Many things have been written about Lagos, and the things that happen here. You may have read that it’s the only city worthy of the title “city” in Nigeria, and you may have read that it’s the only state in Nigeria that can borrow cheaper than the Nigerian Government can. I could go on about all of the things it’s famous for: the go slow, the corruption, the lagoon, the vibe. But none of those things is as striking as its smell.
Lagos doesn’t have one overwhelming smell it has several. Chief among these is the odour that forms when personal hygiene is neglected. When 21 million people refuse to dab a little something something in their pits, there’s going to be a stench! Most of the time, you’ll be able to escape the clutches of the human generated miasma of funkiness, but when you’re in an enclosed area like the Murutala Mohammed airport, you’re in trouble. Coincidentally, as this is the most frequently used point of entry in Lagos, it’s the best introduction you’re going to get to the fetidness of Lagos. The best baptisms are by fire, but in the world of smells this one is the next best thing. It’s 40 degree heat, and an equivalent amount of sweat with no end in sight.
After that it’s open season on your nose. The body odour problem never goes, no matter where you go, and it isn’t a problem of class or wealth or poverty. It’s universal: Rich, poor, beautiful, plain. One day you’ll be dancing in an apparently up market club, and some song will demand that its listeners throw up their hands. If that ever happens, duck. Fall face flat. We’ll all understand.
As you’ve probably heard, power’s a problem in these parts. It isn’t as bad as you think. They say that Nigeria generates 5,500 megawatts of electricity, but that’s just not true. Supposedly, there’s meant to be some sort of national grid that meets the electricity demands of the people. As there isn’t we’ve gone and sorted the problem out ourselves. Everyone has a generator. It may be a big bad 500 KV, or a tiny I better pass my neighbour generator but when the football comes on, and the national power supply let’s us down, we’re all mostly covered. The only problem with this is that generators don’t come quiet, and things that burn fuel smell like smoke. In Lagos there’s really no reason why anyone shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. You’re already smoking a pack a day by virtue of the big bad generator you keep. I was trying to be funny there. Cigarettes are awful because they’re addictive and the chains of habit are not easily felt until they’re too strong to be broken.
The next thing in my bag of smells is as a result of our every gutter is a toilet mentality. You may not think it, but faeces is a problem. I didn’t know this until I got a dog with a knack for sniffing out the stuff. On our morning walks he’d manage to find at least four lumps of fresh pungent human produce every 400 metres. It wasn’t too bad to be honest. The smells mixed in with the early morning ocean air in a way that was distinctly realistic without being completely overwhelming. I could tell that the area had suffered at the arse of humanity, but I couldn’t tell the extent of the damage. I didn’t think I’d ever get to see the stuff being made but I was wrong. One night, I had an irrational craving for Suya (spicy barbecued meat on a stick), so I drove down to a little shack I know around Adetokunbo Ademola, or is it Ademola Adetokunbo? I can never be sure. Anyway, while I waited for my five sticks of Suya, I saw a line of men squatting with their bums directly above the gutter. The action was so precise that it reminded me of a military operation. The sight of them triggered a repressed memory of when I was driving over the open canal on Ajose Adeogun and tears came to my eyes because of the toxic smell coming from it. I was finally able to connect the dots. I finally saw that the canal that most of the gutters connect to is a pit latrine, and that the lagoon that the canal empties into is a sewer. This is why I was so offended when the Oba of Lagos asked the Ibos to jump into it.
Even worse than the improper and undoubtedly unhealthy disposal of faeces, is the abandonment of refuse, or the refusal to encourage the use of garbage bags. Discarded food is left out in the open, exposed to sunlight and maggots and flies until the smell is nothing short of unbearable. And when the garbage truck does come to relieve us of our problem, it often reeks even worse than the garbage bin. You’re literally trapped between the devil and the devil. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. With its population increasing by the minute, Lagos needs to be properly equipped with the infrastructure it needs to cope with it’s odoriferous problems. If not, I predict an African rendition of the Great Stink aka when the Thames was so filthy that it killed people.