Two weeks ago, I started reading The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. Non-fiction, it’s about the author’s search for the hidden and dwindling patches of truly wild landscapes in the UK. He travels to all sorts of places- lochs, glens, valleys, moors- chasing barren or unhindered land. It’s intelligent, evocative and beautifully written. And yet, less`than half way through it, I found myself only able to continue reading in tiny, soul-feeding sips; it made me feel too much. In particular, it left me anxious and unhappy with my present, bemoaning what had become, in my mind, the great ugliness of Nigeria.
I live in Lekki Phase 1 and work in Ikoyi. These are some of the most expensive places to live in Africa, and yet my daily commute could be described as a journey from one overpriced slum to another. It’s impossible to make the 15 minute drive without seeing huge piles of rubbish, open gutters teeming with human detritus or both. Some respite is provided by the Lekki-Ikoyi toll bridge- concrete and hard-edged, it is at least clean, modern, and allows one to rest one’s eyes on the blue-grey waters of the Lagoon. Many consider Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi, arguably the most expensive street in West Africa, to be a triumph of urban planning- but it is in fact just a long and winding highway through what was once a sleepy, residential avenue. Less than a decade ago, it was bordered with leafy trees and colonial houses, now it’s mainly square blocks of flats, campaign posters and the endless black-white-black of the road and curb. There is nothing unstructured or charming about it, and my daily drive along it does very little to feed my need for aesthetics.
I would often think, on my daily drives, that whilst I did not truly want to live in the countryside right now, I was undeniably heartsick. I wanted to live in a city that let my mind soar about me, that pulled me towards curiosity and creativity.
One day, I complained about all this to my colleagues at work. I was roundly abused. The gist of it was that I was being snobby and idealist. They said: As far as cities go, Lagos is no dirtier than New York, and certainly has better weather than London or Paris. As for the sort of wild beauty I was rhapsodising about, all that was required to find it was for me to get in my air-conditioned car and drive past all the charmless, expensive roads I was being so sniffy about to the vast tracts of barren plain lands as yet untouched by over-population and hyper-pollution. Was I willing to do that? No? Then I had better shut up.
I deserved their scorn- I didn’t want to have to brave danger to find beauty, and I should have known better than to insult Lagos to a bunch of committed Lagosians. Additionally, I knew they were right about wild beauty existing because my village, nestled in a tiny valley unknown to most other Nigerians, is beautiful. We’ve no jagged cliffs or pristine lochs, but we’ve mountains, orchards, views, and cool, sweet air.
I had to restructure my complaint in line with these concessions- it wasn’t that Nigeria as whole wasn’t beautiful, it was that beauty was too often lacking from my day to day, especially the days I spend in Lagos.
Most of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents left their own wild places for this city- chasing opportunity, money, a bit of town polish. By and large they succeeded or we wouldn’t still be here. In doing so however, they inured generations of us to think that the dirty, sweaty, shiny-but-shallow life of Lagos is worth defending. I realised that this was the true source of my upset- fear that if I stay here much longer, I will find myself forgetting that every-day beauty doesn’t have to be a treat experienced once a year at the end of an overpriced international flight. I was afraid that the pinnacle of success for me would cease to be how wide I could stretch my mind, or what I could create with it, but the ‘seriousness’ of my bank balance, the presence of gold around my neck at parties, the number of rules I am able to bend or break simply by virtue of my name, the largeness of my car, the shininess of my life, the distance between me and the dirt I drive through every day. I was afraid my children, should I have any, would not know what grass feels like under their feet, or why a bird in flight is beautiful, or how joyful still silence can be.
“Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres : such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”– The Wild Places
There is a hypocrisy to this fear that I’m concious of- I may have grown up in a small town with no locked doors but I left that sort of life well before I bought my first bra. My teenage years were largely spent in transit between boarding schools and airports- the most constant address being a high rise apartment in one of the world’s many mega-cities. University, gap year, life afterwards- all spent in cities. These were the grand old cities of Europe and England, liberally speckled with parks and green oases but ultimately, they were still cities with comparable amounts of glass, chrome, cement and dirt to Lagos.
What then was I afraid of? Carrying on my city-bred life? That made little sense. Or was it just that I had been conditioned, by years of travel and alienation, to feel dissatisfied with the one place I could, unequivocally, call my own?
I was born in Lagos. My mother had all my siblings in the quiet academic tranquillity of Zaria but that was not the beginning of my story. When my turn came, she had registered for a set of professional exams at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Heavily pregnant but irrepressibly bookish, she refused to postpone them and came down south to study while I grew steadily in her womb. I’m told she had me almost by herself- by then a fairly experienced doctor and already a mother of 4, she kept studying through most of her labour and only went through the more familiar motions of childbirth when she felt me impatient to greet the world. My aunt says she came, unaware, to see my mum the day after I was born, and found her curled up in her bed with a baby by her side, a text book in her hand, and a look of complete calm. This marked my entry to the world- and likely explains why I’ve had a love affair with books and academia my whole life. I didn’t stay long enough for the gleeful madness of Lagos to seep into me though- my mother passed her exams and took me home to meet the rest of my family, and we all left Nigeria a few months later. And yet, whenever I’m asked to fill out yet another landing card or residential permit for yet another country I’m temporarily calling home, I record “Lagos” as my place of first conciousness. How awful it is to feel one’s original homeland a prison, and to see contentment only in going rootless and searching in to the world.
A thing I recently started doing was to spend ages online looking through country estates or walking tours of the Highlands and the Isle of Skye. I seduce myself with images of daily life bracketed by rambles within my own boundaries; fantasy holidays in which, eschewing familiarity and company, I instead adventure alone to lonely moors and icy pools with nothing but a camera, notebook and a pair of walking boots.
Both interludes are equally fantastical- I am not rich enough to buy a thimbleful of grass in any of the estates I drool over, and anyone who truly knows me would laugh themselves into a hernia at the thought of me adventuring alone. These online self-seductions began to make me feel a sort of creeping shame. Was I not that most despicable of creatures- a self-hater, a wannabe, a pretender- to be so thoroughly drawn to houses whose history could not be further from my own, or pasttimes so un-Nigerian as to be virtually alien? Why couldn’t I be pleased, I thought, with Lagos, this flawed, bustling, vibrant, hungry city of my birth? With my good job and relatively easy life? With the years stretching out ahead of me filled with hope and a strong likelihood of success? Why could I not stop myself from looking outward, when home was ready to embrace and, if I let it, celebrate me?
As often happens, my mind was quieted by chance. My cousin, who still lives in England, reached out to me for a favour. He was considering purchasing some property here in Lagos and asked me to vet it for him. I didn’t want to go- the viewing was set for an unholy hour on a Sunday morning- but I got myself up and into the car and drove about an hour outside town. I was rewarded.
The property was an untouched stretch of beach- slate coloured sand and stormy waves, populated by nothing more than an abandoned canoe and a few elegant palm trees dancing lazily with the wind. I wandered along the shore for a timeless moment- considering. This beach was once part of a slaving route- this view, being pitched to me now as an “excellent investment opportunity” in my guise as a young, middle class Nigerian unused to even casual racism was probably the last thing some of my ancestors saw before their homes, dignities and person-hood were stripped from them by chain and lash. These rough-carpet sands under my feet had probably featured heavily in the homesick fever-dreams of that unlucky cargo. The agent showing me around couldn’t understand why his sullen client was now vacillating between quiet chuckles and tearful reverence- he kept interrupting the stillness with chatter about the “opportunities for commerce” and the “security of the title” and I kept saying “Could you give me second, please? I just need to…could you please just give me a second?”
I thought of peace and beauty, of journeys and homecomings, of the long past and nebulous future. I thought of things I don’t want to write about, things as silent and secret and true as the first time my mother’s bespectacled eyes met mine in her temporary student bed. It was glorious, truly, and humbling- “Was this what you were looking for?” Lagos seemed to be saying, with each cresting wave.
MacFarlane begins his book with a clear idea of what wildness is- untamed, untouched by man, necessarily vast- yet ends with an appreciation of the indivisibility of humanity and the wild, an understanding that even the micro-lives being lived under the rocks of our modernity remain unfettered and worthy of appreciation.
So too, my understanding of beauty. Rather than being the sole purview of the old cities of Europe or the verdant lushness of countryside, every-day beauty is mutable, resident in memory and therefore endlessly accessible. Ever waiting, open-armed, to welcome a heartfelt traveller, beauty is as indivisible from self as the concept of home.