Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.
Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.
We attempt to make understanding foreign societies easier by putting them into neat little boxes in our heads. The French are like this, the Chinese like that. It’s how we make sense of the world.
The great thing about working for National Geographic is having the time to challenge preconceived ideas of a people or a place. We leave realizing that those neat little boxes don’t work; life “over there” is as complex as it is here.
I went to Dolphin Estate in Lagos, Nigeria, to see a typical working-class neighborhood from where the oft-reported on African middle class was rising.
Like many of my encounters in this enormous, changing city, it wasn’t what I expected.
I went to Dolphin because it looked poor—the type of place where people could only go up. The buildings are ramshackle, there is rarely electricity, water must be delivered by hand, the streets are often flooded. If you were driving by, you would assume that this was a concrete slum. But that would be wrong. A closer investigation reveals more. Multiple satellite dishes hang off every building, men with briefcases and women in skirt suits come and go; the cars parked on the road outside the apartments are all modern and shiny. Come early in the morning and you would see them being cleaned. Stay a little longer and you would see that those cleaning the cars are the drivers employed to chauffeur the cars’ owners.
I went to Dolphin Estate to find those who would make up the middle-class of the future and discovered that much of Dolphin Estate had already made it.
But it wasn’t a simple error of judgment, it was a complex one. Along with the teachers and civil servants with shiny cars who make up Dolphin’s middle class, there were the mechanics and traders and tailors who don’t have cars: the working class. Then there are those who live on the estate to serve the middle class: those who deliver the water, and do odd jobs. These were mostly Nigerians from the north of the country; it’s much poorer there, so many northerners travel south in search of manual work.
The more I delved, the more colorful and diverse Dolphin became. There was the young woman studying Russian at university—she proudly told me of her trip to Moscow; the young girl who wanted to be a writer, but she couldn’t read because her glasses were broken; the robe-wearing evangelist; the Manchester United fans (they’re everywhere!); the guy with the little photo studio who Photoshopped exotic backgrounds into his photos.
There were teenagers whose parents had a generator and who watched “Spiderman” while the rest of the estate was without power; their apartment was so loud they couldn’t hear us knocking on the door. I met a couple who ran a non-governmental organization who proudly announced they were HIV positive before even telling me their names. I watched Chinese soap operas while children prepared for school and their father, a Muslim, made his morning prayer. I ate rice and canned fish under a spotlight after the electricity went out and plunged the apartment I was in into darkness. I peeked in on a private gym where muscular men lifted lumps of concrete, and into a makeshift fitness studio where women did aerobics.
Complex communities are a challenge for storytellers. Those boxes we use to simplify and compress are helpful when describing a place—especially when you have a limited number of words and photos. But they are also a problem, especially when it comes to Africa.
One of the reasons I decided to make this project about Lagos was that I wanted to make work that challenged our view of the continent. So often, people describe Africa like a single country with a single culture. I’m often asked by well-meaning people to explain the African mentality towards such and such, or what do Africans think about this or that? On a continent with a population nearing a billion, and 54 countries and many, many more cultures, there is no single answer.
Part of the reason I went to Lagos was to do a story about Africa’s diversity. Rather than trying to define a place with a few pictures, I wanted to create work that embraced the city’s complexity—that showed a small slice of the continent and left people with the idea that there is much more to Lagos, and to Africa, than can be captured in any article or photo essay.
I went to Dolphin to find Lagos’ rising middle class. I went there falling into the usual trap of trying to define a people and a place in a narrow way.
I did find the rising Lagos’ middle class in Dolphin, but I also found much more.
VIDEO: Meet the people of Lagos and hear what makes their city special—in their own words.
Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk.