I’m in the bathroom of an art space located on the busy island area of Obalende, Lagos, Nigeria. There’s a closing exhibition called CONFECTUS by artist in residence, Kris Russo, at hFACTOR, an eclectic art space smack in the middle of the chaos that is the island. This is the only place quiet and private enough to interview a friend who playfully quips that people will think we’re doing drugs or having sex as we slip inside and shut the door. This doesn’t offend me, it fills me with a sense of elation that people here aren’t so different from people in other mega cities around the world.
The people responsible for this shift towards a more open, experimental society are none other than the millennials living and constantly returning to the city for work, pleasure and outright debauchery. I spent one weekend interviewing a few of them in an effort to understand them and as a result better understand myself, what stood out most from these interviews is a sense of optimism and disconnect from a still developing society and a seemingly clueless government snug in a loop of failed promises.
“My mom knows I work somewhere and I have a job that makes me spend a lot of time away but she still doesn’t understand. She’s just like, ‘Okay, he’s getting paid so everything is fine.’” Ugo, 28, explains a sentiment shared by almost everyone I spoke to. In an age of technological advancement and the internet, it’s simply no longer enough to be a doctor or lawyer. These days you can be a farmer, a DJ, a social media consultant, an art curator, a poet, etc – a development the older generation appears to be playing catch-up to.
“I am constantly thinking of the future and making decisions that are in my best interests first, before family,” Chic Chic, 27, tells it unapologetically. Gone are the days when the average Nigerian did what was expected of them, these days the expectation is to follow your dreams and damn the consequences. This is easier to do especially now as the majority of millennials have side businesses or hustles, but those consequences come quick and fast too, in the form of the lack of support from family, and from the government with current President Buharieven going as far as blasting Nigerian youths for being lazy and entitled, sparking an online social media sandstorm.
Yet according to Reuters, Nigerian millennials are fueling domestic tourism. Even Forbes’ 30 under 30 has Nigerians gracing their covers. Wherever you look, you’re likely to find a Nigerian doing something to advance themselves by any means necessary. “You feel a sense of abandonment that seeps through the crumbled infrastructure into your bones keeping you up at night grappling with demons you never thought you had. I’ve lived in major cities around the world, busier cities and I’m only experiencing depression in Lagos. We only have ourselves here, and sometimes that isn’t enough.” Bunmi, 32, goes on to tell me she would still rather live here than anywhere else even if her mental health continued to suffer because anybody can make it in Lagos.
Religion appears to be losing its hypnotic hold on the youth of the country as not a single person I interviewed goes to any organized religious spaces for guidance. Sunday service takes a back burner to Sunday profits as people work every day, under any condition, as the economy continues to deteriorate. “Why would I go to church to give my hard-earned money to someone with a private jet? I want a private jet too!” Chiaza, 29, is a self-proclaimed sinner and pretty happy about it. She works at a startup tech company and parties as hard as she works; the last time she went to church was in 2012 when the pastor saw it fit to bring her in front of everyone for having a nose ring. “If only he knew the other more intimate parts of me I had pierced that summer.” Her laughter rings through the high-end restaurant we’re having brunch in and I can’t help but notice three other people in the room also sporting nose rings, one of them a male. “I feel like Nigeria is broken down into two spectrums when it comes to tattoos and body modifications, some people don’t really mind but it’s a problem to some others.” John, 28, has a few tattoos himself and admits to facing some discrimination because of them. It’s not unusual to be stopped by the police just for having piercings or even dyed hair. The assumption being you’re either a criminal, a loose person or a “raging” homosexual for having them.This topic is still approached very carefully although looking at Pornhub Nigeria, the figures would suggest that gay porn is in high consumption. Despite rampant, legal homophobia, this year’s Pride came with a display of rainbows on social media accounts and secret celebrations. Such festivities were held at invite only house parties in various locations.
E.J., 25, admires his joint before taking a long drag, texting his Tinder date and giving me the boot so she can come over. Casual sex is easier now too with the help of apps like Tinder and Bumble, keeping hook up culture alive all over the world and it would appear, so is finding love. There are still a lucky few like Dami, 28. “Finding love was surprisingly easy in Lagos. I met my boyfriend less than 2 months after I moved back to Lagos and I met him at Lagos Fashion Week! We started dating 3 weeks after that and have been together ever since.” For others like Sam 29 it’s the opposite, “I love love but Nigerian girls love money, success and clout. As an up and coming creative, I have neither of those things, I don’t blame them, I mean look at the state of the country. Everyone is just trying to survive…” Times are indeed hard with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranking Lagos as the third worst city to live in among 140 cities worldwide.
The majority of the Lagosian millennials I interviewed don’t have any substantial savings or investments, health and dental insurance, and no solid five-year– or retirement plan. “Things aren’t in place for savings and investments to be possible, my earnings go into food and transportation. At the end of the day after paying for everything I don’t really have much left to do anything and there’s so much I want to do and I have four jobs.” Tolu, 33, a lawyer, seamstress, photographer and makeup artist tells me, a sentiment I find is shared by most people.
It’s Sunday morning, I just listened to the recording of my last interviewee, a former sex worker who begged me to keep her anonymous and only wanted to answer one question. Her words ring in my head. “We know what Nigeria needs is us, the youth, not these old people who don’t want to die and allow us to progress, but we can’t do any of that if we keep being hypocrites and holding on to ancient ways of doing things. I love this country, I love this city, I want to live here and raise kids here but I don’t know if it will happen. Maybe I’ll go to Canada.”
Perhaps she’s right and Nigeria already has everything she needs, I started this project hoping to find answers but I am left with only more questions and a stronger sense of community in shared sufferings and fleeting joys. Only time will tell and it’s up to the youth and millennials to nudge the hands of time to go a little faster so we don’t all have to relocate to Canada.