A Dash in Lagos

Laine Strutton

I arrived in Nigeria with nothing more than an out-of-date guidebook, my backpack, and a chip on my shoulder. I was halfway through my PhD and had decided that Nigeria was politically fascinating, important to the global economy, and understudied. All my university colleagues advised me to pick an easier country, a safer country, and the more they tried to dissuade me, the more committed I became to writing a dissertation on the oil violence in the Niger Delta. The conflict has pitted government forces against militants demanding oil revenues and stealing from pipelines, often with local community members caught in the middle. Oil spills have destroyed local fishing and farming practices. The average Niger Deltan is actually poorer than they were at national independence in 1960. I wanted to write about it.

After several months of grueling field research there, in which I had interviewed militants in the swamp, waded through toxic rivers, and shared a canoe with crocodile, I needed some time off in the capital. I flew to Lagos because I wanted just a single day without the challenges of life in rural communities. I thought that if I left the Delta, I might enjoy a few hours in which I didn't have to obsess over my personal safety and health or carefully navigate the complexity of Nigerian culture. I just wanted a day at the beach, and I had heard of just the one.

During my respite, I was staying with a Lebanese friend in his posh gated home in the most upscale area of Lagos, Victoria Island. The immense wealth inequality in the country means that one can build a gated mansion and, yet, there will still be entrepreneurial street-side vendors and motorcycle taxis cruising for customers right outside that gate. Indeed, I walked out of my host's compound and was able to immediately hop on the back of an okada motorcycle taxi. After naming the fashionably private beach that I wanted to go to, my driver deftly navigated the freeways and bridges connecting the many islands of the chaotic city. During the ride, I looked out over the millions of residents who had built shanty towns in the water on floating mounds of trash and who commuted via barges made of reeds. I was certain that I was probably going to be the first person to ever arrive to the private beach wearing an ill-fitting helmet while straddling the back of an okada, the same working-class form of transport slum residents often take.

When we arrived at the small dirt road leading to the beach, I felt the motorcycle slow, and I looked ahead to see that rain the night before had inundated the pathway. A small lake had formed, actually erasing the road altogether. Flooding is a perpetual problem in Nigeria, and during my time there, I counted myself lucky to never have had to evacuate like so many of my Nigerian friends had. I asked the driver about another entrance and was disappointed when he said there wasn't one because of the large and formidable fence along the beach. As a testament to both my commitment to relaxation, and my ability to ignore my better judgment when sand and surf is involved, I suggested the name of a slightly seedier, but still somewhat reputable, beach nearby. It was on the way back toward Victoria Island anyway, so my driver didn't even charge me extra for the change in itinerary. I thought that was some good fortune on my part.

Several minutes later, I felt my driver's body tense as we turned a corner toward the second-choice beach. He had spotted a dozen menacing-looking area boys in front of us. Area boys are urban gangs of unemployed men that harass, steal, extort, and sell drugs, and they have a fierce reputation for having no limits on their use of violence. As they had with us that day, they commonly set up their own impromptu roadblocks and force motorists to pay a dash, or bribe, to pass. They have merited their malevolent reputation by consistently following through with their threats against those who don't or can't pay. Alarming to me, who had survived in Nigeria by appealing to a sense of compromise during worrisome encounters, many had told me that area boys simply can't be reasoned with. As we drove in closer, I felt that instinctual tightening in my belly that we all get in times of danger.

When my driver hesitantly pulled up to their makeshift roadblock made of trash, wood, and palm leaves, the area boys immediately began using 2x4s to fiercely beat on the front of the motorcycle. They were screaming in Pidgin English, "Pay us 500 naira for pass! Pay us now for pass!" Although my driver probably did not share this thought, I was just grateful that the wooden planks were coming down on the motorcycle and not on us.

As a foreign traveler, I am faced with a special dilemma, both ethical and pragmatic. First, I do not want my presence to be funding extortionist behavior in foreign countries. By paying this bribe, I would be contributing to this criminal activity. I am very proud of the fact that I spent a year in one of the most corrupt countries on earth without paying a dash. My second dilemma was that a Nigerian riding an okada typically doesn't carry around more than a few dollars on them, which is all the area boys expect to get from an individual. However, these men knew that I probably had more than that on me since I am not Nigerian. I suspected that the moment I took my money pouch out to pay them the 500 naira, slightly more than just $3, they would just take my cell phone and all my money. I would be stranded, as I needed that naira to get home and to the airport the next day. My driver was so anxious he didn't speak, yet I was relatively calm, so I decided that I was in the best position to handle the situation.

I put on a jovial grin, batted my eyelashes a few times, and said in the most casual and non-confrontational voice I could, "Sirs, could I just pay on my way out from the beach? That would be more convenient for me. Is that possible?" Unsurprisingly, the area boys rejected this idea and yelled to my face that my offer was "no good!" Realizing that I was certainly not going to out-power them, I brainstormed new tactics. I picked out the man who seemed the oldest, and he was also the tallest, and pegged him for the leader. Relying on a conversation I had had often while serving as a secondary school teacher in the Peace Corps in Mozambique years earlier, I smiled at him, specifically, and said that I was just a poor teacher and that I couldn't afford to pay them. I asked him in all seriousness, "Do you offer a teacher discount for paying dash, in appreciation for all the hard work I have done educating African youth?"

This tallest one stared at me, his jaw fell slightly ajar, and he stammered, "No." He was clearly perplexed by my friendly response to their threats, and even more so by my ridiculous request for a teacher discount on this robbery. They all must have been wondering, who is this strange white woman? Doesn't she know who we are? After a pause, but with far less aggression than before, he continued to ask for 500 naira while the other area boys curiously watched behind him.

Understanding that there was only one other thing I had besides money to offer, I then made my ultimate bid. I asked him what his name was, which was Ahmed, and introduced myself by shaking his hand. I confidently said, "Ahmed, you are clearly an intelligent man. How about a trade? Instead of paying you, I offer you a free English lesson. I am an expert teacher and we can do any English lesson you want. Education is priceless, after all." Ahmed cocked his head to the side and responded slowly in pidgin, surprising me by saying, "Yeah, I want English lesson. Leave me to find a pen and a paper." I said I needed to go eat something, but that I would come back in an hour to give him his lesson. The other gang members looked on, dumbfounded, as I sent away the driver and hopped off the motorcycle to walk toward the ocean.

After I had eaten my spicy goat and rice for lunch, on the beach, I walked back to give Ahmed his lesson as promised (and they were blocking the only road out, so I didn't have a choice but to encounter them again anyway). While sitting on the dusty road, a hundred feet from his gang that was still operating its roadblock, we did a vocabulary-building lesson. We covered words like "bellicose" to describe the gang's inclination toward fighting and "deceitful" to describe the character of his area boys who lie to him. I quickly realized I should have done a better assessment of his language skills before choosing such advanced words; he held the pen like he was cutting open a watermelon and frequently mixed up his vowels when I said them aloud. I apologized for my bad lesson, since it was my fault, and he responded that he would rather ask questions about the United States anyway.

Ahmed wanted to know all about getting jobs in America. He eagerly inquired as to whether he had a chance of finding a job driving a taxi in New York. I responded that I didn't know, but he could try to find that sort of job in Lagos. He told me that there are so few jobs in the country that someone without a high school degree has no chance at all of being hired, unless they can pay a dash to the employer. Nepotism pervades hiring practices there, so I knew that what he was saying was largely true. It is nearly impossible to work one's way up the socioeconomic ladder in Nigeria, as my research had shown me.

Over the course of the next half-hour in our classroom of sorts, Ahmed told me about how much he had always wanted to go to school, but his parents could never afford it because there are ten children in his family. I asked him about going back to study, but he responded that now that he is 30, he is just too old. Without a job, he has no way of earning money to pay a bride price to get married, so he felt like he would never get to start his own family. Essentially, because he couldn't afford to go to high school, his entire life as a productive adult has been put on hold. I was surprised when he added that he hated his lifestyle, of being an area boy, but felt that he had no other choice. I told him that I heard what he was saying, but most of the 167 million people in Nigeria live in poverty, too, and they make ends meet without harming others. He agreed.

After this frank conversation about his life conditions, it was strange to think that my new student had been willing to violently beat my driver and me earlier and had probably done so many times to others. I never forgot for one moment that he was a criminal and deserved some form of punishment for the choices he had made yet, every minute I spoke with him, he seemed more and more like a very frustrated man with no options in life. His demeanor during our talk was almost dejected, as he cast his face downward and spoke into his lap. I learned an incredible amount from him about the traps of cyclical urban poverty. I finished the talk wondering not why there is so much stealing and violence in countries like Nigeria, but why there isn't even more. I do not doubt that he has engaged in deplorable acts and his life story does not excuse them, but my conversation with him still gave me pause. Urban poverty and criminality is complex, and it had often deceived me into viewing it as simpler than it truly is.

As the sun beat down on us, I told Ahmed that I needed to get home before dark. He sent one of his boys to flag me down another motorcycle. As I hopped on, this new driver was demonstrably agitated by the presence of the men, and I told him not to worry. Ahmed thanked me profusely for our talk and said that he thought I was his "best teacher in English." Not only did he not ask me for money, he offered to pay for my okada ride, which I politely declined. We shook hands. I tied up my long skirt and situated my purse on my back for the bumpy ride home. As we took off, I looked back to see that the area boys were waving at me and smiling.

Although I would like to attribute it to my silver tongue, I know that it was a combination of factors outside of my control, including extreme good fortune, which allowed that interaction to end on a positive note. I know that a Nigerian without any money would not have been as lucky as I was. I still haven't figured out how such a dangerous situation managed to turn out so well. However, I have figured out how a New Yorker can tell that she has become culturally acclimated to Nigeria. It becomes clear when she talks her way out of a shakedown by a street gang while riding on the back of a motorcycle.


About the Author

Laine Strutton is an interdisciplinary PhD Candidate at New York University. She is currently writing her dissertation on women's oil protests in Nigeria. She has pieced together every form of alternative travel she could on a student's budget, including work in Korea, Mozambique, Kyrgyzstan, Honduras, and Bolivia.