Nigeria’s Lagos, a dynamic city put into words by writer Sophie Bouillon

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Friday, 4 June 2021 20:41

In this photo taken Monday June 20, 2016, pedestrians shop at a market in Lagos, Nigeria. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

In Sophie Bouillon’s new book 'Manuwa Street', the journalist, with blunt honesty, explores the inequality and violence that plague Nigeria’s most populous city.

Readers of Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński (The Shadow of the Sun) and Swedish writer Stig Dagerman (German Autumn) already know that the future of journalism may not lie with the internet or the few remaining newspapers still determined to survive.

At any rate, this is the conclusion one can draw after reading Sophie Bouillon’s new book, Manuwa Street. In this 140-page work of narrative non-fiction, the 37-year-old journalist, documents her past year – to be forever remembered as the year of coronavirus – living in Lagos. It is a significant departure from the news articles she produces for Agence France Presse.

Staying true to her award-winning style, which previously earned her an Albert Londres Prize (the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize) for ‘Bienvenue chez Mugabe’, Bouillon thoughtfully intertwines experiences from her personal life and musings on her career with razor-sharp, clear-eyed observations about everyday life in Lagos.

In so doing, she sheds light on both the effervescent and harsh side of sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous city. Rather than deliver a navel-gazing exercise in autobiographical fiction, the author honestly confronts her privileged place in society, as a citizen of an affluent country and a person whose job is to report on the turmoil of a nation racked by inequality and political violence.

Brutality of capitalism

“‘Seriously, of all the countries you can go to with your passport, you want to come live here?’ The question was not directed at me. Yet, despite the hubbub of conversation and the music blasting from the speakers, it had resonated really deeply with me. It was finally the weekend, a Saturday in January 2020. I was having dinner with friends at RSVP, a trendy bar and restaurant in Victoria Island – one of the most exclusive areas in Lagos – with an outdoor pool, a popular DJ and a VIP clientele,” Bouillon writes, making no effort to conceal the name of the place in question.

A few pages on, when she describes how the city carried out forced evictions and razed entire neighbourhoods in order to line the pockets of a few developers, the brutality of Nigerian capitalism comes into striking view:

Manuwa Street is, among other things, the story of a street frequented by ordinary people whom most reporters overlook or don’t want to see.

“Ten thousand people. Military personnel rattled bells to wake those who were still asleep. They knocked on the doors of houses. Dogs were barking. ‘Hurry up!’ they shouted. At noon on the dot, bulldozers demolished everything. The 10,000 residents living in Tarkwa Bay had been given four hours to vacate their homes.”

Nothing could stop the community members from being forcibly evicted, and what remained of Tarkwa Bay a short while later were merely “heaps of broken concrete blocks and furniture torn to pieces and discarded beneath coconut trees”. All the journalist could do to help was to perform her ridiculous job: “I made a few videos with my phone and posted them on Instagram with the hashtag #SaveTarkwa. That’s what people do nowadays, right?”

Moored in the middle of piles of rubbish

However, this feeling of powerlessness – one that can sap the most determined among us – hasn’t shaken Bouillon’s faith in the power of words. And she unselfishly devotes them to the voiceless. Manuwa Street is, among other things, the story of a street frequented by ordinary people whom most reporters overlook or don’t want to see. It’s the story of many a street in Lagos.

“Living in Lagos is a constant reminder of our privilege,” the author writes. “If you buy a yacht and invite all the richest businessmen in town, it will still be moored in the middle of piles of rubbish, while the stink of sewage fills the air. Build walls around your villa, if you have the means, and try to avert your eyes from the rest of the city as it passes you by in your SUV with tinted windows. As you make your way to work, you will still see the dozens of men, women and children who sleep, bathe, piss, defecate, style their hair and get dressed in every street. In every shipping container or abandoned building. In any place at all in every square metre of the city.” Welcome to Lagos.

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