Lagos has its dark spots. Last January, when I arrived in this city from green, romantic Nairobi (Lagos’s East African rival), I was disheartened at the lack of sunlight. As I drove on the long stretch from the airport into the city, just after noon, I took in the grayish sandy environment and felt certain that it could only be the dust and pollution from constant traffic.
My eyes were large as we made our way through the mainland. I felt as though all was grey. Grey roads, grey sidewalks, grey skies. I looked at my husband in alarm and asked, “Are there no blue skies in Lagos? Is there no sunshine? You did not tell me it would be like this,” I said. “You know I need blue skies to live.”
This was not an exaggeration, for it had been many years since I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I envisioned myself depressed, in a cloud of gloom for the next three years. He did not have a response for me. I think he took the safe way of silence on the matter. Getting me to come to Lagos in the first place was a struggle; he was not about to make promises he could not keep. He said nothing on the sunshine.
And yet a dingy sky was not the only lack of light in our lives. Not wanting to live like other expats, we chose a stand-alone home, despite advice from friends. We were convinced that we could fend for ourselves and manage our own water, our own security, our own maintenance, and maintain our own generator, but we were completely unaware as to how poorly things operated and how unreliable the state power monopoly is. With an average of 20 percent capacity or less, our generator was constantly strained and there were many times we were without power. Many times in the middle of the night, the hum of the AC would go off and we would be awoken by the silence and by the sluggish footsteps of the guard traipsing his way to the switchover box. In an entire year in Lagos, I did not sleep uninterrupted through one night. This was much worse for my husband, who in addition to sunny skies could also not also guarantee good sleep.
A new world opened up for us. One where we frantically charged electronics and emergency lamps, one where we had to consider how much bulk food to buy just in case the fridge switched off; one where indeed, we often had to throw away our food, one where we were constantly tired and fighting, one where a few hours of costly state power felt like a gift.
And despite my frequent discomfort, I realize that in the vast poverty that exists in Lagos, I have no right to complain about a lack of light. As part of a diverse elite group, I crave electricity for my air conditioner, for my microwave, for my iPhone, for my water heater. I am privileged in this city. I do not, like most Lagosians, live with sporadic, limited, and extremely expensive power, where the ability to see in the dark is considered a luxury. But sadder even, I do not have a crippling, apathetic lack of faith that my government as shown through history, will not and frankly chooses not to help.
But even some of those lights are coming on. Lagos governor Babatunde Raji Fashola has been in power since 2007, and though he is not without his intrigue—like every popular Nigerian politician—he has made decent progress. Security in the city has been transformed. People lived in daily fear of robbery, and now there is a sense of safety. New roads and bridges have been built to decongest traffic, and even one’s lowly driver is prone to rave about the wonders of Fashola, though arguably the poor are the ones least benefiting of Fashola’s reforms.
He is intent on beautifying Lagos and keeping it clean. His foot soldiers of LAWMA can be seen around the city sweeping streets and trimming hedges. He has put in plans for a light rail around the city; he has brought in investors opening up many new and thriving businesses in this commercial capital and creating badly needed jobs. He is rigorous about enforcing taxes, and committed to changing one’s impression of Lagos. Coming in to the airport at Murtala Mohammed, one is still greeted by dilapidation and chaos, but immigration officers are now professional, and though Nigerian officials are always intimidating, you may even find one that is friendly.
The dull skies of January 2011 turned out to be dust from the Sahara. Apparently we came right at the height of harmattan. The sand from the north blocked the skies I sought, but when it finally cleared and that dust blew across the Atlantic, the most gorgeous blue, crisp skies appeared! Yes, there are blue skies in Lagos! On a good day, not a bluer sky exists in the sunny Caribbean or any other exotic beach in the world. There are many of those days when I stand outside and just look up. The blue sky sprinkled with brilliant white clouds, with maybe a palm tree or two in the foreground, framed by the most gorgeous sunlight.
And when that sunlight fades and we must rely on the hope of another kind of light, we have learned how to be savvy. I have learned that it does no good to hate the national power monopoly for their years of rot and corruption. It does me no good to wonder how a mega-city in 2012 still has not cracked the code on the basic provision of power! To wonder how in this day and age, power supply is still a key issue in national elections.
It is useless to hate the crooks who for decades have buried their city in darkness and poverty, to wonder how many of them are now importing expensive generators for sale. I have learned not to let my Western guilt and privileged position cripple my ability to get what I need for my family. I have learned to be grateful for little things like washing a load of laundry without having to restart the machine. And when the dear generator constantly powering my home cannot run anymore, I have learned to light a candle and go to bed. I pull my duvet back to manage the heat and humidity, positioning myself to the window, even in my sleep anxiously awaiting the light of a new day. And at those times, when the guard is too slow to the box, I simply go out the back door, walk to the corner of the property in the dark, feel my way behind that big, dirty, smelly generator and flip the switch myself. As a matter of necessity in Lagos, one must learn from early on how to put on her own lights.