Aliens in the Megacity? A Reflection on the 2019 Graduate Studio Visit to Lagos

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Sourabh Harihar received his MA in Global Studies at Berkeley and holds degrees in civil and ocean engineering from TU Delft (Holland) and the Indian Institute of Technology. In his previous years as a management consultant and a Young India Fellow, he has engaged with projects relating to smart city planning and urban informality in Indian cities. In Spring 2019, he completed the GUH Graduate Certificate as he strongly believes that an urban humanities perspective is extremely critical and valuable to understanding urban development, particularly in the Global South. He was also one of the graduate students who participated in the 2019 GUH Graduate Interdisiplinary Research Studio on Lagos, Nigeria and writes about the trip to the African mega-city.

“If there were aliens, they certainly wouldn’t come to Nigeria. Or maybe they would.” -a character in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon


At the workspace and gallery of artist-performer Wura-Natasha Ogunji in Ikoyi, Lagos

Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, is not just a city; it is a persona. In fact, it is many personas. From the security of the gated colonies of Lekki to the precarity of the dwellings in Sogunro, many traits manifest across its monumental expanse. As a group of students representing a gamut of departments at Cal, we were introduced to the cultural heritage and the socio-political realities of Lagos in a series of seminars leading up to the visit, helmed by Prof. Ivy Mills from Art History and Prof. Charisma Acey from City and Regional Planning. Yet, for many of us, being physically present in this megapolis was no less than surreal.

The trip kickstarted with an enthralling welcome at the Nike Art Gallery, which hosts a spectacular collection of some of Nigeria’s finest art and sculpture. What followed was ten days of visits to various artistic and social-political organizations as well as the opportunity to meet with some of the most outstanding people of the city, each of whom revealed to us the indomitable spirit of a Lagosian.


Artist-activist Jelili Atiku speaking in his community at Ejigbo, Lagos

As a city with a Yoruba past and present, Lagos remains deeply influenced by Yoruba culture and philosophy.  Besides obeisance to the orishas (deities from Yoruba mythology), concepts such as the ogun, one’s personal alignment with nature, and aje, the power of manifestation continue to inform the city’s complex identity by intertwining belief with the city’s material reality. It is perhaps why we heard artist-performer Wura-Natasha Ogunji be candid about the deep relationship between the spiritual and material world that her city shares, whilst leaving us with the thought “if we knew the world through our spines instead of our hands…” I was reminded again of the power of manifestation only a few days later when we visited the Kalakuta Museum, commemorating the life of iconic multi-instrumentalist composer Fela Kuti, whose own work, through the activism and politics of his musical oeuvre, has been testament to the revolutionary power of art. His memory would return as we listened to the artist-activist Jelili Atiku, a contemporary sculptor and performer, speak of “art as being produced not for the sake of aesthetics; but to increase the consciousness of the people.” I am writing this blog at a poignant moment as I receive news that Jelili has been detained by Lagos Police for “provoking the community”, among other charges. Despite the odds, he keeps inspiring through his grounded respect for indigenous tradition, which he does not see as separate from a deep commitment to social and environmental justice.

Issues of social and environmental justice certainly plague Lagos as they do the world. Hence, besides a visit to the Alimosho local government where we got a glimpse of the governance architecture at the district-level, we spent a couple of days learning from leaders and volunteers at Justice and Empowerment Initiative (JEI), a non-profit organization that works to empower poor and marginalized communities to drive in-situ changes in their neighbourhood. Witnessing Otodo-Gbame, a site of eviction that has displaced over 15,000 people from their waterfront communities, was one of the most deeply stirring experiences for many. JEI generously allowed us to shadow their volunteers as they carried out the task of ‘enumeration’ in these displaced communities, a practice of labelling houses and businesses that it hopes will build data to prove the existence of often undocumented communities. This, in turn, is expected to help in leading resistance against future displacement so that they can overcome a concern that one of their own volunteers voiced, “We can’t fully invest in our communities because we’re not sure we’ll be here in the future”.


2019 GUH graduate studio cohort, with Doyinsola Ogunye (front-left), founder and volunteers of Kids Beach Garden at Elegushi Beach, Lekki, Lagos

We also met students of planning at the University of Lagos (UniLag, in local parlance) inculcated with what Prof. Taibat Lawanson calls "planning WITH the people and not FOR the people," as we heard founders at Kids Beach Garden, an organization committed to sustainable beaches, pledging that “Lagos will not be a mess.”  Yet, from a massive corporate makeover of its substantial shoreline as a result of the Eko Atlantic project to reckless law-making such as the Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) that threatens to criminalize the poor under the garb of protecting the environment, challenges keep mounting on this maximum city. What is reassuring is that, while challenges persist, there are Lagosians at work everywhere trying to mitigate them.

To us, the experience of Lagos was so extraordinary that, as we navigated the bizarre tapestry that is this mega-city, every thread has been woven into our mental fabric and every knot inextricably linked to our lives. Engaging with a city where ethnic differences replace racial divisions, Lagos instilled a renewed understanding of identity. While we ogled at the city through an air-conditioned bus, Lagos invoked questions of positionality and privilege. And yet, the very set-up of the touring bus has made all of us have conversations we would never have had otherwise, absorbing the city at once through our own little window and all together thinking that we are all, hopefully, not aliens to the city anymore.