Imagine being blind in Lagos. It is Africa’s megacity, an endless, dirty, malarial metropolis of somewhere between 10 and 17.5 million people – no one seems quite sure – a figure predicted to reach 25 million by 2015 and 35 million by 2025. It’s a place of constant gridlock and giant holes in the sidewalks. It is a nightmare to navigate at the best of times: if you have meetings at opposite ends of the city in one day, traveling is everything else you’re doing that day. It’s a city that requires all your senses from the moment you step outside your front door. So imagine if you didn’t have the most important of them.
I’ve come to a small, dark office underneath the Nigerian National Stadium in Lagos to try to do that. It’s the inaugural meeting of a new chess club started by the Anglo-Nigerian Welfare Association for the Blind (ANWAB). When I arrive, several games are already under way on specially designed boards on which the darker squares are raised, and the darker pieces have been marked with raised dots. It’s the latest innovation from ANWAB, which already provides a Braille library, an internet café, computer training and coaching on how to find your way around cookers, radios and buses. ANWAB is founded on the idea is that blindess is an obstacle but not a barrier: among its members are lawyers, business managers and musicians.
Admirable, sure. But I ask Danlami Umaru Basharu, a neat man with a big laugh and a qualified lawyer and founder of the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities, whether it wouldn’t have been easier to be blind somewhere else? It would, Basharu admits. In addition to the chaotic traffic, the open gutters and drains and the endless and ever increasing expanse of city to memorize, almost none of the buildings in Lagos have disabled facilities, he says, and the place is always changing. “You have to make a mental map of everywhere and you have to pick landmarks that are permanent – a tree’s no good, for instance, as that can be chopped down.” But Basharu, who was blinded by a bout of measles when he was three and can remembers colors but little else, says creating a map in the mind, and thinking through a whole day’s movements across the city, is possible. It’s one reason why the blind are good at chess – something Nigerians discovered when their own national team was beaten by a blind Ukrainian team some years ago. Moreover, says Basharu, leaving Lagos would be surrendering. “I could live in the country, but people want to live in the city because that’s where you can make it. It’s your own determination that enables you to move around. The fact that we’re blind does not mean we’re down and out.”
One frequent source of encouragement is the kindness and helpfulness of the people of Lagos, says Basharu. That doesn’t go for everyone, however. There are the porters and laborers carrying packages on their heads, who count on others seeing them coming and moving out of their way. “They bump into you and hit you,” he says, “and then they ask you to watch where you’re going.” Worse are Lagos’ drivers. “You have to be as careful as possible,” he says. “Lagosians are terrible drivers. They’re all over the road, and the pavements too.” Basharu says he’s had half serious thoughts about trying to take his test himself. His disability shouldn’t disqualify him, he argues. After all, he roars with laughter, what would be the difference when “80% of Lagos’ drivers are already blind”?