On a recent trip to Italy, I met an Israeli from Jerusalem whom I asked how many suicide bomb blasts he had witnessed. "CNN is not Israel" was his curt reply. In that I found an answer to many who ask me if it is true that Nigeria is a very dangerous country. "Is it true that foreigners risk being kidnapped in Nigeria? Is it true that Nigerians are fraudulent?" And on and on. Two Nigerias exist -- the media construct and the real one. I live in the latter. I was born there, and that's where I live and work.
CNN is not Nigeria.
Another friend, an Italian, spent a summer in South Africa, and when we met in Rome, he proudly informed me that he had been to Africa. "No, you haven't," I mischievously replied. "What do you mean?" he asked. "Well," I began, "you have not actually been to Africa. True you have been to South Africa, and perhaps only to the capital, but until you come to Nigeria, my guess is that your African CV will remain incomplete." I wasn't joking.
The first thing that hits you at the Lagos International Airport is the heat. Okay, maybe not the heat, but the heat plus humidity...and the noise. You see, my people are noisy, like a man with plenty to say but lacking an attentive audience. As loud as their voices can be, though, the typical Nigerian has a very big heart. Talk to any foreigner who braves the odds to visit Nigeria: they all leave with a deep sense of pain because they must leave a part of their heart behind, having been beneficiaries of the warm kindness and hospitality that Nigerians give to every visitor. It's true, but you don't have to believe me. Come.
Take the traffic for example. In Nigeria, we call a traffic jam "go-slow" in apparent reference to the snail speed of vehicles. A friend of mine who, like me, lives and works in Lagos, prefers to call it "go-no!" because in Victoria Island you can sometimes move 500 metres in three hours.
But when Lagos traffic does move, it is a madhouse, and you are lucky to get back home without a scratch or dent on your car.
Driving in traffic, today as many other days, it is raining heavily. From the closed windows of my car, I hear a siren blaring behind me. In the rear-view mirror, I see the black Toyota Hilux van approaching, its headlights on. It is 10:00 a.m. Thursday morning. Of course, he is going nowhere because traffic is choked up all around him. But he drives roughly, pushing and threatening with reckless abandon because the body of his car has been reinforced with metal grates that protect it from brushes with other cars. Though every wise driver wants to give way to this fool, it is not easy this time, because the traffic is "go-no!" And so the siren-blaring vehicle is forced to crawl with everyone, but soon he finds an opening, and he charges through.
As he passes, I realize he was not what I thought. It was not a money-bearing bullion van, for the driver was all alone, and there were no gun-toting policemen that usually accompany a money-laden vehicle of this nature. It was simply a man accustomed to always having his way in traffic that couldn't resist using the tool of power in his possession -- the siren.
It seems that bullion vans in Lagos have a separate traffic code. They drive on opposite sides of the road, against oncoming traffic. The drivers of these boxes of death pride themselves on rivaling Michael Schumacher with their dexterity at the wheel, though many have died in the process. Pity, too, that they have taken more lives that are not theirs.
In the final analysis, the chaos in Lagos is only apparent because each of the participants has a mission: he is coming from somewhere and has a destination. Though one is tempted to dismiss them as a mass, behind each of those individuals is a motley crowd of dependents, waiting for his return because on that depends their next meal. And, finally, when night falls, those same streets are empty because people have gone home. Home for some is real, while for others it is under a bridge, in that small crevice formed by the bridge joints and the road surface, the so-called "under-bridge." It is often said that studying the facade of any house is enough to tell about the inside. This saying cannot apply to Nigeria, however, because though Lagos is the entry point for many foreign visitors, its population is a potpourri that does not belong there. Each one has come for a piece of the economic action.