We are now in the middle of what Nigerians call wet season, or rainy season. This is the time of year when thunderstorms of extraordinary violence crash overhead sending down torrential rain which can last for hours. It is far worse than anything I saw in the tropics of SE Asia, and in Lagos it would be better named flood season.
Lagos, like Venice, New Orleans, and recent housing developments in parts of England, is badly located. I don’t suppose the Portugese who founded the place thought that it would become a city of fifteen million people, and the British who followed probably didn’t care. But it is located on the shores and islands of an enormous tidal lagoon, with many parts of the city barely above sea level. When it rains there is nowhere for the water to go, especially where I work on Victoria Island. I haven’t quite figured out if the streets have never had drains installed or whether drains exist but are permanently blocked, but the result is the streets themselves flood severely. In some places it is knee-deep during a downpour, and the only route for the water to escape is along the road itself. This causes some amount of chaos and considerable discomfort, to the city’s residents.
I am lucky in that I can jump in my 4WD after a 10m dash from my residence, and sit there fairly safe in the knowledge that the air intake is located above the waterline. At the other end, I can stop outside and belt up the concrete steps to the office, leaving the driver to figure out where he is going to moor up. Others are not so lucky, which includes most of the guys who work for me (only guys: I’m in engineering, something Nigerian women don’t appear to have taken much interest in). A couple of Fridays ago we had a colossal storm hit us at about 7:00am, just as everyone was coming to work. I arrived just after it started and watched it unfold outside my window. The sky goes dark, so dark that it is closer to night than day at street level. No tropical sunlight, no matter how strong, is going to penetrate these thunderclouds. As the streets below filled up with water, one by one my guys straggled in. Those who could drive were lucky, right up to the point where they realised the walk between the car park and office was knee-deep in brown water. The unlucky ones came in on the back of an okada, the motorcycle taxis unique to Lagos in the manner in which they actively try to kill the passenger, or so it seems. They emerged from the lift like drowned rats, drenched to the bone. Fortunately they were wearing national dress (as is customary for a Friday) which takes the form of colourful pajamas made from linen or cotton. At least this clobber dries out quickly, although the way some of them came in I was wondering if they’d die of pneumonia before then. Like a lot of office blocks in the tropics or Middle East, powerful air-conditioning recreates the climatic conditions more usually associated with a Siberian labour camp.
The poor sods. And you can add to their number a couple of million others who would be, as I saw myself, riding on the back of motorbikes, water up to their shins, with their suit trousers rolled up and their shoes and socks in their hands. Not the ideal way to turn up to an interview, but this is Lagos where people do whatever is necessary to get by. Their journeys are not only uncomfortable, but perilous too, even by Lagos standards. Unfortunately, as in Dubai and Kuwait, torrential rain does nothing to modify drivers’ behaviour, and given slick, wet roads and poor visibility, you will always get some idiot flying down a clear bit of road – admittedly, pretty rare around here – without even his lights on towards a queue of stationary traffic and a couple of hundred okadas carrying passengers who wished they’d called in sick that morning. It is horrendous. Occasionally you see a van or car lying at an absurd angle where its front nearside wheel (and a goodly portion of the body) has disappeared into a large hole, easily avoided in the dry, but filled with water takes on an effective disguise as a mere puddle. The Nigerian roadside rescue does not come swiftly.
Added to all this is the lightning strikes, which knock out electricity supplies (intermittent even in the best weather) taking the traffic lights with them. The traffic police won’t work in the rain, so chaos ensues. True, it is chaotic all the time, but if you look carefully there is a method to the madness of Lagos traffic. People will slow down and eventually stop if you pull out in front of them, for nobody wants a crash. A crash in Lagos will involve police, which will in turn involve handing over cash for little reward. Better to step on the brake. In the rain, people get scared that others can’t stop, and looking at some of the tyres on display, I can see why. The lightning also kills people with disturbing regularity, cattle too. Being caught outside in a Nigerian thunderstorm is no joke. Being caught inside, especially on a Sunday afternoon, is quite nice though. You can watch the rain hammer down and the lightning flash, utterly failing to take any photos to make this post much more interesting, and be quite content with life merely because you know you’re indoors. Just pity the poor sods caught out in it, and know that it’ll be you at some point.