/ 16 April 2010

Lagos and the city hop

<em>Home Away</em> tasked writers with writing about a specific interaction, place or object in a foreign city.

Editor Louis Greenberg tells us in his introduction to Home Away (Zebra Press) that the writers who contributed to the book were given a brief to “write about a specific interaction, place or object in a foreign city that makes you reflect on your South African home”.

The resulting collection of short stories is ordered according to the hours of the day — and so Greenberg arrived at his concept: 24 hours, 24 cities, 24 writers. We have chosen an extract from the story titled The Generator Man by Moky Makura, which relates an experience the writer had in Lagos at 7am.

With or without electricity, my favourite city in the entire world is not dissimilar to a series of quick, sharp slaps to the cheek. Once the initial shock is over, it’s an experience you won’t forget in a hurry and, although you can’t argue that it is fun at the time, you have to admit that it is probably unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.

And that’s Lagos. A city that’s as alive at 7am as it is at 7pm. A place where a day seems to last longer than the usual twenty-four hours, where at 7am you feel like you’re already halfway through it. The trick is to find ways of avoiding the sharp slaps that you know are coming.

My first slap of the day comes at 7.01. I wake up suddenly to the sound of a street fight brewing outside my open bedroom window. I listen intently; the fog of sleep quickly lifts and my mind and body are alert, ready for a day in Lagos.

One of the voices is that of my older sister, a usually calm, generally good-natured and wonderfully energetic character packed into a petite 5’1″ frame. She’s warming up to an argument with a man just outside my window.

But this is not just any man. This is the man who has incorrectly installed her generator — a machine on which all activities in her home, and in the country for that matter, depend. He caused us to have no electricity last night, the night I arrived in Lagos from South Africa.

(A small note about electricity in Lagos: there isn’t any.)

I listen to the exchange for a while, debating whether or not to join in. Lagos has a way of bringing out aggression in people; it’s a much-needed form of national therapy because there is usually no other place to channel one’s frustration. A good shouting match (and usually it stops at that) ensures that we don’t bottle things up and makes us feel we’re being heard.

“Are you mad?” my sister shouts. Although I can’t see her, I just know that her neck muscles are straining. “What do you mean you didn’t know you needed another part? You left here yesterday and you said you were coming back. You didn’t mention anything about another part. I was phoning you all of yesterday and you didn’t answer. I told you my sister was coming from South Africa yesterday and this generator had better work. Come and see us sweating all night. Mosquitoes were just biting us …”

“Madam, I beg, no vex now, abi wetin,” the Generator Man interrupts with equal aggression. He is a short, round man with a large, protruding belly and extremely well-defined upper arms. He is dressed in a oncewhite sleeveless vest tucked neatly into a pair of beige slacks which perfectly complement his tan belt and mock-snakeskin shoes. “Shey bi I don come back,” he continues in Pidgin English. “Na small thing wey de do this generator. I go finish am now.”

Nigeria is a country of one language, no matter what ethnic group you are from. The unifying language that brings us all together — the Yoruba, the Igbo, the Hausa, the Fulani and the rest — is Pidgin English. It’s an inherently aggressive, bastardised form of the English language, largely unrecognisable to anyone who can speak English, let alone someone from England. Yet it’s a wonderfully expressive and powerful language ideally suited to barroom brawls and arguments about generators that don’t work.

The dispute continues. After questioning his mental state, my sister alludes to a certain lack of intelligence on the Generator Man’s part. He in turn, unapologetic as ever, shoots back that it is not his fault and that my sister should be more appreciative of the fact that he went early this morning to find the necessary part and pay for it, despite the many other calls he has to make.

And so it goes on, a tennis match between fury and frustration: both will ultimately win because this is, after all, Lagos. Over the years, I have learnt that Lagos is a city in which one’s expectations are destined to deliver you another slap when they come into contact with reality. There is always a lesson to be learnt, but nobody ever really bothers to learn it. It is much more fun to take the slap like a man.

I roll over on the damp sheets and decide to get out of bed only when the generator is fixed. It is 7:15 and today is going to be a long one.