March 2008

Life is hard in Lagos.

I am certain that this could be said of life in many places in Africa, and the world. But, on day five in Lagos, the grinding frustration of everyday life has seeped into my bones just as the humid air has coated my skin. If we set up a chart with the balance of cost of living vs. quality of life and plotted points for the various places Dave and I have been over recent months, Lagos would be an outlier far off the curve – double or triple the prices of anywhere else with only a flickering of the amenities of daily life.

Blackouts: Energy shortages may be expected in a city of 20 million in a developing country, and certainly we have become used to blackouts sprinkled throughout our travels, as well as being completely off the grid. But, over our stay here in Lagos, we have seen at best 6 or 7 hours of intermittent electricity a day – thankfully, often during the night. Now, day five, we are currently going on 30 hours uninterrupted “without light.” As an energy-dependent American, and a spoiled and impatient one at that, I feel a tide of entitlement, helplessness, and empathy rising in a confusing – and yes, hot and bothered – mix.

I have never had to ration my electricity use. During all my growing up, if you had more gadgets than outlets, you just pulled in a power strip. Rationing electricity in my life has been a matter of thrift (oh, those ComEd bills during the summer fan season or the winter space heater season!) and sound environmentalism. It has never been a matter of pure unavailability. Now, I write this post from my laptop, staring uneasily at the red battery in the upper right hand corner that warns me I have one hour left of juice. I have turned off my headlamp, which has been eating two batteries a day, to conserve it for later, when the computer goes out. I will soon duck out to the street in search of another candle. It is too hot to sleep – no fan or A.C. and barely a cross-breeze. Although, I must brag that I am getting better at attuning my schedule to the daylight hours – going to bed earlier and rising at dawn with the call to prayer and the roosters.

The trouble with blackouts, I am finding, is that they get all of us living or lodging in the surrounding area at once. So, just as my pressure is rising to explosion and I would kill for an ice-cold coke, I circle the areas vendors and each has only lukewarm bottles on offer. I decline the bottle, sheepishly and apologetically, and both vendor and customer offer a sympathetic shrug – “no light.” We both know just how long it has been, but when the light will return is a mystery.

Scene: It is night in Dave and my $30 hotel room above the market (note that we pay a `10% service charge, presumably for buckets of water brought up to our room on a daily basis but no Value Added Tax or VAT, since the owner explains that the city is not providing services so he refuses to charge/pay this fee). We lie still as we can, sweating into our sheets and waiting for a breeze. We take turns bucket-showering throughout the night. Suddenly, the light springs on and our window A.C. unit sputters and rattles. I jump to close the windows, Dave pulls a mattress off one of the beds and shimmies it into place on the floor directly in front of the unit. As he wrestles with the mattress and sheets, I play with the plug and adapter (got to have the right angle) to siphon a little juice into the laptop – and then we haggle over the relative importance of using charging slot number two for my camera or his ipod.

Fast-forward five minutes or three hours or however long we are blessed with light – and suddenly we wake to find that the A.C. is off and our gadgets are half charged. All arrangements described above go into reverse – windows open, mattress back on bed frame in hopes of a passing breeze – until the next coming of the light. Speaking of electricity and technology, I like to picture the above scene in comic glory of the Charlie Chaplin silent movie era, with Dave and I clumsily tripping over each other and elbowing each other in eagerness to take advantage of each moment of god-given energy.

The careful reader will have gathered from foreshadowing the subject of my next rant: water. How does a city of 20 million provide running water and plumbing to its citizens? Answer, apparently: it doesn’t. As far as we can tell, the city and most dwellings are outfitted with complete plumbing for running water. We are in hotel number three and each has had a sink, a flushing toilet, a shower and/or bathtub and…buckets of water, carried up by hand from unknown origin. I don’t have many complaints about this system, since we are not hauling the water up three stories (except that one time) and a bucket shower (when desperately needed) is just as refreshing as its running water equivalent. But, we do wonder about those living here everyday.

On the other end of the water cycle, let’s just say that everyone knows where the water goes when it has been used. An open sewer system runs through the city. In the nicer areas, the open sewers are cemented and about five or six feet down, running between the sidewalk and the street. In our neighborhood, the sewers run along the edge of each narrow street of packed mud or patchy brick, only about an inch below street level. They pass in front of houses and occasionally cross the street, making walking quite a treacherous negotiation. I learned the hard way – no light in the nighttime streets plus rampant sewage makes for bad experiences.

The thing about sewers like these, clogged with as much trash as sewage and open for evaporation, is that they don’t exactly “run,” as one would hope or imagine. As we learned a few days back, and Dave quipped, “Saturday is sludge day.” Each household or neighborhood or some level or organization clears the sludge out of its section of sewer and leaves it in piles to dry and be collected. We learned from our hotel operator (the one who is not collecting the required VAT from us) that the sludge collection is another private expense paid for by each household rather than a service provided by the city.

Please note, dear readers, that there is an escape from this lifestyle in Lagos, if you can afford it. Just an island away – from Lagos Island to Ikoyi or Victoria Island – there is a network of air conditioned, 24-hour generator-operated, private security-guarded shops, malls, and hotels, where a ticket to a Hollywood blockbuster costs $14 and a second hand hardcover book costs $45. Dave and I have flitted in and out of this world, blessed by the presumption of wealth that goes with our whiteness (though not our outfits or cheapskate attitudes). It makes for quite a contrast in extremes.

Which brings me to the third rant, which I will keep short since this overlaps with the news you can read from many better sources: Corruption. Our trip from the Benin border to Lagos (no more than 50 kilometers) included: one Beninese border guard asking for $5 to give us a departure stamp on the same day we paid $25 for our transit visa through the country (I pointed this out and he waved us through); no fewer than six separate negotiations with Nigerian border officials, each of which could most likely have been speeded by a twenty naira bribe; and five road stops by well-armed police or customs officials, who blustered about small (invisible to the un-uniformed eye) irregularities until the our bus driver or his assistant slid a bill out the window. Never before have I seen police doing so much to disrupt rather than control traffic flow (picture five armed men taking one lane of two on a road notorious for heavy traffic and randomly waving every third car down with their AK-47 or akin).

The raw cynicism and humor of our fellow passengers – strangely shared by the officers shaking us down – was a fine introduction to Nigeria. Scene one: Officer, after flipping through our passports and eyeing the Lonely Planet on Dave’s lap asks, “So, you are tourists?” “Yes.” “You want to know Africa better…okay.” All our fellow passengers think this is riotously funny and we hear the line repeated from the back of the bus. Scene two: Another officer picks on a young man sitting next to us with a big bundle wrapped in plastic on his lap. “What you have there?” “Shit.” “Old shit or new shit?” “Old shit.” “Okay, move along.”

A last word, as my battery heads down to reserves and warns five minutes left – despite all, the disparity of wealth and wellbeing more than anything, Lagos has not impressed us as dangerous. People are friendly (sometimes too friendly, i.e. “How are you? I love you; I want to marry you,” all in one breath before I turn the corner), curious about us (“Hello, my friend, where you going?”), and regularly give us smiles, greetings, and hugs on the street. The more days that we remained in our market neighborhood (four, including an extra day for Dave’s first major Africa illness), the friendlier life has become.

Mixed with the friendliness, of course, we are impressed by Nigerians’ – or at least Lagosians’ – mix of cynical humor and infinite patience. Both are products of growing up in the environment described – and the main reasons that life in Lagos is hard for me (less so for Dave who comes with a bit more cynicism). Try as we might to focus on patience and empathy during our short stay in this world, our idealism and sense of justice (or entitlement), and need for modicums of comfort get the better of us. We have expectations, while I would warrant most in Lagos do not. The signs all over the city that exhort the public to “Keep Lagos clean” and “Pay your taxes” only underscore the realization. As the woman who makes us our morning coffee and beans and rice summed it up, matter-of-factly, followed by a smile and a laugh, “Yes, we Nigerians suffer a lot.”


feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgWell, folks, time flies by and here we are on our second to last night in Dakar. I am now struggling to feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgtype on my English language keyboard (on my laptop) as I have become accustomed day by day to the French language keyboards dominating the internet café scene around these parts. My apologies for the lack of photographs in recent weeks: we live in a strange world these days – an enormous West African city with internet cafes on every corner, each filled to the brim, but all sharing a limited bandwidth so that none has the speed to upload more than a couple of images in an hour. But, we shall overcome, eventually.

A snapshot of life in Dakar: Dave and I arrived three weeks ago to the day, on February 11, and since arrival, we have been living with a kind Senegalese family in the northern banlieus of Camberene. Truth be told, I have still not figured out whether we are actually in Dakar proper or not, but we are at least on the peninsula, about one hour by bus from centre ville. Think of it as commuting from Hyde Park (south side of Chicago) to Rogers Park (far north side), then subtract the “El,” add round-the-clock traffic, multiply the bus systems by three, divide the cost of a taxi by 10 (and cap the cost at 2,000 CFA or $5 per ride with bargaining), substitute diesel for any other fuel type, throw a couple of horse carts on the sidelines, and eliminate bike lanes or any lane divisions whatsoever – and you will get the general picture.

Our adopted home is, miraculously, just a block from the beach, which is a blessing for many reasons. First and foremost, it gives us a respite from otherwise interminable city blocks. Second, it is our compass since we landed far off of our Lonely Planet map and must navigate the neighborhoods purely by sense of direction, frequent requests for mysterious landmarks that seem to delineate the city for locals (i.e. “Eglise,” or “La grande mosquée prés de la mer,” or “Pharmacie Yacine”), and pure trial and error; for me, it was a boon to discover that if I am truly lost I can just stop, wait for the call to prayer to end at the nearest mosque, listen for the sea, and head in that direction.

But, before your imaginations run away with visions of a tropical beach paradise, let me clarify the most visible purpose of the sea in this city: it is the most convenient trash dump for all the surrounding neighborhoods. So, no matter how I love bathing, I would not think of setting more than a foot in the ocean around here. To arrive at the beach from our house, we navigate a veritable levy of refuse, from broken flip-flops to fish heads and food scraps. Goats love it. Rats love it. Children seem to still be able to enjoy a game that looks like king of the castle. For our part, we plug our noses and scamper to the other side, where the sea does its part, clearing away 25 meters of sand fit for walking, running, push-ups (men here dig troughs in the sand to heighten the push-up experience), and of course, football.

We do feel close to nature. Our house boasts two sheep – one male and one female, carefully tied at just enough distance from one another to assure no hanky-panky – one chicken, a neighbor’s rooster (who shares his daybreak services with us), a bevy of mice, cockroaches, and flies. No mosquitoes as of yet, but we sleep in our mosquito tent nonetheless. Call us romantic.

feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgDave and I are learning French, each with our own pace and method. Each morning, I wake up, thanks to the rooster, at 7:00 AM, make coffee, and haul derriere to school for four hours of French class. Dave tried this schedule for the first few days, but even his love of classroom learning could not overcome the early hour, and he switched to home schooling. I am trying to study for two, but find the going somewhat uphill since Wolof is more dominant here than French, and many – including our host mother – speak very little if any of the language. Thus, immersion it is not, but the important things are coming along, I have just purchased my first French language novel by a Senegalese authoress, and I am certain that I can haggle the heck out of any taxi driver between here and Cameroon.

As I read him bits from this posting, Dave reminds me to mention that we have discovered the wonderful world of bootleg DVDs. Most recently, on our five-day trip to the Gambia (English language!), we found the 25-movie-per-disc phenomenon, and we now have every major American picture made on the subjects of Africa, apartheid, and Hollywoodized ethnic cleansing on one disc. Thank you, China, for filling the developing world with such treasures! Seriously, on a side note, the percentage of products in the Senegalese markets that are “made in China” is astonishing. Luckily, we have found tissues manufactured in the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire and vats of homemade peanut butter (called “tigga digga”) in nearly every corner store, which sums up a large percentage of our daily purchases.

And so, our study of local economics and means of transportation continues…in new and different landscapes. Mali around the corner and Cameroon just appearing on the horizon. Dakar, until next time!