It is Nigeria’s independence day and there is a flag—a shiny green, white, green—fluttering from the Mercedes Benz in front of us. My brother Okey and I are driving on Victoria Island, where real estate is as expensive as Manhattan’s, although you would not guess so from the pile of rubbish by the roadside, brightly colored bottles and plastic bags—not aesthetically unpleasing, if you can forget that it is stinky rubbish. We’re in traffic. I like to peer into people’s cars in Lagos traffic and imagine lives for them. Okey tries to change lanes, but the other drivers nudge their cars forward as soon as there is a slice of space between them and the next bumper. “Lagos drivers will never let you enter,” Okey mutters. He has only recently moved to Lagos from the quieter Anambra State. The week before, on his way to work, a rusty yellow danfo bus swerved suddenly and shattered his side mirror. The driver came out and lay flat on the ground, saying, “You are a human being like me, oga! You know I cannot do this on purpose!”
The Mercedes ahead of us crawls forward. Hawkers are darting around—holding out phone-recharge cards, packets of plantain chips, newspapers, plastic bottles of Miranda dipped in water to make them look freshly cold. A young boy approaches our car, armed with a spray bottle of soapy water and a rag. Okey turns on the wipers, to discourage him, but the boy still squirts the water and makes to clean the windscreen. Okey increases the wiper speed. The boy glares at him and moves to the next car. The traffic is moving. I buy a TW magazine— a pretty, photoshopped newscaster is on the cover—from one of the hawkers who also pushes last month’s American Cosmo and British Elle against my window. TW is published by my friend Adesuwa, and Okey and I are going to an event to mark the second year of its publication. I like Adesuwa’s magazine because it doesn’t do the kind of blind borrowing from America that a lot of other women’s magazines do in Nigeria; it doesn’t have recipes for broccoli or asparagus, or articles about junior and senior proms.
The venue is Fantasy Land in Ikoyi, a small amusement park, the sort of place children are taken to see Father Christmas in December. But this time there are chairs arranged around an elevated stage, covered in gauzy white cloth, tied with ribbons, festive, almost wedding-like. The guests are mostly women, and all the ushers are in tight jeans and T-shirts that say TW IS 2. We sing the national anthem, an unusual way to start an event (prayers are the norm), but it is our independence day, after all. I notice that the woman in front of me, who is wearing large gold earrings, does not know the words of the anthem. Okey leans in to ask if I think we will recite the pledge, too, and if we will have to raise a hand in a salute as we did in primary school. We don’t recite the pledge. Instead Adesuwa climbs up to the stage. She is shapely and chic in her jeans and high heels.
“People ask me how come I look like this after six children and I just tell them it is because of God!” she says. The audience cheers. She says that her magazine has been successful because of God. More people clap and cheer. She talks about how difficult her journey has been, how she has funding problems, how the printers and vendors are unreliable, how she refuses to lie about her sales figures, and how subscriptions and sales are on the rise.
“God has been faithful to me,” she says. “I attribute it all to God. Please clap for God!”
Everyone claps furiously. They look at the person next to them to make sure they, too, are clapping for God. And because I am thinking of writing this letter from Lagos, I decide then that the first line should be this: Lagos is all about God—and also about cologne and phones. People walk past you and then follows the cloud of perfume or cologne; with smelling good for the average Lagosian, subtlety is not the point. And everyone is holding a phone. Phone conversations go on in the row behind me, in the row ahead, mostly repetitions of “Eh? I can’t hear you. The network is bad.”
There is a comedian on stage. People are laughing. He introduces Waje. Contemporary Nigerian music is exploding—the Lagos clubs mostly play only Nigerian music these days, and corporate events are no longer complete without a live performance—and the comedian tells us she is the “next big thing.” She is a young woman whose stage outfit, a winged skirt, makes her look like a butterfly. She sings in Igbo, in a voice so clear it startles, and then follows a sort of disco performance with lots of prancing about. Obiwon comes on stage. He is better known than Waje but still not famous enough to be played on the FM stations often. He has clearly watched a lot of Michael Jackson. He is slender and is wearing a white jacket and elegant black trousers. He slides and shimmies and his song, “Obim,” is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. People are standing up to sway along. I stand, too, and feel, for a moment, that odd sense of liking people I don’t know.