Travel – Lagos: Champagne life in slum land

2014-05-07 14:00

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Lesley Mofokeng and Carien du Plessis recently visited Nigeria’s most populous city. They found two cities – one nestled behind high walls, the other exposed to the elements

Lagos is the only city in sub-Saharan Africa to have a Moët & Chandon billboard adorning its sprawling landscape. It’s perched on the busy Falomo Bridge, a symbol of uninhibited opulence on a road boasting a Porsche dealership and the swish Intercontinental Hotel.

To say Lagos drowns in Moët would not be an exaggeration. Each week, the trendy jet set of the city downs thousands of litres of the bubbly as if it were cool drink.

Statistically, Nigeria is apparently the second-highest Champagne consumer in the world – beaten only by France.

In this city, the quantity of Champagne that flows determines the success of your event or party. In 2001, Nigerians spent 8 billion naira (R526?million) on the luxury French bubbly. And last year, Nigerian luxury designer Alexander Amosu created the world’s most expensive Champagne, which retails for £1.2 million (R21.3 million). It features 18-carat solid white gold and a flawless 19-carat diamond.

But Lagos remains a city of contrasts. Take the Moët billboard, for example. It could be a lesson in brand positioning, erected as it is on the side of the city where there is stark depravation and the grit grinds against the eyes.

Yet in this Champagne life, as US crooner Ne-Yo would say, “trouble is a bubble in a Champagne glass/dreams and reality are one and the same”. The trouble is, Lagos faces real, pressing issues that will soon shake you out of dreamland – such as the traffic.

Once you’re done taking swigs of Courvoisier cognac or puffing on the finest Cuban cigars, the city presents some interesting options if you go past the thick, hot and humid air into an air-conditioned taxi.

One of the attractions is the Nike Gallery in Lekki – the largest art gallery in west Africa. The four-storey establishment, run by Aina

Davies, the daughter of owner Nike Davies-Okundaye, opened in 2009 and boasts a collection that narrates the Nigerian story through

textiles, paintings, drawings and ornaments. Some of the country’s most prolific artists, such as Owolabi Ayodele, Peju Alatise and Joereal Emeh Okwun, compete for space on the populated floors.

But nothing beats a trip down to Balogun Market, where only the brave dare to go. It is an intoxicating hustle and bustle, but also a bargain hunter’s paradise.

You can only navigate this stampede with the help of a local.

Otherwise, there is Lekki Market, which is aimed at tourists and is suitably overpriced.

Mofokeng was in Lagos as a guest of M-Net

A man reconstructs his destroyed house at the demolished Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria. Picture: AP

Carien du Plessis

Mr G is a political type down on his luck. He’d been batting for a politician who lately hasn’t delivered on patronage. Mr G’s cash flow hangs precariously on whatever business deal he can hustle.

If he plays it right, he could just be in luck again after next year’s elections. The upside for now is that Mr G has time to take me speeding along the roads of Victoria and Lagos islands late at night in his aging white Mercedes. The sunroof is open. It’s a treat.

We are high on crab and fish pepper soup (Naija soul food with a sublime chilli bite) and Nigerian Guinness. The locally brewed stout tastes way better than the Irish-made stuff.

The venue is a shebeen-type back-yard joint on Lagos Island. It’s not quite slum, but not glam like, say, the Intercontinental or Radisson hotels on Victoria Island. My long-standing fantasy of drinking

overpriced Moët & Chandon here with a handsome oga (boss man), fat on oil money, had already been shattered when a disgusted intellectual told me this would amount to spitting on the poor.

Most of the 21 million city inhabitants are poor. Many live in slummy suburbs, where dusty buildings seem to rise and degenerate again on top of ages-old dirt. Makoko, a sprawling slum on the lagoon, is visible when you cross from the mainland to the well-to-do neighbourhoods on the islands.

Mr G and I eat and drink enough to be tipsy for less than 2?000 naira (about R130). The electricity only failed three times for a few rather dark minutes at a time. When this happens, Nigerians say “Only in Nigeria” or sing “We shall overcome”.

We fly through roadblocks – no bribes paid, perhaps because Mr?G has a “do you know who I am” ID card with him. We make a joyride turn at the new Southern Sun Hotel and collapse with laughter about the R4?000-a-night rooms. These would cost R1?500 in South Africa.

For late-night munchies, we get chicken sprinkled with hot spices from a thin, robed guy. These guys only come out at night, appearing like ghosts on the dark pavement.

The day before, I took an early morning walk from my hotel in Ikoyi to Victoria Island across the Falomo Bridge, where aspirational billboards advertise “Hennessy artistry” and handwritten signs urge passers-by: “Do not piss or shit here.”

The rise of the rich is precarious. They use high walls and 4x4s with tinted windows to guard against the desperation going on outside.

In Ikoyi (an upper-crust ’hood), I was startled to find myself in a complex filled with dirt-poor people who sat or lay around, looking desolate and bored.

Somewhere outside the fence was relative normality. And somewhere outside was Mr G, trying to claw his way back into political patronage to stay afloat.

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