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In Nigeria, the hustle that makes Lagos bustle

In Lagos, informal transactions are two-thirds of the economy and salaried jobs are few and far between. If you want a job, chances are you’ll have to invent it yourself.

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An aerial view shows the Lagos-Abeokuta expressway in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos.

Akintun­de Akinleye/Reuters

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All of Lagos is a mobile supermarket.

Informal stalls selling soccer jerseys, mangoes, and iPhone cables sprout between its buildings like plants growing in the cracks of a rock – improbable and tenacious. Meanwhile, hawkers weave through the notoriously gridlocked traffic carrying boxer shorts and kiddie pools, bibles and portraits of the new president, Muhammadu Buhari.

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One morning I see a hand-painted billboard advertising “VISAS TO QATAR – FAST!” and beside it a phone number. Below that is written “ICE BLOCKS FOR SALE!” and then the same number. As I am contemplating the business model of the visa-expediter-turned-ice-block-salesperson, a man shoots his arm through the open window of my taxi, dangling a banana-scented air freshener. When I shake my head no, the hand retreats, then reappears clutching a fistful of porn DVDs.

In Lagos, it seems, there is nothing I cannot have.

Each year, about 600,000 new people arrive in this city – the continent’s largest – from across West Africa, nearly all of them economic migrants. That is more than half a million people wound tightly by the possibility that they can make a better life than the one they have now, crowding into a city where informal transactions account for about two-thirds of the economy and salaried jobs are few and far between.

That collision demands an almost extraordinary level of imagination from new arrivals. If you want a job in Lagos the chances are you’ll have to invent it yourself.  

Not all those inventions, of course, are so scrupulous as selling kiddie pools and ice blocks. Across the city, thousands of buildings bear an inscrutable warning. THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE. It seems to me at first a strange assertion of ownership, but I soon learn these signs are a talisman against Nigeria’s world-famous Internet cons, the so-called 419 scams: “Dear Sir, I have a business proposal of great benefit to us both.”

People were being hustled into buying houses by con artists posing as the building’s owner, a cab driver explains to me as he watches me snap photos of such a warning. “Even Nigerians are getting scammed by Nigerians,” he says wryly.

This is the double-edged sword of a city like Lagos, whose entrepreneurial and radically self-sufficient ethos can seem at times either inspiring or nefarious – and occasionally both at once.

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The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie wrote recently of how well-off Lagosians have become a tribe of “reluctant libertarians … participating in a precarious frontier spirit.” They drill their own boreholes for water and feed diesel into their heaving generators, hire private security guards and travel abroad for expensive medical care. If asked why, the rich will tell you the same thing as the poor: The state does nothing. What we want we must provide for ourselves.

Whether that is the best way for a city to survive seems an academic question. It is simply how Lagos is. It has grown too quickly, too haphazardly, against the backdrop of a wildly inattentive state, to turn itself around now. Half a century ago, 300,000 people lived here. Now, some 20 million do. It is among the world’s largest cities, and for whatever challenges living here might present, its growth shows no sign of slowing anytime soon.

One afternoon, in a house on stilts perched above the oily black lagoon, I meet a Beninese tailor named Jerrad Avleffi who explains to me why he left Cotonou for Lagos a decade ago. Sitting beneath a framed portrait of Jesus weeping blood, he accounts succinctly for the move. “There was no work at home and I heard there were many jobs in Nigeria,” he says, “so I came here.”

It sounds, nearly word-for-word, like a line I have often heard from Nigerians in South Africa, where I live. “There was no work there,” they sigh, speaking of Lagos. “There are more jobs here.” And the echo continues down the chain. “America,” South Africans often say to me wistfully when they hear where I am from. “I want to go there. So many jobs, not like here.”

Not only Lagos, I realize, but all the world’s greatest cities, are animated by this: their quiet strivers, those who believe fervently in its potential and their own, however far that vision may stray from reality. They see the city not as it is but as it should be: the place that changes everything, the place where there is nothing they cannot have.  

This story was reported with support from the Ford Foundation.