It’s another of those nights. We haven’t had electricity for almost a month now. It comes, stays on for an hour or two then goes again. We’re not too worried because we have a generator and sometimes we leave the generator on all night. It’s expensive though because it’s powered by fuel and fuel (or petrol, or gasoline J ) isn’t too cheap these days. But it’s necessary for a number of reasons: the fridge-freezer needs to be run for quite a while to keep the meat and fish and other perishables frozen, water needs to be pumped from the borehole (we don’t get water from the government, we have to drill our own boreholes) and most importantly, we need to keep the fans on because of the MOSQUITOES!! Sigh, the mosquitoes. The plague of our existence. We don’t think about the malaria they carry, oh no! We’re used to malaria now: I for instance get it about three or four times a year. It’s horrible of course, but we know how to treat it and we just regard it as a great bother. It’s the bites we can’t stand! I think we get bitten by sand flies too, but whatever the bites are they have the power to keep you awake and scratching all night long! The way this is going, you probably think I live in a little shack in the middle of the forest. Well, I don’t J . But Nigeria hasn’t been completely tamed yet. I like to think of it as ordered chaos.
My “village” or town, as its inhabitants like to call it is called “Igbo Efon”. It’s a Yoruba word and there seems to be some confusion about its meaning. “Efon” means town, no argument about that. But depending on the way its pronounced “Igbo” in Yoruba could mean mosquito or some type of wild animal, a boar or something. Calling it mosquito town would be more appropriate! How did we (my mother, brothers and I) come to live here then?
Well, I was born in a flat in a big apartment complex not too far from Igbo Efon. Well, not IN the flat, obviously! That was in Victoria Island. Lekki, where Igbo Efon is situated is a peninsula, jutting out from Victoria Island into the ocean. When I was born, more than 20 years ago, it was little more than a long stretch of coastal jungle, with a few “real” fishing villages close to the ocean. There was a narrow little road that ran through it though, connecting Lagos State with other states, but that was it. Sand and jungle. To cut a long story short my mother was given the option of buying a plot of land in one of these villages. You see, in the state’s master plan, believing that indeed one exists, Lekki was meant to be a mega…well, I can’t say city, let’s say a mega peninsula then. But back in the day it was the place where even SUVs got stuck in the sand and had to be pushed/pulled out by amused villagers. So this was the place my mum was offered land. She said yes, to the amazement of my father, who wondered when or if any civilized person was ever going to live there. My mum went ahead and bought it anyway. I remember how the village was then, tiny, with just a few houses and oceans of sand that our car always sank in. There were also lots of palm trees, and if you listened carefully you could hear the crash of the waves on the surf (this at least hasn’t changed!)
Let’s fast forward a little bit. It’s sixteen years after my birth and by this time my father has died (when I was 2 years old) and my mum has built a little house on her plot of land. It was a cute little cottage, really well done. I remember it had a long flight of stairs to the front door, a little palace to my 6 year old eyes! We planned to live there someday but there never was any hurry. We had our cosy little flat in Victoria Island didn’t we?
Well when I turned sixteen we didn’t anymore. We got kicked out. Literally. The apartment complex, called 1004 Housing Estate –and it really did have 1004 flats – was at first leased to civil servants, government workers all who paid reasonable sums out of their salaries every month for the privilege of living in apartments the government had lost interest in maintaining properly. The powers that be decided it was too good for us somehow, and that more money could be made by renovating the flats and selling them to private buyers. So, out the civil servants went, without any housing allowance, without any serious advance warning, without any resettling plans (They’ve sold the apartments for about €200000 now). Oh well, I’ll grouse about that some other day. But this shouldn’t have been a problem because we had our cute ocean side cottage waiting for us no?
Ah, life. It sounds romantic, living so close to the beach, but water side properties have their own unique problems. We couldn’t live in our new house. You see, a river used to run through the place where the house was. It had dried up long before my mother bought the land, but the land itself wasn’t of the strongest. No problem, all the building contractor had to do was build a special reinforced foundation that would hold the house up and make it firm and sturdy for decades to come.
He didn’t. He was the man who according to the hymn, “Built upon sand”. He literally stuffed the foundation with sand and built the rest of the house on top of it. Years later, to the surprise of everyone except I’m sure the contractor, who was long gone, the floor of the entire house caved in. Yes, after all the money and time my widowed mother put into that house, we weren’t going to be able to live in it. To be blunt, it had to be pulled down. And rebuilt. After 16 years of thinking you had a house, you’re back to square one.
Never fear Olga! We still live on the same plot of land. We’ve built a much larger house on a very strong foundation. My mum must have gone all out after the previous disappointment because our new house has 5 bedrooms, 2 sitting rooms and a room we still don’t know what to do with! It’s large. It’s still a work in progress, we’re still putting things in and replacing things, painting and repainting… but it’s worth it, we’re home now. A home we share with more than our fair share of mosquitoes, but hey, I’m counting my blessings.
Ah, as you can imagine, Lekki didn’t remain a coastal jungle for long. It’s now one of the fastest growing areas of Lagos, with huge hotels and gated communities, mansions, banks, shops, schools, everything. And slums of course, or shanty towns, as I like to call them. After all, the original villagers couldn’t be moved off their land. They just built their little houses out of bricks and mortar this time and continued living their rural lifestyles. Which sadly is the perfect recipe for a slum. So even though the worthy leaders of Igbo Efon sold land to people who could afford to build large houses and drive big cars to avoid the floods that perpetually inundate the area in the rainy season, the village remained a village. And so it is that one of our neighbours, who used to be the manager of a bank and is quite wealthy, has as HIS neighbour the plumber who regularly works in our home. The bank manager’s mansion and the plumber’s unplastered shack share a wall. And there they live, side by side.
So I live in my large(r) cottage with its rooms and spacious compounds and down the street half- naked children play in stagnant puddles of water while their mothers sell little trays of vegetables and smoked fish, trying to make a living. We’re different but we’re all the same really. Survivors. We endure. And one defining characteristic of a survivor is that he tends not to think about it too much. What’s going on around him, the wealth and poverty living side by side. Oh, he’s not callous or hardened. He offers help when he can. He just knows that sometimes, letting things be in a country like this one is the only way to keep his sanity. And keep on surviving.