Last Monday, Sarah and I flew 17 hours to Nigeria so Sarah could speak for 45 minutes on stage at a megachurch, about entrepreneurship. The next day we flew 19 hours all the way back again (thanks, jet stream!) whereupon we realized that somehow it was already the weekend.
Still even spending less than two days in Lagos was an education, not least because it was my first ever trip to Africa. Here are just some of the highlights…
- Landing at Lagos, exhausted and discombobulated we were almost immediately shaken down for not having proof of immunization against yellow fever. Never mind that European and American passport holders are exempt from the vaccination requirement, the immigrations officer made clear we weren’t going anywhere until we paid her to “solve the problem.”
- Fortunately, the problem was quickly solved without any money changing hands when our official security escort – accompanied by members of Nigeria’s state security agency – appeared and whisked us through immigrations with nary a glance at our passports, to a waiting SUV.
- That, by the way, was my first experience of Nigeria’s dual economy – the way that “rich” Americans (or an American and a Brit) are treated fundamentally differently than regular Nigerians. We benefitted from this same VIP treatment throughout our trip, even down to the lights-and-sirens police escort we enjoyed from the airport to our hotel and back.
- As a Brit, any type of queue jumping is excruciatingly embarrassing. Being whisked through customs into a motorcade is a special kind of hell, which I tried to offset by apologizing to literally everyone we were whisked past.
- Everyone (Sarah included) had warned me to expect to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of Nigerians – lots of shouting, lots of getting in your face – which, to the uninitiated, can seem extremely threatening. In fact, everyone I encountered was tranquility incarnate. Although in fairness that night be because we spent the bulk of our time in churches and art galleries, or inside motorcades.
- We bought a painting!
- The event at which Sarah spoke – the Platform – is a twice-annual conference about entrepreneurship, hosted by the Covenant Christian Center. The idea being, I suppose, that God wants you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get rich. Which is not to be confused with the American notion of the prosperity gospel, in which sinners are told that all they need to do is pray (and tithe) and god will magically reward them with fancy cars and flashy clothes. By contrast, The Platform offered an incredibly diverse (and secular) roster of speakers: The speaker before Sarah was newspaper editor Segun Adeniyi who gave an impassioned presentation on how/why Nigeria needs to ween itself from the oil industry. The speaker afterwards was Dr Anil Gupta who offered what one attendee described as a 45 minute MBA. Not a single huckster, snake oil salesman or tech douche to be found and a near equal female/male speaker ratio. American conferences could learn a lot.
- Having said that about fancy cars and flashy clothes, actually God did send me some flashy clothes. Specifically, at dinner after the conference, I happened to mention to the wife of our host that I hoped to go shopping for one of the amazing brightly colored shirts I had seen people wearing around the city. Ah, she explained, you can’t really buy those off the rack – they tend to be custom made by local shirtmakers and tailors. The next day, an immaculately dressed man appeared at our hotel, introducing himself as one of the Covenant Pastor’s flock and explaining he had been sent to measure me for a shirt. He offered a fat book of fabric swatches and took about two dozen different measurements. Then he was gone. Less than twelve hours later, as we waited for our motorcade to the airport, the same man reappeared to deliver my new shirt. Which, it goes without saying, fit dazzlingly. In Nigeria, God works in mysterious ways, with an impressively fast turnaround time.
- I ate my own bodyweight in chicken and rice.
- The police escort did prove useful on the return drive – which, it turned out, coincided with the country’s labour day holiday. We had been warned that the roads would be gridlocked, but this wasn’t American gridlock, this was a special kind of African gridlock. Not an inch of movement for hours, in any direction. Unless of course you have a convoy of police cars clearing the way for you, making you feel like an obnoxious, privileged, neo-colonial asshole.
- An obnoxious, privileged, neo-colonial asshole who didn’t miss his flight!
- It was only at the airport as we prepared to fly home that I finally encountered one of the angry, shouting people I had been told to expect in Lagos. He was yelling at a poor woman over some trivial ticket misunderstanding, bringing her close to tears.
- The angry, shouting man was the gate agent for Delta.