Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) travelled in West Africa from 1893-95. Her description of the mangrove swamps along the Nigerian coast is definitely the best that I have encountered
There is an uniformity in the habits of West African rivers, from the Volta to the Coanza, which is, when you get used to it, very taking. Excepting the Congo, the really great river comes out to sea with as much mystery as possible; lounging lazily along its mangrove swamps in a what’s-it-matter-when-one-comes-out and where’s-the-hurry style, through quantities of channels intercommunicating with each other. Each channel, at first sight as like the other as peas in a pod, is bordered on either side by green-black walls of mangroves, which Captain Lugard graphically described as seeming ‘as if they had lost all count of the vegetable properties, and were standing on stilts with their branches tucked up out of the wet, leaving their gaunt roots exposed in mid-air’. High-tide or low-tide, there is little difference in the water; the river, be it broad or narrow, deep or shallow, looks like a pathway of polished metal; for it is as heavy weighted with stinking mud as water e’er can be, ebb or flow, year out and year in. But the difference in the banks, though an unending alternation between two appearances, is weird.
At high-water you do not see the mangrove displaying their ankles in the way that shocked Captain Lugard. They look most respectable, their foliage rising densely in a wall irregularly striped here and there by the white line of an aërial root, coming straight as a plummet, in the strange knowing way an aërial root of a mangrove does, keeping the hard straight line until it gets some two feet above water-level, and the spreading out into blunt fingers with which to dip into the water and grasp the mud […] Great regions of mangrove-swamps are a characteristic feature of the West African coast. The first of these lies north of Sierra Leone; then they occur, but of smaller dimensions – just fringes of river-outfalls –until you get to Lagos, when you strike the greatest of them all. The whole of this great stretch of coast is a mangrove-swamp, each river silently rolling down its great mass of mud-laden waters and constituting each in itself a very pretty problem to the navigator by its intercommunicating creeks, and the sand and mud bar which it forms off its entrance by dropping its heaviest mud; its lighter mud is carried out beyond its bar and makes the nasty smelling brown soup of the South Atlantic Ocean, with froth floating in lines and patches on it, for miles to seaward.
I have just returned from Lagos. Mary Kingsley’s description of the waters around Lagos echoed in my mind throughout my visit. On my first morning, I looked out through the window to see that grey-blue dullness that the Irish call “a soft day”, yet it had not been raining. It is easy to forget how humid it is until one travels between the aeroplane and the terminal building and a sudden and unexpected envelope of sauna house steam wraps itself round one’s lungs. Then there is that aroma that spells fecundity and death, the pathognomonic smell of the tropics.
That first morning, I thought to myself “Now what has happened to Bar beach?” There was no visible bar and the Atlantic had been pushed further out towards America, if that was possible. Miles of glorious white sand waiting for the developers to have their way – the sexual innuendo is intended! There is at least a tacit nod to purity, virginity, rape and despoliation in the commerce of magicking land out of water.
Lagos is simply an endless twisting and curving of motorways – bridges and flyovers climbing as if from nowhere and descending in a snake-like, serpentine hiss. But, if you look carefully what you will see are people, mostly walking to work, dressed in their Sunday best, as if for church. The young men are obstinately muscular with impressive and well-define biceps and triceps. The women: voluptuous and sensuous, rarely stick-like. And, everywhere, there were children in their uniforms of gingham, poplin, of blue drill and Clark’s sandals and rucksacks.
The smallest, sternest specimens of Lagos life are traffic Policewomen. No smile, fierce inscrutable expressions of authority and mimed halt hand gestures – and that killing look that says “Mess with me and see what happens”. Even the most ridiculously overdressed boss stops at her hand gestures. I wasn’t driving, yet I was quaking in my boots at the mere sight of her!
It rained that first afternoon. That’s putting it mildly. It was a downpour, torrential, and the rain was like ropes dangling from the vault of heaven. I hadn’t seen sheets of moving glass for many years. It was that surprising spectacle of an architectural feature between heaven and earth. This variation in the manner of rain, changing from a string of beads, dangling like ropes and then vertically moving panes of glass, is one of the magnificent spectacles of Lagos. Well, there is the spectacle of the traffic in the wake of a rainstorm! Ten miles, at least of a stand still traffic jam (or go-slow) stretching from Victoria Island to the Third Mainland Bridge, all the way to the Ibadan motorway toll.
Earlier, this morning what I had noticed most were the children. I can’t say that I had noticed before that Lagos is a city of children. I suppose like all middle class Nigeria, I had rendered invisible the disturbing sight of children in threadbare clothing rushing after vehicles, as motor touts in the brutal midday sun and heat or as street vendors, trying to sell newspapers, cellophane bags of water, groundnuts, oranges, apples, running after cars, shouting, shoving everything in order to get a sale. But, this morning, first I noticed the beggars, the beggar children: two in ramshackle wheelchairs being pushed by adolescent siblings. One was a thin and frail girl with paralyzed and spastic legs. The other was normal looking in all respects except for being dejected and tired. Then there another two children, leading two adult males, blind men from car to car begging. It was all very dispiriting, indeed.
But, it was the vast relentless massed army of children, in multi-various uniforms with heavy rucksacks on their backs, walking singly or in groups, on their way to school, sprightly, heading with innocence onwards, seemingly unaware of the decrepitude of the physical environment. There was a surprising absence of the mass of exploited street children dashing in between vehicles to make a sale.
And, then the women in orange jumpsuits, as if just released from Guantanamo bay. These were the custodians of Lagos cleanliness- with broom in hand, sweeping the streets and suddenly I came to the realization that Lagos streets are clean! What a welcome surprise.
Looking east at dawn, the Lagos lagoon was endless in its vastness. The sun appeared to stroke the water’s skin, to caress it. This was mere illusion. It was the lagoon, in its movement that was seeking out love and embracing the sun’s warmth. There were a few static canoes, resting, statuesque in all this endless motion. There were no boys punting or paddling. The canoes were empty, bobbing against the subtlety of the waves. The canoes were like symbols, meaningful signs, hieroglyphics painted on the vastness of the lagoon.
I was in a car speeding along on the 3rd Lagos Bridge. The road, serpentine, twisted and descended towards Herbert McCauley. The clearness of the open lagoon closed, deteriorated, and turned turbid and overgrown with detritus and floating logs. Spires of smoke, incidental and sporadic, climbed and twisted into the sky. On the edge of what was land and lagoon, structures on stilts, perched like alien birds, cranes and ostriches that had evolved to squat immobile on the shores of Lagos. These birds put out an unseen miasma that reeked of decomposition and of life too, a resinous and volatile acridity hung in the air.
Then I was in Yaba, slowed down to the pace of the human walk in a humid tepid sauna house. And it was not yet midday but I was as exhausted as a spermatozoa swimming up a fallopian tube and against the tide too.
Let me end as I started, with Mary Kingsley
In this great region of swamps every mile appears like every other mile until you get used to it, and are able to distinguish the little peculiarities at the entrance of the rivers and in the winding of the creeks, a thing difficult even for the most experienced navigator to do during those thick wool-like mists called smokes, which hang about the whole Bight from November till May (the dry season), sometimes lasting all day, sometimes clearing off three hours after sunrise.
So it is with people too, alike until you come to know them!
Photos by Jan Oyebode