A Winter in Lagos

8
2053
Art by David Motutu

By Saratu Abiola

The sky closed its eyes on Lagos at two in the afternoon, and in the cloudiness the wind howled fervently from Ikeja Market to Somolu, from Mafoluku to Isolo, from Bourdillon to Ibeju. Street hawkers ran to wherever it is they run to when it rains – rickety barbershop shacks, deserted buildings, under bare roofing sheets that covered roadside canteens. Reckless drivers tore their way down pothole-ridden streets, competing with the motorcycle taxis to get to their offices, their shops, their homes. Anywhere, as long as it was not on the street. Business-owners and bankers watched the darkening day behind glass windows, sipping from hot cups of tea and hoping the sky would clear up before they had to go home. Hairdressers looked through the windows of their salons and sighed, knowing not to expect too many customers if the weather kept up. Market women reluctantly cleared tables of items displayed outside their stalls. Owners of small roadside boutiques took their mannequins inside.

But there was no rain. Not a single drop.

When the sky turned dark in the afternoon for the fifth day running, people knew not to fear a downpour. They carried on with their business, casting wary glances at the sky as though it were a fearsome overlord. The weather was noticeably colder, much colder than normal.

Two weeks in, the weather became just one more thing that there was no point in bemoaning, like corrupt policemen and street thugs. While huddled into bars after work or visiting friends on weekends, people masked their discomfort in jokes. They knew Nigeria would become more like London one day, they laughed, but certainly not like this! Maybe the strangeness of the weather was God’s way of granting Nigeria passage into the higher echelons of world economic superpowers. One just needed to dress warmer until God worked the weather out. Nothing more.

*

After almost a month, the weather was taking its toll. The market was all business, more so than ever. Customers who usually stayed to chat were now quicker about getting their goods and heading to their cars. Impatient men in markets were desperate to put their hands back into their pockets after handing over bags of suya or giving customers change. Those who could afford to sent their maids or drivers to go shopping for them. People got used to chattering teeth on the other end of brief phone conversations.

Beggars crammed their way into the spicy, sticky warmth of the large indoor markets, fearing the unexpected cold and the numbness in their ears, fingers and toes that awaited them in the streets. They were shooed from one stall to another, then out of the market completely to huddle in uncompleted buildings whose hard, cold cement walls offered barely any warmth. The police, always so eager to clear the streets of diseased old men and children, saw the cold air do the work for them and thus leaned against their dark blue cars and trucks, smoking, laughing, or taking shelter like everyone else.

Those who had never been outside Nigeria found members of their families from whom to borrow a sweater, a scarf, gloves, a thick jacket. Nobody wanted to buy a heavy jacket, if they could help it. This was Nigeria, after all. Those who wanted to buy winter jackets could not find one just yet, in any case. People in Tejuosho and other major markets were still watching, still disbelieving, unsure if this was a passing chill. They didn’t want to risk buying tons of winter jackets from Kilburn High Street or Finsbury Park only for the weather to warm again when the goods finally shipped. Thermal underwear, though, they could risk, since it was fairly cheap. So they put out their long-sleeved shirts, denim jackets and socks, and smiled gap-toothed smiles at customers and extolled the virtues of layering.

By the third month, daytime temperatures had slipped to an average of twelve degrees. Offices with internal thermostats let the temperatures stay in the late 30s, something they’d never had any reason to do. In the evenings, when many returned home from work, most gave up on their air conditioning. God’s AC, people called it as they opened their windows a crack to let the cool air in. God’s AC.

*

When it was clear that the cool weather was going to stay for a long while yet, the crime rates at used clothing shops in markets soared. People would steal shoes, then a shirt, then another shirt, then a pair of trousers for those who only had shorts. Every day, a new thief would be chased through the obstacle course of makeshift stalls of fruit and fresh meat and plastic containers and open gutters with warm clothing cradled in his arms. The lucky ones were merely beaten, their stolen goods retrieved from them. Unluckier ones were killed. Police were not as available as they should have been to stop these killings, of course. Nobody wanted to be out in the cold if they could help it.

Newspapers urged the Lagos State government to act, and they did, getting police officers to do more patrols and see to it that the thieves were apprehended and taken to jail, not bound with tires and doused in kerosene and burned in the middle of the street. The officers returned to the streets; one here, two in a corner there, most huddled in their cars, wearing thick jackets.

By the fourth month, average daytime temperatures had slipped to eight. On a night with a low of two degrees, it rained. The sky above stayed blue-grey and indifferent. The wind howled violently against walls and cars, leaving windows, front doors and metal gates icy-cold to the touch. When the rain poured, it did so harshly, almost horizontally, before turning into hail. No one dared go outside.

Many small supermarkets closed. The cost of transport climbed. Already exorbitant taxi prices climbed even further, and the already cramped danfos and long government-issued buses could not keep up with demand. Bus conductors and passengers fought over daily fare charges until crowds formed in bus stops and the police had to intervene. Street hawkers jostled for space underneath bridges, causing even more fights among traders. They began to band together along ethnic lines: all Igbos, all Yorubas, all Hausas, forming their own clusters of makeshift stalls, each lit by kerosene lamps. Markets, already facing thinning crowds, saw their customers drop to a steady trickle of people. But market women soldiered on, braving the cold to catch even just a few of their customers. Wanting to avoid the rising cost of transport, many lobbied the government to let them sleep in the markets, but even that proved dangerous. Newspapers reported a spate of robberies of market women along the road in Somolu and Yaba and on Lagos Island. After a meeting among iyaloja, market women resolved to start their days around one in the afternoon to fend off the worst of the cold in the mornings, and leave at six in the evening, just before the temperature dropped and the icy wind howled in their faces like an impatient driver.

*

 The rate of attendance at night vigils in churches and mosques, asking the Lord to bring out the sun, increased. Iyaloja from markets all over Lagos and iyalode from various local governments led the movement, meeting with religious leaders and holding weekly meetings in major mosques and churches to pray. The Lagos chapter of the National Labor Congress joined them, and held conferences in each Nigerian geopolitical zone in solidarity. Newspapers called it the Call Out the Sun Movement. TV cameras captured the scene – traders and labour officials sitting in crowded halls on Lagos mainland, fanning themselves with their hands but grateful for the warmth; dignitaries on the high table with bottles of water and packets of fruit juice; politicians taking the floor to applaud the workers and the “mothers of the nation” for their steadfastness and faith in God. When the news cameras stopped rolling, they passed around bundles of crisp N1,000 notes to the gathered crowd as a token of their appreciation of their strength. “Grease to their elbows,” they called it. By the third of such meetings, some traders and labour officials had broken from the larger prayer group and attracted their own media attention from the political leaders in their senatorial districts. These groups cleverly inflated the amount of money to rival political leaders to make them compete for the groups’ political loyalty. Each political party thought they had succeeded. Everyone left happy.

At four degrees and six months later, Rev. Ezekiel Majekodunmi took to the radio stations and his television program to proclaim that God had spoken to him in his dream about Lagos’s weather. Majekodunmi was a soft-spoken but charismatic pastor of average height with salt-and-pepper hair and a penchant for wearing old-fashioned tweed jackets with elbow patches. He was the General Overseer of a 600-member church called The Love Nation Ministries with two branches in Ikorodu and Ilupeju. The country was being tested, he said, and urged as many people as could hear his voice to pray and fast for two weeks, lest God bring forth a heavy downpour that would swamp the city and kill all the people in it. But, according to him, all was not lost. His voice was sombre in his weekly radio address when he asked all Bible-believing Christians to join him in what he called “a most necessary fasting period every day until the day of this massive downpour.” For the good of their very lives, he said, expressing the belief that the Lord would hear their cries.

Not everybody believed any of this, of course. Some pastors took to their podiums before the most ardent members of their congregations to address Rev. Majekodunmi’s radio message. Pastor Ebun Iyinoluwa in his televised sermon the following Sunday titled “Arrogance and Leadership,” declared arrogance in leadership a breach of trust, and spoke of some pastors who “ran errands that the Most High God did not send them on.” Pastor David Asemota in his own televised sermon that same Sunday titled “Leading the Flock Aright,” reminded all present that “many are called but few are chosen,” and warned all “false prophets” not to “joke with the matter of the Lord’s anointing.” In a television interview on the popular Christianity Today, U.S.-born Nigerian pastor Rev. Wale Sowemimo spoke pointedly about how Christians — but truly all Nigerians — should be wary of “snake-oil salesmen who would try to make hay out of our collective despair.”

Others were more direct in their criticisms. Rev. Olaniyi George, in an interview with The Sun, admonished Pastor Majekodunmi by calling him, “a small-time pastor trying too hard to be relevant with his devilish premonitions.” In an introductory segment on his radio show, Rev. Majekodunmi retorted by warning him to “watch his tongue concerning visions revealed unto others.” He noted that “John the Baptist was not given the same work as Jeremiah,” concluding that “You cannot do what I was called on earth to do, nor reveal what the Lord has given me to reveal.”

Rev. George was the kind of pastor who it seemed nobody but his congregation liked. He was known for his outbursts on Nigeria’s corrupt politicians and what he had once called, in a well-attended Christian convention, “the unfortunate Nigerian impulse to spend, spend, spend on flashy cars and big houses.” None of this constrained him from accepting gifts of cars and vacations from said politicians, nor repelled him from the owners of flashy cars who made up a sizeable number of his 2,344 registered church members. Controversial though he was, his strong and passionate followership meant that fellow pastors felt compelled to invite him to their prayer conventions, even if only to give him the shortest amount of time on the podium.

Art by David Motutu
Art by David Motutu

The Christian Association of Nigeria’s leadership tried to quell the rift, but could not. Several white-garment church pastors and their congregations had already aligned with Rev. Majekodunmi. Even within the congregations of churches that did not buy into the End of Lagos idea many talked about it so much that junior pastors and chief overseers found themselves trying desperately to maintain equanimity. Those Christians who already believed Rev. Majekodunmi began preparing themselves to leave the city. Some Muslims began holding nightly vigils, even though they had no directive from their chief imams. On the matter of Lagos’s impending doom, the Mosque was conspicuously silent.

*

 Fewer people used the expressway the cooler the weather got. The weather had now gotten cold enough for the ground to be slippery with ice. After a night with temperatures at five degrees, a woman’s body was found on the highway. It was twisted at an awkward angle, her once-yellow and red wrapper loose and parted, showing a slip, barely concealing her thick, dark thighs. Her hair was a wild, bloody mess. The slippers she wore were splayed some five feet from her outstretched arms, her mouth gaping. It is unclear how her body had gone unnoticed; doctors say she had been dead for three days.

Lagosians saw photos of the woman’s body on the front page of every major newspaper that dreary morning. Street hawkers, the first to have seen the body, talked to each other about the ice on her body, their eyes wide with morbid fascination. She had been in a hit-and-run accident, the doctors told news reporters. She had probably been unconscious for a long time and would not have felt her legs before she died. Hypothermia had as much a hand in her death perhaps as much as her getting hit by a car.

On the nightly news, doctors talked about the effect that exposure to cold weather could have on the skin and the need to dress warmly. The Lagos State Government sent out public service announcements urging drivers to drive slowly at the recommended speed of 20 mph, pedestrians to use pedestrian bridges and be wary of puddles of ice when walking on the roads.

Days got progressively colder. People would wake up to ice in their driveways, on their windowpanes, on their windshield wipers, filling potholes, forming on garbage heaps, freezing the wood on street sellers’ shacks. People slipped and fell constantly, cursing the icy ground beneath their feet. Some street hawkers braved the cold to sell phone credit and bootleg DVDs, but even they relented when they saw how loathe people were to linger on the streets; they stood outside gates of offices and gated estates instead.

Used to recklessly whipping past, Lagos drivers now had to worry about poor visibility, ice filled pot-holes and car heaters that ate up weak car batteries. Lagosians did not know their car cooling systems needed a water-coolant mix, or that their batteries might need changing, or that their cheap tires were beginning to show their worth. More cars began to break down, leaving their owners who would never fill up their tanks to save money, stuck shivering in their cars in the middle of the highway. The Lagos State Government set up mechanic shelters on major highways alongside the highway ambulances and put their contact numbers on billboards. Smart mechanics figured out the cold’s impact on tire pressure and the need to flush out and service radiators regularly, but that was it. Most people’s cars still struggled to start every morning.

A young customs officer and businessman Bayo Adigun started to import portable block heaters that one could plug in one’s home and then put in the car to warm up the engine quicker. It worked, but only for those who would afford it.

The International Association of World Meteorologists sent out a missive saying that they were expecting the first snowstorm in Lagos’s history on the 23rd of the month. Journalists and observers from around the world filled all the flights entering Lagos. They covered stories on the dismal effect of the weather on the banking sector, transportation, the informal economy. The Lagos State Government flew in weather scientists and climate change experts from around the world in a hurriedly slapped-together conference to weigh expert opinions against the city’s reality. All that was clear was that there was nothing Lagos could do but wait.

With news of the snowstorm, the image of the dead woman in people’s minds and Rev. Majekodunmi’s predictions, Lagos saw a mass exodus. People who could afford to flew out to Abuja or Port Harcourt, Accra or Dakar, London or Dubai. Ticket prices out of the city soared by an average of 25 percent.  With ice on the roads leading out of the city, those who imported car parts assisted in the exodus by equipping their own cars with ice protectors and then charging up to N20,000 per seat in their heated buses.

But most people could not afford to go anywhere. Lagos was full of people from somewhere else. It was a place where you belonged to simply because you were not from there, could not ever be from there. Lagos was not home and because of that, Lagos felt more like home than anywhere else. So, even in the event of impending disaster, with no one forcing them to go, most Lagosians stayed.

 *

On the 23rd, the day of the storm, daytime temperatures hit freezing point. The Lagos State Government sent a public service announcement on all major radio stations and on television encouraging all Lagos citizens to stay calm, admonishing all to stay indoors i for fear of frostbite and hypothermia and promising that government services would be up and running within days of the snowstorm.

The cold owned the city that day, blowing down empty roads, freezing to stillness the blue-green slime in the open gutters, chilling the air beneath bridges and past the Marina, stripping the trees by the university in Akoka. The Atlantic Ocean below the Carter and Third Mainland Bridges turned icy and shone in the gloom of the day.

The storm was to hit at 4:30 in the afternoon. White garment church members, almost effervescent in their silky robes, gathered barefoot beneath wooden shacks on street corners and rang their golden bells for prayer. Non-denominational churches, like Rev. Majekodunmi’s congregation, also formed groups in their neighbourhoods from Ikotun to Ikorodu, from Ipaja to Apapa, from Okokomaiko to Ketu. Some few thousand gathered on the icy-cold streets to raise their voices in praise-songs and prayer while the wind picked up speed and the snow began to fall.

The snow fell lightly, at first, barely spotting the roads before it picked up in intensity, falling in sheets over cars and buildings and open dustbins and over abandoned wooden shacks. The harder the snow fell, the more the wind sent the snow’s downward fall in all directions until all one could see outside was a white haze.

Rev. Majekodunmi himself led a group of thirty churchgoers in Ilupeju prayers under a wooden shack. They stayed outside through the snowfall, reaching ungloved hands into the cold air, praying against destruction and for strength. They stayed below the wooden shacks that held no warmth and barely any comfort while the weather dropped deep into the negative digits. The wind bit like an animal into their skin and made a mockery of their layered clothing. The icy wind numbed their raised arms and froze their feet in their shoes. Many among the praying crowd lost their nerve and their numbers thinned. But the pastor made no move to leave. He let them go, oblivious as they turned to look at him; his back turned towards them was as accusatory as the harshest words could have been. An hour into the storm, when the snow turned to hail and the hail to icy rain, only 65 remained outside across different Lagos neighbourhoods. They shivered frighteningly with their hands turning blue and numb.

After an hour and a half outside, even the most adamant of the prayer group members relented. Even indoors, wrapped in blankets with feet immersed in hot water and noses rubbed with Heatol and Robb and plied with cups of hot tea, they continued to shiver for hours afterwards. Their feet, ears and noses continued to tingle. The longer they stayed indoors, the more their arms and legs burned. Blisters formed all over their skin. They did not know that these were the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. All they knew was that something was wrong but that the hospital was out of the question, at least until the storm passed.

Rev. Majekodunmi prayed so fervently that he did not realise that his group of thirty had dissipated and that he was all alone. When he opened his eyes, he saw no one around him, but a figure stood at a distance, mere feet or further he could not tell – it was hard to gauge distance with all that snow and the weather so obscured his vision. This figure wore dark clothing and seemed to be staring straight at him. Barely feeling the numbness in his toes or the cold hitting his skin like pain, he tried to call out to the figure, but the wind swallowed his words. He screamed again, but the figure walked away slowly, gracefully, as though his feet were barely touching the floor, Rev. Majekodunmi found that he could barely keep up. He tried running, but slipped and fell against a car parked outside a house painted brown with a green roof. The hail was slowly turning into a harsh, thunderous, icy rain. The figure was gone. Rev. Majekodunmi screamed. His heart beat faster than he had ever felt it before. He did not know when the members of his church, worried after going back to the shack and not seeing him, set out in raincoats and flashlights to look for him in the rain. When they found him, half his body was buried beneath a car. He was muttering to himself with lips turned a dark shade of blue. His skin was paler than normal. His skin felt icy, like a frozen fish.

The storm lasted ten hours. When it was over, people took tentative steps wearing sneakers and leather shoes out to their balconies or their front gates to survey the street, careful not to slip on the ice. A wintry mix of snow and hail and icy water filled gutters and potholes, and blocks of ice froze the already-clogged drainage system. People were afraid to venture beyond their residential areas, afraid to see what the storm had wrought on major roads. Despite the announcement from the government, nobody believed the workers would clear them in time. It was entirely possible that many of them would stay virtually unusable for days, if not weeks, to come. Phones were down. Electricity was down. Nobody knew when to expect them to return, but Lagos stood.

Lagos still stood.

Saratu Abiola is a writer based in Abuja.
Saratu Abiola is a writer based in Abuja.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Had a journalistic feel to it, but nonetheless a captivating read.
    We have all thought about winter in Nigeria and its effect on us, but I bet no thought of it this way!

  2. This is amazing and though the premise of snow in Lagos is kindof unreal, the turn of events is life-like and totally realistic. I think this is really what would happen if there was a snowstorm here. Maybe not exactly but at least politics&religion would be deeply involved.

  3. Great stuff Saratu. Perfect blend of religion, politics and the commercialism Lagos has become known for to thread a story that portrays the reality of the Nigerian society.

  4. Lovely piece and I must commend you for the work Saratu.I will become a constant reader of your writeups.Keep them coming because you are really heading to the top.

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