Thursday, March 15, 2012
Glimpses of Lagos
Starting out on this adventure, I found myself wondering whether I should start a separate blog somewhere else so that I didn't have to worry about calling my mother to warn her that "It's really not that bad" before I hit "post" each time.
Because it isn't.
It's 3:00 a.m. - not because of jet lag, but because some particularly perverse corner of my instinctive brain is able to snap me wide awake at precisely 3:00 a.m., regardless of the time zone. Like whatever it is in birds' beaks that lets them know which way is north, or when to nest, I appear to be evolutionarily groomed to know exactly whenever 3:00 a.m. local strikes, wherever in the world I am.
But since I'm up, I ought fill you in a little - as my mother pointed out, I sort of left you hanging in mid-air there (though, since I posted, you know at least that I landed and found wifi, right?)
So Lagos. I've been here about 12 hours so far, half of which I've spent blissfully horizontal and asleep in the lovely but internationally cookie-cutter RadissonBlu. The rest have been either getting shuttled in from the airport by Google's rather impressive security detail, or at dinner with the Google Nigeria team and the rest of crew that's swarmed in from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Switzerland, London and beyond.
Given that, here's what I've got so far: Lagos is, above all a Big City. A "conurbation", I think is the technical term, grown together from many smaller towns around the broad expanse of its eponymous lagoon. There are over 15 million people here, and I'm guessing that, whatever story you had a whim to tell, you could find some corner of Lagos with which to vividly illustrate it.
Before today, I'd only ever met one Nigerian - a summer intern working over in the next cubicle back when I was on the news team. I guess I'm up to a couple of dozen now, and admittedly from a biased sample (e.g. based on my personal experience, roughly half of all Nigerians work for Google, and half of the rest work at the airport or in the transportation and security business). But there seems to be an energy here. A willingness to look you in the eye, smile, and connect. The airport officials, and the folks waiting in the baggage line - I felt more of a connection than I'd expect from tired travelers or bored government paper pushers. And there's clearly an energy, a sense of promise in the tech community here - Lagos is New York and Silicon Valley rolled into one - also Dallas, Chicago and probably Jakarta for good measure.
Dinner was a long, loud affair - folks hopping table to table, meeting for the first time or catching up with each other in a fantastically tasty "Afro Asian" restaurant hidden somewhere deep in the tangled nest of roads on Victoria Island. It had taken a few wrong turns with our driver and minder to get here - "No, no no," he told the driver a couple of times "you really don't want to go down that road. Trust me on this." We spilled out onto the street after dinner, crossing over next door for ice cream in a million different unrecognizable flavors. My fellow Googlers - Bunmi, Jeminatu, Abdu, Michael, Chi and the others - 8000 miles from home, the Google Nigeria gang felt like familiar, kindred spirits.
Of course, this is only the tiniest imaginable slice of Lagos. Through the tinted windows rolling down the long arcing "Mainland bridge", you fleets of antiquated fishing dhows. A city's worth of smoke-enshrouded huts on stilts go by in a flash. Settlements in underpasses and long limousines blend in a collage of West African, South American, Indian sub-continent tropes. I know these images, these stories from Mumbai, from Monrovia, from Chicago. There are very few different stories, as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, but they can be told so many different ways.
Today, once "today" gets properly started a few hours from now, I'll get shuttled to the Lagos Civic Center with the rest of the gang, to spend the day meeting with the Nigerian tech community and helping bring the Great Google Religion to anyone who'll listen. "Go Gohl", Bunmi had explained - "For some reason, Nigerians always pronounce it 'Go Gohl'. I don't know why, and it's hopeless to try to correct them."
But the meeting, officially called "g|Nigeria", is designed to act as a three-day magnet, giving local tech entrepreneurs a venue to connect with each other, to foster community, and hopefully nurture the sort of "Oh, you should really talk with Bob - he's working on something similar" networks that have made Silicon Valley famous as a hotbed of innovation. At least, that's the plan. For now, though, maybe I ought to try and get another hour or two of sleep - it's going to be a long day.