Visual impressions from fieldwork in Lagos

28. July 2023

Our research on the spaces of urban emplacement of forcibly displaced populations took our sub-project team to some of the informal urban settlements in Lagos, Nigeria. Nested in the interstices of the formal city and harnessing the inaccessibility of “vulnerable” locations, these places and the people who inhabit them challenge research and field access from many epistemological and ethical angles. Rather than focusing on these spaces however, I would like to reflect on some aspects of doing immersive fieldwork: departing from a brief positionality check-in, I contemplate the affective power of being exposed—in places far away from the researchers’ living spaces, their spaces of everyday scientific practice, and where their sense of orientation is not as reliable as in other settings.

Thus, the purpose of these first few lines is to open this travelogue with a bit of personal background on the writing process. It is my attempt to come to honestly come to terms with the impostor complex one feels as a researcher funded by a German institution going “to do fieldwork” in different parts of the world, where the luggage of privileged difference becomes quite a load. I have tried to elaborate it in the form of what follows, building on the process of memory reconstruction, retracing those days through the gallery of images I took with my phone which had prompted in me the urge to share them with my closest contacts “back home”.

During the first week of the field trip, my colleagues and I accompanied the WITS-UniLag-TUB Urban Lab Summer School in their activities, seminars, a PhD clinic, and excursions, on UniLag campus and in some urban communities. The Urban Lab is a DAAD funded tri-lateral graduate school aimed at developing critical perspectives on urban education in African contexts, bringing together TU Berlin, the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, and the University of Lagos, Nigeria. I realized at that time that the organizational structure of the Summer School acted as a mental frame to ease my “landing” in Lagos, where everything was an overwhelming sensorial and emotional input to my system. On the first day of the Summer School, our UniLag hosts took the group of participants around the campus. It was only some time later, after watching a lot of Nigerian films, that I realized that this campus often features in movies—it is that striking. It is so extensive that we underestimated how long walking through it would take. Faculties, administrative offices, lecture halls, as well as student dorms, sports halls, restaurants, small commercial activities, gas stations (!), a small farm, and some bank branches—everything you need is within reach on campus, immersed in a rare green pocket of the city, with some rather beautiful vegetation.

Yet, the surprise with which the UniLag colleagues commented on my fascination with the enticing geometry of the plantain trees (like the one in the picture on top) alerted me to my sensitivity to novelty, as opposed to a sense of familiarity, at play between us.

The impressive modernist architecture of most faculty buildings is anything but accessory to the experience of walking I am struggling to re-evoke. A fellow of the Shared Africa Heritage and of the WITS-UniLag-TUB Urban Lab spontaneously talked us through the history of the modernist faculty buildings, the incorporation of natural lighting and ventilation into the architecture, the tessellated designs covering some façades, all while we walked along winding paths between bits of concrete pavement and on ground curiously covered in holes. It was with great surprise that I realized that the holes were the landscape from which hundreds of red claw crabs were following our moves attentively—adding the other-than-human to the palimpsest of affects experienced while walking.

The mangroves around us hinted at the proximity of the waterfront. If I hadn’t already been astounded by the lush banana, papaya, plantain, almond, and mango trees we had walked past, the sight of the lagoon waterfront would have probably been the final spark of awe. Here students hang out and take photos with the picturesque landscape. Snack and ice cream sellers provide the energy boosters and refreshments to extend the delight. While the view offered the most enjoyable scenery, one is reminded by revelatory details of the spatial abstractions that are necessary for the peaceful enjoyment of a carefree walk immersed in a botanically full sensory experience on campus. Fences and surveillance, classics of socio-spatial segregation, thus suddenly become salient as they produce the separation. The campus of UniLag stands out from the satellite view as a green spatial enclave nestled among multiple lagoon waterfront communities—some of which we had the privilege to visit during the week of the Summer School. Inhabitants of the communities support their livelihoods with different kinds of trades, including fishing in the lagoon waters on wooden boats—like the one in the center of my picture of the view from the campus waterfront.

The same picture may not convey the magnitude of the bridge just behind the fishermen. It is the Third Mainland Bridge, which runs some 11,8 km along the western coastline of the lagoon. It is the main viability artery connecting the mainland districts with the original urban center Lagos Island. Driving over the bridge at express speed is like experiencing the fragmenting power of heavy infrastructures in slow motion: while sitting more or less comfortably on the seat of an oil-powered vehicle, one passes 11 km of urban poor communities living off the water environments and extensive sawmill infrastructures on one side, and the extractive landscape of the oil industry pumping precious fossilized organic remains out of the same lagoon waters on the other.

Embracing the vectoral power of the drive, we arrived at the ocean waterfront. Or rather, thanks to the superpowers of our UniLag hosts, who had organized for the Summer School participants to visit the otherwise inaccessible construction site of the Eko Atlantic—the future Nigerian International Commerce City—, we were brought to the interface between ocean and emerging land, where the land is dredged from the same ocean. The whole project is impressive, to use a euphemism: a peninsula of 10 km2 of reclaimed land, expected to house affluent residents, powered by its independently generated energy supply, produced by private capital for the reproduction of private capital, defying the erosive power of the ocean through the power of cement, while simultaneously causing the ocean to rise. The few completed—and inhabited—skyscrapers sit a little awkwardly in the landscape of quite ghostly construction. Only a week later, I also realized that they just as awkwardly demarcate the view from the few accessible (privatized) beaches of the city.

The thin dark line that traces the horizon in the photo is the reclaimed land on which the yet-to-be-built districts of Eko Atlantic will rise, and it runs along most of the horizon that could be seen from the beach. There is a lot of debate on the coastal protection structures of Eko Atlantic and whether they operate at the expense of increased environmental vulnerability of other coastal communities of Lagos, but the technical arguments and assessments completely defeat my capacity to form my own critical opinion of it. However, the flooding problem to which the city is prone is self-evident. It doesn’t take more than a few days of casual conversation with anyone really to pick up on a regular pattern of talk about floods—which people have gotten used to living around, but which they understandably won’t stop complaining about. On the two mornings of our field visits to the lagoon waterfront communities of Bariga and Makoko, the community members who received us referred to the same alleys and walkways that we were treading that very moment as being under half a meter of water only a few hours earlier. It is propagandistically easy and probably convenient for some—especially big global polluters—to point to the bad waste management practices of local residents as a concurrent cause of the floods. It is much less convenient to recognize to what extent anthropogenic climate change induced sea level rise is already damaging lives, properties, and ecologies in low-lying coastal communities—in Lagos, as much as elsewhere. The final water-based impression from the field trip came, appropriately, on the morning before our departure, when, as we pulled up the window shutters, the street looked back at us defiantly, completely submerged in water.

As I come to the conclusions here, I ask myself what this travelogue is really about. Somehow it is just a string of visual impressions that straddle the line between context and object of the fieldwork my colleagues and I went to Lagos for last semester. Without looking much further, I find another quite obvious yet never exhausted answer: that fieldwork keeps my senses alert, awakens them when they are lazily slipping into dormancy, and trains the critical eye through which I need to look at places, living beings, objects, and processes, not just within the frame of the formal empirical research but every day and everywhere.

Author Biography: Francesca Ceola is a PhD candidate and research associate in the subproject C08 “Architectures of Asylum II”. Her research focuses on mapping the intersections between forced displacement, makeshift urbanisms, migrant infrastructures, and socio-ecological urban landscapes through counter and hybrid mapping methodologies.