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Water Has No Enemy

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It is one thing to guess at the danger that is Lagos, quite another to experience it first-hand. Whenever I land at Murtala Muhammed International Airport – I go back once or twice each year – I feel that an actuary calculating my life-insurance premiums would have to temporarily charge me more. What I feel each time I enter the country is not a panic, exactly; it is rather a sense of fragility, of being more susceptible to accidents and incidents, as though some invisible veil of protection had been withdrawn, and fate, with all its hoarded hostility, could strike at any time. When I’m in the US, I argue with those who think Lagos is too dangerous a place to visit. I tell them I grew up there and wandered its streets for seventeen years, and nothing untoward happened to me. I point out that this is a city of 21 million people who wake up, brush their teeth, go to work, deal with hassles, sit in traffic, come home at night to eat dinner with their children and watch soap operas before going to bed and starting it all again the next day. There’s modern infrastructure, there’s entertainment, there’s boredom; it isn’t a battlefield. People in Lagos live normal lives in ordinary circumstances, just as people do in London and San Francisco and Jakarta.

I’m less defensive about Lagos when I’m actually there. After a few days back home, I begin to accumulate irritations and fears, and find that I am not alone in doing this. The city makes everyone tense and grouchy. One night, over beers and suya at a lounge in Ikoyi, my friends trade stories of close calls in the city. Some of them have been robbed, or have faced police brutality, or been forced, as I recently have, to pay a bribe. I commiserate with them, aware that most of them have no choice but to live there. I’m only a visitor, exposed to less of Lagos than they are, and I wonder at their tolerance for these numerous aggravations. How do they deal with it? Someone mentions the joys of family, and shows us pictures of his toddler and infant. Another says that vacations are key. ‘I’m going to Italy soon for shopping and to spend time in a spa. That’s what keeps me sane. I can’t be in Lagos and have no upcoming vacations.’ The others murmur their approval, though it’s clear that not all could afford such a lavish stress-reduction programme. In the stories that are being told, we are all on one side of a contest, and Lagos, our adversary, the place we love to hate, is on the other.

My cousin Doyin and I leave the group around 8 p.m. Ikoyi is on the southern end of the city, not far from Victoria Island and about twenty miles from Ojodu, where my parents live. Fifteen years ago, Ojodu was still a sleepy and mostly forested northern suburb, but such has been the city’s growth that now, not only is it fully enfolded in the city’s life, it has in fact become one of the most congested neighbourhoods in all of Lagos, thick with sawmills, abattoirs, trailer parks and bus depots for the travellers to the north and east of Nigeria. The traffic in Ojodu can be a torment, but this is a Sunday, and the hour is late by Nigerian standards. We expect to be home within forty-five minutes. We clear most of Ikorodu Road, one of the main north–south arteries, easily, but things slow down at Ojota, where there is a major bus stop, and we come to a standstill. The windows of the jeep are rolled up, and we have the air conditioner going and the radio playing. While Doyin drives, I work on a small laptop with a mobile modem plugged into it. A street trader taps on the window on the driver’s side. These boys are sometimes aggressive with their sales pitches, and we ignore this one. But he knocks more urgently and when I look up I see that he’s waving a pistol. My momentary confusion is not dispelled by his pointing at my computer. His face is contorted with rage, and he’s shouting. In the sealed interior of the jeep we can make out his words, ‘I will shoot you! Wind down. I will shoot you!’

Even after I realize that we are being robbed, that bullets can shatter glass, that being locked in is no help in this situation, I still feel a vague resentment at having to hand the laptop over. It’s mine. It contains my work, a week of writing, a month or more of photography, personal information. I have hesitated only a few seconds but feel as though I have just woken from a trance: briefly, I imagined myself with a bullet in my thigh, imagined myself bleeding out in traffic in Ojota. Even after I realize that we are being robbed, that bullets can shatter glass, that being locked in is no help in this situation, I still feel a vague resentment at having to hand the laptop over. It’s mine.We turn the radio off and open the window. The gunman is small, thin-faced. We are surrounded by other cars but he doesn’t stop shouting, as though something in him, and not he himself, were pushing the voice out of his chest. I don’t even have the time to close my Facebook page or unplug the Internet modem. I close the laptop and hand it over to him. ‘Your phones, your phones! Give me your phones!’ Doyin hands his BlackBerry over. I have to dig in my bag for the Nokia handset I use when I’m in Nigeria, my hands shaking the entire time. The man doesn’t stop shouting. I’ve never had a loaded gun pointed at me before. Who is this man? What horrors of deprivation have pushed him to this extreme? His glare is so hard, so callous, that I am certain he doesn’t see us, that he sees only whatever it is he imagines we represent.

In the unreal minutes after he leaves, I have the sensation of having drifted into an allegory of class warfare. We are still sitting at the same spot ten minutes later and we haven’t stopped trembling. There are cars to the left and to the right, ahead and behind, but no one around us seems to have noticed anything. Finally the traffic eases, and we drive on towards Ojodu. I feel side-swiped, tired and violated in some basic existential way. I think again of my imaginary actuary, and how justified she might feel at this moment. Just two minutes’ drive from where we were robbed, we see a group of heavily armed mobile police. Doyin and I look at each other and laugh. To report the crime to them would be a waste of time.

But half a mile from home, while we are still on the highway, the engine of the jeep stalls. Unable to start it again, we have to push it the rest of the way, with the unspoken fear that another gunman might show up. By the time we get to the house, my parents are frantic, demanding to know why we are so late and why we didn’t call. When we tell them what has happened, my mother begins to weep. My other cousins are eager to tell stories of those they know who recently faced similar scenarios and were less lucky than we were: the friend who hesitated and was shot at but not hit, the co-worker who was hit and spent three months in hospital.

The city is a sea that can swallow you at any time, a monster that can lash out without warning, a hell of variables and uncertainties. What the solution should be is not clear. Would it be to refrain from using a laptop in traffic, or to avoid carrying a smartphone, or to have a loaded gun at the ready at all times?

Image by Lemi Ghariokwu

From ‘Water Has No Enemy’ by Teju Cole; the full story can be found in Granta 124: Travel. You can now buy the issue or subscribe and receive four issues a year of the best new writing.

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