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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 October 2006, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Humour abounds amid Lagos chaos
Kieran Cooke
By Kieran Cooke
BBC News, Nigeria

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and has the potential to be one of the richest, but has been plagued by corruption since independence in 1960. But as our correspondent found on a visit to the sprawling city of Lagos, there's another side to life - the unfailing humour with which Nigerians confront the trials of daily living.

Aeroplane engine
Staff inspect the damaged engine

It happened as the aircraft was about to lift off. A muffled explosion followed by a grating, turbulent sound, rather like a dishwasher gone berserk.

We were flung forward as engines were reversed, brakes slammed on.

The ornate red hat of the podgy man next to me went flying down the cabin, closely followed by a pile of newspapers, a handbag and, the most strange sight of all, a carton of washing powder.

My friend Ibim, a local journalist intent on showing me what she called "the real Nigeria" far away from Lagos, grabbed my thigh in a blood-stopping clasp. We came to a halt, slightly skewed, not far from the end of the runway.

What was most impressive about the incident at Lagos airport - besides the split second decision making of the pilot - was the behaviour of those on board.

Lagos is one of those places where you wonder just how anything manages to function

No screams, no tears. A shrugging of shoulders - and then, chuckles and laughter.

"You see," said Ibim. "We Nigerians can take anything."

It is as if locals combat the haphazard, often frightening world they inhabit with bellyfuls of humour.

"Welcome to Nigeria, the happiest country in Africa" says the sign at the airport - while another carries a more worrying message - "Mind the Roof", it says.

We limped back to the terminal. The pilot - he had a Russian accent - announced that there had been what he called a "bird strike".

Lagos buses carry messages as well as people around the city

It must have been some bird. After inspection, one of the two engines was found to be more or less wrecked.

Lagos is one of those places where you wonder just how anything manages to function. It is a city of, well, no-one is entirely sure of the population, but estimates vary between 13-15 million.

Built on a swamp and a series of islands, it is sinking. There is no mass transit system, no proper sewage network, drinking water for only a small portion of the city, and a power supply that is more off than on.

All this in a country which is one of the world's biggest oil producers but where the majority live in poverty. Nigeria recently celebrated 46 years of independence. Reading the newspapers was a sad business.

"Where did we go wrong?" they asked. Education and health systems which were among the best in Africa, in shambles.

Lagos map

For years the state coffers have been pillaged by the privileged few: again the figures vary widely, but there is no doubt billions of pounds have "gone missing" from state funds over the years.

And yet - amid all the chaos, the potholes and the blackouts - there is a vibrant energy about Lagos, a sense of living on the edge and again, that humour.

Sit in a Lagos traffic jam and look at the dented, people-crammed yellow buses that limp and belch their way round the city.

All seem to have messages elegantly written on them.

"Such is Life" says one. "No Tension" says another - horn blaring.

Ugly hulks

And - painted on the side of a particularly rusty, blue-smoking, smashed-up-looking bus, my favourite, thought provoking, message: "The downfall of man is not the end of his life."

In 1991, the capital was moved from Lagos to the far more orderly, new city of Abuja in the centre of the country. All over Lagos there are the abandoned, ugly hulks of what were once central government offices and ministries.

But each weekend officials scurry back from Abuja to this sinking city by the sea, seeming to crave its chaos and its madness.

Such is the state of Lagos traffic - it is not unusual for people to spend six hours a day getting to and from work - that many people do not go shopping, rather the shops come to them.

A teacher with some pupils
Lagos, despite its problems, is a 'vibrant' city

You can buy everything you need from hawkers who patrol the queues of buses, cars and trucks.

Need a curtain rail? No problem, just wind down the car window.

A mirror? Your groceries? A book, chair or a lampshade? It is all there, in the midst of the choking traffic. One man even had armfuls of toilet seats on offer.

One of the more important roadside industries is the manufacture of formidable looking iron doors and gates.

Vibrant music

The wealthy of Lagos live in fortresses - high walls topped with rolls of razor wire. Armed guards. Surveillance cameras.

But then, there is the other side of life. One of the most vibrant music scenes in Africa. Churches of every description side by side with mosques. A strong literary culture.

Back at the airport there is an announcement.

"The replacement aircraft is being serviced" said a cheery voice. "You'll be on your way just as soon as we've put the plane back together again."

Ibim and I - and the other passengers - collapsed in fits of thigh-grabbing, shoulder-thumping laughter.

We did get there in the end.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 October, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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