Imagine New York. In your mind’s eye, you might see that classic shot of New York as many immigrants would have seen it – from a boat passing by the Statue of Liberty and seeing a wide and high city. It is enthralling. This great metropolis – what are the people doing in the 40th floor of that building? what are the people doing at the ground level of that building? It is awe-inspiring with its vast, densely packed, tall, modern buildings resting on this large mound of earth called the Manhattan Island.
Entering Lagos from the Third Mainland Bridge conjures up a similar set of emotions. The Third Mainland Bridge is the longest bridge in West Africa. It snakes from the mainland, over lagoons and provides a welcome to this city of 16-17 million people (considered to be the second largest city in the world!) that blows you away.
As you enter the bridge from the mainland, you pass by vast fishing villages, which exploit the rich lagoon that resides in the shadow in the bridge. Many of the fishing homes are built on wooden stilts rising above the water level. The fishermen are dotted in boats across the lagoon that emerge from the Bight of Benin and use every smallholder technique available to them from wide trawler nets to fishing rods! The fishing villages merge into the various residential areas on the mainland that go into the horizon.
Continue on this bridge and no longer is your attention captured by what’s going on the mainland, but the great city-island that is Lagos proper.
In front of you, for a very long time (15 minutes travelling at 80km/hour), is a huge (perhaps three times the size of Manhattan) business and residential megalopolis. At the centre of the island, glass and concrete skyscrapers grace the business district. The buildings decrease in height as you move to the edges. To the right are the stall-based markets, which my guide book describes as the possible the most densely populated place in the world! To the left of the dominating business district are the plush, more spacious, residencies of Lekki.
You view this dense city expanse for such a long time that it is indelibly written into your conscious. Who works in that building? Why are they still working at midnight on a Saturday? Who is selling what at the ground level? When was that built? How tall is that building? What are those cranes going to build?
As you get closer to the island, huge working class residential areas skirt up close to the edge of the bridge. The estates, like the Dolphin estate, are massive expanses of shoddy 1970’s concrete identikit flats. Tall gleaming skyscrapers seem to lean over these estates making a mockery of the shoddy living conditions of most Nigerians. Huge cranes swing in the humid air, somehow promising a first world future (as many of the State’s advert hoardings predict).
At the end of the bridge you are immersed in anarchic traffic and street hawkers that exploit the motionless, steaming cars – selling everything from board games to toothbrushes, from sausage rolls to fresh groceries through the windows of cars to impatient drivers and passengers.
Lagos is an intense city, and draws such exciting emotions when approaching it from the Third Mainland Bridge. There is no other way to get excited about Nigeria than cruising into Lagos over this bridge.