Tuesday, 17 March 2009

For ‘small London’...na flower we go chop?

One lingering memory of Lagos is that of a market woman in a bus on Oshodi bridge, looking upon the stretch of land below, where a section of the market had been demolished by government. She sighed and intoned: “Now they will come and plant flowers here” — her sympathies obviously with the traders whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the Urban renewal drive.
Urban Renewal is never an easy task and should not be about whether landscaping / beauty and the therapeutic benefits / tourism it brings to residents and visitors alike is more important than the livelihood of the inhabitants who will be displaced or otherwise adversely affected by the change or vice-versa... Urban Renewal should be about mutual trade-offs and the good of all, which with deep soul searching, is not so impossible.

THAT was last year, five months before the bulldozers moved into Oshodi and proved once and for all that no matter how long we might have lived like barbarians, sanity can still overcome our basest instincts to perpetuate mindless clutter and congestion of a major transport artery in an all important city.
Just this year, I was on another bus (okay, the design sleuth does the bus hopping thing, but let’s assume for the purpose of this discussion that I leave the Maybach parked at home occasionally in the cause of my anthropological studies of the designscape) and heard a passenger from upfront exclaim animatedly — “Eh-ehn... is this Oyingbo? Lagos don dey become small London o!” Another citizen made a similar statement on National Television just a couple of weeks after.
Lagos? Small London? As much as their euphoria for the improving face of Lagos might be appreciated, their depiction of one of the foremost urban centers in Africa as a city aspiring towards ‘Londonness’ (is it not that small ‘town’ in the UK that they’re all referring to with froth in their mouths?) is irritating to say the least because there-in lies the problem. Lagos should be a city that London should aspire towards! Okay, that’s mind numbing right? But we Nigerians, we’ve been so used to sub-human standards that when presented with slight improvements, we assume we’ve attained nirvana. If our imagination was alive and well, we would know that the current efforts can only be the beginning, we would know that there is still a long way to go in building this city into a world class urban center, we would not be asking “Na flower we go chop?” like brainless beasts who must ‘chop’ everything, including our own dignity as a people.
I’m seeing some parts of Lagos as if for the first time despite having plodded through those same streets for the past several years. Illegal sheds, stalls, awnings and other mindless assemblages that once defaced building and made their finer character indiscernible are being stripped off with unprecedented alacrity. Even shop owners, the perpetrators of all that clutter have got the message, they are curtailing their own excesses in an unprecedented wave of public compliance to government directives and all of a sudden, old dusty decrepit buildings are wearing new coats of paint.
You look around and feel lost, the buildings are breathing, they communicate their contribution to the streetscape a lot better, you don’t feel so hot under the collar anymore just walking down the street, because your eyes are not assaulted to the same degree to which they were previously, but you are not thinking ‘small London’, you’re thinking ‘new Lagos’.

You read a quote ascribed to Dr. Samuel Johnson, London’s foremost dramatist of the 19th century and feel envious, what are they feeling like, that quote should have been directed at Lagos: “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” This quote, adapted to Lagos should explain to the governor why many of us are not going to leave this town, sorry your work is not going to get any easier with a sudden drop in population, this is where we must rock and die, and we’d better make it work together.
But this ‘small London’ thing is so very annoying, what is it about London sef?” So what if the city has survived a revolution, a great plague (that extinguished 100,000 souls), a great fire (that razed 80 percent of the city); all in quick succession in the 17th century, yet grew in population to become the world’s largest city by 1914. The world wars, particularly the blitz of German air bombings between 1940 and 1941 that claimed 30,000 lives and 130,000 houses, social unrest in the 1980s and more recent terrorist attacks –– especially that of July 2005, which coincided with the announcement of London as host city for the 2012 Olympics –– and the current global financial meltdown have not been sufficient catastrophes to steal the swagger from the flagship city of ‘cool Britannia’.
Reading former Mayor of London –– Ken Livingstone reel out the city’s plans for using the opportunity of their hosting of the 2012 summer Olympics to upgrade the city’s infrastructure and engage the east end in some serious urban rejuvenation in the October 2008 edition of the Cityscape magazine, one starts to feel heightened pangs of jealousy. Can ‘Fash’ have enough time to help us catch up with the rest of the world once and for all and stop these ‘small London’ jibes decidedly?
Sure Lagos had its share of ‘bombardment’ from British gunships at the tail end of the 19th century to encourage the Oba of Lagos to cede control to the Queen of England, however, that’s child’s play in comparison to the Blitz... Lagos even remained completely untouched throughout the civil war! “So what is our problem? A lack of imagination I dare say, we are yet unable to imagine ourselves deserving of well maintained public parks, public transportation networks, intelligent retail systems, dignifying and attractive mass housing schemes; and as long as we lack that imagination, no matter the government’s best efforts, we will keep whining about how we can’t feed on the flowers they are planting and why their attempts to de-clutter and properly organize our streetscapes and informal retail systems are anti-poor people in a shameless glamorization of poverty like blind adherents to a primitive and outdated religion”.
It will be interesting to see London one day and say without cynicism, “Ah-ahn, London don dey become small Lagos o!” It may sound like wishful thinking at the moment, but that has always been the bedrock of remarkable development in every sphere of civilization, a healthy doze of imagination.
London facts courtesy 2008 Encarta
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