by Michael Hobbes
Soren Host is waiting in line to be shaken down.
He has finished his fieldwork for the week. He has a towel over one shoulder, a novel in one hand, bottles of water in a plastic bag. Three teenagers have built an entrance to the beach, a scrap wood fence, a rope across it, an entrance fee to pass.
Soren’s first day in Nigeria, he got a pro bono briefing from the head of security for one of the companies setting up operations in the free trade zone. The first rule, he told Soren, is mind your own business. Keep your head down. You will see sudden outbursts of violence; ignore them; keep walking. Avoid traveling alone.
The second rule, he told Soren, is stay away from the area boys.
These are the area boys. They look around 15, wiry, grumpy like teenage employees the world over. They’re lined up in a row along the fence. Next to them, arm’s reach away, they’ve arranged a row of sticks and iron rods.
The Nigerian couple in front of Soren, used to this, weary of it, are haggling.
This is a public beach, they’re saying, you can’t just charge admission. The area boys don’t negotiate, really, they just wait for the couple to give in. Eventually they do, hand over a hundred or so naira, about a buck. The boys hand them an expired local bus pass as an entrance ticket — infuriating them even more — and wave them inside.
Soren is next in line.
“Two dollars,” one of the boys says.
Soren doesn’t look like the typical Dane, he’s short, compact, dark hair in his eyes. But it’s obvious he doesn’t live here.
“I’ll pay it,” Soren says, “but I want a receipt.”
The boy is silent. This is what the head of security told Soren to do: Pay bribes if you have to, but only pay them once.
“I don’t want one of your buddies coming up to me later and charging me again,” Soren says.
One of the other kids digs around in his pockets until he finds a scrap of paper and a pen. “Please this white men is pay” he writes on the stub, and then signs it. Then, under the scribble, “No bouncing.”
“Thanks,” Soren says.
The boy doesn’t say anything, he just looks over Soren’s shoulder at the next customer.
The Nanjing Jiangning Economic and Technical Development Corporation describes Nigeria’s Lekki Peninsula as “an area one and a half times the size of Hong Kong, with a five-mile coastline of golden beach. On the peninsula the rainforest is always close, not far from the endless Atlantic.”
All of this is true, but it is not why they have come.
They are here to establish a free trade zone, a rectangle of low taxes, gleaming infrastructure, a port, an airport, a workforce that cannot douse their country’s development by going on strike or demanding higher wages.
The reference to Hong Kong is not a coincidence. The Chinese have leased a 157 square mile rectangle of land — about the size of Denver — on this peninsula for the next 99 years, the same length of time the British controlled the speck of China that worked its way up from poverty and now serves as a model for the rest of the country.
Nigeria shares the same vision for the zone, the same Sim City visual: Rows of factories, cranes pecking at shipping containers, worker housing, parks, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, a city in itself. All throbbing behind a perimeter fence, a rampart against the old ways, the Nigeria, around it.
This is why Soren is here too. He is spending five weeks on this moist strip of land, interviewing its companies, its investors, its workers. He is here to find out the realities of the Chinese and Nigerian aspirations, the sacrifices each will have to make to realize them.
Soren is staying in Eputu Town, halfway between Lagos and the zone. It’s only 25 miles from Lagos, but the drive takes three hours. At first the road is flanked by exclusive hotels, office buildings with oil company and Big Four logos on the sides, banks, gated communities, wetlands being filled with sand. Soon the buildings shrink, floor by floor, to shops, then shacks, then mangrove swamps, fishing villages dotting them.
Eputu is a village on the verge of becoming a suburb. The roads are dirt or mud, depending on the time of year, small stores on each side selling bananas, frozen chickens, instant noodles. The local bar, a frame of scrap wood topped with a sheet of corrugated iron, eight plastic chairs outside and four inside, serves hot pepper soup, plays music loud enough to drown out the generators.
Soren only met Solomon yesterday, but he offered Soren his spare room almost immediately. Mid-30s, muscular with a hipster beard, Solomon is a local fixer; last week he arranged meetings and locations for a French documentary crew. He lives on the top floor of a two-story bungalow. He lets Soren in through the front door, or what’s left of it. He ran through the glass panel a few nights ago dashing out to greet one of his neighbors.
It’s dark when Soren arrives, Solomon shows him inside by candlelight. The power is out at the moment. The utility company, NEPA, is officially the Nigerian Energy Production Administration, but he tells Soren everyone here calls it Never Expect Power Again.
Solomon introduces Soren to the neighbors. Downstairs is Mommy Loni and her six-month-old son, Uncle Loni. She shares the apartment with her husband, Olumide, and her sister, Toyin.
“Come up here, you have to meet my friend!” Solomon yells down the stairs. Toyin is the only one home, and she comes up to say hi. Solomon invites her to sit down in Soren’s room, a mattress on the floor in the corner, a candle flickering in the center.
Almost immediately, Solomon announces he has to take a call and leaves Soren and Toyin alone in the room, sitting crosslegged across the candle from each other. Neither of them knows what to say.
“Welcome,” Toyin says. Soren nods. After a pause, she says it again. She is wearing her home-cloth, the Nigerian equivalent of sweatpants, but Soren cannot help but notice how beautiful she is. He thinks she must be 18, athletic, hair pulled into cornrows. Later he finds out she is 28, just two years younger than he is.
Over the next few days, Soren settles in. Whenever he has more than a few hours of electricity, he can expect to go without it for days afterward. Soren’s desk is a piece of plywood laid across two upturned paint buckets. He sits on the floor and types until his battery runs out, then reads World Bank reports and Nigerian novels by candlelight.
Nigeria already has eleven free zones in operation and another eleven under construction. The Lekki Free Trade Zone, whether you measure by square miles or investment, is the largest.
In February 2006, the agreement was signed and the partners officially founded the Lekki Free Zone Development Company, gave it the mandate to lease land, attract investors, get the zone up and running. The partners waited for Nigeria’s dry season, then started clearing vegetation, filling the damp parts of the peninsula with sand, laying the foundations firm enough to steady tall buildings.
The ambitions for the zone follow a familiar narrative: It will start with low-skilled manufacturing — clothes, shoes, the things Hong Kong, then Taiwan, now China, make for the rest of the world. Once the engine of development has been sufficiently revved, the zone will — in the parlance of the banks whose investment they are trying to attract — “move up the value chain” to skilled labor, services, design, marketing.
Meanwhile, the zone will invite investors in natural gas and tourism, will build roads and resorts and worker housing, and establish itself as an example for the rest of the country, the continent.
Nigeria will supply the land and the people; China will supply the money. The Chinese partners have already pledged $263 million for the first phase, and will eventually attract more than $1.1 billion. It is set to be the largest Chinese-funded free trade zone outside of China.
In exchange for their investment, the Chinese will not only get operating rights to the zone for 50 years, but a series of perks to ensure they get their money’s worth: A full federal, state and local tax exemption; one-stop permit approvals; customs- and tax-free imports of raw materials; a Zone-specific set of labor laws; prohibitions on unions and lock-outs for workers.
It is 2008, two years after the zone was established, and the peninsula is already humming with activity, criss-crossed with tractors, striped with roads. Soren has five weeks to find out what this means for the people arriving and, especially, the ones already here.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” The Nigerian fisherman is livid.
He is in his late 30s, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved, savannah-patterned shirt, standard attire for residents of the fishing villages here on the peninsula. “Why are you measuring this land? You haven’t paid us any compensation! We’re not going to get anything, are we?’
The man he is shouting at is Mr. Zhang, a Chinese promoter of the zone. His job is to visit companies, bring them to the zone, and convince them to put their money here.
Today Mr. Zhang is showing a group of Nigerian investors around the zone, he’s invited Soren to come along. This is vacant land, Mr. Zhang told them in the car, gesturing at the wetlands, the shrubs along the road. Almost as soon as he stopped the car to let the investors walk around the site, the villager appeared from a path through the bushes.
“We’re still living here!” he’s shouting. “We’re not leaving until we get compensation.”
“The Lagos government is in charge of compensating you,” Mr. Zhang tells him. “These investors,” he gestures at the men with him, wearing suits on an 80 degree afternoon, carrying measuring tape and bulky cameras. One of them is peeing in the grass, ignoring the conversation six feet away. “They’re here to put money into this community. They’re going to create jobs.”
The villager has been fishing, farming, living here his whole life, he shouts at Mr. Zhang. These men are going to create jobs for other people. Meanwhile, he’ll be kicked off his land. What will he do then?
It’s been like this for two years now. In the early days, the paperwork stage, the communities living here petitioned the Lagos State government, federal ministries, pleaded with authorities not to forget them when the bulldozers came. At first, the government listened, held meetings, drew up strategies. Then … nothing. The ministries stopped responding. And then, the bulldozers came.
In 2007, villagers blocked the roads, kept Chinese equipment and workers from reaching the zone. It was the only way to get the government’s attention.
All the unrest made the Chinese investors antsy. With national elections just around the corner, the Nigerian government finally agreed to work on a memorandum of understanding with the communities living on the peninsula, to define who would get compensated for their land and their livelihoods, to devise formulas to determine how much they were worth.
Still, even after years of debate and conflict, only a handful of villages participated in the actual consultation. They had seen this play out too many times. They didn’t trust the Chinese, but they trusted their own government even less.
It wasn’t even six months after the MoU was signed that events corroborated their cynicism. The MoU with the Lekki Free Trade Zone Development Company said all villagers would be compensated for loss of land. The only problem was, to get the compensation, they had to prove the land was theirs. Almost no one on the peninsula had title deeds. Living and working on a piece of land, no matter how long they had done it, was not proof that they owned it. Without the piece of paper saying the land was theirs, it wasn’t.
The villagers and the government set up a committee to solve the problem, to divvy up payouts according to who used the land, not who technically owned it. Right after the committee was established, the government started circumventing it, paying village chiefs directly, drawing lines down the middle of communities, buying the land out from under villagers without telling them.
Once the side deals started, it was every villager for himself. Fishers and farmers started contacting the government directly, negotiating compensation, trying to get an offer before it got pulled off the table.
Soren is not sure how much of this Mr. Zhang knows.
This happens, he tells Soren, every time he visits the zone. The conversation is always the same: The villagers ask him when they will be paid for their trouble, their loss. Mr. Zhang tells them that he is sorry, that it is not his job, that he hopes it will be soon.
“Why,” he asks, “do they keep coming to us?”
Aside from the interviews, Soren doesn’t have much to do. Solomon is away a lot, arranging funeral rites for his mother, who passed away a year ago. The anniversary of a death in the family is a celebration in Nigeria. Solomon has made more than 400 invitations, spends most of his time in Eastern Nigeria, his hometown, hiring a band, renting a venue.
On the days when he interviews Chinese companies, Soren goes to Victoria Island, near Lagos, on public transport, a minibus heaving with office workers and manual laborers, a kid leaning out the sliding door, shouting its destination at every stop.
There’s no public transport to the zone, so on days when he interviews residents or local chiefs, Soren hires a taxi to get there. One afternoon, on the way home, three area boys jump in front of the taxi, armed with sticks. They stand around the car, two in the front and one at the back tire, threatening to let the air out while the driver haggles over the bribe.
But mostly, it is as boring as any other commute in any other city. Soren is home most days around three, spends the afternoon transcribing interviews, sprawled on his bed, reading about the country around him.
It is on one of these empty days that Toyin comes up to offer him lunch: Catfish, amala, spicy okra sauce. She shouts “Soren!” through the hole in the door, reaches in to open it. These are just leftovers, she says, but tomorrow he can come downstairs and eat lunch with her family if he wants. Soren has been living on frozen mackerel, fried eggs, Indomie noodles — Nigerian Top Ramen, basically — and the occasional fruit the pastor next door drops off.
“Don’t you want to eat with me?” he says.
She tells him she hadn’t planned to, but she sits down as she says it.
She is, it turns out, a newcomer here, just like he is. She’s from Zaria, in the north, a city once known for its diversity, the university attracting students and professors from all over Nigeria, Africa, the world. She was used to seeing Indians and Europeans growing up, her Christian family attending street parties with Muslim neighbors..
These days, she tells him, the city is known for its strife. The first time the churches were burned down, Toyin was 7 or 8. She can’t remember if it was her mother who woke her up or the sounds outside. Her Muslim neighbors, the ones she had known all her life, scraping their knives on the pavement, shouting they would slaughter any Christians who stayed. She lept in military barracks for a few nights until it stopped. It did, and then years went by, and then it started again.
But that is not why she left. She left because she finished her English Literature degree and got a spot in a government program teaching English in Ede, just outside Lagos. She moved in with her sister and her brother-in-law here in Eputu when the program finished. They both leave early, Mommy Loni to open her shop along Eputu’s main road, Olumide to beat the traffic into Lagos. Toyin spends her days filling out job applications and taking care of her nephew, Uncle Loni.
The next day, Soren comes downstairs at lunch time, watches her grind melon seeds for egusi soup, and asks her to teach him how to make it.
After that, she starts waving to Soren every time she walks across the street to get water from the well, stops to sit with him on the porch on the way back. One Sunday she invites him to her church. She is an usher, which means she she can’t sit with him, so she leaves him on the pew, bouncing his knee in time to the singing, the dancing, the trumpets. He grins at her, standing at the front, and she grins back.
They get used to seeing each other every day.
It’s a blinding weekday, and Soren is visiting a dormitory for Chinese workers on the zone. The building is an old warehouse, a skeleton of wood covered with iron. Termites have chewed through most of the doors, some of them look like they’re being held up by the paint.
Soren’s guide, Mr. Wu, tells Soren with pride that these are the simple, unsophisticated conditions of the Chinese workers here. At first they were disturbed by the bits of wood raining on them from the rafters while they slept — termite leftovers. Now they simply brush them off and roll over.
“The only entertainment for the workers,” he says in Chinese, “is a basketball.”
The workers have never met a white person who speaks Chinese before, and they are slightly baffled about what Soren is doing here and why he is asking them how they feel about this strange country they live in. Most of the workers are from rural China, and they know what it is to be poor. They do not know, however, what it is like to be poor in this specific way, in this specific place.
This, Mr. Wu tells him, is how the investment will work. It’s not just money China is shipping over, but its workers, its technology, its way of doing things. The investment comes as a bundle, wrapped in a chain link fence, a kit for establishing a small enclave of China in this sweltering outpost on the Atlantic.
Mr. Wu tells Soren that Chinese workers are the opposite of Nigerians. They work hard all year for the reward of relaxation, a break for the New Year or the short summer holiday. For the Chinese, he says, the rule is “eat the bitter first.”
For Nigerians, he says, relaxation is the default, they must be forced to work as hard as the Chinese. He tells Soren about a group of Nigerian machine operators meeting Chinese workers doing the same job. When they saw how quickly the Chinese were working, they said it had to be magic.
To European ears, these sound like colonial observations, the kind Soren has seen in James Cook diaries, letters home from 19th century tropical pillages. The manager says things that sound familiar. Nigeria is rich in resources, removed from natural disasters, un-tormented by strict seasons. The land has not endowed its people with the mentality or fortitude to struggle their way out of poverty.
Without the burden of history, the Chinese are not careful in their characterizations, not self-conscious about what it sounds like to be saying them. It seems like they are discovering this continent for the first time.
Soren hears the same thing from the workers living in the dormitory. If we do not work, they tell him, we can’t afford clothes, we’ll freeze in the Chinese winter. If the Nigerians don’t work, they pick fruit from a tree and wait in the shade for the next day to come. They repeat rumors they have heard about Chinese workers being robbed at gunpoint, disappearing from the streets. They show off the frugality and simplicity of their living conditions, tell Soren their hopes of the modernizing influence their presence will have.
It turns out Mr. Wu was wrong about the entertainment. Every week, on their one-day break from work, the Chinese workers stack benches and create a theatre in the dormitory and watch Chinese movies back to back. It is the only thing here, they tell that reminds them of their villages back home.
Soren knows he has to say something to Toyin before he leaves.
They are spending more time together. They eat lunch together, work and read in the same room in the afternoons. She doesn’t drink alcohol; he starts to find excuses not to join Solomon for after-dinner beers at the local bar or on his balcony. Soren asks her about her childhood in Nigeria, and she about his in Denmark, each marveling at the other’s strangeness. It’s obvious he likes her — Toyin says she should start charging Soren every time she catches him staring at her over dinner — but her family is traditional, and he’s not sure how this works here.
One night, with just a few days left in Nigeria, Soren and Solomon are on their way to see Femi Kuti in Lagos. Chris spent much of the day calling drivers, trying to find one with a reliable car. He can’t have a breakdown in the neighborhoods they have to drive through to get there. As they’re leaving, Toyin stops Soren as he passes, and says she needs to tell him something. Solomon insists they have to leave before it gets dark. Soren calls goodbye back to her and goes.
After the show, driving home, Solomon makes Soren lie on the floor in the back seat. He doesn’t want to be driving through Lagos at 11 p.m. with a white face glowing out through the window. Soren lies on the floor, staring up, wondering what Toyin wanted to tell him.
Finally, just before he leaves for Denmark, he goes downstairs, they sit on the living room floor. He holds her hand, closes his eyes, tells her that he likes her, that he wants to see her again, more, differently. He finally opens his eyes when she squeezes his hand so hard it hurts.
She tells him she feels the same way. Of course she does. But she’s only known him a month, she’s not sure how real this is, that she’ll even see him again. She says this has to be goodbye. Soren drives to the airport alone.
Toyin was right and so was Soren. Life got in the way. Right after he gets back to Denmark, Soren is posted to Beijing for eight months, his Nigeria project put on hold.
In China, Soren talks to Toyin over Skype almost every day. A year after his fieldwork, he comes back to Nigeria. Toyin couldn’t find work in Lagos, so she moved to Ibadan, five hours inland, to get a postgraduate diploma and wait out the job market there.
When Soren visits she has more time for him than he expected. First, the teachers are on strike for weeks. Then, a flood washes away the bridge Toyin walks over to get to the university. Eventually, some area boys build a new one, but charge a toll to cross it.
Soren goes with her to campus, sits at the library, writes and reads about the zone. Since he left, it has maintained its anthill momentum, added rows of factories, a power plant, water treatment, canals dug into the swamps. The port, the deepest in West Africa, is set to open in 2017.
Soren still has the scrap of paper, the one with “please this white man is pay” on it, in their home in Aarhus, Denmark. They got married in 2009. They’re thinking about moving, with their two daughters, Aimi and Anke, to China next year.
He still teases her about the night they met, repeats at her “welcome … welcome” over and over again.
This story is part of our Travel Month series.
Michael Hobbes lives in Berlin. He blogs at rottenindenmark.wordpress.com, and previously wrote these stories for this site. He says: “I’ve been friends with Soren since 2007, when we interned at a human rights NGO together. I met Toyin in 2009, when she moved to Denmark. All the names in this story other than theirs have been changed.”
Photo: Jeremy Weate