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Gated luxury with a slum at arm's length

In Lagos, extremes of existence are side by side. An obsession with soccer seems to be the only common ground.

March 11, 2007|Kari Howard | Times Staff Writer

LAGOS, NIGERIA — The words "guilty pleasure" surely were invented for circumstances such as these: taking a shower at the colonial-era Lagos Lawn Tennis Club after a sweaty afternoon in Ajegunle, aka the Jungle, Africa's biggest slum.

An unhappy spit of land shared by as many as 5 million people, Ajegunle is a few miles, and a world away, from the club. There, children make their way home from school along rutted dirt roads lined with waist-high mounds of peanut shells, plastic bags and rotting food. "Keep Lagos Clean," says a bright yellow sign on one shop.

Behind the tall white walls of the tennis club, two Nigerian businessmen defy the late afternoon torpor for a languid game. Outside it is buzzing madness, but everything is hushed here. The spongy turf swallows the sound of the ball's impact into a soft thud. At the courtside bar, beers open with a quiet, fizzy pop. English premiership soccer plays on the TV set above the bar, its volume discreetly muted.

An obsession with the English teams Manchester United and Arsenal seems to be the only common denominator between the haves and have-nots in this country that is beyond Dickensian.

"The political elite is breathtakingly rich, and very small," said a Western diplomat in Abuja, the capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity to a group of American journalists visiting Nigeria ahead of April elections. "Remarkably little of it trickles down. Part of this is because the super-rich keep their money and spend their money overseas."

The country seems filled with men of apparently modest means who end up with ninefigure bank accounts.

How does that happen? Two words are repeated like a mantra whenever you ask that question here: oil and corruption.

Nigeria is one of the biggest oil producers in the world, and it has to import its gasoline. All of its refineries are shuttered. Oil profits slip into the wrong pockets, locals complain. Some Nigerians say they wish oil had never been discovered here.

President Olusegun Obasanjo has taken an official stand on corruption. He appears to want that as his legacy after this spring's presidential election.

"I would like us not to be among those perceived as the most corrupt in the world," he told the visiting American journalists. "We are not at the bottom. We are moving up."

After cleaning up at the tennis club, it's on to dinner with Nigerian human rights activists at an upscale Chinese restaurant on Lagos' waterfront that wouldn't look out of place in Newport Beach. The expansive green lawn in front of the restaurant gently slopes to the water; but a fence topped with razor wire stands between the lawn and the beach, giving the restaurant the appearance of a very exclusive prison. This fence, though, is to keep the undesirables out, not in.

There aren't many fences in Ajegunle. But you can get trapped there just the same.

When school gets out in AJ, the thunderous sound of drums accompanies the children, giving them the appearance of a triumphal parade. The boys' and girls' neatly pressed pale blue uniforms are a flash of color amid the neutral tones of squalor: the beige of the dusty roads that snake through Ajegunle, the brown of the sludge that fills the open-sewer ditches, the gray of the concrete-block storefront churches that stud the slum.

A little girl named Joy has a huge grin, and she's certain she'll have a great future. She and the other children all have goals: They'll be doctors, engineers, lawyers. No one will end up as an "area boy," the menacing, muscled young men who hang out beneath Lagos freeway overpasses looking to make a shakedown.

The children's parents have somehow scraped together enough money to pay for private school and provide for their futures. Everyone is looking to the future here, maybe because the present doesn't offer much. A billboard in Lagos touts one company's chocolates as "Nourishment for Future Leaders."

But the future leaders of Nigeria aren't sticking around if they can help it. They all say they want to go to America.

Right now, Ajegunle is at its best. It's the dry season. When it rains, the open sewers flood, miring wretched-looking cars in their muck and flooding homes.

If "home" is the right word for a 10-by-10 shack with 13 people living in it. The laws of physics seem thwarted by this, bullied into submission by the needs of millions of people who come to Lagos because it's where you go if you want to make it. But you end up stuck in Ajegunle instead.

Dagga Tolar, 38, is trying to make a difference in the slum. He's a poet, reggae singer and English literature teacher. Inside his house, the bright blue walls are lined with books, everything from political tracts to the British novelist Zadie Smith. There's a poster of Tupac Shakur on the wall and a mattress on the floor. He lets neighborhood boys crash there when they have nowhere else to go.

"The only times they see the government is when security forces come around to arrest or harass them," he says.

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