Realization at My First Encounter with Africa as an Outsider

December 5, 2018 Nigeria , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS



Rabeah Muzammil



I first read about the continent from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The colorful depiction of the culture, folklore and religion had triggered my curiosity to the exotic African way of life. Then Joseph Conrad came with his Heart of Darkness; saying, “we penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness”. I was intrigued further. With Camara Laye’s The African Child, I began to have dreams of an African Adventure. The animistic beliefs, the rituals were so surreal to me. In addition, with Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, and female subjugation; I was overwhelmed with the desire to see the real situation.


Nigeria is located in West Africa, on the Gulf of Guinea staring at the Atlantic Ocean. Its strategic location has made it easily noticeable to the European. When I read Scramble for Africa, I understood further that this continent is blessed with a cornucopia of natural resources, fertile land, vast forest rich in flora and fauna, and extensive coastline with abundant aquatic diversity and many more untapped resources. Prior to the European marauders scramble to partition and occupy; Mansa Musa who ruled West Africa had made the region known for his generosity. Gold was distributed generously along his way to perform his pilgrimage to Mecca, this has caught the attention of the European and later the Americans in the Transatlantic slave trade. Thus, the continent becomes a cash cow for the white man.


So, I embarked on my African adventure, to the heart of Africa and the most populous nation. During the journey, I met a lady from Uganda, she was curious when I told her that I was heading for Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is not a tourist destination. I said that I was going to join my husband who is on assignment; she reminded me to be careful of Boko Haram, human trafficking and kidnapping. All these came staring at me in a sinister way. I was mildly cautious; the passion for adventure was burning in me.


A long haul flight from Kuala Lumpur to Lagos with two transits is indeed an exhausting journey; an efficient airport would be a welcome relief. But as I disembarked, I heard a loud commotion; passengers were not clear on where to go. There was insufficient signage to guide us to the appropriate row. Babies were crying, mothers look tired and impatient and voices were raised to organize the queue. Many were confused, some passengers jumped the queue. The ground staff had to calm down many disgruntled passengers. It was hot and humid; the air condition was not functioning. I realized, the stories that were told by friends who had worked in Nigeria begun to unfold in front of me.


While I was waiting for the crowd to clear at the baggage carousel; a young porter approached me. He had this appealing look that says; please, let me help, so I can get some tip. Looking at his worn out face, I gave an emphatic nod. I told him, “I don’t have Naira, just 2USD. My husband is out there, he will pay you.” He agreed to my arrangement. I was extremely exhausted and that let me off the hook for a while. On my way out, burly size men and women in uniform reminded me of Igbo warriors in Things Fall Apart. Asking “what have you got for me today Maam,” is like a cynical welcoming gesture. As a seasoned traveller, staying calm and avoiding eye contact is the most artful way of escaping harassment.


At the exit, the porter exclaimed. “The white man must be your husband”, he spoke as though we were the new colonial master. “Mastar, I bring your wife safely to you.” After paying him in Naira; he also asked for the 2USD as tip, I relented. He was ecstatic at the sight of USD; kissed the money and disappeared. The colonial hangover still remains, after so many years in Achebe’s land.


I felt like sitting in a time machine, taking me back to those days of unpaved roads, huge pot holes, ramshackle market stalls with vendors selling fruits by the road side, vans used as buses crammed with people stopping anywhere at their own convenience. Traffic chaos, rubbish accumulating, shops made from bits of wood and corrugated iron. Welcome to Lagos, Nigeria.


Lagos mainland reminded me of Chris Abani’s Grace Land.


“Half of the town was built of a confused mix of clapboard, wood, cement and zinc sheets, raised above a swamp by means of stilts and wooded walkways. The other half, built on solid ground reclaimed from the sea, seemed to be clawing its way out of the primordial swamp, attempting to become something else.”


A manifestation of marginalization and deprivation; Makoko, located on a lagoon on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is a city with an ever growing urban slum population. The migration of workers from rural to urban; has swollen at an alarming rate. Migrant workers from Benin, Ghana and Mali also venture out to look for greener pasture in Lagos. Poverty and unemployment are the main reasons that push people out from the hinterland. While job opportunities are always heard of, the compatibility and security remain uncertain. As job seekers continue hunting, the influx of migrant workers continues to inundate the city slum of the urban poor. More slum cities have sprung up like mushroom after the rain: Ajegunle, Otodo Gbame, Bariga and many more.


I felt like Marlow, going on the journey to the interior. As the car slows down, Bamindele the driver showed us Olushogun; the largest landfill in Lagos. Growing mounds of rubbish covered a large area of landfill. Scavengers, mostly women and children were seen rummaging through, in search for things to sell. Deprivation seems to be the trademark of living in the margin. Diseases are mainly caused by bacteria, mosquitoes and viruses from contaminated water and soil. As we penetrated deeper, further down the road, mostly young girls were seen collecting water from the public tap for daily household consumption. Without clean water, household chores will come to a halt. Many of these young girls do not attend school; the amount needed to wash, cook, drink and other usage requires them to make several trips to the public tap. Emcheta’s Second Class citizen depiction of Adah, came flashing back to me. As a daughter, a wife, a mother and a grandmother; I feel that this should not be happening in the twenty first century. Every child should be given the opportunity to attend school. This is where the underbelly of the slum lies; naïve young girls being forced by men under the camouflage of a decent job. They will later become prostitutes or victim of human trafficking.


The sight of street vendors shows how enterprising these men and women are. At the traffic light, hordes of beggars came knocking on my car window. Strumming their guitar, they will serenade a song. I gave some money to a few, many more came rushing. Despite Bamindele’s warning not to give. There are also sewing and alteration services available at the Balogun and Yaba Street market; the hand sewing machine is balanced on the head. Everyday something new will be displayed: plastic furniture, traditional handicraft, collages and sculpture made from discarded waste. There is so much energy and ingenuity. Anything that they can hold on to is sold on the street. Singing, dancing and impersonating superstars are also their forte. Some street children performed on the street and danced themselves to fame on talent shows.


I left the slum, the smell of diesel, the roaring sound of the generator and three wheelers. My mind was filled with the images of women and men answering nature’s call in the open and the fetid smell of human waste. A disturbing thought struck me, little children running around naked playing in puddles of water left by the rain; oblivious to the fact that they will get sick and the poor health care. Hospitals are called “House of Death.”


Along the way to the island, we passed Oshodi market. Lagos is like a salad bowl; the flamboyant garb donned by the Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Fulani gave a carnival kind of atmosphere. I heard the sound of the talking drum in Camara Laye’s The African Child. “The notes had struck my breast and my heart, and I’m ready to join the initiation into manhood.” I was enthralled by the rhythm. The bewitching sound of the drum lingered for quite a while in me. The vibration was like a therapy, it removed all those stressful images I have seen.


As the sun set, we passed by the silhouettes of dimly lit homes. I was told that they have been in the dark for a very long time. I wonder and I wonder how the children cope with homework. How will they read in such poor lighting? All those wasted human potentials.


Under the stars, in the open sky is where the poor will slumber; thinking of survival. In the comfort of their homes, the rich will think of where to plunder. In the land overflowing with oil, the paradox of plenty is clear now.


Victoria Island is designed for the outrageously rich politician and their mistresses and expatriates who work for oil companies. Opulence and grandeur are the most appropriate words to describe their lifestyle. Tight security, underground electrical systems and water supply are at a press of a button. To the impoverished slum dwellers, this is the source of envy. When we deprived the poor of basic amenities, we also deprived them of their humanity. They become mere chattels, taken advantage of by the filthy rich.


With all the needs in place for the rich: good schools, hospitals, roads, supermarkets, club houses, cafes; many more lands have been taken away from their rightful owners to make way for capitalism. This forced eviction has pushed the slum dwellers down the dark abyss.


But, Martin Luther King says,” Only in the dark you can see the stars.” Out of the urban slum, stars are born: poet, footballers, singers, artist and famous authors. The slums, with its cacophony of sounds, smells and sight, touch the emotions and the core spirit to be free from the shackles of poverty. Diamonds are formed under immense pressure and heat. Perhaps a Yaba or Balogun Renaissance, something similar to the Harlem Renaissance will take place one day. With abundant talent and resourcefulness, anything is possible for the urban slum dwellers in Lagos.





Rabeah Muzammil

Rabeah Muzammil is a cancer survivor, a pensioner and a grandmother. Her sojourn extends in places like Africa, Indonesia and the UAE and these experiences have exposed to her to various types of poverty and human predicaments. Being poor is the real cancer that proliferates the vicious cycle of poverty and terminal illness. As a frequent traveller to various places around the world, she also noticed the unjust distribution of wealth that has created a huge gap between the rich and the poor. She hopes to create awareness pertaining to subject matters like cancer, nature, children and their wellbeing more through her writings.

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