Tuesday 20 August 2019

From Lagos to Limerick, and back

Visiting Nigeria 20 years after his father was forced to flee the country proved a dangerous and emotional experience for RTE presenter Kamal Ibrahim

Victory: Kamal Ibrahim with the winner of this year's Miss Nigeria Ireland pageant, Favour Mwoga, from Dublin
Victory: Kamal Ibrahim with the winner of this year's Miss Nigeria Ireland pageant, Favour Mwoga, from Dublin

David Blake Knox

When I met Abdul Ibrahim in Limerick a few weeks before I was due to fly to Nigeria, he tried to persuade me not to go. His fears were understandable. He had lived there with his family in the early 1990s. That was a period of great political and social turmoil in Nigeria, and an attempt had been made on Abdul's life. Thankfully, he escaped harm, but he and his family were forced to flee Lagos. They moved to Limerick - the home of his Irish wife - leaving almost all their possessions behind.

We planned to travel to Nigeria to film the return of his son, Kamal, to the country that Abdul and his family had fled more than 20 years ago. Kamal is probably best known to Irish TV viewers as the presenter of RTE's weekly National Lottery draw. He had caught my attention because he seemed to be the only non-white face that was seen regularly on any Irish TV channel.

When Kamal's father arrived in Limerick, there was no real Nigerian community in Ireland. That has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Nigerians now form the biggest immigrant group in this country whose roots lie outside Europe. Irish Nigerians maintain a vibrant social life, and a strong sense of their African identity. One of the highlights of their year is the Miss Nigeria Ireland pageant. Part of the prize for the winner of this contest is a trip to Nigeria, and the opportunity to present gifts from Ireland to local charities there. Kamal told me none of his family had returned to Lagos since they arrived in Limerick, and I thought it would be a good idea to make a film about the two journeys.

Given his own experiences, Abdul Ibrahim was concerned about his son's safety. I shared some of his anxiety. I was well aware that an Islamist insurrection in the northern Nigerian states has been under way for several years. I also knew that Nigeria is reputed to be the most dangerous country in Africa. In the last 10 years, kidnappings have become rife in the oil-rich delta region around Lagos. At first, the victims tended to be Europeans working in the oil industry, but now, in the words of one Nigerian journalist, "nobody is immune and nowhere is safe". Despite that, I was confident that we would not be at undue risk - provided we took some precautions.

Lagos is Nigeria's biggest city. In fact, it is the biggest city in Africa. It is also one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. In 1950, the population was around 250,000 - less than half the size of Dublin at that time. Now, there are reckoned to be more than 25 million people crammed into Lagos - and its population is still expanding at a staggering rate every year. Not surprisingly, the streets are thronged with people, and the noise levels are astonishing.

Lagos is also famous for its monumental traffic jams. As we drove into the city from the airport, our car crawled along a modern elevated motorway. I could see acres of tin shacks stretching out below us - while a host of imposing glass and steel structures rose up on the horizon. This was the sort of contrast that we would see repeatedly over the next few days. Lagos has one of the world's highest concentration of millionaires, but around two-thirds of its inhabitants still live in slums and poverty.

The city boundaries include half-a-dozen islands that are connected to each other and the mainland by a series of bridges. Abdul Ibrahim had been relieved to learn that our hotel was on Victoria Island - since it is regarded as a safe part of the city. This was where the British colonial administration in Nigeria was once based, and it is still the centre for the country's commercial banks, financial institutions and major corporations. Many of Lagos's upmarket districts are also located on the island. As we approached our hotel, I could see a forest of billboards advertising luxury condos, and new shopping malls seemed to be springing up everywhere.

I was surprised when we reached the hotel to find that the entrance was barred by huge iron gates, and guarded by half-a-dozen security personnel. Over the next few days, it became clear that security is important here. Most private houses are gated, and many compounds employ their own guards. Our car was regularly checked underneath for explosives.

We had arranged to meet a young Nigerian woman at our hotel. Ajay is a TV producer in Lagos, and, over the next week, she not only guided us around the city, she also made sure that we avoided trouble. On our first full day, we visited one of Lagos's bustling markets. These seem to be the hub of much social activity, but they are also home to street gangs, and, before long, we had attracted some unwelcome attention. At one point, it seemed that our camera equipment was about to be smashed up, and, if it hadn't been for Ajay, we might not have been able to escape from an ugly situation. The next time we visited a Lagos market, we hired an armed guard to accompany us.

Abdul had contacted some of his friends before we arrived in Lagos, and we were invited for a meal at the home of Dr Oluwole Ore and his wife, Iyabo. Dr Ore had been the Ibrahims' family doctor, and had delivered Kamal's sister. That night, Mrs Ore had prepared a traditional Nigerian meal for us. It included eba, which is made from cassava, and which was served with okra soup, which is made from the seed pods of the flowering plant. We were also served shaki - which is the Yoruba word for tripe, and which comes from the stomach lining of lambs. Perhaps, the best known local dish is jollof fried rice - which seems to be served with every Nigerian meal. Most of the food is highly spiced and may not be to everyone's taste, but Kamal was delighted with our meal: he could remember the flavours from his childhood, but hadn't eaten authentic Nigerian cuisine for many years.

The next morning, Ajay took us to the Pentecostal church where she and her family worship every Sunday. The service proved to be a lot longer than is usual in Ireland, but it was also a good deal more lively and enjoyable. The enthusiasm of the large congregation was infectious, and, before long, Kamal was taking part in the "Jesus Turn Up" - a dance move that is supposed to match the rhythm of the singing.

Religion is clearly an important part of Nigerian life, but so are other, more worldly activities. One evening, Ajay took us to one of the coolest night clubs in Lagos. Once again, there was a strong security presence but that didn't deter the crowd inside the club from partying well into the following morning. As I looked around, I thought we could be in any up-market establishment in Europe or North America. In fact, it made Lillie's Bordello and its clientele look positively old-fashioned.

Returning to Lagos was clearly something of a bitter-sweet experience for Kamal. We visited the school that he had once attended, as well as a sports and social club which his family had frequented. But the most emotional time came when Kamal went back to the house that his family had been compelled to abandon. For obvious reasons, it felt both strange and familiar to him. But it was also a poignant reminder of just how much had been lost when his family had forced to flee for their lives. In particular, it seemed that his father had forfeited not only his house, his business and his possessions, but also, in a sense, his homeland.

Some years ago, Kamal had won the "Mr Ireland" title, and he went on to become our first "Mr World". This made him something of a celebrity in Lagos, and he was invited to appear on a TV daytime chat show - along with the current Mr Nigeria.

Our trip to Lagos coincided with the visit of the reigning Miss Nigeria Ireland, Jummy Agboola from Balbriggan in Co Dublin, and we filmed the large crowd that turned out to greet her and receive her gifts from Ireland. When we returned to Ireland, we also filmed at this year's pageant in Tallaght at the end of October. Kamal had agreed to act as one of the judges. There were five finalists, and they all seemed to be self-confident and accomplished young Irish women. It reminded me of the Rose of Tralee and was very much a family occasion. The winner was Favour Mwoga, from Dublin.

On one hand, Lagos seems like a thoroughly modern city - with its smart restaurants, shopping malls, and high street brands. It is the hub of Africa's technology industries, has the busiest port in Africa and is a major financial centre. Thanks, in part, to the vast revenue from oil, the city is the centre of a vibrant arts scene. It is also the centre of Nollywood, the indigenous film industry that produces more movies every year than Hollywood. There is a thriving theatre scene, and many chic art galleries have opened in recent years.

On the other hand, even the country's President has admitted that corruption exists in Nigeria on an epic scale. And, of course, petty corruption can also be encountered on an everyday basis. In fact, we were asked to pay our first bribe soon after our plane landed and before we had even left the airport. The whole gigantic city seems to operate on a cash-only basis. The Nigerian currency has been massively devalued in recent years, and I ended up carrying around huge wads of notes. Tax is collected by a private company, and its collection has been compared to the system that was last used in Europe during the reign of Louis XIV. The threat of violence also seems close to the surface. The newspapers regularly report the latest kidnappings, and, soon after we left Lagos, three Australians were abducted just outside the city. Last month, a seven-year-old boy was beaten to death in a Lagos market for allegedly stealing some flour.

The strengths and defects of this extraordinary city appear inextricably bound together. I found it one of the most exciting places I have ever visited - and clearly that feeling has some connection with a sense of danger and unpredictability. It struck me that there are two basic options when you visit Lagos: you can stay safely sequestered in your hotel room - or you can choose to embrace the madness. You can probably guess which I would recommend.

Miss Nigeria Ireland - And Me, RTE2, December 14, 10.15pm

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