At first glance I felt as if I was in Mumbai. I arrived at the airport and was welcomed by the rains; heavy, deep, cleansing rains that spilled into the bustling streets and surrounding sea face. This rain brought a wash of excitement over me, something was happening in this country, and I was about to find out. Nigeria is a land of riches; riches of resources, riches of people, riches of culture, riches of tradition, and riches of poverty. In 10 days I had the opportunity to get a taste of all of them.
Lagos greeted me with a deep heat. After arriving at the apartment where I was to stay, I immediately put on my running shoes and took a jog to explore the neighborhood of Ikoyi. Lesson#1 There is nothing like an open road to clear your head and open your mind to what lays ahead.
Since I am not your typical vacationer (ie. I like to explore new places through people, experiences, and social development), I decided to tag along with a few friends who are doing some amazing work in the country. We visited the Co-creation Hub in Lagos an innovative community that is helping build the Nigerian entrepreneurship infrastructure by bringing together young people to co-create solutions to the challenges of government transparency, infrastructure, information asymmetry, and more. I also visited the Institute for Venture Design, funded by the Fate Foundation (an incredible Africa philanthropy) that is focused on finding and investing in innovative ideas that have the potential to re-imagine business in Nigeria. A few ideas; A Nigerian car, mobile money transfer, a culturally relevant Nigerian education platform, and mobile gaming the generates advertising revenue. Lesson#2: Entrepreneurship and passion flow like water in this seaside country.
From Lagos I went to Oweri, a small town in Eastern Nigeria, and the hometown of a friend. The domestic airport greeted us with the legacy of the poor infrastructure in which the country was so desperately trying to rid itself of. Yet once we braved the check in line and our airplane began its assent, the frustrations washed away and calm was upon us.
Our trip to Oweri was only a day, but I had the opportunity to see the reality of a small town that was isolated from the capital, exposure, and infrastructure of a big city. My friend’s family is committed to changing that. They have invested in a state of the art IT Training school and are working to develop a furniture factory that will employ hundreds if not thousands in the town exposing them not only to jobs but also to export markets within the country. Lesson #3: Nigerian philanthropy is prevalent but often under the radar and isolated to an individual’s hometown or tribal roots. I wonder what it would look like if that began to change?
Back to Lagos. As I sat on the couch in my friend’s home next to his mother, across from his aunt and brother, with his nephew at my feet, a rush of community came over me. The conversation was filled with discussion of his mother’s favorite dishes from her hometown (two of which I had the opportunity to try), the challenges of child rearing, and the recent conversations sparked at church earlier in the day. As the conversation flowed “couzins”, friends, and family moved fluidly in and out of the home, no invitation was needed. Lesson #4: In a country that has the tangible riches of any “developed” country, they are managing to preserve the intangibles; their sense of family, community, and traditions.
Abuja. I was welcomed by another friend, a Nigerian American who finds himself caught between his somewhat competing origins. The next three days I explored Abuja partially by foot (well running shoes) and partially by car. While in Abuja I was exposed a strong ex-patriot crowd, Nigerian Americans, who felt a deep commitment and tremendous opportunity to invest in their home country. Abuja reminded me of DC, more open space, filled with politics, and searching for an identity amidst competing priorities. Lesson #5: Our identities are fluid changing in each moment, each interaction, how do we find and preserve the core? Do we need to?
As I drove back to the Lagos airport on my way home to New York, I crossed the bridge that took me from Victoria Island to the mainland of Lagos. As our car raced over the bridge I looked to my right and saw the slums of Lagos sinking deeply into the water, yet they held on as if they had been on that edge for centuries refusing to let go, refusing to give in. Rather than feeling sympathy, I felt a power in this image, a realization that at this moment in time this resilience has real opportunity to find its voice.