The Rain in Lagos
Here in Lagos we are approaching the end of the so-called rainy season (as opposed to the so-called dry season). So-called because why include the word ‘season’ in the first place? Nobody says the ‘winter season’ or the ‘summer season’ but we’ve given up on our indigenous languages in favour of the English that colonised us and so rainy season it is. Nomenclature aside, it’s a welcome relief from the steady build-up of heat in the weeks before the ‘little rains’ in April that farmers, especially, would have been anxiously anticipating. The heavy rains peak in August, by which time the crops should be sufficiently well rooted, barring a freak deluge, in a country where anticipating problems is a convenient avenue to ‘chop money’ in the hope that Jesus, Muhammad or the Ancestors – we are promiscuous in these matters – will postpone the evil day.
For the city folk who comprise half of Nigeria’s 200 million people, especially those of us in the ‘overpopulated, opinionated, 21-million-bodied eye’, as Eloghosa Osunde describes Lagos, the response to the rains is mixed. On the plus side, the cooler, windier, overcast weather means we can get a good night’s sleep. Fans and air-conditioners are little use when it’s hot because of the intermittent power supply, currently a fitful four hours a day. In my relatively well-to-do neighbourhood we at least have enough space for whatever air there is to circulate. The only consolation for the more than 80 per cent of the city’s population who live in overcrowded slums is that even the wealthy are complaining about the skyrocketing cost of diesel for private generators since Putin invaded Ukraine (don’t ask why Africa’s largest exporter of crude oil is also the largest importer of refined).
Rich and poor alike must also suffer the flooding that the rains bring to a city already notorious for its ‘go-slows’ in the absence of the light railway we were promised in 2003. A heavy downpour will make many streets impassable, even in affluent Victoria Island, where in 2017 an oyibo (white) man was filmed paddling a kayak among half-submerged cars. It was an instant hit on social media because Lagosians, most of them young (the mean age of Nigerians is 18), are sardonic about our many failings as a way to fend off despair: ‘Sharp guy,’ tweeted Kate Henshaw, the Nollywood actor.
As it happens, the city’s many creeks and lagoons – hence Lagos, from the Portuguese for lakes – could solve the traffic problem once and for all, especially during the rains. There are ferries which are theoretically both faster and cheaper than going by road, but they often break down and have been known to go the wrong way and get lost in the bush. In practice, long-suffering commuters have little choice but to sit it out for hours on end in the cramped yellow danfos (buses) with their hopeful slogans – ‘No Stress’, ‘God Dey’, ‘No Condition Is Permanent’ – as they travel between work and home, which may well be in a slum submerged by overflowing gutters. Even when there isn’t flooding, the canals are choked with plastic bottles, Styrofoam containers and the ubiquitous ‘pure water’ sachets that are among the ten thousand tonnes of non-recyclable waste discarded daily.
At the turn of the century, after almost thirty years of military rule, an enlightened administration (comparatively speaking) planted more than four million trees in six years. The city is shockingly denuded of them despite being well within the tropical rainforest zone. But ‘Na flower I go chop?’ (‘I need food not flowers’) was a depressingly popular refrain at the start of the initiative. Nobody now doubts the efficacy of it even if most have ignored the concomitant appeal for citizens to plant at least one tree in their own compounds.
Unlike the residents of Accra in neighbouring Ghana, few Lagosians seem inclined to maintain even a couple of pot plants for the sake of appearances. In my street of fourteen compounds, only two of us have them; and yet, with average temperatures between 24ºC and 33ºC all year round, you can have a garden that never stops flowering. It’s during the rains that it really comes into its own though. I travelled out of the country for the month of June this year and was taken aback by how lush the garden had become on my return. The banana trees that almost always surprise first-time visitors – bananas in Lagos? – were especially extravagant with their wide, overhanging leaves and stems bending under the weight of the bulging bunches of fruit. We give away most of the bananas from our five trees before they start to rot in the high humidity (73 per cent at the beginning of July).
Almost a third of Nigeria’s 92 million hectares is arable; Bangladesh, with a comparable population, has only nine million. But it’s reckoned that up to half the tomato crop grown in the drier climate in the north rots before it reaches its main market in Lagos because of the many checkpoints along the way – ‘Mr Man, shake bodi’ – to say nothing of the toll taken by potholes on the threadbare tyres of overburdened trucks.
Travelling around the country, I am always struck anew by the great mounds of fruit – mangos, melons, oranges, pineapples – sold for a pittance at major junctions by local women. I once slept over in a village – with well swept compounds and designated places for litter – and remarked on the heavily laden orange tree at the entrance to my host’s compound. He laughed and said he had tried offloading the entire crop in exchange for a calabash of palm wine but nobody was interested, they all had their own. Besides, you could hardly compare plucking an orange to the effort of climbing a palm tree.
Not that all palm trees have to be climbed to be harvested. We have two of the dwarf variety in our compound with their ground-level bunches of the red kernels whose oil lubricated the industrial revolution that led by a circuitous route to our colonisation, and with it our new-fangled seasons.
For myself, I prefer the cooler rainy season for the simple reason that I work from home, which must be like a dream for the many Lagosians obliged to battle the traffic every working day, but I’ll also take the heat of the dry season any day before the cold of the winter season. It seems like an indulgence that I can wear a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops (or bathroom slippers, as we call them) all year round as I recline on the balcony overlooking the garden.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.