Welcome To Lagos

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.

An image from BBC2's Welcome To Lagos

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.


6 responses

  1. I understand some of the grievances that some people have expressed towards the show, the title “Welcome to Lagos” is perhaps inappropriate as it only shows one side of Lagos, but there are still two more episodes, so who knows what they might show in those (I shan’t hold my breath for anything spectacular).

    At the same time I can’t help but think, it showed a different side to Lagos, a city which has had its image shaped by images of angry/loud individuals on Lagos Airport (or whatever that show was), the 419 scandals and now the popular image of being a “Flygerian”.

    What I took from the show and from my single visit to Lagos, was a humbling reminder of how fortunate we are in many ways, and I hope many others did too instead of merely complain and join “useless” facebook groups, which is arguably done purely as a “#imageting”

  2. Chimamanda makes a good point about the dangers of the single story. Africa is still suffering the consequences of this. But many nations in Africa are taking responsibility for telling their own story in many ways.

    The documentary proves the point that bad news sells. My immediate reaction to the programme is that the BBC seem to have found a way of putting a positive spin on bad news, so it’s not so sterotypical.

    From what I understand the programme shows how people in Lagos are making the most of a bad situation. From conversations with friends, I’ve discovered that the programme was enlightening for Lagosians themselves, many of who never stop to wonder how their less privileged neighbours exist.

    Instead of showing us starved, poor and disease ridden people, what they’ve shown are people are despite abject poverty are extremely resourceful and proactive about improving their plight – contrary to what the impression the ‘single story’ leaves in one’s mind, that poor Africans are just sitting in the dust or heap of rubbish waiting for salvation that’ll come in the form the sale of a music single performed by a bunch of celebrities.

    It’s easy to moan about media reporting, but one point Chimamanda’s talk makes is that we’re all responsible for telling more stories.

  3. This reminds me of a post I read earlier, here http://yeloson.livejournal.com/736566.html about quite a different matter, but a very salient point: “Without context, nothing means nothing.” If, as you point out, there is no context for the audience of Lagos *but* the Poor Africans Who Remain So Smiley Even In Squalor, Awwww, context, then we do need to question and provoke (MsLuffa’s post reminded me of what my riot grrrl 101 taught me: instead of complaining about the media – be the media), because we won’t be disrupting the Single Story narrative if we don’t.

    Excellent blog post, YGD. Chapeau.

  4. A balanced and well-considered post YGD.

    Most of my thoughts on the dangers of the oft-portrayed one-dimensional Africa have already been touched on in your post or the subsequent comments. I guess joining Facebook protest groups is an easier activity than creating content that changes the scope of the dialogue… sigh.

  5. Thanks all, for your candid comments. I really have nothing to add, except yeah, let’s head out into the big world and be the change we want to see.

  6. Hmm…let’s wait for the other two programs to be aired before starting the hand-wringing.

    I watched the interview with the producers and they made clear, their aim to show Lagos, not as a dystopian hell (poverty porn as my friends refer to it) but as an interesting albeit challenging metropolis, heralding the future.

    This could easily to cities in Brazil, South Africa…oh…even Manchester so I don’t think there is a requirement for Naijas to feel uncomfortable about this…

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