In Public In Nigeria, Burning is Starting to Feel Like Normal
Fortunately, the recession did not affect the prices of alcohol in the way that the price of shaving cream and school fees had nearly tripled.
Nigeria welcomes you with fury. Its embrace is a hot liquid discomfort that attacks the second you enter its loud borders. The sun is constantly angry. The air is a hive of dust and contamination designed to upset one’s skin. The noise is its own customized assault too—buy this buy that, move out of the way, horns crying out. While many have accepted this agitated, cacophonous reality, they have also refused to let it prevent their pursuit of enjoyment.
Enjoyment, to Nigerians, is breathing. Excess is favored over minimalism. A pot belly is regarded as a sign of good living. It is hard and easy to see why we are so devoted to the art of enjoying in my country. We were raised in a special hell of poor governance and terrible infrastructure. But, it seems over the past few years, things have escalated from worse to truly terrible. In true fashion, so has our appetite for joy.
I noticed it when I walked out the doors of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja, after almost a year away in the pearl of Africa, Uganda. There, I had lived seven hours from the capital in a remote eastern village surrounded by mountains, in a cooler climate. Now I was coming back to my family, to spend time recuperating from the isolation and reconnecting with all my loved ones.
Abuja is right in the middle of Nigeria. Meteorologists have described the weather as tropical, of the dry grassland savannah. For the lay Nigerian, we experience this as more dry heat than rain. Years ago, my family had moved to Abuja from Lagos; I had chosen to stay in Lagos, save for my time spent outside Nigeria. My most lasting experience with Abuja had been the five months I spent working for a nonprofit in 2017. Back then, the weather was fairly temperate; the electricity was almost regular and whatever traffic existed didn’t severely diminish our lives. In many ways, it was an opposite to the frenzy and difficulty of Lagos, where I’ve spent most of my life and worked after school. I expected the same of Abuja on my return.
Yet what welcomed me was ferocity. The heat slapped against my skin and, in my imagination, I felt myself get darker from the assault. Only a few days ago, I was wearing a sweater for most of the day. Now, I was here, learning for the first time that a breeze could be hot. The only respite I found happened as my car sped on the express and the rushing air shifted from hot to tolerable.
In the continuing days, I noticed the electricity supply had taken a descent. Twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hour stretches without power. On a particularly terrible five-day run, my father had to stomp to the power company and insist till he was assigned power technicians (whom he drove back home) to turn our light back on after a rain-damaged electrical line had been repaired (they decided to give people power back in snatches, apparently). Once, in Kampala, over the long December break, a heavy rain affected the electricity for twelve hours. I watched amused as my housemates called and tweeted at the power supply company, Umeme. Lengthy half-day cuts were reserved for more remote areas like mine.
Abuja had also experienced first-time tremors—before my return—and we statistically now had more poor people in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. If there was any doubt that things had worsened in the country, Abuja’s deterioration was concrete proof. As the country’s power city, the home to many of the political office holders, its challenges had always seemed lesser than those anywhere else. The roads were wide and well-constructed, electricity supply was always good, and it had displayed a sense of urban planning uncommon to the other parts of the country where environments sprung up almost reflexively.
Upon returning, I felt all the stillness leave my body, the way urine would slide down the leg of a scared child. The first hints of frustration were already apparent. I came home to rest; now the nature of things demanded the opposite. Standing still was burning me. I had to keep moving, or risk being hit all at once with all the challenges that living in Nigeria presented.
I jumped into inebriation quickly. It was a nod to my earlier manic days, years ago when I had returned to Lagos from my first long term absence from the country, traipsing across Europe. On arriving, I dived straight into forgetting through enjoyment, so that I would not have to deal with all the hardships I had barely noticed before, what I’d started to see everywhere. Now that I landed in Abuja and not Lagos, it did not matter. I resumed the commitment to enjoyment like a pro. Fortunately, the recession did not affect the prices of alcohol in the way that the price of shaving cream and school fees had nearly tripled.
Even the bars had stepped up to the heat. Now, many places had begun to provide outdoor fans because it had gotten too hot to sit still and drink to cool off. I alternated between late afternoon intoxication and the cold comfort of empty cinema rooms at midday. Somehow, it still didn’t stop me from tossing at night, after the generator had gone off. Sweat and the sound of our neighbor’s persistent generator saw to that.
After some time adjusting to a diminished quality of life, I took a visit to Lagos, the place Toni Kan described as the carnivorous city. Lagos has never been an easy place, but in the way that Abuja had sunk in quality, Lagos had catapulted into a portrait of suffering in stark relief. It showed in my soaked back and armpits every time I walked for more than ten minutes. It sang its pain in the buses groaning under the weight of traffic in the heat. It hit when my friend in the serviced apartment in Ikoyi said they were rationing electricity now. Throughout the weekend, there would be power. But on weekdays, they couldn’t afford to keep it up.
Standing still was burning me. I had to keep moving, or risk being hit all at once with all the challenges that living in Nigeria presented.
I sought distraction sharp sharp. Being in Lagos, I had more options for entertainment than Abuja. My friend was celebrating her birthday with a long night out that would begin at one of the Island’s nicest restaurant-bars and end at a private event, whose highlight would be the strippers flown in from Dubai and Atlanta. I arrived at the first venue, noticing the suspended fans, because even at 10 p.m., the outdoors were stifling. The bathrooms were also air-conditioned and I noticed that many women had barely or no makeup on. Whoever could invent a primer for the Nigerian weather would make a fortune.
Whiskeys and Cokes, cigarettes and cake, went down quickly. We were an anti-stasis of movement and smoke, in constant motion. Whether it was to run to the bathroom to pee and make space for more liquor, to dance to the DJ’s mix, or gesticulate wildly about how long it had been since we last saw, nobody was still. Everything about the city had stayed the same, except the suffering had been dialed up, so the coping had to follow suit.
The next spot was a bistro with interesting architecture, favored by the more creatively-inclined Lagos elite. I waded through bodies pressed together, leaning on bars, or seated on the banisters as close to the sky as the building permitted. Everybody was drinking and the hum of the voices made a nice accompaniment to the buzz. Still, there was a lot of sweating and motion.
I spotted acquaintances in the corner. One of them was hitting a drum with the kind of vigor either passion or frustration could only produce. I suspected it was both. I knew for a fact he had a British passport and the option to escape, if he chose. Only a great level of passion would keep someone with options in a country like this. Frustration too, because that was the default setting of anyone who existed in the city. I shot a small video that I later sent to him. In it, his shirt was open a few buttons, he was sweating, and around him were drunk and frenzied dancers equally sweating.
A girl sidled up to me, refusing to leave until she had poured gin down my throat. I opened reluctantly at first—eventually, happily—quick to be lured into doing things I thought I had shed off during my time away. A pull to old comforts, a reminder that the peace I always found outside the country was gone for the foreseeable future. A rash reach for anything to shake the panic of being stuck in a home that was killing us all.
At the bistro, I found myself making plans for getaways, parties, meetings, hangouts. I said yes to everything because I remembered what my hosts’ house felt like every time the power went off. How I had to strip and take showers every hour, lie naked on the bed and pray for air to hit me with force.
In all the places I have been, never have I encountered a group of people so devoted to the art of enjoying themselves the way my country’s people do. To see it up close that night, in the sheen of skins and the way the herds migrated from club to event to party to another, as the country disintegrated around us. To feel the heat reminding us of our declining lives, a metaphor inside your skin. Things got worse, the country got hotter. We were experiencing record poverty in tandem with record heat waves. Yet, the party continued. We lived in Nigeria, after all. What else was there to do?
I struck a conversation with a young man who worked in private equity. He had a scar above his ear, which he was tired of being asked about. He told me he got it defending his friend in a bar fight here in Lagos. Then he went back to drinking.
There were many points of reunion for me in this city. The whole night, I was hugged, kissed, happy to be seen. But something felt different. Maybe all my time jumping in and out of the country for extended periods was starting to take effect. I felt simultaneously part of and outside this circle of people.
It was a rush, feeling the gin turn me airy and smiling. But I also felt loathe to spend too much time in contact with this world. As if becoming a full part of this leisure would be entering a con, which would sell me the belief that everything was okay because there was always the offer of a party around the corner to dim my misery. Nigeria can be delicious nostalgia that way. Despite the hordes rushing to leave the country, there is a smaller, but persistent demographic constantly lured into returning home because, as my people say, “the way you can blow here, you cannot do it anywhere else.” No country bends to the whims of the privileged as much as Nigeria does, and while you work and wait for that mega-success, groove is always around the scalding corner.
Our next stop was the party with the strippers. Getting in was an exercise in drama when the security would not let the birthday girl in until the manager was summoned. My beautiful friend stared the guards down before stomping in and addressing the manager as to what sort of behavior this was. Why did he not leave the names on the list? What did he think this club was, this fucking dead place that needed foreign strippers to bring itself back to life?
I was mostly just happy to have comfortable seating with solid air conditioning. Because, here in this space with the stage, with the poles and the neon lights cutting strips across walls and people, the air conditioning was the first comfort I felt the entire night. It was so cold, I had to sit out of the range of the blast. The party filled up quickly. There were skinny and long-haired dancers from Dubai, local vixens from Nigeria, and the finale of thick brown strippers from Atlanta.
We were experiencing record poverty in tandem with record heat waves. Yet, the party continued. We lived in Nigeria, after all. What else was there to do?
Sometime past 2 a.m., everybody was on a champagne buzz. A prominent real estate developer had ordered more drinks than the dictates of common sense, a fairly standard pattern of behavior in Nigerian nightlife. Waiters scurried filling all the glasses in sight, handing champagne buckets to tables. Us girls ran to the stage corner, where people were throwing two hundred to one thousand naira notes at the strippers. We began to chant and hail the girls anytime one of them moved to our corner. We may not have owned excess champagne money, but we had small notes to stick into thongs and slangs of affirmation.
I have partied in countries that don’t feel like punishment, countries with more accountable governments, countries where citizens and residents don’t need certain elite privileges to enjoy simple human pleasures. In those countries, this sort of revelry in constant doses doesn’t come naturally. Often, drugs are involved. Nigeria is the only place I have met people who didn’t need to be intoxicated into having fun.
The very fabric of our character sought it out because everything else was a penance. In my time away, I could count how many times I sought out the nightlife, that wasn’t related to a calendar festivity or holiday. My time was spent hiking or napping in my hammock with my pet. When I did seek others, it was at indoor dinners, or lazy Sunday afternoons swimming, boat cruises on the Nile or enjoying delicious meals at the backpacker’s camp while the pets wandered in and out of the guests’ palms. I didn’t have the burden of needing to party away the structural challenges that breathed fire on my skin and my life.
I went back to sit and sip, and noticed the private equity guy lost in a haze of strippers and notes. His friend came and pulled him away to stop him spending too much. I tried to reconcile how my time in a small village with cows, goats, and chickens as neighbors, on a meager NGO volunteer salary, gave me more safety and peace than all the privileges manifesting before me in this storybook night.
For my friends, and in a life I once lived, these nights became regular enough to lose any specialness. But after a year and a half away from the center of action, I thought about Fela’s iconic description of Nigerians as suffering and smiling. I also wondered whether I was being conned as much as understanding that I would have to find a means to cope, adapt or risk burning. Had I skipped this night out, I would risk going home unsure of whether there was power or not, passing up on a guaranteed wild night out that would tire me enough to sleep through the next morning.
The night did not end for me at the club, but it wound down from there. I would get in an acquaintance’s car and spend the next twelve hours in bed with them, before going home to shower and leaving the doors wide open to let the air in until the power returned.
But before all that, I was champagne nice, legs crossed, taking in air conditioning and cheering on big-bootied dancers. If fun was a measure of suffering, then by God, Nigerians are gold medalists, thrice over.