17 November 2006


Lagos is a city that most of its own residents acknowledge to be hell on Earth, but still struggle and scrape through each day with the grim determination to survive and, just maybe, buck all the odds and climb out of destitution. This is a city of staggering inequality and inequity, with a Gini index nearing a 'perfect' 1.0 -- almost all the wealth is held by a tiny minority of corrupt officials, criminals and mob leaders, and corruption and crime pervades all economic activity. This is a city of horrific and constant violence and the threat of violence -- dead and mutilated human bodies are ignored the way we ignore roadkill. This is a city of absolute hierarchy -- everyone is in thrall to those (ogas, -- literally 'masters') one step higher in the pyramid, from whom they get 'security' and a chance at the few pitiful jobs, and to whom they pay 90% of what they earn. This pyramid is entirely unofficial, but ironclad -- the cost of disregarding it is often your life. The struggle to survive is a 24/7 ordeal, so that, as one of the people in George Packer's New Yorker report puts it, in Lagos, "if you sit down, you die".

This is a city that doesn't have slums, it is a slum, all fifteen million people in every quarter of the city. It is a city where garbage and sewage and toxic waste is everywhere, where clean running water and flush toilets are virtually non-existent. Where disease is everywhere and ever-threatening. Where pollution is so bad that residents' faces are grey. Where police, authorities and gangs all extort money from anyone who wants anything or dares to enter their turf. Where fuel dumps and waste fuel spills lit afire constantly light up the night and choke the lungs with toxins. Where the only significant change from year to year are the endless streams of new immigrants and the building husks left behind from rampant arson. Where most of the population sleeps outdoors, often surrounded by mosquitos, garbage and sewage. Where gang wars between Moslems and Christians, often precipitated by trivial events, kill thousands.

Packer says "the human misery of Lagos not only overwhelms one's senses and sympathy but also seem irreversible". He quotes a city district senior administrator who describes the city as "an impending disaster...a powder keg...it's just going to boil over" as it grows to 23 million people by 2015, and by another million a year after that.

When Packer asked the editor of the city's largest newspaper what keeps the people of Lagos going, when they have no homes, no basic government services, no utilities, no jobs, and no order or security, he replies "They never believe there's no chance". Religion is big business in Lagos, and the people not only cling to the hope of salvation in the afterlife, they cling to the promise of capitalism and civilization that if they work hard enough they will succeed in pulling themselves out of their desperate situation. Both promises seem leaps of impossible faith, since there is no evidence anywhere to support either of them. This, it seems, is the nature of humanity -- no matter how far we fall from the grace of a joyful, easy, natural life, no matter how grim and brutal and full of pain and suffering our lives are, we plug on, never seeing how far we are from where we once were, never giving up, never becoming so full of grief for what we have lost, and forgotten, as to diminish our faith that, despite the fact that what we have been doing has got us into desperate straits, doing a little bit more of it will somehow get us out, lead us to salvation.

From How to Save the World, by Dave Pollard, discussing an article in The New Yorker, written by George Packer.

PeRspective indeed.

The Jenius Has Quoted.

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