Finding A Second Home Abroad: Reflections on My Time In Lagos, Nigeria

I was the only woman who wasn’t afraid to dive deep into the ocean. Most women stood at the shore of the beach, fully clothed, playfully dipping toes into the water as the waves greeted the sand. Maybe this is how everyone knew that I wasn’t from Lagos, Nigeria; my lack of fear hinting at the vast cultural differences between my hometown in St. Louis, MO and theirs. From the moment I began to wade into the water, men, women, and children looked at me - this crazy lady who was clearly an outsider. 

“Be careful,” someone warned me.

 “It’s okay. I can swim,” I responded confidently.

Though everyone celebrating the holiday season at the beach could see the brown in my skin, something in the hue hinted that I was still other.  Maybe I was a Yoruba woman who was raised in the states.  Regardless of the earth tones I donned, or the headwrap I wore, something about my demeanor hinted at my nationality being westernized. 

“Okay.  Excuse me,” he who warned responded.   

I swam deeper and deeper, past men and crashing waves, until I heard my partner, frantically standing at the shore, screaming my name. I swam back to the shore, satisfied and punch drunk on love from Mother Earth.  This day, and the many days I spent in Lagos, was perfect.

It’s true: I’m one of those who has romanticized African countries, people, and culture for most of my life. I grew up in a household where my blackness was never discussed in detail, but was always celebrated in tradition. I was used to the smell of gumbo and the sounds of the Motown Christmas songs during the holiday season. However, something inside of me has always celebrated that bit of African that I am sure is still linked to at least some portion of my DNA. Kwanzaa never quite felt right; a packaged African holiday would never fully serve my soul.   It’s a given that the first holiday I spent traveling internationally would be in an African country and now my romantic ideals and whimsical fancies have been solidified.

I packed an onslaught of shorts, skirts, and tank tops for my trip to Lagos. I traveled with my hair wrapped, wearing loose fitted clothes on my connecting flights through Instanbul, Turkey (partially because of ignorance, and partially because of respect for a historically Muslim city).  From the moment I actually arrived in Lagos, I realized I should have packed more loose fitting clothes, or at least more pants. Everyone was very regal, and their regality was linked to their choice of conservative clothing.  I knew immediately that my curvy body in cut-offs would not be culturally accepted.  I stepped through customs in the international arrivals line and was stopped.

“Wrong line,” the worker told me.  I was confused and jet-lagged and said nothing. “Nigerian?”

“No, I’m not.” He waved me to the correct line. I felt honored. This feeling was short lived. No one else during my stay seemed to think that the brown girl with the huge sun-kissed curly hair was Nigerian. Even though everyone stared, almost as if to see if they could place my features, I never felt unsafe. If we caught each other’s eye, a bashful smile was the typical reply. Culturally, everyone was very polite and spoke in a way that was nearly superfluous in its attempt to sound kind. While sitting outside drinking and smoking—again, the only woman who would dare to do so—someone asked me, “Could I by chance offer you a light?” I just nodded and smiled. How do you respond to someone who is so proper in a moment so undignified? I can’t say for sure, but it sounded like many educators may have learned UK English and passed this on to those who chose to waltz outside of Yoruba or the commonly spoken pidgin. For most of Lagos, this is where the UK influence stops. The city—and it is very much so a city, not a town nor a village—is vibrant, loud, and full of colorful patterns.  At any moment, music can be heard, cars are always honking, and the people are comfortable with each other.

Sitting at a restaurant in Surelere, a DJ played a set that included 90s classics, such as Total, Brandy, and Notorious B.I.G, as well as modern Fuji music.  I sat wiggling in my seat, eating hot pepper soup.  Out of nowhere, two people sat at my table.  I turned to my partner and asked, “Do you know these people?”

“No.”

“Well, why are they sitting with us?”

“Because there is nowhere else to sit.”

This was common sense, and yet something I had never experienced. It was one of the many signs of community I witnessed in Lagos. People weren’t afraid to interact with other people. I shared many KKs (go-cart-esque three wheel taxis) with strangers going in the same direction. I saw fights end in handshakes, no guns, no death. I watched children play in the neighborhood, collectively supervised by all of the neighbors outside selling their wares. Be it fruit, vegetables, dinner, shoes, clothes, snacks, household needs, everyone has something you need, and everyone is willing to barter if need be. Everything made sense in Lagos to me. People who were suffering financially all made life easier for each other. This was peak community, the very definition of the word.

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My most favorite excursion took place about two hours north of Lagos in Abeokuta, home of Olomu Rock. Built on the hills, I rode on the back of motorcycles through the ancient city until I reached the famous site. Abeokuta means under the rock, and as the tour guide explained in his charming broken English layered thick with an accent, the founders of the ancient city—again, a city, not a village nor a town—won a war by hiding literally under the Olomu Rock. I ascended up ancient stairs and climbed through a boulder passage shoeless to reach the top of the Rock where other visitors cheered, “You tried! You did it!” Although Harmattan (dry season) was in full effect, the view was still glorious and I almost lost my fear of heights. I sat down on top of the Rock, thankful that I have been surrounded by all of the things I dreamed of. I sat, thankful for my reality being aligned with my dreams, thankful to be safe and to feel welcomed. And even though my partner warned me not to take pictures while riding in the back of the taxicab back to Lagos (lest someone snatch my phone), I’m going back. I’m going to return home again.

Gloria Mills3 Comments