“Welcome To Lagos”: They can keep it

There is an enormous amount to be said for Africa. Stoicism and good humour would be right up there as attributes which abound. Famously, Nigerians have all that in spades. Last night’s BBC film concentrated on a Lagos rubbish dump and its scavengers. 

The commentary of course bigged-up the moral superiority of the denizens of the tip. They were black, poor, brave, hard-working, entrepreneurial and ex-colonials. (Kind of like those wonderful people of the Mumbai slum dump we watched a couple of months back.) What’s not to admire by us honky consumers? The show wouldn’t have been as interesting without one of these heroes being involved in a bit of grievous bodily harm, which had the double advantage of reminding us that this really isn’t Eden.

As much to the point, we watched one character (family man, wit) as he stepped up his recycling activity by burning the plastic coating off copper wires. Last I heard, that’s about the perfect way to generate lots of PCBs and dioxins. Willfully pumping those into the atmosphere is about the silliest thing one can do to it and if film-makers caught any Brit doing it, even if he was a gypsy or some other reserved minority, there’d be hell to pay. It was probably not terrifically good for the locals of Lagos, including the children whose future he was proudly safeguarding, according to him.

We also visited an informal Lagos slaughterhouse and butchery. Turned me up a bit, of course, but I do have a soft spot for abattoirs. I think it’s because I’m such a sqeamish wimp: I was pleased to have faced down my revulsion and sort of got into the horror of the thing. Besides, I feel it’s my duty to empathise with the people who get a living putting delicious things on my plate.

These are my scenes, no question. I have a strong affinity with the whole business of recycling (except its being fashionable with Greenistas). This very week I spent happy hours as white van man with a date with a series of dumps in southern England. Gorgeous. I even liked the Pole (maybe the Ukrainian, whatever), who – as the site’s security man – made me open up the van to prove I wasn’t a tradesman. He was crisp, commanding, unyielding. I crushed a tiny batsqueak of anti-immigrant resentment. How long he’s been here? How long before it’s him asking me for my papers? It was a small nastiness which I quashed quite easily, really. And anyway, at least he mistook me for a tradie.


Paul Seaman
Unfortunately I missed the BBC show on Lagos. But I know Lagos. There's nothing romantic about Lagos's dumps. They are an eyesore, a health hazard and a disgusting disgrace in that great city. Their exploitation is organised by local gangs known as "area boys" rather than by free-spirited entrepreneurs. For sure, Lagos's people have great stoicism and great humour, but they also lack the dignity and self-respect required to clean their mess up and to put some law and order in to the place. In my view, Lagosians have become immune to their short-comings. They've lost the sense of shame that's required to sort the mess out. Right now civic pride consists of a monthly half-day sanitation backed by a curfew to make it easy for cleaners to clean up the worst of the visible mess; that's a farce. However, if ever Lagosians do decide to take real pride in their surroundings, then Lagos will become the greatest city in Africa and one of the really great cities of the world.

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Publication date

16 April 2010