist of Chris Abani’s novel Graceland, works as an Elvis Presley impersonator, entertaining tourists in hotels and on the beautiful beaches that dot the city, all the while hoping to one day depart for the US. But though Lagos can be a place of dreams, it can also be a graveyard for them: Elvis lives in a slum, one of the many throughout the city, his family life is dysfunctional, and he is soon drawn into a life of crime.
Similarly, the hero of Helon Habila’s novel Waiting for an Angel, Lomba, is a journalist drawn to Lagos because of its many opportunities for writers, poets, and dreamers. After he’s thrown into jail by the military junta for a story he published in a newspaper, Lomba finds himself obliged to do a very different kind of writing for the chief warden of the prison. The warden, it so happens, is in love with a highly educated lady who he has failed to impress with gifts. One day, after catching her reading a novel, he approaches Lomba to help him write a love letter. Lomba does, and the woman begins to fall for the chief warden. But as Lomba continues to write the lady begins to suspect that the writer of the letters cannot possibly be the charmless and ordinary warden who is supposedly sending them. Habila's novel might appear rather grim, but it ends with a romantic twist that captures the gentle, even somewhat romantic, heart behind Lagosians’ brashness.
My best memories of growing up in Lagos were the long summer holidays when there was no school and I was left to my own devices. My nephew and I would rent Chopper bicycles from a retired soldier-turned-bicycle-repairman whose nickname was One Blow because he liked to boast that he had once felled seven men with a single blow from his fist. Though he had a kind soul, One Blow had a tough demeanor and would punish kids who did not return their bicycles on time by making them pump tires. He also wore a wristwatch that didn’t tell the right time, though none of the kids knew this except my nephew and me. When we rented bikes, we would go on what we called aroma trips. First we would cycle to the Guinness factory and pause by the belching chimneys of the factory to drink in the smell of fermented hops, our heads growing light (or so we imagined) from the aroma of distilled stout. We would then cycle furiously toward the Cadbury factory where, once again, we raised our nostrils in the air to drink in the smell and aroma of Tom Tom sweets, Cadbury’s Bourvita and Goody Goody candies. On our way back, we would stop over at the Coca Cola factory and take in the scent of the dark drink that would burn the backs of our throat when we tried to drink a chilled bottle in one go. When we returned the bicycle to One Blow and he would scold us for being late, we'd tell him to look at his watch, and he would again say we were late before shaking his head and saying, just this once I’ll let you go.
Why has Lagos continued to attract writers? Partly because the city is filled with stories and colorful characters: There is enough spectacle and drama in an early morning Molue bus commute alone to fill the pages of a novel. It’s also because Lagos is young at heart—restless, frenetic, pushy, and a little pugnacious. As the Yoruba say of it, “Eko gba ole o gba ole” —Lagos welcomes both thief and slacker. It is little wonder this has remained a city that has fired the literary imagination of writers from within and outside Nigeria.