‘I don’t have much time to read. When I do, I want to learn something. So I don’t read novels.’
The only unusual thing about this sentiment, printed in a recent issue of the FT’s odious How to Spend It, is that it was expressed by a woman. It’s usually male readers whose time is too precious to waste on made-up stories, and who can only learn about the world by ingesting facts. But facts can be neither here nor there, and so can experience.
When I went to Lagos, I couldn’t cope with its aggressive heat and humidity, the throat-sticking catch of mould in every air-conditioned breath, the sick thrill of traveling at speed in Nairobi-like traffic cohorts, the money-led evangelism and TV histrionics, the wildly coloured dresses fighting back and winning against the pitiless, equatorial sun.
I was working for the World Bank so I knew a lot of facts about Nigeria’s economy. I was familiar with its resource wealth and corruption, its north-south divide, its hyperactive diaspora. But those facts could only make the place real in the same attenuated way an encyclopaedia entry approximates a city or a gene sequence conjures a human child.
It was a mostly solo work trip that had taken in the eerie lawfulness of Kigali the week before – the only African city I’ve been in where moped taxis insist on helmets – and ended in a five-day battle of wits with a fixer / sexual opportunist I depended on to get me around Ethiopia’s Oromia province and back to Addis for a Friday night flight. My task was to gather photos and success stories to populate a year or two’s worth of brochures, presentations and assorted donor fodder.
Everywhere else on that trip, people talked about Nigeria. In Kenya, it was grudging admiration for Nigerians’ energy and sharp business practice. In Rwanda, people said Nigerian soap operas were the only ones worth watching. Even in far away Ethiopia, some women wore, or just talked about daring to wear the typically bright Nigerian fabrics.
But Lagos was the only city I have ever disliked on sight, the only airport/taxi interface I’ve crossed over feeling viscerally uneasy. It was too bright, too hot, too loud, too quick. It rattles the nerve-endings, razzing the brain like a migraine just before it bursts. As hard as I tried to just go with it, I couldn’t get out of my white, female body, my rational and irrational fears.
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