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The Lagos beat of Africa gets under your skin 

by Carol Lazar
August 08 2006 
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Lagos Carol Lazar

 I really like Lagos. It is so African that it shouts out to be heard. And boy, it is. Colourful, loud, congested, warm, very warm (weatherwise) and friendly, very friendly. Sure, there's all the other stuff too. We'll get to that just now.

Virgin Atlantic Airlines held its fifth birthday on the South Africa to London route and suitably celebrated the occasion - then a few weeks later, it was Virgin Nigeria's first birthday.


They too celebrated in style. The formal occasion was to be a party in Lagos, Nigeria's capital.

Two out of the three Virgin heavies would be along for the Johannesburg to Lagos flight. Richard Branson, he of the Sirdom and thankfully the least Sir-like person I know, owner, CE and everything else of the many Virgin brands and Mike Higgins, Virgin Nigeria, worldwide director.

'Why the hell would anyone want to go to Nigeria? It's dirty, there's corruption'
Third heavy, Peter Barry, manager of Virgin Atlantic Southern Africa, who'd spent the past weeks organising his end of the celebrations, was at the airport to send us on our way.

Accompanying the trip were Nigerian and local luminaries including Zakari Usman, Nigerian Counsellor for Trade and Investment in South Africa.

Beginning with a birthday party on board a plane is a pleasant way to fly as champagne, birthday cake and good company makes for a happy occasion.

The crew, mainly Nigerian, were superb. It's something I've noticed on all African airlines north of the Limpopo - Kenya Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and now Virgin Nigeria, they are excellent. In a warm, very African way, they make passengers feel as if they're in for a treat on board.

"God, Nigeria," said everyone before I left. "Why the hell would anyone want to go to Nigeria? It's dirty, there's corruption. Who goes to Lagos?"

Lagos is not a holiday destination but it is a fascinating African city...
The more they told me I was mad, the more determined I was to go.

An Austrian aunty of mine had a wonderful expression: "Dufkabinkel". It means "otherwise". "If everyone says the sky is blue, a dufkabinkel will say it's purple." You get the message.

In true dufkabinkel, I'd go.

I must say a word about Branson here - because he is a main man in every sense. He'd been in South Africa launching Virgin Money and Virgin Mobile, doing things in bling Branson style. He has companies galore. They do and don't make money. Nobody's saying, least of all Branson - but one thing's for sure, he does things with panache and a sense of humour. It's an irresistible combination.

He's also disarmingly polite, makes a point of remembering people's names (or he's well briefed) and is interested in what people say. Hype, glitz, bling? That too, but beneath that smile is a first-class brain and it's not even into full gear yet because there's a lot more to come from the Branson stable. Watch this space.

The six-hour daylight flight went quickly. When we landed in Lagos, there was no chill in the air but the good thing about plentiful sweat is that it cools you down. The move through immigration is not the fastest, but we were all pretty relaxed when we were eventually ushered into our air-conditioned bus for the ride to town.

Lagos is bloody enormous. It sprawls all over the show with formal, informal, smart and most unsmart settlements covering every centimetre of land.

If you think the traffic in Johannesburg is slow - you ain't seen nothing, baby. This is a torrent, a tsunami of traffic, an avalanche! Where there should have been four lanes there were sometimes eight or nine. Each time we window-balled another car, bus, lorry, taxi, whatever, the inhabitants smiled and waved. They're cool people, the Nigerians.

Finally, we drove through a suburb where the houses were large with security gates higher than at home. "For privacy," said a local.

The electrical wiring in the streets, like much else in Nigeria, needs attention. Into a gate of the Protea Hotel Kuramo Waters we drove. The hotel overlooks a lake and there were kids fishing just beyond the fence, they grinned, said hello and didn't ask for money. Nice.

The Rough Guide on West Africa describes Lagos as "West Africa's biggest and wildest metropolis, a dense, vibrant and surprisingly friendly city with a lively music scene, street life and markets galore."

On our drive to the hotel, we'd seen all of that. Did you forget your leather jacket, toothbrush, cellphone, silk underwear, kitchen clock - no matter, you could have bought it while waiting in the traffic from the vendors on the roads. They're right there selling EVERYTHING at really affordable prices. Don't be scared to bargain. The people are nice and not pushy at all. Just very entrepreneurial.

Manager Jacques de Jager greeted us and I was introduced to Power Horse, the greatest drink in the world - a Nigerian equivalent of Red Bull but with much more vuma.

Led to my room, an air-conditioned oasis with a huge bed, classy bathroom and fridge, I took a long shower and only learnt how lucky we were later because in Lagos, power cuts and lack of water are the norm. At a lesser establishment, you might find yourself all soaped up only to experience the big dry.

Mike Higgins and Yvonne Skerritt of Virgin Nigeria in Johannesburg had organised the first birthday party by the side of the lagoon.

The dress code was white and the Nigerians looked stunning, many of the guys in traditional white embroidered robes. We whites looked like uncooked fish.

Top Nigerian musicians played themselves to a standstill and make no mistake, a party Lagos style is crazy funky. Then a touch of South Africa took to the stage. The Drum Cafe, an inspired choice, the locals hit the roof.

Next morning, after a lekker breakfast, we set off on an eye-opening tour of the city before checking in to the Protea Oakwood Hotel in the Lagos suburb of Lekki. We gulped down a quick long-iced welcome drink. We then popped into the Victoria Island Protea, a boutique-type hotel in the main business district run by Abre Esterhuizen.

Super hotel, but best of all was the tailor on the premises who Abre assured us could run up made-to-measure shirts or suits or dresses in 24 hours. Then off we shot to one of many, many markets in Lagos.

Imagine the Rosebank Market with a million people, and then you'll get the feel of Nigeria markets.

The goods were traditional and in a small art gallery several members of our party bought African art - not tourist kitsch but the real thing.

On a corner, I chatted to curio seller Sonny Gbogbotigloo. "I hope you are enjoying my country," he said. "I make a living here and things are much better than they were." Then: "You have Nelson Mandela, a good man indeed," he added.

"You must be proud." I could only agree.

I took his picture and promised I'd e-mail it to him. Which I have.

A snapshot background - Lagos has well over 15 million citizens and Nigeria's main export is oil with cocoa, rubber, tin, timber and palm products.

Under the despotic rule of General Sani Abacha until 1999, the country battled with corruption and worse. Today, under the democratically elected head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, things are improving. There's still lots to be done but Nigerians are positive people heading in the right direction.

As a visitor, at no time did I feel unsafe or unwelcome, even when wandering around alone.

The chaos is legendary, many streets unnamed and should you be making any business appointments (and that's the main reason to visit Lagos), give yourself at least an hour to get from one place to another. Or two.

The three major tribes in Nigeria are the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, but there are over 250 other tribes speaking more than 40 dialects. An interesting fact is there are at least 15 newspapers and they really are fun to read - The Guardian, the Daily Times, This Day, Business Day, the list is endless.

In some papers, the articles are nauseatingly sycophantic to the Government. In others, they're critical. Many newspapers have a distinctly literary style. Take for instance the article written by Sunny Awhefeada, a lecturer at the Delta State University.

Awhefeada wrote a piece entitled Farewell, Grandmothers. His grandmothers, both centenarians, died within a week. He wrote movingly of how they had cared for their grandchildren. "Long-suffering, diligent, faithful, loving, bearing children and respectful... My grandmothers lived and they lived well. They made old age look like an ornament.

We were so proud to have them around...they saw three centuries, 19th, 20th and the 21st. Farewell our dear, dear, grandmothers."

It was so beautifully written, that it moved me to tears. But more important, it gave me an excellent historical insight into life in Nigeria.

There are many such articles which is why, to get a feel of Nigeria, I recommend you buy several newspapers and devour them.

For us all, having along Zakari Usman of the Nigerian High Commission was such a plus for he shared his knowledge of the country which made for understanding and that, after all, is what travel is all about. Experiencing other cultures and people.

That day, we lunched at Bottles, a restaurant on a local beach. The beach was long, unspoilt and golden, casuarinas and palm trees lining the sand.

"It's safe to swim here, but not in the lakes," said Mike Higgins and he told us how a senior colleague had mentioned that should he swim in the lakes, "he watch out for the feeshes."

"I'm not scared of feeshes," said Higgins.

"There will be feeshes," insisted his friend.

"So what? I don't mind feeshes," replied the indomitable Scotsman.

"The feeshes is brown and not nice," replied his friend with determination.

And then the naira (the Nigerian unit of currency) dropped. "Ah, I must watch the faeces," said Higgins.

"Yes, the feeshes," said his mate.

Our lunch, cooked by Chris Geldard, the executive chef of the Oakward, was scrumptious and we gobbled lobster, shrimp and crayfish and local line fish, chops, steak and salads and traditional Nigerian dishes too, including yam and cassava.

Then we strolled onto the beach. Now Yvonne Skerritt is an equestrian of note.

In her youth, she rode with Camilla and Mark Philips. (Yes, that Camilla, Charles' Camilla).

Very modest about her riding, her eyes lit up at the sight of the most dejected horse imaginable walking along the beach.

His owner was hawking rides and Yvonne could not be stopped. She patted and spoke to the horse, who visibly perked up in front of us.

Then she mounted him and was gone, the owner frantically attempting to chase her. "Don't worry," we explained. "She knows how to ride."

It was a wonderful sight to see, a blonde lass on a horse riding along the deserted beach, as free as the breeze. That evening, we dined at the Oakwood, another memorable meal which I particularly enjoyed as the décor of the diningroom is a large African library. How could one not love a meal surrounded by literary gems?

On our final day, we had to be at the airport in the late afternoon, so we visited the market then lunched at a most excellent Chinese restaurant, Saipan, owned and managed by Irishman Paul Hogan. The food was Nigerian Chinese - and worth travelling to Lagos for.

The journey to the airport was the most unique ride I have ever had. From the hotel to the airport should, without traffic have taken a half an hour.

There is, however, always traffic and so it instead, takes from two to five hours. I do not exaggerate.

However, on-the-ball Yvonne Skerret had ordered the services of a security company to get us to the airport in the minimum time. I stress, this was not for security, but to ease us through the traffic speedily.

Two large vehicles arrived, in each, four armed guards. Off we screamed, sirens blaring, and the guards hanging from their vehicles brandishing guns, not to shoot, but to bang their way through the several lanes of traffic on a two-lane road.

From side to side we veered. It made a normal car-chase scene on TV look tame.

And? We made the airport in under two hours.

Listen, Lagos is not a holiday destination but it is a fascinating African city, larger, noisier and more frenetic than you can imagine.

There is awful poverty, much in-your-face wealth (not unlike here, in fact) and it must be a challenge doing business in this environment. But, at least you know you're really alive in the most African way.

One day, I'll return to see the countryside which Bob Thiescher, Protea's regional manager in Nigeria, tells me is beautiful and serene in parts. Though, serene is not a word I'd use to describe Nigeria.

They say the beat of Africa gets under your skin. In Nigeria, it certainly does.

This article was originally published on page 2 of The Star on August 05, 2006



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