Marc André Schmachtel is head of the Goethe-Institut Nigeria | Photo: Jeremiah Ikongio / Goethe-Institut Lagos.
All a question of attitude: For Marc-André Schmachtel, the chaos in the Nigerian city of Lagos is intoxicating and dynamic. In our interview, he talks about why Nigerian food is the simply the best in all of Africa and why he’s in no hurry to leave his office in the evening.
Is it true that over five hundred languages are spoken in Lagos?
Schmachtel: That might be roughly correct. In all of Nigeria there are over five hundred native languages and dialects. It is difficult to differentiate between the two. Large numbers of different languages are also spoken in the other central African countries, simply because there was never one dominant language in the history of the regions. But, most of these languages are spoken by very few people and it is probable that very many of these five hundred languages will not survive the next fifty years.
How are your language skills?
I speak the official language, English, of course. I also speak pidgin, which is the lingua franca here, a mixture of English and native words that everyone understands. The three largest linguistic and cultural groups in Lagos are the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. I know a few words in each of the three languages and can often follow conversations, but do not really master them. My excuse – and it usually works – is that if I would speak only one of the three languages, then my other friends would ask me why I don’t learn their language, too. And I don’t want to give anyone preferential treatment.
In 2012, the average monthly take-home pay of a German household was 2,700 euros. How well could a family in Lagos live on that?
That would depend on the standard of living they aspire for. If a German family of four wants to continue their life as usual, they would not do very well because the rents here are incredibly high. But if they would be willing to go without their usual comforts and live like most of the city’s inhabitants, they would live quite well on 2,700 euros.
Can you tell me one of Lagos’s lesser-known claims to fame?
Its truly impressive energy – energy in the positive sense. Lagos is often described as chaotic: the traffic noise, corruption, difficulties with government offices. And everyday life is actually somewhat arduous at times. But that is countered by the unbelievable dynamics; in cultural work in particular we feel an enormous will and great desire for international dialogue. This side of the city is not given enough attention; you only hear about the problems here, but far too little about the wonderful artists, writers and filmmakers.
What presumption about Lagos do we need to revise?
That Lagos is the world’s most dangerous city – it’s simply not true. Many other cities seem far more dangerous to me. For example, when I travel to Johannesburg, some spots are far more oppressive and I’m really happy to get back to Lagos. Coexistence here is more relaxed. Naturally even in Lagos there are big differences between skin colours, between rich and poor, but in everyday life it works rather well. I feel safe here.
A question of decorum: What should one never do in Lagos?
Make fun of Nigerian culture. You should never do that anywhere, of course, but the Nigerians are very self-confident and rightfully proud of their rich traditions. Although I am familiar with many African countries, I committed a faux pas when I first came to Lagos. I had just moved here from Cameroon and received an invitation from the state television station to report about my first impressions – including how I liked Nigerian food. I answered honestly that I had tried many good dishes, but that I personally preferred the food in Cameroon. The response was not taken well: in the neighbouring country of Cameroon, which is always seen as the “little brother,” they cook better than they do here? The people simply have a solid sense of the importance of their own culture, a great sense of self-assurance.
And what should one never forget to do?
Never cross off a to-do list here, you should just wander about, enjoy the city and search for places beyond the trodden paths. I was once able to visit an old theatre here that has been closed for thirty years. It was built in 1977 and has an impressive 5,000 seats. You should take advantage of such opportunities. And then you should try to get out of the city. That’s easily forgotten because Lagos itself has so much to offer that you get sucked in. But the surroundings are really worth a visit; I notice that every time I travel the rest of the country for the Goethe-Institut. And it’s easy to spend a weekend day at the beach.
What is your favourite place in Lagos?
It’s very close by: the roof of our institute! We are located in Lagos City Hall, which was renovated a few years ago and now houses a number of offices including that of the Goethe-Institut. City Hall is a gigantic box with a flat roof in the middle of the city. In the evening after work I like to go up there, listen to the sound of the city, the honking of all the cars, but I also notice how the city slowly quiets down. From there you can also see the harbour and the ocean. It is a very restful place.
What do you see when you look out your office window?
I can’t see the ocean from my window because it faces the other direction. But I can see the Brazilian Quarter. In this neighbourhood, after their return from South America, freed Nigerian slaves built their own houses in Brazilian style. Everyday life in the streets down there is always exciting: taxi drivers scolding, children playing; you simply notice that we are right in the middle of the fullness of life and not in some wealthy, isolated suburb.
The questions were asked by Tobias Birr
Marc-André Schmachtel was born in Lübeck on 1 July 1979. He first travelled to Africa during his school days and finished his Abitur in Windhoek, Namibia. He then returned to Germany to study, where he wrote his thesis on African cinema. Between 2008 and 2010 he worked for the Goethe-Institut in Cameroon and since 2010 has been the director of the Goethe-Institut Lagos. He doesn’t have to go far for his biggest hobby: Marc-André Schmachtel is a passionate photographer and his little studio is right around the corner from the Goethe-Institut.