Safe and sound in ‘unsafe’ Lagos

This Nigerian city has been home to thousands of Indians for many decades now. Contrary to perceptions, the city has treated them well

Charu Rishi

The city that borrows its name from a Portuguese word for lakes, Lagos is a land of aquatic splendour. Made up of several islands separated by creeks, rivers and lagoons that pour into the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos — the most populous city of Nigeria — is home to thousands of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Lebanese expatriates. It’s an interesting blend, but no one really makes an effort to mix up with the ‘others’. Another thing that needs to be cleared right at the start is, there’s no wildlife here, at least not in and around the city. The city is a concrete jungle where each person is jostling for space, and the traffic, the ‘go-slow’ as they call it here  — is terrible. The crawling traffic, however, offers a lot of people a chance to earn their livelihood. At traffic lights, street vendors sell all kind of things, ranging from water bottles and biscuits to stuff like clothes, inflatable mattresses, wall clocks and washroom hardware!

Although Lagos is the financial capital of the country, the disparity is appalling. While a huge number of have-nots struggle to put a slice of bread on their plate, the stinking rich “spray” dollar bills — yes, dollars, not naira — at weddings. But wealthy or not, Nigerians know how to enjoy life. The muggy weather of this coastal city may make many uncomfortable, but not the Lagosians. You can see women at the filling station dancing to peppy numbers as they tank-up your car and waiters shaking a leg as they serve.

Locals are easy-going and respectful and this makes the lives of expats very comfortable despite a lot of wahalas (Nigerian slang for troubles). The domestic helps can cook a sumptuous Indian spread and drivers, besides doing their job, help you with your shopping bags for a little more money. It’s, of course, sad but a boon for those who have some cash to spare. “Where else would you get so much help around the house?” asks Aparnaa Saxena, who came here 12 years ago from Gurugram. “We can throw parties and enjoy without really having to worry about the catering. I’m quite religious and celebrate each festival with enthusiasm and invite people over. In Lagos, you find all kind of people — the ones who love to party and the religious type as well. You don’t have to look hard to find people with similar interests.”

Nigeria and security concerns go hand in hand, at least for people back home. The expats, though, don’t sound too worried. “I feel safe here, so much so that we come back from parties at 2am. I love it here and I feel my life is better than that of my sisters, who are US citizens,” winks Aparnaa. “And if something bad is to happen, it can happen to you anywhere.”  

Home away from home

Lagos has been home to Indians for many decades, and the quality of life has been improving with each year. Many Indian stores have opened up, and the malls and multiplexes screening Bollywood hits have added more spice to life. “Now, you get almost everything here, except for things like paints and types of paper that I use,” says Sarita Sharma, who has been here for 20 years now. She’s an artist at heart, who creates magic with her brush and makes lovely greeting cards for friends on their special occasions. 

Has life been good in Lagos? “It has been a roller-coaster ride. When we came here, we hardly knew anything about this place except that there is Indian Language School (ILS), affiliated to the CBSE. There were no phones and electricity supply was very erratic, but now we have generators in every household. But despite all these issues, we’ve had good times here.”

How was life like back then? “It was very different from today. We would go to the telecom authority if we had to call home. There weren’t as many Indian TV channels, no theatre, no malls... all this came up around 10 years ago. Entertainment then meant either going to a beach or party.”

Reetika Srivastva Ghai, a Delhiite, is happy with her life in Lagos, especially with the education her children are getting. “I’m not a party person, but not a loner either. And social life here is like mood swings – sometimes it’s very happening, and sometimes quite dull. But I’m happy that my kids get to go to good international schools,” says Reetika.

Men, too, seem quite happy with the life in Lagos. Manu Vyas, who hails from Pathankot, says there are many night clubs to hang out. “For office-goers, Monday to Friday is just home-to-office and back-home routine, but people can party on Saturday and Sunday. Many of my friends love to party, but I enjoy my weekends with my wife and kids. We love to catch a flick or go to a restaurant on weekends, but our favourite hangouts are the pristine beaches, just that hitting the shore is a problem, thanks to bad roads and the ‘go-slow’,” says Vyas.

Traffic is indeed a big issue here and the locals, who stay far away from the city, start their day around 4am to reach on time for work. People here love big cars, acquiring which is very easy for super-rich, but others go for “tokunbo”, which means used vehicles imported from Europe or the US.

Sudha Sharma, who teaches at ILS and hails from Himachal Pradesh, feels Lagos has been good to her. “I had a hard time in India when I had to stay away from my husband with two little girls for a year-and-a-half. But all that changed for better once we reunited as a family in Lagos eight years ago. Though we have to be a little careful here, things have changed for the better over the years.” For Sudha, weekends are family time, “We go to parties or movies, take kids out for swimming or to play some games. Even in India, people do the same things. Isn’t it?”

Well, yes!

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