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My life with the real housewives of Lagos: Writer VANESSA WALTERS swapped her gloomy London flat for a sunny Nigerian penthouse


As Brits, we tend not to make a fuss with our clothes. A bit of grosgrain trim is all we need to communicate our greatness. But when I moved to Lagos, Nigeria, I discovered fashion that doesn’t so much whisper as scream. 

Think busy ankara prints, bright jewel tones and bold accessories visible from outer space – see The Real Housewives of Lagos (Prime Video) for reference.

I never planned on living in Nigeria. The oxytocin made me agree to it. (Or that’s my excuse.)

Vanessa in a bold Nigerian look

Vanessa in a bold Nigerian look

I was breastfeeding my first child, sleep-deprived and hormonal, when my husband suggested relocating to his father’s country to work on family business. I’d never been to West Africa before and had no idea what to expect, but if he’d asked me to move to Mars at that moment I’d have said, ‘Sure, Babe, whatever.’ So, in the spring of 2011, aged 34, and with a six-month-old in arms, we moved from London to Lagos.

After a year of married life in a gloomy, lower-ground one-bed flat in Islington, we now lived in a sun-soaked two-bed penthouse with wraparound views of the Lagos lagoon. 

As someone who grew up in a housing association flat in Finchley with a single-parent mum who sometimes couldn’t afford to keep the lights on, it was definitely a change.

Victoria Island beach

Victoria Island beach

My husband’s family had big plans for him. My father-in-law is a king – a minor one in a country with hundreds but, still, royalty.

He wanted to develop the kingdom: he had an oil company and plans for gas exploration while also managing a hotel and property across West Africa.

They were optimistic about the country’s potential and they weren’t alone. People came from Western countries as if they were Dick Whittington, believing the streets of Lagos were paved with gold. They found, well, only some were paved. Still, there was a new president called Goodluck. It was a good omen, and a good time.

I found a job as an editor for Genevieve, a glamorous women’s monthly magazinethat  got me invitations to all the best events. I sat at tables with billionaires – such as Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote (net worth $16.6 billion) – and met celebrities like the singer Davido (Spotify streams, 2 billion; Instagram followers, 29 million).

I also found that, once I had shed my British reserve, I enjoyed dressing up for all the parties.

My new Nigerian friends and co-workers showed me how to apply lashes and introduced me to pointy stiletto nails. Nigerian women are confident and well-informed dressers, paying attention to the latest trends and having local dressmakers copy them. 

Changing my clothes also made me feel more confident. You cannot be shy dressed in flamingo pink. It’s impossible.

Plus, I was encouraged by the Nigerwives. ‘Nigerwife’ is the Nigerian Immigration term for the foreign wife of a Nigerian man living in Nigeria. I was one myself. 

I learned of the term at an event, when a man told me his wife was a ‘Nigerwife’ and gave me her number to get in touch.

There was, it turned out, a group called The Nigerwives Association, to help us assimilate and support each other. The membership was diverse – there were women from Brazil and Russia – but it had the feel of a very English organisation. There were rules, committees – and raffles, obviously. Think Calendar Girls with more drama and set in Africa.

I met women who had been in Nigeria for more than 50 years. Jean, in her 80s, still had a Scottish brogue. Her skin had yellowed from decades in the West African sun.  One Jamaican octogenarian had barely survived the Biafran War of 1967. 

I was happy to join, moved up the ranks of the committee and made friends. It struck me how similar our experiences were.

Vanessa in Lagos with husband Suaye and children Amaru and Ikiote

Vanessa in Lagos with husband Suaye and children Amaru and Ikiote

We struggled with the cultural differences. Some in-laws required you to dobal (curtsy) to seniors; others wanted you to help with the family business; most expected several (male) children and utter submission to your husband and his family.

As for the clothes, it’s common in Nigeria for groups of friends and families to wear the same fabric at outings. It’s called aso ebi and it’s a social uniform. So, when the Nigerwives went anywhere as a group, we mostly dressed in the same ankara fabric with matching head ties.

I suppose, from the outside, we were seen as spoilt foreign ladies who lunched – detached from Nigeria’s troubles and able to fly away with our foreign passports when Ebola, or political turmoil, hit the country. 

Showstopping style in TV’s The Real Housewives of Lagos

Showstopping style in TV’s The Real Housewives of Lagos

It’s true some Nigerwives were seriously wealthy. Several married high-ranking politicians, or into billionaire families.

But not all were rich. One Nigerwife, who was married to a samba dancer, lived an austere life on Snake Island, a long, windy spit of sand that separates Lagos from the Atlantic. Some worked as teachers, or ran their own small businesses. One worked as a chambermaid for our family’s hotel.

And not all were happy. Occasionally, elderly Nigerwives were abandoned in deprivation. One younger woman was chased from her village at knifepoint for not being an approved ethnicity. 

We helped keep her and her son safe until she could get back to Germany. This was, ultimately, the point of the Nigerwives: in a country where your family is your safety net, we were like a family.

I wish I could say that, with this great life – the wonderful clothes, the Nigerwives, the parties and my new-found confidence – there were no problems in Lagos. But life was still hard. I was far from home, lonely at times, and the Stepford life wasn’t what I had envisaged for myself.

I felt dependent on my husband and his family for all things, and I was mostly restricted to the (admittedly fabulous) compound where we lived. I missed stimulating, gritty London, and felt bored by the homogeneity of my social circle of housewives. 

There are parts of ourselves that even champagne can’t reach.

In 2018, we left Lagos. The economic outlook was more volatile and the businesses faltered. It was time to return to London. (Actually, we ended up in New York, but that is a story for another day.)

There were tearful goodbyes with the Nigerwives, although some have stayed in touch. One visited me in Manhattan and brought me a head tie as a gift.

In New York, I mostly went back to dressing in H&M’s black and beige basic range. Still, I have tried to keep my Nigerian confidence and a little of the style. On summer days, when I’m wearing an ankara-print maxidress and I’ve remembered to do my nails, I can relive my Lagos life once more.

Vanessa Walters’s novel The Lagos Wife will be published on Thursday 29 February by Cornerstone, £16.99. To PRE-order a copy for £14.44 until 3 March, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. free UK delivery on orders over £25. 

 

alamy, alakija studios, getty images, showmax, vanessa walters



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