(I wrote this on a different platform in 2010)
‘Welcome to Lagos’ (abbreviated below as W2Lag) was a BBC three-part observational documentary series, narrated by David Harewood, which explored life in the urban environment of Lagos, Nigeria. The documentary focused on life in different parts of Lagos such as, the Olusosun rubbish dump, where around 1,000 people live; the waters of Lagos Lagoon where people live in a houses built on stilts, and the beach in central Lagos, where people live in houses built from cardboard, scrap wood and tarpaulin.
My focus here is an examination of the politics of space invasion and narrative. What do I mean by space invasion? And what do politics and power have to do with it? Or with narrative? Invasion – an act or instance of entering as an enemy, an interloper, a violator; the entrance or advent of anything troublesome or harmful; entrance as if to take possession or overrun; intrusion. Space – physical space independent of what occupies it. In watching this documentary it occurred to me that the ability, the freedom, to intrude upon space previously occupied and take out, appropriate, from said space isolated narratives cannot be divorced from the power dynamics between the space occupiers and the invaders. How a story of a people is told depends on the power encapsulated in the positionality of the narrator. The parts of the story that are told, how a story is distorted, is directly related to the aims of the invader. We cannot afford to view any narrative predicated on space invasion without viewing the narrator through the lens of their power and politics.
Events may have overtaken the airing of the series (the hanging of the British parliament, the cultural and allegatory crisis at the BBC, impending scrapping of the licence fee, the deletion of a Nigerian president, the clueless era, the prediction of electoral doom and purported goslowedness in 100 days, body language, never-changing change… ad infinitum) I hope these events may give us the opportunity to take an objective look at the documentary. We are caught in a continuum of time, space and place. As the space invaders return and return, carrying our stories out with them each time, and we continue to look at ourselves through the invaders eyes, through the invaders eyes only… yes, we need to question that. We should always question.
Given the often detrimental nature of exposure given to Naija generally and Lagos specifically, I was quite sceptical about watching W2Lag. What convinced me to watch it was the number of social media comments on Esther and her problems with her husband. It made me wonder if the BBC was actually going to show true Nigerians and not some demonised version which seems to be imprinted in people’s head. So I watched W2Lag, from part 3 to part 1, then from part 1 to 3.
One thing struck me as profound about the series. I have been in the UK for a while now, so it was particularly poignant for me to see everyone with a smile. In the most squalid of circumstances, everyone was smiling. And not that fake just-for-the-cameras kind of smile, but a smile that extended from the slightly askew teeth up the dusty face into the rheumy eyes, no matter the circumstances. The eyes are the window of the soul and a smile that goes to the eyes, tells of souls that are undefeated despite the situation around them, undefeated despite the fact that those who have taken oaths of office to serve the people are ready and willingly to smash the people’s homes and throw them into the street. Ready to smash the people’s bones. Ready to tear their flesh apart, let out their blood and throw them into the street. But this is about W2Lag. Not those who would rather rule than lead.
If W2Lag achieved nothing else its narrative did not demonise. I would like the whole world to know that Nigerians are not defined by crime or fraud, but a people pushed to the edge of their limits by murderous, bloodsucking and power-hungry leaders and an outside world that has always been too selfish to care. I would want all to understand that at the edge of those limits lies an untapped resource of strength, resilience, imagination and courage. This is our story, this, only tangentially grasped by W2Lag.
Nevertheless, this does not detract from the reality that in a programme titled W2Lag, the BBC crew bypassed the airport, clean roads, and rows of palatial houses before they deigned to bring out their cameras to signal a welcome. The politics of narrative. What story do we want to tell? The story of the people or the story of their poverty. It is the cinematographic equivalent of describing the essence of a flowering frangipani tree by studying its roots, the roots may be an integral part of the tree, but its not the part that welcomes you. It is not the part of the tree that defines the tree. On the other hand the BBC has no duty to market Nigeria and its beauties. We do not market, and by we, I mean our epileptic non-government which grows fat on the flesh of children and distracts us by fomenting strife among those who should join together and build a different type of nation, a better one.
The above is a letter written by the Nigerian High Commission to the UK, addressed to BBC and posted on scribd. The letter laments the fact that the BBC did not set itself up as an advertising agency for the work that Fashola is doing. In addition to these sort of presumptuous statements, the letters contains such elementary errors as substituting the word “slums” with “slumps” and “scanvage” instead of “scavenge.” The second example clearly showing that, the high commissions computer either does not have spell-check or the ‘Seke’ doesn’t know how to use it. The letter says that this documentary is a distortion of life in Lagos. And thereby they deny the existence of a large percentage of the population of Lagos, and the rights they have to a better society to be provided by our inept, inadequate and inconsequential government. [Inserted in 2017: It seems that the government has decided to eradicate the ‘slumps’, the example of Otodo Gbame. The most appropriate response to this was given by OluTimehin Adegbeye in her Ted Talk (below), Who Belongs in a City?]
Of all the sinners at the table of W2Lag; BBC, Nigerians and the Nigerian Government; the greatest sinner in my opinion (as you may have surmised from my extremely restrained descriptions) is the Nigerian government. The government’s reaction to the documentary is irrational and illogical. As for the BBC, subject to the politics and power of space invaders, they seemed to have inadvertently captured the hearts and lives of people we will hardly ever see on international TV, (or even Nigerian television) evoking with clean cinematography and an almost flawless soundtrack the complicated nature of lives and dreams of SOME people in Lagos.
But the space invaders still invade our space and snatch our stories away with them and skew them. Because our ‘space’ is ungoverned. We are unprotected. We are defined as the object of the other’s gaze, so we see ourselves as the object of the other’s gaze, through the other’s gaze. We need to govern our space – the complete continuum of our space. Place the earth in the palms of our hands and call out to the feet that walked this land before our time here. Call out to all their children across space and time. Snatching back the space. Reclaiming our time. Reclaiming ourselves.
And as for W2Lag, until we learn and are able and free to tell our own stories, it is to the Esthers, Vocal Slenders and Zagedes that we look to, to speak our heart, to tell of our realities and to be to the world, the real Nigeria. All hail the space invaders. Your invasion is nearly done.