It got a little neglected by the audience, what with the first of the televised Leaders’ Debates on ITV1 (Boo! Hiss! Whisper it, a little bit boring!), but at 9pm last Thursday night, BBC2 aired the first in a three-part series called Welcome To Lagos. I was alerted to the programmes by blogger Vex In The City, who made a comment on Twitter, along the lines of “Oh God, another ‘poor Lagos’ show. No thanks!” I heartily agreed, but finally caught up with it on iPlayer over the weekend.
The programme followed the lives of the scavengers who live and work in the Olusosun dumpsite in Ojota. Specifically, it followed Joseph, a family man who was grew up in a polygamous home after being abandoned by his mother as a baby, and Jack-the-lad type Eric, an aspiring musician who kept the fact that he worked as a scavenger from his friends. The film is filled with aerial shots of Lagos island – and the various ghettos that exist within it. It captured (as much as an hour-long programme can) life on the dump – the restaurants, the mosque, the chill spot where two guys played Ludo (!) and even the peculiar job of the dump’s manicurist. Fascinating stuff.
Inevitably, several groups have sprung up to denounce this programme as well as much of the BBC’s output on Africa. You can see one such group on Facebook here. How did I feel? As a journalist and someone interested in social commentary, I enjoyed watching the programme very much. I spent many happy years with my family in a house about 20 minutes away from Ojota, and my knowledge of the dump, beyond its existence, was negligible. The film was informative and entertaining – the BBC’s remit on a platter. It’s telly at its best – shining a light on an entirely foreign (used here in the ‘unknown’ context) experience. But as a black British woman in the UK who also owns a Nigerian passport? Um, it’s a little more complicated.
Lagos is not without – about a million and one – problems. Heck, I went there only last summer, and was pretty scathing of what I saw there. But, as I said to my white Britsh friend, it makes me uncomfortable to see this on telly in the UK. Not because I don’t believe in airing ‘our’ dirty linen but because of the inherent danger this kind of programme poses, most specifically, the propagation of ‘the single story’. Don’t know what I mean? See the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie elucidate [PS: The video's about 19 minutes long, but totally worth it]:
The single story here is one of intense poverty, deprivation, hard lives and eventual horrid death, all fragrantly backdropped by a rubbish dump. For the liberal chin strokers out there – and I’m usually of this tribe – I understand the allure of the story. But for all it’s talk of non-patronising, ‘straight’ storytelling [see the Guardian review of it here], it conforms to the worst of the ‘magical negro‘ trope. “Sure,” it seems to say, “these people live and work in a literal dump, but look how filled they are with joie de vivre! Look into that child’s eyes as he plays with a straightened-out metal hanger and a ring of plastic! See how HAPPY they are!” It’s Slumdog Millionaire with slightly darker people. I do wish it would stop.
Am I being overly sensitive? Possibly. It could be argued (spot the university essay skills, yo) that like the Italian-Americans who cry defamation at their representation in Mafia movies, I’m overreacting. But the truth of the matter is that the Italian Mafia story is not the only narrative Italian-Americans have. They have their world famous cuisine, their church, their past and well advertised history as the centre of the world. They are in the West. It might be damaging to have so many movies about the mob, but not as damaging as the many images that the world sees of the African continent. There seems to be no counterpoint to the flies-on-the-mouth orphans in the charity ads, or the grasping, aid-diverting and corrupt government men. There is no image of a wealthy and even booming economy, as in Botswana, and there is no corresponding, mitigating mention of a middle – or even working – class, ‘normalised’ existence for millions of Africans. Being ‘normal’ isn’t the be-all and end-all. But you know what? It sure does help.