I’ve been stuck in Johannesburg traffic for an hour now; finally pulling off the treadmill of Rivonia Rd, and into the Nigerian Consulate compound – open Tuesday and Thursday mornings only – to be greeted by a mountain of a security man casually swinging a semi-automatic and demanding I stop.
“You cannot be bringing your car in here, and must certainly be parking outside.” The voice is classic Nigerian: all gravel and English gravitas.
I poke my head out the window and twist in my seat to peer back over my shoulder and from where I’ve come; now a stationary stream of morning peak hour traffic. There’s surely nowhere to park out there: the road so narrow, one lane each way, an insignificant uneven footpath propped on a high concrete kerb. There’s a nonplussed shrug of those great shoulders. “Ah,” he offers, “you must be improvising.”
30-min later I’m risking life and limb to veer clear of a gaping stormwater drain and pull to one side, mounting the kerb with a sickening crunch of the hire car underparts.
The security guard nods as I pass; happier now as he swings his gun from one hand to the other – those black hands the size of plates – me shuffling a mass of paperwork in a green plastic folder. Inside I wait, surrounded by fellow would-be travellers that prefer to shout rather than quiet conversation. By the time I reach the counter, there’s little time left. “A visa?” There’s a serious frown happening behind that glass panel, “You applied on line?” I answer yes, but am greeted by a sigh; a copy of my printed receipt turned around, then on its side for better inspection. I’m already prepared for the worst, but am taken aback by a startling white smile. “But you are lucky Sir, for we do have another form, and shall be most happy to see you again next week.”
When leaving, my security friend waves with one hand, gun hanging loosely in the other. I again bemoan the Jo’burg traffic, and my chances of being in Lagos by Christmas. It’s October already. There’s a frown as he listens, and that now familiar African shrug. He leans close. “Traffic? Here?” He turns, following my gaze to the bedlam outside. “As you are travelling to Nigeria Sir, I’m thinking you must learn to be an optimist.”
It’s Christmas Eve, and here I am with my girlfriend in Lagos: the fastest growing, most vibrant and populace city in Africa; Nigeria a booming country of 170-million.
A battered, belching, clapped-out minibus lurches at 90-deg just in front, having come from the complete opposite direction, crossing the bump of a median strip, on this flooded, potholed river of a road. A cavalier conductor wears purple tennis shoes and green shorts, propped precariously on one leg from what’s left of a rear bumper. The other leg hangs clear. He waves with his free hand, spruiking fares as he goes, a shrill tin whistle poking from the corner of his mouth. I wonder how he stays on.
“Lagos traffic? Not so bad Sir,” says Innocent; a recent City ruling banning motorcycle taxis, but resulting in an explosion of yellow tuk-tuks reminiscent of an extended stay in Mumbai. And it’s my visit to that city – also of 20-million souls – making all this oddly familiar.
Innocent is our driver, slightly built: a “good Christian man” with a wife and 3-kids. Innocent is surprised when I ask if he’ll work on Christmas Day. “But of course Sir; there is no food for lazy man.” The music of National treasure Fela Kuti blares from a boom box on the passenger’s seat up front, Innocent’s radio broken.
From a palm-lined sandy peninsula beach we head for Lekki Market, more flooded roads, busted speedhumps and countless corrugations: a beat up car on a forlorn corner, a water-filled coke bottle on top – a sign this car is for sale.
Narrow market aisles are lined with ramshackle and rusted lean-tos, rickety trestles loaded with exotic African wares, the darkest carvings and masks, paintings and woven placements; wooden planks with piles of potatoes, pumpkins and plantains. The smells are earthen, humid and dusty. A cluttered shed of a bottleshop sells Chivas, local Star beer, and boxes of South African wine.
I’m reminded of a Jo’burg friend, when I first broached the subject of moving to Lagos, me alone at the time: him calling his home country “Africa Lite.”
“You are going where?” I studied Johan’s face closely, but this man gives nothing away. Finally he cleared his throat, pursed his lips and nodded. “Mmm…you really are going? Well now, that is Black Africa.”
So, it’s finally Christmas Day and we sit gazing out the window, our visit coinciding with the arrival of Harmattan winds, a seasonal visitor here, dumping tonnes of Saharan sand on Western Africa and shrouding Lagos suburbs in a thick white Christmas fog.
The omnipresent generator kicks in just outside, a voracious city’s power supply often failing. There’s the crow of a brave Christmas rooster and the enticing aroma of roast chicken and thyme from the kitchen. We share a bottle of Moet Imperial Rose.
Innocent’s open Christmas card sits on a wonky rosewood coffee table. “Heavenly Blessings shall be poured on you and your family. If there is anyone who plans evil against you and your family members, the evil shall go back to the sender…..Amen.”