I’m not usually considered one who is out of touch with technology, yet quite often something dealing with the subject will happen that will always make me think about how incredible technology is becoming. With my move last year from Los Angeles to Lagos I’ve thanked the technology gods more than a few times in regards to the abilities I have to communicate with people now that I wouldn’t have had maybe ten or fifteen years ago. Most recently, however, it was a simple online photo community that I’ve been posting photos to for years that has me in awe of how far the world has come and how far we still have to go.
Flickr is nothing new to pretty much anyone that ever goes online regularly. And while it wasn’t until last year that I began posting to the site with any sort of consistency I still only used it as a place to showcase my growing interest in photography. Seldom would I take advantage of reaching out to anyone on the site and even as I’ve been gaining contacts I still rarely establish any sort of relationship with any of them and have never met up with a single one I didn’t know beforehand…until now.
This past Thursday I received an email from a contact through Flickr letting me know that there is a small community of photographers here in Lagos and asking if I’d be interested in going out shooting with them. As I’m usually the stay-in-my-shell-and-don’t-attempt-to-meet-new-people type I dismissed the notion at first glance. After perusing my photos since being here in Lagos and realizing that about 95% of them have been taken at work I sucked up my natural shyness and decided to try something different. I replied to my new contact, E, and let her know that I’d love to get out and shoot the city that I still have yet to call home. To my surprise she responded back immediately and asked if I’d want to come out on Friday to Iwaya, a local fishing community that I’ve driven by several times and always wondered how it was that people could live in it. Now I had a dilemma. On one hand the idea of visiting this place seriously intrigued me but on the other hand, while I knowingly undertook the responsibility of going out with E by stating as much, I never actually expected this to happen the following day. Don’t these people know I’m shy?!
Friday morning rolled around and I considered my many options for backing out of my impending 10am venture. After all, I was pretty ill earlier in the week, perhaps I could say that my sickness had come back around. I forced a cough or two to convince myself that I wouldn’t be doing the wrong thing but then realized that if I passed on going this time then the ball would definitely be in my court to reach out if I ever changed my mind, and anyone who knows me knows that there is no way I’d contact someone I don’t know to see if I could hang out with them. So I sucked it up, got ready and waited for my ride. Around 9am E’s driver was here to pick me up and off I went to meet my new photog friends. There was no turning back.
Approaching the gate for E’s house the first thing I noticed was a sign that reads “Beware of dog.” While I’m not an animal hater or anything I definitely don’t deal well with any animals that require a warning label as a precursor to any sort of interaction. This was going to take some effort on my part to not FTFO (freak the f*ck out) when this dog would inevitably start aggressively barking at me. I rang the bell and waited at the door, no barking. The dog hadn’t approached me when we entered the property so maybe he just wasn’t around. I breathed a sigh of relief. The door opened and I stepped inside and immediately noticed this huge golden beast ready to attack, and he did…licking my fingers and rubbing against my leg, giving me the most action that I’ve had in seven months. I breathed another sigh of relief. E introduced herself and invited me into her computer room where I sat on the couch and did what I do best, said almost nothing and felt awkward. Fortunately E didn’t seem fazed by the quiet stranger sitting on her couch playing with her dog and she did her best to make me feel comfortable.
Let me stop the story here and give a little background information. What I probably should have mentioned is the knowledge I already had of E before I showed up at her door. Prior to her email she had made me a contact on Flickr and as I always do when people add me as a contact on Flickr I went through her photostream. Most of the time I do this because I’m just amazed that anyone would like my photos enough to add me as a contact, sometimes I do it just to make sure that they actually contribute photos to the site. Anyhow, I went through E’s photostream and noticed that she had some wonderful photos of Lagos that weren’t of some small one hundred square meter area on VI like my pictures had been. I was impressed with her photos and happy about the the fact that what I had been told was not necessarily true and I could go out and shoot photos without the worry of having my camera stolen. The second thing that I knew about E, which she had mentioned to me in her email, and which was the catalyst for our day’s photography journey was that she created the African Child Development Initiative, an organization focused on developing the initiatives of African children. I kid, they are a group that raises funds to help extremely less fortunate children gain an education and have exposure to things that they would never have had access to beforehand. Basically this woman is doing what most people sit around and dream of doing for African children, and here I am cooking burgers and chicken dinners for a living while I wait for a goal of opening a restaurant that seems to grow further and further away each day. But that’s neither here nor there. This day we were going to Iwaya to take photos and to allow E to check on the progress of the school that her organization is building there.
Aside from being just short of sainthood, E is also quite humble about her whole operation and an extremely courteous person that even after a good fifteen minutes still seemed highly unfazed by the quiet stranger sitting on her couch playing with her dog. And so it went for about twenty minutes or so as E gave me a little background about herself and I sat quietly on her couch playing with her dog just hoping she’d keep talking a) so that I wouldn’t have to and b) because I loved her accent, she’s British Nigerian. After about twenty minutes or so her friend, and fellow photography enthusiast, D showed up. We introduced ourselves and E made a well played attempt at getting me to speak a little and yet still I sat quietly on her couch and played with her dog. Oh why did I never develop people skills? Fortunately for me both E and D were very nice women and neither one seemed faze by, well yeah, there’s that quiet guy and the dog thing again.
We packed up our stuff, hopped into E’s truck and off we went to Iwaya. I was excited and nervous to see an area of Lagos that I otherwise would have had no access to and I was relieved that I wasn’t going to be the only one sticking out like a sore thumb as D is a blonde Polish woman who also happens to have a great accent. Damn you California and your fast talking non-annunciating ways! All my verbal intricacies consist of are a vocabulary filled with ‘t’s that sound like ‘d’s and a penchant for competitive level speed talking…does such a thing exist? Mental note, Google “competitive level speed talking.”
**Let me stop here once again and state that from this point on this post really derails as I've yet to wrap my head around it all. Hopefully I'll post something a little more readable in the near future.**
As I’m still having a pretty hard time discerning the various areas around Lagos aside from the general observation of “this place is a slum and this place isn’t” I can only say that Iwaya, on approach, reminded me very much of the area near Lekki Market. That is to say that there is obviously a lot of poverty in the area that is, to me, completely indescribable to anyone back home. Once we made it to our destination, a one room schoolhouse in this impoverished little fishing village, it all sort of hit me. It was that feeling that you hear rich white people describe when they are on Oprah’s couch talking about their volunteer work in Africa. The same people that would make me roll my eyes and think to myself how easy it is for privileged people to make themselves feel good by sharing to the world the plight of the less fortunate. The same feeling that would always make me change the channel when they got to the part about how “life altering” it all is. Well that’s what it was. Even sitting here at the keyboard I find it hard to type about and don’t feel that any description I could give would do this place justice.
To say Iwaya is poor is an understatement. Poor by US standards means that you collect food stamps but still manage to pay for your basic cable package. Poor by US standards means that sometimes you go without food but most of the time your priorities are so out of whack that you dream of winning the lottery and having it all change. Living in Iwaya means that you are dreaming of having a meal to eat at the end of the day and if you could afford to buy that lottery ticket to get you away from it all you can only do so because you’ve been saving all of your money for the last week. What’s worse is that this isn’t the Feed the Children part of Africa that you only hear about in the US, this is a community that is roughly ten minutes, sans traffic, from VI. And so continues the dichotomy that is Nigeria; the uber-wealthy living nearby the extremely destitute, both communities accepting of the others existence but neither one really having much interaction aside from traffic caused car-side vendor transactions. For the sake of not getting into a discussion on Nigerian politics that I know absolutely too little about at this time I’ll try to just continue with the day’s activities.
We walked into this one room schoolhouse, previously the main school but now just the temporary location as the new one is being built nearby thanks to the help of E’s NGO, and all of the kids looked excited to see us and in complete wonder as to why it is that an oyibo is at their school. E and D have been going there rather regularly for the last two years so it was nothing new to them and it seemed rather commonplace for the children as well but, try as I might to just blend in and take photos of the daily activities, I soon found that my presence was not to go unnoticed. We took a few photos around the room and I found out that usually there are about one hundred children in there at once for instruction but on this day E’s group had sent some kids on a local field trip.
Fifteen minutes of shooting and trying to adjust the camera settings to get some decent photos went by and we left the room to go see the new school and along the way built up quite a following of kids just wanting us to “snap ‘em.” It’s a total cliché but still it needs to be stated that the number of smiles on the faces of these children, who have absolutely nothing, is just incredible. At the same time though, many of the kids have this aged look in their eyes; a look that I probably will never know personally, a look that, at the age of three, four, or five years old tells the world that they’ve already seen enough that nothing will ever bother them more than what they’ve been through, a look generally reserved for eighty year old war veterans.
We carried on and made our way to the school building. To be quite honest I don’t remember too much about the school as I was so overwhelmed by the environment and couldn’t stop shooting photos of all the kids tugging at my shirt and innocently posing. We made our way deeper into the fishing village and passed some old shacks marked with the letters ‘MOE ODS’ separated by a large ‘X’. I later learned that this marking meant that the buildings are not supposed to be there and will be removed due to the proper permits not being in place, or allowed to stay where they are so long as the right people are paid the right price.
I’m not certain if it was from the sweat dripping off my forehead or the smoke from the fish preparation but my eyes began burning pretty badly after a while. I was hoping that it was just from the sweat because I couldn’t imagine getting used to that feeling and having to deal with it everyday as these people would have to if it was in fact caused by the smoking of the fish. All I know is that my curiosity concerning the cause of the hazy layer over the fishing villages off the bridge was finally settled. These people make a living off of fishing and smoking the fish and the remnants of that smoke hovers wistfully twenty-four hours a day over the village like a foggy haze over a cemetery in some b-grade horror film.
D had brought along a few cases of something called Snacky, a chocolate filled croissant type item if I remember correctly. Once the boxes came out everyone did their best to grab hold of one but, as seems to be the case for these people, there just wasn’t enough for everyone. This caused D some heartache as she felt like her gesture was not as well served as she had hoped but I think that she did her best at that moment to provide some sort of assistance to these kids.
We stayed around shooting a few more photos for a while and then were on our way. If I didn’t come off as quiet and awkward in the first twenty minutes of meeting E and D I’m sure I did after the trip to Iwaya. It was just so much to take in and even now I find it difficult to write about. It was an experience that I didn’t think I’d ever get to have and one that I hope I get to have again, but also one that for the last few days since has really had me wondering what it is that I’m doing both in Nigeria and with my life.