On life in Lagos, Nigeria
If Nigeria were a walking, talking, human being, Lagos would be its heart, beating profusely to the ribcage-shattering pound of all the people living inside it, desperately trying to reach one aim—to hammer.
Hammer : To make it—riches, money, cars, social status, or influence. To Hammer is to gain anything tangible that will take you away from the gaping abyss that is poverty in Nigeria.
Example: “Did you hear she married that (insert rich family last name)’s son? She don hammer be that!”
There isn’t one single person who isn’t trying to hammer in Lagos. If Nigeria’s national purpose were to continually remain unclear, the self-interest of its citizens will not. Man must chop. Not that it’s their fault or anything, a lot of things that should work in Nigeria don’t. The thing is, the nail that we keep hammering at, the actual goal, that life of wealth that we are all seeking might be bent from all that hammering. The question is who put that nail there? Why are we all hammering? Why does the system not work in the first place? Are we all committed to making it better?
Descending into Lagos, and taxiing down the runway to the tired murmurs of Praise the Lord, and the fervent clapping of my enthusiastic countrymen, an elderly man beside me, who snored for three hours after we lifted from Schipol, pulls out a wad of Naira notes, dips his finger into his mouth, tracks one with saliva, and counts the rest. He smiles at the confused expression on my face, addressing me with,
“You never know who might be sitting at that customs desk tonight. I came prepared.”
At the airport, breathing in the kaleidoscopic scent of body odor, and duty-free perfume, I spot a former primary school classmate weaving through the immigration line, much to the chagrin of the people waiting to be administered by the Nigerian Immigration service. His mother, a former immigration officer, stands beside him, and they part through the sea of people, like something of a Nigerian Moses, leaving a trail of Good Evening, Madam, Welcome Ma! behind them. No questions asked, no passports checked. The obvious advantage of hammering in progress. When it is my turn, I fold my American passport and tuck it into my pocket, showcasing only my Nigerian one. The last thing I want is for anyone to think I had any money. My third day in, I meet and befriend the only Uber driver who would pick me up from a far off location on the Island, I’ll call him Mr. Yakubu.
Our very first meeting, I asked Mr. Yakubu, please don’t call me “Madam” or “Ma,” Oga I am younger than you, please it is the other way around. Nigeria, I felt, was a very bizarre society, with most social interactions lightly shaped by money, wealth, and influence (hammering). In our world, men reverted to boys, and vice versa. All people, chess pieces playing to the tune of who came from privilege, and who was unfortunate to be on the other side of the coin. This tune, this socio-economic dance, is the reason why 46-year-old drivers, men with lives, stories, families, refer to 14-year-old boys, children of their bosses as “Sah” or “Sir.” A society where endemic materialism was eating away at economic development, and a once long-standing culture of meritocracy—or so my father says. Like many modern societies around the world, Lagos, too, had its own pack of young people running around with privileges they had earned by proxy of, “Do you know who my father is?”
A father of four with a graduate degree in urban and regional planning, Mr. Yakubu found himself driving a motorcycle and then a car to earn a living. This is not an uncommon story for a country where systemic corruption erodes at infrastructure, dreams, and subsequently the valuable futures of many. Despite the numerous hurdles, Mr. Yakubu credits Uber for the new economic empowerment in his life. Uber, he felt, would save many Lagosians who were teetering on the edge of poverty. With Uber, some Lagosians could possibly “hammer,” and his life was proof of that.
As I jostled around Lagos in taxis, primarily out of fear of driving in a city where there seemed to be no road rules, I spent time talking to Uber drivers about their side hustles, and the challenges they faced driving in a city where one had to look both ways to cross a one way street. Many drivers were university graduates who I debated with about Olamide and the YBNL crew at the Headies, the new cash feature recently rolled out by Uber Lagos, and living on the Mainland vs the Island, a common worn-out debate amongst Lagosians. For the drivers who lived on the mainland, Olamide was their guy! And he had Shakiti Bobo’ed out of a lower middle class life, and hammered. It all made sense. Uber, too, was a possibility, a ladder leading somewhere out of a hopelessness Nigerians were now calling “compromise.”
To Mr. Yakubu, I was privileged, and why not? All factors fit the bill. He often picked me up in the afternoons from my family home on the Island, my Nigerian accent was also unfortunately forced—I sometimes saw him chuckle as I spoke with friends on the phone, when we stalled in standstill Lagos traffic. No matter what I could present as a possible unifier between us, a possible gap to bridge our lives, he made his living as a driver, and I was a young American returnee, changing and spending dollars in an economy crumbling at the mercy of the international foreign exchange.
I tried, often, to explain to Mr. Yakubu that America too was its own hustle. That here, the hammering was different. That I lived in a matchbox, and paid rent in a city where people divided their living rooms to rent out for thousands of dollars, and the smell of their roommate’s making teriyaki chicken still filtered in. That I saw Nigerians here working in club bathrooms, handing me toilet paper with eyes which recognized mine in the way one sees themselves, but is unable to act upon who they are in a certain context. I wanted to strip America of the Paradisiacal gown she wore in his mind, but how could I? On weekdays, he drove for hours straight, sometimes stopping to rest in an automobile shop, or at the side of the road, and then picking back up at night, a time where life is significantly unpredictable in Lagos. There were days where he found himself stuck in Lagos traffic, often taking hours to disperse, and then there was that night which he explained to me,
“Ah Madam, there was one night where I stopped to rest in my car because I had been driving all day trying to make money. I was stopped by these local touts! They slashed my back tire and threatened to kill me if I did not give them cash. You know the nature of this business, we don’t really carry cash around because customers pay on their phone. Madam, if I tell you that I nearly died….Lagos is dangerous oh! Don’t get too carried away. If not for God, they for don hammer on my life!”
In Lagos, everyone is trying to hammer, because to beat at the rusted or bent nail is to be alive, to be conscious of one’s proximity, or distance, to poverty or success, whatever terms they can be defined as. This consciousness either strengthens or kills you, and though life can sometimes be cheap in Nigeria, Nigerians remain resilient and strong. Perhaps all along, we have been hammering at ourselves, self-actualizing as the nail in our own coffin, sealing shut our own destiny, or maybe manifesting as a blacksmith beating metal over and over, hoping that it will turn into gold. To stop trying to hammer means you have probably already hammered, or you are dead. This point of view is even debatable, because still, it seems that politicians with abysmal pockets continue to drag the nation into a prolonged resource genocide, stealing for the past, present, and a future they themselves seem to be depriving the country of. As for me, do I want to hammer? I asked myself this question as I pondered life in a country I had turned my back on many years ago, and the answer is, yes. But at what price?
Circumstances aside, it is the spirit of hammering, though sometimes questionable, that keeps the body of Nigeria beating with a strong heart. It is this same spirit that I wanted to immerse myself in, having felt that America had watered down my edge with problems that seemed to be trivial in the grand scheme of things. Being Nigerian feels like being strapped to a high-speed bike going downhill. You have no other option but to pedal, you have no option but to hammer, if you are graciously alive to try.
The night of my departure, Mr. Yakubu drives me to the airport and listens to my father telling him, with pompous pride about my triumphs and scrimmages as a young person trying to make it on her own in America. Bringing my luggage out of the car, after sighing at the obnoxious weight, which I would obviously be charged for, Mr. Yakubu says to me,
“Madam, I know you don’t like the word Madam, but I want you to know that I am proud to know you. The name sef, is very well deserving. Make sure you come back to Lagos, I know you will do well here. You go hammer.”
To which I reply, “Thank you, Oga, see you soon.” When he drives off I feel a sudden sadness rise within me, my heart was breaking. I felt a sadness at the loss of the non-linear, yet genuine, relationship we had shared. In Mr. Yakubu, I found a companion, never unwilling to peel away at the Nigeria singled story scale from my eyes. He was the most consistent part of my adventures in Lagos, and though he could not see how we were united, I knew that sometimes he could feel it. Regardless of my naive Americanism, now peppered on the remnants of a Nigerian childhood where I was once sharp, we had been through a lot—multiple extortions by the Nigerian police, that one Okada accident, and all the late night drives across the Falomo bridge, where I would always marvel at the beauty of the civic center, as it illuminated a city I was slowly learning to love despite all the challenges.
I boarded the plane, ready to make something of myself, so I could contribute at home. I boarded the plane, ready to improve myself in America, so that in someway, somehow, I could hammer… at something.
Sheba Anyanwu used to want to be an author/writer. These days she is taking the GRE and wondering if this “thing” is even worth it. You can email her firstname.lastname@example.org, or read her work on here and at shebaisthemuse.com.
This essay is a contribution to I JUST GOT BACK: For The Suya And The Chapman, observations on a short return to Lagos.