In February of 2013, I made a hurried decision to head to Lagos, in an attempt to shoot a pilot season for My Africa Is,  an ongoing web documentary series, that aims to dispute the one dimensional portrayal of the African continent. We had been seeking funding for quite some time, and it just wasn’t panning out.  I was in the process of virtually organizing an event for Social Media Week Lagos, and realized what a missed opportunity it would be, not to head out to my home city, and shoot some stories out there, as a first attempt to see what My Africa Is could look and feel like.

The weeks leading up to the trip were focused on research, locating a crew, and reading The Art of the Interview. As this would be the first full scale shoot for my documentary on the continent, I was trying to avoid ruining our chance at creating solid content that would be indicative of what My Africa Is is.

To give you a sense of Lagos it is divided in two parts, the Island and the Mainland. The island is where the super rich and expats settle, in huge houses and luxury apartments protected by guards. The mainland also has gated communities, but it also houses the middle class neighborhoods, and “slums” of Lagos.

I was quite proud of myself waking up at 5am for the first shoot, where I would prove my directorial chops. My cab guy came to get me on time, which was the first surprise, as punctuality is usually not the norm, call it African time. Anyways, I hopped in the front seat, with jotting down the questions I would ask Bilikiss. Why Wecyclers? Why do you care about plastics? How long do you think it will take to clear the garbage hills in Lagos?  Focused, was the word. As we drove past the traffic, and I thought to myself what a good decision it was to leave early and beat Lagos’s mind numbing “go-slows”. I looked up, from my questions and shot list, taking in the scenery of streets that used to be mine to roam as a kid, thinking back to the trouble we would get into leaving home without permission. As we got on the expressway passing one of the most popular housing estates, I noticed something curious.

A guy lay on the side of the road, my immediate thought was that he may have been crazy or drunk and has somehow passed out on the expressway. However, not too far away from him lay a woman, lifeless in the middle of traffic, making me realize they weren’t just laying there. The silence and focus of the cab ride to Ikeja was broken. “What the FUCK???,” came out of my mouth. The cab guy looked at me with a knowing smile, “Na wetin?” We definitely were not the first to drive past them, tens if not hundreds of cars had certainly driven past their lifeless bodies. My cab guy looked at me like I was crazy, when I asked why didn’t we stop? (Definitely a reaction of someone who’s been gone too long from Lagos): “Stop and do what?” He asked. My mouth opened and closed searching for an answer, when I knew there wasn’t one. Who were we really calling? 911? “That one na government matter,” was the one liner he used to dismiss my confusion. He was right, the only hope was that a police car would eventually drive by the bodies, and stop to take them to a prison or a morgue, where they probably wouldn’t be identified, unless they carried around their passport, as the concept of national IDs is still one that is but a dream.

I was shaken, not because I didn’t think something like that was possible in Lagos, but because I didn’t expect to come in such close contact with this underbelly of Lagos; the Lagos you are able to avoid, and shake your head in hopelessness, when protected by concrete walls and armed guards.

We eventually made our way to get our videographer, and then headed to the Wecyclers compound, in Surulere. The roads leading up to the compound, were probably the shittiest roads I’ve ever had the pleasure to drive on, I eventually asked the cab guy to park for fear that his Toyota would fall in a crater parading as a pothole. As I walked in we were greeted by whom we thought were area boys (neighborhood thugs) looking at me with what I like to call my “kidnap me” backpack, and my videographer with his moccasins. We tried to look hard, until we met up with Wale Davies who helped set up the shoot. Wale broke the tension, as he had a natural manner and kindly declined their offers for mary jane, and but politely accepted a card for a herbalist. Dr. Fix-ya-life at your service.

I eventually realized I was fearing for nothing as our friendly area boys were actually some of the Wecyclers, and talking to them afterwards, they were obviously just kids  trying to make some scratch to pay for school, or take care of their families.  I loved that Bilikiss chose this neighborhood to set up her recycling outfit. Providing her WeCyclers with jobs, probably prevented them from engaging in more harmful activities than slinging pot.  The Wecyclers shoot was a smooth one, although my tshirt tan was official by the time we were done. Bilikiss was easy going, and eager for us to meet her customers, and we were homies with the crew by the time we left.

My Africa Is: Lagos Chronicles episode 1| The WeCyclers:

One of my big goals when I was in Lagos was to shoot some cool aerial footage. Thankfully I had Ahamefule a.k.a. Jimi Tones as my videographer, who suggested an abandoned skyscraper that he often went to get pictures of the Lagos skyline. Off we went to climb up 25 stories for the money shot. The building was in Lagos Island, a neighborhood that used to be Lagos’s commercial center, and home to the Brazilian quarters. Several banks set up shop there in the 80s and 90s during the reign of dictators that had institutionalized corruption, although most  banks and businesses had relocated their headquarters to more highbrow Victoria Island.

Jimi led me and our cab guy, who was now part of the crew, through a sea of hawkers and street vendors, to the abandoned building. We knew what the deal was. We were probably going to have to cough up some loot for access, as it had become a spot that other film-makers had discovered as a great shooting location for Lagos aerials.  I initially rode in on my anti-bribery high horse, determined not to cave in. The guard who was playing a card game with some of his boys saw us and immediately put on his uniform shirt to assert some kind of authority, before coming to greet us.  Once we explained that we intended to take some pictures, he informed us of his need to protect this building and his fear of his ogas (boss) at the top. Translation: how much are you willing to part with. I realized that while this guy was trying to ask for a bribe, which I clearly am against, I looked around and saw that this abandoned skyscraper was their home, and their imaginary boss was probably not paying him any real kind of salary. We ended up greasing his palm with what came up to about 20 dollars. Not bad for the awesome shots we ended up getting, along with a clutch Facebook cover photo. Being on top of that building was everything, as I stood above the chaos that is Lagos, and with the events of the day it, was the best way I could imagine wrapping up my first day of shooting.

Day Two of shooting, was within pretty controlled environments, minus the obvious occurrence of power outages, and incredibly high temperatures.  Nonetheless ending, in a good hang with photographer Lakin Ogunbanwo, and the music producer E. Kelly whose episode fell victim to the roaring engines of okadas (Lagos’s now defunct motorcycle taxis).

My Africa Is: Lagos Chronicles episode 3| Lakin Ogunbanwo:

The final shoot of the Lagos Chronicles captured the floating school, this time working with a different production team, namely 37th state, and employed the videography talents of Nkechi Bakare. I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit to the anxiety I experienced prior to this shoot. As an ajebutta (spoiled kid) the floating slum of Makoko is not my usual Monday chill spot. I tried to hide my trepidation as we walked through the muddy alleys of that led to the main canal. However we were greeted with smiling kids shouting “ Oh yeah, oh yeah” over and over, and waving at us, immediately setting me at ease.  According to Kunle Adeyemi, the architect behind the Floating School, they were repeating something they’d heard some white folk say, and it just happened to be something they chanted out when they saw the fish out of water expats walking around.  As we got in the canoes, and cruised along the waterway to the floating school, I felt my mind blow in a million pieces, as I was smack dab in the reality that is Makoko. The community was literally one that floated, as the only way of getting around was by canoe, or swimming in water with a less than sanitary rating. Yet people were going about their lives, and happy. I didn’t feel unsafe, or completely out of place as we hung out on the school, that had become a meeting place for the people of Makoko, with kids sleeping on the main floor as the lagoon breeze cooled them.

My Africa Is: Lagos Chronicles episode 2| The Floating School:

The Lagos State Government condemned the floating school as an illegal structure. Makoko has been a thorn in the side of Lagos State, as it is conveniently located in close proximity to the island, and furthermore sits right behind luxury apartments being constructed (the sounds and smells of Makoko, would leave much to be desired from the potential wealthy tenants). To this day, the state continues to attempt to evict the residents of Makoko, and demolish the floating slum, in order to make way for more accommodation, for Lagos’s upper middle class, while providing no plans for the relocation to the 200,000 plus residents that would be left homeless.

A year after shooting the Lagos Chronicles, with the bad news that continues to flow out of Nigeria (the missing Chibok girls, and the recent dubious Ekiti State election results). Lagos, and Nigeria in general, is truly the tale of two cities. I stayed on the island where it is the best of times, and people make/find enough money to power diesel guzzling generators, and the Lagos movers and shakers rub elbows, within their closed off 5% society. The shoots however allowed me to see deeper into another perspective, where bodies of loved one can be driven by as though their lives meant nothing, parts of the city where most residents probably don’t own jet skis, or ocean front real estate, well, outside of our friends in Makoko.  This is how the majority of Lagos lives, and this majority is the heartbeat, that is ultimately going to decide the future of Lagos.  The need for outfits that create employment like the Wecyclers, or a structure that makes it possible for kids to actually go to school regardless of weather, is one that is real and of the essence.

You probably find it strange that I start off on this note as I talk about shooting a documentary series that aims to show a “different side” of Africa. Well this will probably help to clarify the misconception of our little show that could. The point of My Africa Is, isn’t to say that our continent is perfect, on the contrary it is still quite flawed. The individuals we shot in Nigeria are creating these projects because of those flaws, and the extreme capitalistic nature of the government. They are filling the gaps and trying to provide solutions to Lagos’s major problems. This will be the tone that most of our pieces takes on. We invite our audience to take note of what their peers are creating, and hopefully get a surge of inspiration to think up their own solutions to problems within their communities, wherever that may be.

* The next season of My Africa Is will be available in September of  2014, and will feature three amazing stories from Dakar, Senegal.

Further Reading