1.5 Years in Nigeria - Looking Back (& Forward)
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
It is December 25th – Christmas Day. I am touching my lips with my tongue. They feel dry from the rough Hamathan winds. Around this time of the year, Lagos surprises with dry heat instead of the usual tropical climate. The Saharan Hamathan winds are blowing down from the North, carrying the sands of the Saharan desert down to African’s coastal business hub Lagos. It is my second Christmas, in which Covid makes me stay grounded on African soil. It is my second Christmas I spend working – Nigeria is the grind and the hustle, and the hustle and the grind are Nigeria. While we are driving over Third Mainland Bridge – an iconic landmark that is connecting the Lagos Mainland with the Lagos Island areas – I am gazing out the window letting my thoughts roam freely. We are passing the neighbourhood Makokko, a slum built into the Lagos Lagoon much like a Third World version of Venice. The sun is setting over Makokko, its rays being absorbed by the dusty air. For a second it feels like I am in an Arabic country, just in a more messed up sense. I am yanked of my thoughts by sudden jink, followed by an aggressive symphony of honks. My driver giving the other driver ‘the stare’ while shouting in Yoruba, the local language. Oh yeah, this is Lagos – time to look back.
One and a half years in the Shark Tank. I survived, kept afloat. Finished Freshman year, and before realizing what I have signed up for (or was it selling my soul?), I have been sliding into Sophomore Semester. Leaving the Fresh Fish existence behind me I am graduating towards the ranks of Matured Fish.
Did I grow some shark teeth in the meantime? Probably, I adapted more the defence mechanism of a blowfish: Lowkey mimicry in form of Pidgin English against potential harassment threats and as a last resort the puffer blow: Voice volume increased by 200%, gestures pumped up to triple intensity and audacity levels doubled down - Full assimilation mode. Because nothing happens in Nigeria if you ask nicely. You need to leave your niceness behind, push back, stand your ground, complain – sometimes even threaten - and always portray a position of power.
Nigeria is the land of extremes, raw and unfiltered. Nigeria is by far the most challenging environment I ever experienced. It literally shouts HARDSHIP straight into your face – day in, day out! Nigeria shows no mercy. If Nigeria would be a personality disorder it would be crowned as the queen of Bipolarism. Living in Nigeria is living on the edge. For most Nigerians, every day, every hour, every minute is a fight to advance just a little bit further than the sheer mass of fellow Nigerians – A fierce competition among 210 million soles rising to half a billion by mid of the 21st century. Nigeria – especially Lagos – has been set up in its own time zone. Everyone is hustling. Everyone is trying to survive. Everyone is longing for the breakthrough – popping bottles, getting clout and patrolling those Victory Island streets in the sugary-shiny G Wagon. It is all about capitalizing on the short-lived competitive edge wherever it might pop up.
Lagos is unbelievable fast, faster than any other city I have lived in… It feels like black hole that sucks you in right in. Before you even know what you have gotten yourself into, the black hole does its thing: Universal rules and common sense appear to be pulled apart. Chaos emerges. And unfortunately, one thing separates Lagos from a black hole: Instead of aging slower, you are actually aging faster. Brace yourself for wrinkles and a fading hair line!
Lagos is like a gigantic living organism with a gigantic heart pumping blood with extreme pressure through its hundred thousand of street-like blood vessels trying to compensate for its hopelessly overstretched lungs not providing sufficient oxygen for all the cells to survive. You feel this underlying tension, the ubiquitous distrust and subliminal danger in every breath you take, every move you make and every step you take.
Mother earth certainly houses more challenging environments than Nigeria – I am referring to presently war-torn nations such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, or Iraq. Nevertheless, among the nations in peace (at least to a great extend) I am yet to come across a more challenging environment than the giant of West Africa. Nigeria is raw and rough – in all its aspects and facets.
There are the obvious threats, that fear mongers capitalize on: Kidnappings, mob justice and terror attacks, among others. Those are much less frequent as you might assume. And there are the subtle agonies. These are much more frequent than you think – they become part of your everyday experience. Every somewhat mundane activity becomes an adventure at best, a struggle as default and every so often a fight that requires your full attention and energy.
As a foreigner living in Nigeria, your emotions follow the polarization of your environment. Nigeria makes you feel incredibly alive ready to change the world just to push you into abyss one second after. Nigeria is a different level of ‘why?’. Nigeria requires an unshakeable sense of self, otherwise your body and mind get mushed into pieces. My personal guiding star are the goals I set myself and follow with obsession-like precision, my lane assistant is straight edge (minus the punk thing) and my restart-button is a good portion of sleep. A new day a new chance to hit the jackpot – this is Nigeria!
It always comes differently than originally planned. I have stopped counting how many times I have asked myself ‘why?’ in total disbelief. The presumed randomness of people’s behavior, the unpredictability of Lagosian dynamics and fate’s everyday confusions remain a puzzling mystery. Nigeria is a country that – by the school teachings of natural law and economics – is not meant to endure. Surprisingly – or should I rather say miraculously – Nigeria does function in its own way and although seemingly close to total collapse, a step away from becoming a failed state, the engine keeps running and running… and running. Nigeria seems to follow its own rules and laws. And exactly this mystic randomness constitutes the magic of Nigeria. And when you find yourself with a spinning head once again asking yourself ‘why?’, remember two things: 1. Because Nigeria. And then stop thinking. and 2. Things are never as bad as they seem.
A red threat that is accompanying me throughout my life in Nigeria is the struggle with poor quality. Nearly all locally produced goods or offered services come in far inferior quality to anything I have ever seen before. The level of quality consciousness and understanding is disturbingly low. You might look items or services provided and ask yourself ‘What in God’s name is THIS?’ while they look at you from the other side and claim ‘It is all fine. Look!’ But at least you pay a small fortune for it. A great example is housing. You can lay down multiple millions of dollars for exclusive units in Ikoyi or Victoria Island and still you must accept poor finishing: The cracked door that does not close properly, the terribly scratched surface of the brand-new designer fridge or the tilted artwork on the walls. Rental units are no exception. In the best part of town with (at least theoretical) 24/7 electricity backup and water units start at about 3,000 USD per month. And the sky is the limit. Lagos has not been crowned the most expensive city for expats for nothing. You betta got pleeenty oo.
In Nigeria macro beats micro, every single time. What I mean by that is the eminent obsession with size, superficiality, and noise. Although Nigeria is a noisy place, I am not referring to it in its original sense. The collective attention magically seems to be drawn to everything big, tacky, and flashy. The love for details, the affection to nurture little things and see them grow has effectively left the conversation. Lagos is the epicentre of the African pop culture and entertainment industry: An overload of show - see and be seen. You can witness this in call aspects of life: The big car, the big house, the big jewellery, the big butt, the butterfly-like fake lashes and the claw-like fingernails. Spraying money as a cultural statement of affluence, well-being, and well-wishing. Life is not about experiences but ensuring that the world witnesses your exorbitant experiences. Shout it from the bottom of your lungs into the world: I MADE IT!
Recently I had a conversation with a Danish, claiming ‘Nigerians are guilty of the seven deadly sins: Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.’ While this statement contains too much stereotyping for my own taste, I cannot deny that I do feel the unshakable core of truth in it. Lagos is the living example that money cannot buy class. Sparkling bottle service of Hennessy X.O and Jonnie Walker Black Label diluted with Coca-Cola. Louis Vuitton socks paired with Gucci slippers – the bigger the brand logo the better, G-Wagon owners stopping in the middle of the road to talk a chat because they feel like it… and because they drive the BENZ! Lifestyle elevation is seldomly paired with education, manners, humility, open mindedness, or a sense of social responsibility.
I often dive into my thoughts trying to find the explanation for this societal structure. The subject is part of many dinner discussions with fellow expats and open-minded Nigerians. While many historical, economic, and cultural aspects play a role in this I boiled it down to three major reasons:
Reason 1: When you grow up with six siblings in an environment where you cannot be assured that you will have food on the table in the evening, you adapt an intuition to survive. Cautious or well-mannered characters simply do not make it. Survival of the fittest. You must get hold of what can sustain you in the here and now. Enjoy what you have and do not waste energy on thinking about tomorrow or the long-term consequences of your actions.
Reason 2: Money equals status, prestige, and recognition. Public support systems are underdeveloped in Nigeria. Therefor social security is organized differently. Wealthy members of society – may it be on family, village, or country level – are expected to provide support funds for those less fortunate. The provision of these services grands extended power, respect, and influence. Being an Odogwu (Igbo for a man able to achieve big things) you can basically do whatever you want and get away anything – if the bills keep spraying. You become a demigod. Material wealth signals that the spirits are in your favor – you are blessed as the Nigerians say. Superstition is a strong force in Africa and Nigeria is no exception. Spiritual believes are the default fallback option to explain situations, dynamics, and contexts.
Reason 3: Material wealth and its flamboyant showcase signals hope. Hope that even coming from one of the toughest and poorest countries in the world, you can elevate your environment and your lifestyle. With sufficient hustle and grind you can reinvent your identity. It is the hope for freedom. For some Europeans growing up in relatively affluence, freedom might be manifest in backpacking the world in a minimalistic manner questioning Western societal structures as dropouts. From my perspective, for many Nigerians it is about thriving in the highly corrupt system and in the end gain ultimate freedom – or at least an illusion of it. Because one thing is clear: As a Nigerian, if you are rich, the things that you can get away with do not even come to your mind in your wildest dreams. Just reminder the basic two rules in Nigeria: 1. Everything and nothing is possible in Nigeria. 2. Everything has a price.
Looking back, I never regretted coming to Nigeria. The experience I gain living and working in this territory are priceless. There is an unwritten rule that work experience in Management Consulting counts double. I contend the same for Nigeria – although it might not be as universally recognized as the former one. What Wharton, Harvard, Sloan are in the sphere of Academic MBAs, Nigeria is in their real-life counterparts. If you ask me, the only person that wants to deal with MBAs for the rest of their lives are lecturers. The same applies to Nigeria: If you do not merge into the culture and society, e.g., through marriage, chances are high that no incentive whatsoever can keep you for too long.
I see this stoic sense of urgency as a good motivation to be effective and leave my positive impact without any delay. I have a mission to fulfil, and I will do it as good and fast as I can.