Lesotho or Nigeria?-Part 3

Lesotho or Nigeria?-Part 3

LAST week I was talking about the look and
feel of Nigeria, focusing on the central plateau
city of Jos and its museums.
Best of these is the museum of architecture,
a big open-air place, the brainchild of a
German (or Swiss) whose name I have, disgracefully,
forgotten. Here are life-size replicas
of buildings from all over the country.

There’s the palace of the Emir of Zaria,
looking in rather better shape than the
real thing. There’s a Matacam village, from
the far, far north-west of the country. The
huts of this village are positioned over precipitous
rocky outcrops and are built looking
like thick pillars, made of mud, nicely decorated
and with straw roofs (the roofs not as
neat as in Lesotho, but then the Basotho are
known internationally as master-thatchers,
with some employed as mentors in my part
of England, the south-west, where many old
cottages have thatched roofs, but where the
skill of thatching is dying out). The colonialists
had a pretty hard time overwhelming
the Matacam, as the rocky landscape is
ideal for defence and the Matacam are great
with bows and arrows.

And the museum also has a replica of a
small part of the (in reality, enormous) palace
of the Oba of Benin, historically one
of the most powerful of the kingdoms of
south-west Nigeria. Now, Benin is tricky as
a place name. There’s the city, which gives

its name to the former Nigerian kingdom.
Benin is, too, the name of the country to the
west of Nigeria, the former French territory
of Dahomey. And it’s the name of the main
university in Togo, the next country along.
As if this wasn’t confusing enough, there’s
also the Bight of Benin, bight being an old
word for a bay or recess in a waterway,
which (the Bight of Benin) lies off the southern
Nigerian coast and is notoriously volatile
and dangerous to cross. The replica of
the Oba of Benin’s palace in Jos houses the
museum restaurant and it’s called (I just
love this) the Bite of Benin.

Having said something about Jos, I’ll now
give Lagos the once-over. And Lagos is something
else. About ten years ago two books
came out in the UK within a few months
of each other, Kaye Whiteman’s historical
and cultural guide to the city, and a tourist

guide to Nigeria, the author of which (I’m
afraid I’ve forgotten her name) commented:
“Lagos has to be seen to be believed.”

The late Kaye Whiteman, who loved the
city, started off admitting that it has the
reputation of being the biggest shit-hole in
the world, and that this reputation is wellearned,
as it’s a place of desperate slums,

crazy traffi c jams, thieves and muggers everywhere
you look, and a beastly climate, but
went on to say “it is so much more.”
Whenever I say how much I’ve enjoyed
visits to Lagos, there’s a nagging voice that
tells me “that’s because you have money to
spend. Millions of Lagosians live in some
of the most appalling slums on earth. Isn’t
it immoral to say anything good about the
place?”

The point is well-taken, and everyone who
loves Nigeria should spend as much time
and effort as they can protesting the vileness
of its government and campaigning for
social and economic justice.

But I shall proceed, because the vibrancy,
creativity and energy of Lagosians ensures
that it is a city of great achievement as well
as of violence and squalor.

Before I get down to detail, I’ll mention an
essay I published some years ago on “Lagos
as a city of words”, in which my main focus
was on the theory of entropy and energy.
This argues that whenever you get entropy
— things running down, falling into disrepair,
eventually collapsing — you get alternative
forms of energy springing up, which
compensate for the entropy.

So, slum-dwellers in Lagos use their initiative
and what physical energy they have,
being on the point of starvation, to earn a
buck or two (from petty trading, services
like cleaning the windscreens of cars stuck
in traffi c jams, or learning how to fi sh, and
so on). Misgovernment is a massive source
of entropy (in Lesotho as in Nigeria, though
not on the same scale) and it’s the suffering
masses, not government, from whom we

can hope for energy. (For my understanding
of the relationship between entropy and energy—
that is, of the second law of thermodynamics—
I must thank Professor Alemu and
Professor Love of the NUL, who took this
non-scientist through the theory with the
patience of saints).

A footnote at this point; I have only just
read about the budget initially granted to
the Lesotho pandemic taskforce for lunch
and coffee-breaks (how come they didn’t
get manicures and saunas as well?) Despite
the comparative point I made above, this is
squandermania on a Nigerian scale.

Now down to detail on Lagos. Whenever
I fl y in and have to endure going through
Murtala Mohammed International airport
(truly, hell on earth) I fi nd I’m asking myself
“whatever possessed me to come back to
this god-awful place?” Then I see my friends
beyond the exit barrier, waiting for me, and
a surge of joy lets me know why I came back.
Last visit I was due to be met by a for

mer student who’s now a senior lecturer at

Ibadan (one of the greatest universities in
Africa until successive governments let it
run down; of course nothing like that could
ever happen in Lesotho).Turned out his car
had broken down and he’d commandeered
one of his students to drive him to Lagos for
them to meet me and take me to my hotel.

Two other students had come along for
the ride. As I queued at foreign exchange to
get some naira, I saw my friend gesticulating
for me to stop and come outside. After
the hugs, he told me the informal currency
market was now legalized and I could get a
better rate from a guy in the car park.

Outside the deal got under way and then,
just as I was handing over dollars for naira,
the dealer pulled a gun on me and said in
Pidgin “don’t worry, this is only in case you
try to cheat me.” Then he looked startled; I
turned round and saw one of the students
had pulled out his gun. Welcome to Lagos.
To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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