Real Life in Lagos, Nigeria

The Popular Story, The Real Story, and The Other Story

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

I have never spoken with Christopher McDougall before, but I believe this famous quote from his book Born to Run would have been inspired by living in Lagos for just a few months. There seems to be a frenetic pace to every activity on the streets of Lagos – except, of course, during weekend parties popularly called “owambe.” The infamous ‘danfo’ buses, ‘keke Napep,’ and ‘Okada,’ which are the major transport services in this city, helps to highlight the pace and the ruggedness of this city.

But…wait…that can’t be all. Lagos is not that simple.

It’s always a common thing for us humans to generalize the behaviour and lifestyle of a certain group of people living in a city, country or even a continent. We tend to look for a convenient and simplistic word or phrase to lazily describe this set of people. For some, people are generally defined by their race, ethnic tribe, religion, and so many other unquestioned and unbelievable boxes. We fit people into tiny boxes and spend time trying to name these boxes – the time that could possibly be spent living with these people, learning and loving the beauty these set of people embody.

Experiences are unique to every human – beautiful, ugly, and the beautifully ugly (the oxymoron that keeps coming to mind while thinking of Lagos). You can’t simply find a word or a group of words to explain the experiences of those living in this Lagos. You need to walk up to each person living in this city to reach an appropriate conclusion.

For Lagos, what you would experience is determined based on some key factors: Location, age, social interests, income class, and perception of life in general. Generally, your income would influence all the other factors; it would influence where you decide to live, your social interests, your perception of life, and even your age. Yes, your age! Extremely wealthy people, whether old or young, are popularly hailed and called ‘Chairmen.’ But, I think we are moving too fast. Let’s back up a little.

What is the background story of Lagos?

Lagos is one of the largest cities in West Africa inhabited by more than 20 million people. It is the fifth most populous city in the world – more populated than Tokyo, Moscow, London, and Mumbai. It was originally inhabited by the Aworis, Eguns and Ilajes, but the city has grown into a cosmopolitan city over the years.

The city has two sides – the Mainland and the Island. The major places are Lagos Island (originally and still commonly called EKO), Epe, Ikorodu, Ikeja, Surulere, Yaba, Apapa, Victoria Island (the financial centre of Lagos), and Ikoyi to name a few. The residency in these places are influenced majorly by the income class of the people, but the majority of Lagos is occupied by the middle and lower socioeconomic class.

The city is one of 35 states in Nigeria and the unofficial economic capital of Nigeria. Everything that represents Nigeria is present here in Lagos. You can call Lagos the ‘Engine of the Nigerian Vehicle,’ or the ‘Heart of the Nigerian Body.’

So what’s the popular story?

Lagos is generally famous for its frantic and fast-paced life and the overly ‘smart’ people (to sound politically correct), where the rookie and ignorant fall prey to extortion and fraud. However, this could be said to be true with most capitalist cities around the world. The city is widely notorious for the negative things – the shanties stories (check out the BBC documentary in 2010); the snatch and grab stories; the extortion stories; the fake ID’s and the fake certificate stories; the fake product stories; the traffic and congestion stories; the lawlessness stories. I remember someone who visited Lagos ranting online that, “Lagos life is just plain stupid (traffic jams, hustle for everything, wake up by 5 a.m., get your wallet stolen in public transport, lack of fresh air due to overpopulation and dirt, etc.).” There are always complaints about the chaos that is Lagos – that social exuberance that irritates some people with a different sense of sanity – one which, ironically, represents the soul of the city – the entrepreneurial spirit of the city.

The negative stories are what you would have heard or have become accustomed to about Lagos, but how come there’s still more people trooping into this city with the population said to double in the next 15 years.

There must be more to the popular stories about this city. There must be something those residing in this boisterous city aren’t telling those who aren’t living here and those who are planning to move into this city.

What do people living in Lagos have to say about Lagos?

Jumoke, who has lived in Lagos all her life and lives in the working class and low-income area of Ikorodu says, “I can’t imagine any other place I would have liked to be born,” even though her parents are from another state in the western region of Nigeria. Her parents were motivated to come to Lagos by what motivates everyone wanting to come to Lagos – opportunities. Lagos is a land of business and job opportunities. The population of the city allows for various entrepreneurial ventures. For example, a low-income-earning family who has just moved into Lagos can decide to open a small kiosk or shop in front of their house and sell provisions, wares, and other basic home needs in small quantity without the need to register the business or pay taxes. Jumoke continues by saying, “Sometimes, I have this feeling that if you don’t live in Lagos, then you have not lived life.”

However, Jumoke goes on to complain about the traffic – “Just imagine having to wake up as early as 4 a.m. to make appointments. In your mind, you will think you are early enough.  Wait till you get to the bus station to find people have filled the bus station, and I say to myself we don’t sleep in this Lagos sha…This alone discourages me from going out at times. Hanging out at home with friends has become a regular thing for me as a result.”

But, Lagos, just like every other place, taught me one or two lessons. She says, “I learnt the distinction between being smart and being street smart. Don’t just carry your bag anyhow; you actually need to cling to your bag. If possible, marry it because before you say jack, your valuables have vanished and then you begin to speak in tongues and your normal heartbeat will just escalate. GOD help you if you don’t find yourself in the hospital.” Her description is rather vivid, but I’m sure she’d experienced one before. In fact, is there a ‘Lagosian’ that hasn’t experienced such? I don’t think I have met someone who hasn’t.

You might ask the same thing I asked myself – Why does anyone want to live in this kind of city she just described? But, when I asked her, she was ready with an answer. She says, “Lagos is a paradise for Nigerian hustlers, the city never sleeps. Going out in the evening gives me so much joy as the view of Lagos is breathtaking and Lagos is filled with countless opportunities. I’m telling you, despite how crazy Lagos is, the beauty still remains.” I stopped to wonder what was really more breathtaking about Lagos – the nightlife or the fast-paced life during the day.

Another ‘Lagosian’ who’s lived in the city all her life and now an entrepreneur, Geraldine Nnadi, was born in the Mushin area of Lagos. She says what marked her childhood mornings were the loud sounds from the speakers of a mosque not so far from her house. She says, “Getting to school early meant leaving at least an hour early despite my school not being very far.” She continues, “The Lagos car traffic, particularly in the mornings and night, is quite a hustle, and to beat it requires smartness and early preparations; otherwise, you could be sitting in traffic for hours for a journey of probably forty-five minutes, thereby ‘carrying last’ (the slang for tardiness).” She was born in Lagos, but her family is originally from the eastern part of Lagos. She tells me she sells clothes in one of the major markets in Lagos, the Yaba Market. She describes Mushin, where her family was living, as a fast-paced, noisy, rowdy, and busy town, and talked about how her dad moved the whole family to a more serene area in Isolo, but says, “Isolo isn’t as serene as it was years ago, but it’s still a decent area to escape the noise, hustle and bustle of Lagos.”

I was inquisitive to know what the market in Lagos would be like because it’s mostly women who go to the market in these parts.  She told me it’s really rough. She says, “One must be very alert and vigilant about one’s self and belongings, as some people only come to the market to steal and not purchase anything. Some sellers also would seize any opportunity they can to exploit you, the customer, or charge exorbitant prices if they sense your unfamiliarity with the market workings or your inability to bargain. My first trip to a market without any adult supervision resulted in my spending over budget and I nearly lost my shopping bag.”

She seems like someone who likes to enjoy herself and have fun, so I asked her what she thinks of the social scene in Lagos. She says, “It’s very vibrant here and there are lots of cool places to relax and spend time with friends. While growing up, fun places to visit were fast-food joints and the beach. However, presently, there are theme parks, shopping malls, movie cinemas, and nightclubs that make Lagos enjoyable after a long week of work.”

She tells me about a funny but rather sad experience that would never leave her memory – “I once had my phone stolen from my handbag while I stood up to give an offering in church. It was really painful. I think this experience just highlights the paradox in the city I live in.”

The experience in Lagos would almost be similar to people from the same class of income, but for people at the extreme ends (the wealthy and the poor), the experiences are very much different.

For someone like Busayo, whose family moved from the neighbouring town of Ibadan to the expensive neighbourhood of Magodo in Lagos, growing up in Lagos was mostly indoors. She spoke about going to a school not so far from where she resides meaning she couldn’t have experienced the massive traffic that bedevilled others in other parts of the city. ”Life could be easier – and maybe less fun also – when you come from a wealthy home in Lagos. You don’t get to interact with Lagos directly when you are still a kid,” she says, but she’s grown up now and offers catering services such as delivery of cakes to the numerous parties hosted in Lagos weekly. So, I wondered if her experience of the city has changed in any way to which she responds, “Yes, in a way, because now you have to interact with the city – live on your own; go to the market; start and run a business and every other thing you do to make you feel some independence. Right now, I’m understanding what being ‘street-smart’ is and learning how to deal with people in the course of my business.”

But, what is business like in Lagos, does it grant entrepreneurial opportunities and success like it’s been widely spoken about? With real confidence in what she says makes Lagos special, she tells me, “The business opportunities here are numerous. The execution is all that matters. Lagos has the population and the population needs to eat; they need clothes; they need shelter; they need to move from one place to the other, and they need to celebrate one thing or the other (laughs), the opportunities are right there for people who want to see it.”

There are always different arms of life on the streets of Lagos. ‘Danfo’ buses contesting the road with trendy cars and hawkers trying to sell their food or wares to the passengers while a beggar is at the window also trying to get some alms from the same passengers. Lagos has shown that it’s possible for every class of people to coexist.

What’s the other story?

In spite of the chaos that seems to mark the city, there’s still a genuine love for the city. Like Jumoke described it, “Lagos is the paradise of hustlers.” Lagos is choosing between a profitable and lucrative chaos and a simple, quiet and tasteless life in other cities in the country. There are business ideas that wouldn’t sell anywhere else but Lagos. There are so many opportunities in the value chain that people are making money from things that are unheard of in some other cities. Things like simply standing at a bus stop and collecting ‘owo ile’ (a land use fee) from commercial buses and bikes without any formal authority or SME’s who run food errands for the busy office workers.

One notable thing no one bothers to mention about Lagos is the weather. The weather can be extremely kind compared to other states in the country. The weather seldom swings to the extreme. Most of the year, the climate is generally warm. The city has a tropical wet and dry climate with only two distinct rainy seasons. The intense season occurs between April and July, while a milder one occurs from October to November. Lagos not only has a warm climate but also has residents who are warm to visitors and foreigners.

The food…oh, the food! There’s so much to the cuisine in Lagos. Food like Fufu, Egusi, Pounded Yam, ‘Amala,’ Pepper Soup, Jollof Rice, and ‘Dodo’ (fried plantain) can be eaten at any ‘bukka’ or ‘food joints’ – the street version of fast foods. ‘Lagosians’ are particularly addicted to rice – white rice and stew; that’s the default morning food in most families.

There’s a young and vibrant entrepreneurial spirit in the city.  The city has one of the largest hub of tech entrepreneurs in Africa – the capital of fashion and arts in West Africa. The fashion in this city is generally western in style with a cultural blend to it.

There are swanky clubs, posh bars, beaches, and other forms of affordable entertainment that await fun seekers who have survived the long traffic hours during the week.

The expanding economy of the city, the infrastructural growth, and continued investment in human capital that is presently taking place will lead to the rapid growth of Lagos in the future. Lagos, to me, is like the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Scroll to Top


Stay informed and ahead of the game with our curated collection of the top 10 stories from Africa each day, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. On Fridays, gear up for the business world as we bring you the 10 most relevant and game-changing business stories. And on Sundays, prepare to be whisked away on a delightful journey through Africa’s vibrant lifestyle and travel scenes.