All of Lagos, Nigeria, is a mobile supermarket. Informal stalls selling soccer jerseys, mangos, and iPhone cables sprout between buildings like plants growing in the cracks of a rock – improbable and tenacious. Meanwhile, hawkers weave through the notoriously gridlocked traffic carrying boxer shorts and kiddie pools, Bibles and portraits of the country’s new president, the bespectacled former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari.
One morning I saw a hand-painted billboard scrawled on a wall advertising “VISAS TO QATAR – FAST!” and beside it a phone number. Below that was written “ICE BLOCKS FOR SALE!” and then the same number. As I contemplated the business model of the visa expediter-cum-ice block salesperson, a man shot his arm through the open window of my taxi, dangling a banana-scented air freshener. When I shook my head no, the hand retreated, then reappeared clutching a fistful of porn DVDs. In Lagos, it seems, there is nothing I cannot have.
Each year, about 600,000 new residents settle here, in the continent’s largest city, from across West Africa. Nearly all of them are economic migrants. That is more than half a million people wound tightly by the possibility that they can make a better life here, crowding into a city where informal transactions account for about two-thirds of the economy and salaried jobs are few and far between. That collision demands an extraordinary level of imagination from new arrivals. If you want a job in Lagos, chances are you’ll have to invent it yourself.
Not all those inventions, of course, are as scrupulous as selling kiddie pools and blocks of ice. Across the city, thousands of buildings bear an inscrutable warning: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE. This strikes me at first as a strange and sideways assertion of ownership, but I soon learn that warnings like this are a talisman against Nigeria’s world-famous Internet cons, the so-called 419 scams (“Dear Sir, I have a business proposal of great benefit to us both”). People were being hustled into buying houses by con artists posing as the building’s owner, a cabdriver explains as he watches me snap photos of one such warning.
“Even Nigerians are getting scammed by Nigerians,” he says wryly.
This is the two-edged sword of a city like Lagos, whose entrepreneurialism and radically self-sufficient ethos can seem by turns inspiring or nefarious – and occasionally both at once.
The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote recently of how well-off Lagosians have become a tribe of “reluctant libertarians ... participating in a precarious frontier spirit.” They drill their own water wells and pour diesel into their heaving generators. They hire private security guards and travel abroad for costly medical care. If asked why, the rich say the same as the poor: The state does nothing. What we want we must provide for ourselves.
Whether that is the best way for a city to survive is academic. It is simply how Lagos is. It has grown too quickly – too haphazardly against the backdrop of a wildly inattentive government – to turn itself around now. Half a century ago, 300,000 people lived here. Now, some 20 million do. It is among the world’s largest cities, and however challenging it is to live here now, it continues to grow, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
One afternoon, in a house on stilts perched above the oily black lagoon, I meet a Beninese tailor named Jerrad Avleffi, who explains why he left Cotonou for Lagos a decade ago. Sitting beneath a framed portrait of Jesus weeping blood, he accounts succinctly for the move: “There was not work at home, and I heard there were many jobs in Nigeria,” he says, “so I came here.”
Nearly word-for-word, that sounds like a line I’ve often heard from Nigerians in South Africa, where I live. “There was no work there,” they sigh, speaking of Lagos. “There are more jobs here.”
And the echo continues down the chain: “America,” South Africans often say to me wistfully when they hear where I am from. “I want to go there. So many jobs – not like here.”
Not only Lagos, I realize, but all the world’s greatest cities are animated by quiet strivers, those who believe fervently in the city’s potential and their own, however far that vision may be from reality.
They see the city not as it is, but as it should be: the place that changes everything, the place where there is nothing they cannot have.