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The mud and magic of Lagos


Dale Carnegie had it right all along, when he said, “Two men looked out from prison bars, One saw the mud, the other saw stars.” For a few days, variations on the outcome of a global ranking of the world’s most liveable cities have been making the rounds on my social media feed. “Vienna ranked as most liveable city in the world” is how BBC reported the results while CNN Travel was more neutral in their headline: The world’s most liveable cities in 2018.

Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) annual survey ranks 140 cities on a range of factors, including political and social stability, crime, education and access to healthcare. This year the Austrian capital, Vienna, has beaten Australia’s Melbourne to be named the world’s most liveable city.

For those who haven’t heard about the rankings and wonder just where African cities, or let’s face it, the only African city most of us truly care about, Lagos, performed, The Guardian Nigeria responded on 15 August with the stark headline: Global survey ranks Lagos third least liveable city.Nigeria’s commercial capital ranked 138th of the 140 cities. The only cities performing worse than Lagos on the rankings were Damascus in war-torn Syria and Dhaka in Bangladesh.


According to the report, Lagos was rated 37.5 per cent and 33.3 per cent in healthcare and education. It said Lagos recorded 53.5 per cent in culture and environment and 46.4 per cent in infrastructure.As an oyinbo – or as oyinbos in Lagos refer to themselves, an expat – who lived in Lagos, albeit for a short while and visited the monstrous metropolis around 30 times in a period of just four years, I admit life in Lagos is not walk in the park.

Take my life in the UK, for example, relatively the same whatever part of the country I settled. I wake up to running water, electricity, a house well heated in winter, and relatively well ventilated in summer (perhaps not so much during this summer’s heatwave which overly insulated British houses are not made for). I hop into my car and get to work in under 10 minutes. At lunch I can nip to a nearby restaurant or take a walk in the park, without the risk of inhaling exhaust fumes into my lungs. In the evening I can go to the shops or the cinema, take part in leisure activities and still get home at a decent time. UK living provides the bare necessities we take for granted: ease of life, peace of mind, effortless work/life balance.

As for Lagos… Where to begin? The pot holes that damage your car, the traffic which means it takes the average Lagosian 1-4 hours to get anywhere during the day and late into the evening, rampant area boys which means it is impossible for any woman in their right mind to have a walk down the streets, the police stop and searches for no particular reason than ‘any betta for me?’, the constant hum of generators, din of traffic, the smell of fumes in the air.

Poor infrastructure, heavy traffic, air pollution and a myriad of other ills plaguing what could have been one of the world’s urban power players, makes Lagos, frankly, unliveable. As for the third most unliveable? I beg to differ.True, Lagos has its ills. But it also has its gems for those who can see them. Yes, traffic can drive you round the bend, but it is also the same go-slow who has given street hawking a new dimension in true Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit. Shower curtains, toilet seats, pirated Nollywood CDs, livestock, puppies, phone charges, hot water bottles… Whatever you ever need, I promise there will be hawker who can source it for you before you can get from one end of Eko Bridge to the other. You can either huff and puff about running late, or you can sit back and enjoy the ride. Which sort of goes for pretty much everything in Lagos.

A pro at the skill of seeing all the gems Lagos has to offer through the fumes is my friend Lola Maja Okojevoh. Currently in London, it may seem like she is living her best life and broadcasting it on Instagram stories. Don’t be fooled. Put her in Lagos and she will still be living her best life. Traffic may have delayed her two hours, she may have just sacked her driver, her nanny may have let her down, but Lola will breeze through it with a smile and a plan B.

A friend said by way of advice when I first made my short-lived move to Nigeria, “In Lagos, you’d better have a plan for every letter of the alphabet.”I recall once heading into an estate, we had to ask the gateman for the exact address. Instead of doing his job, the man started shouting, ranting and raving and told us in no uncertain terms we were disturbing him. Lola turned around and said, “Don’t mind him; he must have stood too long under the sun, his head is hot!”


The same Lola would drive past every single police check at 3am in the morning back in 2009 on my first visit to Lagos, crawling along at 10 miles an hour, fluttering her eyelashes and giving the cops the Queen’s wave and getting away without stopping and seeing anyone. Spending time with her in Lagos I learned two things.

One, it is not the city, it is often the people that make this city harden your heart. The thug who mugs you, the area boy who harasses you, the gateman who abuses you well well. the CEO who conned you with the promises of a house on the island and your salary in USD and three months later, you are still staying in a decrepit hotel and waiting on your delayed pay.

Two, Lagos gives back what you put in. Keep seeing the mud and you will be covered to your neck. And yes, then Lagos is not the third but the top unliveable city in the world. But keep seeing the stars, and then you will discover the maddening, mind-blowing magic of Lagos.

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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