Running is my best connection to living in Lagos.
Monday through Friday it’s the same. I step outside our flat, lock the door, lament the destruction wrought by humidity on my carefully coiffed hair and makeup, and then follow four flights of steps down. I give a wave and a “good morning” to the guard du jour sitting at the desk in the garage. I make a left and proceed past the swimming pool and ‘Old Flats’ pass another guard and another exchange of greetings. Gym on my right, inner basketball court and classrooms on my left; both areas are more or less empty unless I’m running later than usual. On late days, the courtyard quickly fills with students, teachers, nannies and the odd parent or two. I pass cleaners wiping yesterday’s detritus from the lunch tables and Instructional Assistants on supervision duty, exchanging hellos along the way. I veer left towards the main office. If my timing is right, I sign in around 6:55; just enough time to deposit bag and breakfast in my second floor office, double check appointments, grab coffee and walkie talkie, then head to morning gate duty. Thirty minutes and hundreds of “good morning” and “nice to see you” and “glad you’re here today” later, I’m back in my office with laptop open, breakfast in one hand as the other scrolls and clicks through a steady stream of email. Mindfulness in eating is lost on me these days. My day is gone in a blur of meetings, email and projects. Repeat tomorrow.
Greg and I joke that we do the same job as our stateside counterparts- just in interesting locations. But that’s the rub, you see. Living in Nigeria is definitely interesting, but for us, it feels the least accessible of anywhere we’ve lived. Security concerns eliminate the option of jumping in a four-wheel drive and taking off, just the two of us, for a weekend road trip or a longer exploration during holiday breaks. Instead, we have a driver- convenient, but not exactly ‘road trip’ conducive. In Mongolia, we drove ourselves down to the South Gobi before there was an actual road. It took two, twelve-hours days of extremely hard driving to make our own tracks through the steppe. And when we lived in Bolivia? Despite the high passes, we headed out from La Paz on Christmas break, just the two of us, summiting a 15,000′ pass on our way to our final destination; we had nothing more than vague directions, a hotel name and about a year or so of college-level Spanish cobbled between the two of us. Those were the days. But, to be truthful, a big barrier to exploring at least Lagos is the all-encompassing nature of living within spitting distance of work: convenient, but always present.
So for me, running is the way I decompress after work, and on the weekends, experience a bit of Lagos. During the week, I stick to the field on campus, mostly because of the annoyance of heavy traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. My after work runs are spent processing and reflecting on the day, planning and setting goals; it’s time well spent, but it’s still time spent very much focused on work. But weekend running is different. This is the time when I get some mental room to breathe- it’s not about my job, it’s about me, and I think that sometimes we forget to separate the two- at least I do. It’s also a brief moment in time where I get to experience ‘out there’ from my own perspective and not from the backseat of our vehicle. I decide where to go and when, and I go alone. When I run out there, I have to be present and aware; it’s a kind of mindfulness that I have difficulty replicating elsewhere, with the exception of time spent on our boat. If you’ve wonder why a sail boat, this is it: it allows us to be present and in the moment, our own decompression chamber. In Lagos, running is my outlet and my medium to reveal something of what life is like outside our walls. The truth is, I’m still more voyeur than participant, but it’s a start.
Take for instance a run I went on a few weeks ago. The heat and humidity typically limits my weekend runs to 6 or 7 miles- much further than that and recovery takes the better part of the day. But, it had rained the night before and some stubborn drops still fell from the sky; perfect running weather. I wait until the major puddles have drained then take off, my mind set on taking advantage of the cool weather to do a bit of exploration beyond my normal stomping grounds. I leave home and work my way towards Falamo Bridge dodging traffic, puddles and the resident homeless that occupy the intersection leading from the Eko roundabout to the main thoroughfare that runs along the lagoon. This captive audience of vehicles forced to wait at the traffic light is a meager, but vital source of income. As I clearly have nothing to offer, I am left alone. I cross six lines of traffic, run up the bridge and pick my way along its length: I am not the only one out this morning.
Families wearing matching outfits sewn from stiff, colorful African batik walks across the bridge with purpose: they are on their way to what will be a long morning spent at church. Religion is a serious affair in Nigeria. Officially, half the population is identified as Muslim; forty percent are Christian with the remaining ten percent identified as holding indigenous beliefs. The reality is that traditional beliefs are intertwined within the daily culture and pattern of life; popular TV is replete with shows where voodoo, magic and possessions feature prominently in the story line. I’ve had more than one conversation about magic experienced first hand, or within one degree of separation. So in general, while the majority of Nigerians are either devout Christians or Muslims, it seems they are cautiously aware that there is another, more devious life force at work. So, depending on the direction, my weekend run might take me past an open-air church service held under a tree with widespread leaves and a carefully raked dirt floor. The passing cars and hot sun do little to dampen the spirit of the small congregation. In other sections of my run, derelict stores fronts are transformed on Sunday mornings; sounds of singing, preaching and music spill onto the street as I trot by. Shaking the sweat from my arms, I am a stark contrast to the well-toed ladies in head wrappers and their husbands in button down shirts, suits and ties. Placards advertise what can be found within- promises of redemption, hope and fellowship. Nigerian congregations tend to identify their mission of faith more colorfully than their staid western counterparts. A particular favorite I saw on this day is The Church of Peculiar People. Catchy name, for sure, but perhaps not the most colorful moniker to be found? This forum Nairaland lists unusual church names- as a runner, I can’t help but be drawn to Run for Your Life Ministry.
Churchgoers aren’t the only Lagosians out on a Sunday. Some of my favorite sightings are the various vendors and service providers that have found their niche market, or at least, a niche on their particular street corner. Off the main streets, I run past cooking fires smoldering alongside tall cement walls or within a small roadside clearing. A low wooden bench and plastic chairs are laid out haphazardly for customers to occupy while finishing up a meal. Having not partaken in Nigerian street food I can’t say with certainty the breadth of what is available, but I often see smoldering ears of corn and whole plantains slowly roasting over open fires, along with other sundry items. A woman most likely tends these fires, unless it’s Suya, the local version of dry-rub barbecue. It seems that if it involves fire, meat and a grill, it’s a man’s job, even in West Africa. Sometimes, breakfast can come to you; young girls and women patiently walk the streets and sidewalks balancing plastic containers of various offerings on their head. Inside, one is likely to find a spicy tomato and pepper sauce seasoned with fish and local greens; something starchy is on hand to sop up the sauce. Sometimes I see large round metal or plastic trays of Moi Moi; a blend of beans, tomato puree, onions, crayfish, habanero pepper and nutmeg that is cooked in beef or fish stock. Depending on the chef’s fancy, assorted items may be added like hard-boiled eggs, beef or beef marrow- a long process that once finished, results in a thick bean cake that is wrapped in a leaf. I’ve tried Moi Moi, not off the streets, but at a hotel restaurant buffet. I prefer saying the name to eating the dish. Though I am fascinated with food in general, the culinary habits of Lagosians are just one piece of what it’s like out there. It is my encounters with Lagos’s most desperate that linger.
It has begun to drizzle. I pick my way slowly around lingering puddles along the main thoroughfare; dodging the deepest as I head back towards Falamo Bridge. There is a sidewalk on this section, but by mile 10, the regularly spaced 16″ curbs are beginning to destroy my knees, so I run in the road. As I trot along, I notice a young man headed my direction. Really no more than a teenager, his gait is unsteady as he holds a faded and torn, roughly sewn robe closed with one hand, and grips a plastic blue coin cup with the other. He has the vacant stare of the defeated and I am captivated. As we pass, a Range Rover whizzes by, throwing spray from a muddy puddle in our direction. Neither of us cares: I’m already wet and he’s filthy, but the spell is broken. I have nothing to give and he doesn’t ask- we each continue on our way. I didn’t understand poverty on this level until I came to Africa. Now I get it. I get the high infant mortality rate, the low life expectancy, the displacement of people from rural areas, and the lack of meaningful employment. I run towards home. Along the way, I pass a steady stream of tall walls topped with rolls of razor wire and colorful fragments of broken glass, security guards out front, and wonder what others see when they venture out there. For my part, I see a city that for me is still largely unknown, but little by little, I explore what I can, one mile at a time.
The rain has finally stopped for good. I pass a barber carefully scraping away the week’s stubble from a trusting face, his tools a straight razor and a steady hand. Another man indulges in a street-side toenail clipping a few yards further down the road. I trot by fruit vendors who call out their seasonal offerings to passersby- mangoes, papaya, bananas, apples and pineapple- and make a mental note to ask our stewardess to buy some of each when she goes shopping on Tuesday. I pass children at play on the side of the road. Holding out my hand as I pass, we exchange ‘hellos’ and I am rewarded with a high five and a wide smile. Back once again through the cooking fires and hawkers, I wend and weave my way through the increasing traffic. I’m careful to watch for hazards and I always am wary of unwanted attention, but I’m almost home. I run up to the back gate and our guards let me in, through our own tall walls and wire.
I’m done being out there, at least for now, but I’ve discovered a lot on my Lagos run. I’ve discovered that life out there is a life lived largely in public and for all to see. Out there is different from in here, and I find it as fascinating as Egypt and Mongolia and all the other places I’ve lived and traveled. And I know that it’s the promise of knowing out there just a little better each week that gets me out of bed, and out the door, on Sunday mornings. Despite the heat and the humidity and the hardships I see played out in public, I love my Lagos run and I love my Lagos home.