Cities are like siblings in a large polygamous family. Each one has a unique personality and is headed in a distinct direction. But they all have somewhat shared origins. Sometimes I think postcolonial cities are like the children of the two least-favorite wives, who are constantly being asked, "Ah, why can't you be more like your sister?"
The "why" of cities is largely the same, no matter where they are: an advantageous location that makes trade and administration possible; the potential for scalable opportunities for the skilled and unskilled alike; a popular willingness to be in constant flux and, of course, resilience. The "how" of cities, however, is a whole other story. How are they run? How do they grow? How do they decide who belongs and who doesn't?
Lagos is my home. You can always find the Nigerians by following the noise and the dancing, right?
Like any major city, that place is a lot of things, many of which are highly contradictory. Our public transportation doesn't quite work, so we have these privately owned bright yellow buses that regularly cause accidents. Luxury car showrooms line badly maintained and often flooded roads. Street evangelism is only slightly less ubiquitous than street harassment. Sex workers sometimes have two degrees, a bank job and a prominent role in church.
On any given day, there can be either a party or a burned body in the middle of a street.
There is so much that is possible in Lagos and so much that isn't, and very often the difference between possibility and impossibility is simply who you are, and if you're lucky enough, who you're connected to. Belonging in Lagos is a fluid concept determined by ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, but most visibly and often most violently, class.
Before Nigeria became a country, fisherpeople from the inland creeks started to come down the Lagos lagoon and establish villages along the coast. About 60 years later, my grandfather, Oludotun Adekunle Kukoyi, also arrived in Lagos. Like me, he was an alumnus of the University of Ibadan, a young member of the educated elite in the independence era. Over time, he built an illustrious career as a land surveyor, mapping out now-bustling neighborhoods when they were just waist-high wild grass. He died when I was nine. And by that time, my family, like the families of those fisherpeople, knew Lagos as home.
Among the Yoruba, we have a saying, "Èkó gb’olè, ó gb’ọ̀lẹ," which can be translated to mean that Lagos will welcome anyone. But that saying is becoming less and less true. Many Lagosians, including the descendants of those fisherpeople who arrived generations before my grandfather, are now being pushed out to make room for an emergent city that has been described as "the new Dubai." You see, Lagos inspires big dreams, even in its leaders, and successive governments have declared aspirations towards a megacity where poverty does not exist. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the eradication of poverty as you would expect, the strategy of choice focuses on eliminating the poor.
Last October, the Governor announced plans to demolish every single waterfront settlement in Lagos. There are more than 40 of these indigenous communities all over the city, with over 300,000 people living in them. Otodo Gbame, a hundred-year-old fishing village with a population about three-quarters that of Monaco and similar potential for beachfront luxury —
was one of the first to be targeted.
I first heard of Otodo Gbame after the demolition started. When I visited in November 2016, I met Magdalene Aiyefoju. She is a now-homeless woman whose surname means, "the world is blind." Magdalene's son Basil was one of over 20 people who were shot, drowned or presumed dead in that land grab. Standing outside her shelter, I saw the two white-sand football fields where Basil used to play. Spread all around us were the ruins of schools, churches, a primary health center, shops, thousands of homes. Young children enthusiastically helped to put up shelters, and about 5,000 of the residents, with nowhere else to go, simply stayed put. And then in April, state security personnel came back. This time, they cleared the community out completely, with beatings, bullets and fire. As I speak, there are construction crews preparing Otodo Gbame's beaches for anyone who can afford a multi-million-dollar view. The new development is called "Periwinkle Estate."
Forced evictions are incredibly violent and, of course, unconstitutional. And yet, they happen so often in so many of our cities, because the first thing we are taught to forget about poor people is that they are people. We believe that a home is a thing a person absolutely has a right to, unless the person is poor and the home is built a certain way in a certain neighborhood. But there is no single definition of the word "home." After all, what is a slum besides an organic response to acute housing deficits and income inequality? And what is a shanty if not a person making a home for themselves against all odds? Slums are an imperfect housing solution, but they are also prime examples of the innovation, adaptability and resilience at the foundation — and the heart — of every functional city. You don't need to be the new Dubai when you're already Lagos.
We have our own identity, our own rhythm, and as anyone who knows Lagos can tell you, poor Lagosians are very often the source of the city's character. Without its poor, Lagos would not be known for its music or its endless energy or even the fact that you can buy an ice cold drink or a puppy through your car window.
The conditions that cause us to define certain neighborhoods as slums can be effectively improved, but not without recognizing the humanity and the agency of the people living in them. In Lagos, where public goods are rarely publicly available, slum dwellers are often at the forefront of innovating solutions. After being disconnected from the grid for months because the power company couldn't figure out how to collect bills, one settlement designed a system that collectivized remittances and got everyone cheaper rates into the bargain. Another settlement created a reform program that hires local bad boys as security. They know every trick and every hideout, so now troublemakers are more likely to get caught and reported to police and fewer of the youth end up engaging in criminal activity. Yet another settlement recently completed a flood-safe, eco-friendly communal toilet system. Models like these are being adopted across Lagos.
Informal settlements are incorrectly named as the problem. In fact, the real problems are the factors that create them, like the entrenchment of poverty, social exclusion and state failures. When our governments frame slums as threats in order to justify violent land grabs or forced evictions, they're counting on those of us who live in formal housing to tacitly and ignorantly agree with them. Rather, we must remind them that governments exist to serve not only those who build and live in luxury homes, but also those who clean and guard them. Our —
our realities may differ, but our rights don't.
The Lagos state government, like far too many on our continent, pays lip service to ideas of inclusion, while acting as though progress can only be achieved by the erasure, exploitation and even elimination of groups it considers expendable. People living with disabilities who hawk or beg on Lagos streets are rounded up, extorted and detained. Women in low-income neighborhoods are picked up and charged with prostitution, regardless of what they actually do for a living. Gay citizens are scapegoated to distract from real political problems. But people, like cities, are resilient, and no amount of legislation or intimidation or violence can fully eliminate any of us. Prostitutes, women and women who work as prostitutes still haven't gone extinct, despite centuries of active suppression. Queer Africans continue to exist, even though queerness is now criminalized in most parts of the continent. And I'm fairly certain that poor people don't generally tend to just disappear because they've been stripped of everything they have.
We are all already here, and that answers the question of whether or not we belong.
When those fisherpeople started to sail down the lagoon in search of new homes, it could not have occurred to them that the city that would rise up around them would one day insist that they do not belong in it. I like to believe that my grandfather, in mapping new frontiers for Lagos, was trying to open it up to make room for other people to be welcomed by the city in the same way that he was. On my way here, my grandma called me to remind me how proud she was, how proud [my grandfather] and my mother would have been. I am their dreams come true. But there is no reason why their dreams — or mine, for that matter — are allowed to come true while those of others are turned to nightmares. And lest we forget: the minimum requirement for a dream is a safe place to lay your head.
It is too late now for Basil, but not for Magdalene, not for the hundreds of thousands, the millions still under threat in Lagos or any of our cities. The world does not have to remain blind to the suffering that is created when we deny people's humanity, or even to the incredible potential for growth that exists when we recognize and value all contributions.
We must hold our governments and ourselves accountable for keeping our shared cities safe for everyone in them, because the only cities worth building — indeed, the only futures worth dreaming of — are those that include all of us, no matter who we are or how we make homes for ourselves.