Suffering and Smiling

25 Sep

Another student from UW Madison named Matt is doing research for his PHD dissertation here in Ibadan on a Fullbright Scholarship. Last Saturday, he and his wife invited the four of us to his house for dinner (spaghetti and garlic bread never tasted so good!). After dinner, we were comparing stories/experiences we’ve had in Nigeria (finally speaking English!), and Matt mentioned the title of a song by Fela Kuti-Suffering and Smiling. These lyrics have really resonated with me this week, especially on a little trip we took to Lagos.

Last Sunday and Monday, we went to Lagos to register with the American Consulate. We were supposed to do this the day we arrived in Nigeria, but Nigeria’s federal government declared the date of our arrival a national public holiday the day before we left on our journey, due to the end of Rammadan. Therefore, the embassy was closed and we had to return on Monday to register, etc. Since we arrived in Ibadan, many of those who have welcomed us have extensively elaborated on the peacefulness of Ibadan, and the general welcoming attitude that its people have. When hearing remarks like this, I normally put them in the back of my mind, as I didn’t really have any concrete evidence from my experience that proved this was true (at least not enough to warrant it a principal point of conversation). After spending a mere 24 hours in Lagos, I am thoroughly convinced that this notion is true.

Getting to and from Lagos was perhaps just as impactful as the city itself. Although we had made this journey when we initially arrived in Nigeria, the Lagos-Ibadan express way is a completely new experience every time you travel on it’s tattered, cracked, jagged, ridged, and chaotic surface . I am continually overtaken with awe whenever a Nigerian tells me they make the commute between Lagos and Ibadan daily on this unforgettable highway. Perhaps what is most surprising, is the amount of energy these people must have to make the commute. This ain’t no Jersey Turnpike, Eisenhower Expressway, or “the 5.” I have heard numerous stories about horrendous 8-hour excursions at a snail’s pace (the normal trip between Lagos and Ibadan is supposed to be “1.5 hours;” I use quotes because this is rarely the case).

public transportation

This expressway has the power to completely suck the life and energy out of you, even if you are merely observing your surroundings from the back of a spacious, air-conditioned, and clean brand new Toyota van-much less crammed 20 deep in a dilapidated 12-passenger ‘public transportation’ van that most of these native Nigerians make the commute in. Or perhaps, if you are one of the really brave, (dare I say stupid or desperate) truly seasoned-veterans of this unique and dynamic expressway, you will join the 5 or 10 people on top of a semi trailer, or just plain holding on to the back ramp of a step van as your mode of transportation.

Fortunately, on our way to Lagos, we weren’t on the expressway for very long because there was an awful accident that brought traffic to a standstill. We quickly exited and took a detour on beautiful, narrow Nigerian country roads. Vast, lush green landscapes littered with palm-trees and other exotic foliage for a white-skinned westerner such as myself kept me locked in on the scenery.

Beautiful Nigerian Countryside outsdie Ijebu

It was also nice to not be constantly surrounded by more people in your peripheral than you have the capability to fully take in with your senses.

When we arrived in Lagos, the landscape made it very evident that we were in a different place. I have read and heard much about Lagos in the past year-how it is considered one of the UN’s “mega cities,” cities with such rampant population growth that they provide concerning implications for everything from health and safety to infrastructure (Lagos’s population has grown by an estimated 5-10 million people in the last 7 years). Seeing this type of Mega-city in reality is really something else. I realize this is extremely cliche in blogging, especially about study abroad trips, but words do this city no justice whatsoever.

Lagos Traffic

It is impossible to reiterate the things I saw and experienced without taking you there so you can experience it for yourself. One of the principal thoughts on my mind during our entire stay in Lagos was “wow, I can’t relate this to ANYTHING in the western world I have ever seen or experienced before. The roads are scattered with deep potholes, and are merely wide enough for 2 cars to squeeze by each other. This has serious implications due to the fact that the gridlock traffic in Lagos is among the worst in the world. Rickety and rusty shanties/huts spill out into the road. These weak dwellings are home to everything from residential homes, to bars, to hospitals, to clothing shops. In addition to the gridlock traffic (including okadas, or motorcycles whizzing feverishly through every tiny crack between cars, usually carrying 3 people), there are people everywhere. These people are doing everything from walking, to singing, to dancing, to building fires (Lagos is probably the world capital of fire hazards), to just plain lounging and hanging out. After about 45 minutes of persevering through this true chaos, we arrived at the home of a friend of our resident director. When the gates opened to let us into the compound, I felt as though I had just resurfaced from a breath-holding contest in a murky lake.

The home we rested at and ate dinner ate was very nice by Lagotian standards, perhaps average by American standards. The 10 foot concrete fence, topped with razor wire and an electric gate that surrounded the house is a sufficient exemplification of the dichotomy of class that exists in Lagos, and pretty much all of Nigeria. There is an upper class with extremely rich, almost elitist people, living on top of (literally and metaphorically) an extremely low class. The implications of this sharp dichotomy are not difficult to imagine, but thus is Nigeria.

outside the house we rested in

I’m certainly not saying that the upper class is uniformly snobby, rich, or elitist (although some of them certainly are); however, if you can afford to have a house, you better have the 10 foot concrete wall and razor wire to protect yourself and your belongings. After watching a few annoyingly similar and cheesy juju (magic)-packed films on Africa Magic (is this the only fricking tv station people watch here!?), we ate a delicious dinner of chicken, rice, fried plantains, and tomato-pepper stew.

After a mere 3 hours of sleep in a very nice (again, relative, this time due to cockroaches) Lagos hotel, we were awake and our noses were once again pressed hard against the hustle-bustle grindstone of overcrowdedness at 6AM in Lagos. I’m not sure how far we traveled between the hotel and the embassy, but it couldn’t have been more than 20 miles. Lagos traffic made this close to a two and a half hour trip. Much of this was spent on an expressway in gridlock traffic. This expressway is slightly more organized than the Lagos-Ibadan road in the sense that there are lanes and people seemed to stay in them (for the most part). Of course, this is Nigeria so there is always something that surprises me. This time, it was the large amount of touts walking through the gridlock traffic selling everything from beef sausage rolls, to Abba cds, to dan brown novels, to monopoly.

Touts selling everything from Dan Brown Novels, to monopoly, to candy on the highway in Lagos

I found this quite humorous, but also crazy, as I’m still used to the tame and organized driving culture of American interstates. The expressway also provided an extensive view of Lagos. Seeing some of the residential areas really struck me. I was shocked by the number of neighborhoods built literally on the water! Small rowboats were parked outside of each one of these rustic and feeble dwellings. Clotheslines scattered about the floating homes confirmed my suspicions that indeed, people inhabited these small and decrepit shacks. This sight is something I have been pondering constantly since that day.

After our meeting with the Regional Security Officer (an ex-secret service, beefed up, bald federal agent with a “This ain’t AmUrica and I don’t go anywhere in this country without 3 armored Suburbans and a whole lotta guns” mentality) at the consulate, we went to the Nigerian Federal Government’s radio station (Radio Nigeria) to be interviewed for a program. This experience was yet another indicator of how unique and unheard of it is for white Americans to come to Nigeria to speak Yoruba. Most of the questions were along the lines of, “Why did you want to come to Nigeria?” “What opportunity do you see in Yoruba if any?”

We were on the radio!

“What advice do you have for Nigerian parents who are no longer teaching their kids indigenous languages?” “What advice do you have for the Nigerian government about the advancement and development of indigenous languages?” Some of these questions are a bit too intense for me, and I don’t really feel comfortable advising a country full of parents and the Nigerian federal government on anything at all after only spending nine days in Nigeria thank you very much.

After we left the radio station, a second reporter hopped in our van with a tape recorder and interviewed all of us again for a different radio station. It just never ends! As we traveled back to Ibadan on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, I was once again completely enamored and captivated by the sights of the road-the over packed semis with clouds of thick, blinding diesel smoke behind them, ‘semi-camps’ with dozens of semis on the side of the road so drivers could wash clothes, buy food etc., various ‘church camps’ (large big-box style church worship establishments meant to hold hundreds and sometimes thousands of people at a time), charred cars (remnants from previous accidents on the roadway), and of course the endless tailgating, speeding, slamming on brakes, and suddenly weaving around potholes.

Old car wrecks on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway (notice charred automobiles on the left)

As the sun began to set over one of the most dangerous highways in Africa, the image of these small shanties kept resurfacing in my mind; it is not only an attestement to the rampant population growth in Lagos, but also the level of suffering that many Nigerians deal with every day of their lives. The seeming paradox here, is every Nigerian I’ve interacted with since the day I arrived has been nothing but overflowing with joy, excitement, and care. When judging peoples appearances and attitudes, I am not always led to believe they are suffering even though I’m sure many of them are. As darkness finally fell over the highway, we entered the first police checkpoint we’d encountered in Nigeria-tires thrown on the road to narrow traffic to one lane, so two policemen (you never know if they’re real or impostors) with AK-47’s could collect bribe money. The suffering aspect people are forced to deal with everyday here cannot be ignored. This brings me back to Fela’s song, “Suffering and Smiling.”

so much exhaust

I really believe this holds true in all of society here. The widespread sense of humor, willingness to take in and feed/care for strangers, and genuine affection for all human beings has been more than apparent to me. For this reason, the ‘smiling’ that these people exemplify on a daily basis has not ceased to amaze me and has brought about my own smile that originates from deep inside me.

Lagos Hustle Bustle

Lagos Dwellings

in the middle of the city!

More Highway Commerce

busy busy


results of rampant population growth

Victoria Island from the highway

The Group outside and art gallery on Victoria Island, Lagos


4 Responses to “Suffering and Smiling”

  1. Russ Savstrom September 27, 2010 at 2:37 AM #

    Hi Kevin, Great pictures and text. Sounds like a great adventure. I’ll keep checking your blog. Take care, Russ

  2. Toun November 30, 2010 at 2:42 PM #

    Am not surprised at how you felt as you were relatively new to the country. What you considered as suffering is what most of us grew up with. We had no other model to compare with so it seemed the normal way of life! The smiling however is from deep within and this affects our outlook at life. Hence our low suicide rate!!

  3. Layo April 3, 2011 at 4:49 AM #

    Looks like that house you stayed was in Magodo. I recognize my hood. Haha. I can just imagine how the agent said “Amurica” gotta love it.

  4. Paulo Aliems October 31, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

    Am very Grateful, Thanks and God bless u more Abundantly.

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