• December 19, 2014

Life in Lagos: In Search of the African Middle Class

Robin Hammond

Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.

Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.


We attempt to make understanding foreign societies easier by putting them into neat little boxes in our heads. The French are like this, the Chinese like that. It’s how we make sense of the world.

The great thing about working for National Geographic is having the time to challenge preconceived ideas of a people or a place. We leave realizing that those neat little boxes don’t work; life “over there” is as complex as it is here.

I went to Dolphin Estate in Lagos, Nigeria, to see a typical working-class neighborhood from where the oft-reported on African middle class was rising.

Like many of my encounters in this enormous, changing city, it wasn’t what I expected.

Picture of: Lagos, NIgeria
The middle class neighborhood of Dolphin High Rise Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria.

I went to Dolphin because it looked poor—the type of place where people could only go up. The buildings are ramshackle, there is rarely electricity, water must be delivered by hand, the streets are often flooded. If you were driving by, you would assume that this was a concrete slum. But that would be wrong. A closer investigation reveals more. Multiple satellite dishes hang off every building, men with briefcases and women in skirt suits come and go; the cars parked on the road outside the apartments are all modern and shiny. Come early in the morning and you would see them being cleaned. Stay a little longer and you would see that those cleaning the cars are the drivers employed to chauffeur the cars’ owners.

I went to Dolphin Estate to find those who would make up the middle-class of the future and discovered that much of Dolphin Estate had already made it.

Picture of: Lagos, Nigeria.
Mr. Tajudeen Bakare is seen at his family’s home in Dolphin Estate with his daughter, Hazeezat Bakare, 11, son, Hamzat Bakare, 8, and daughter, Hammeerat Bakare, 4.

But it wasn’t a simple error of judgment, it was a complex one. Along with the teachers and civil servants with shiny cars who make up Dolphin’s middle class, there were the mechanics and traders and tailors who don’t have cars: the working class. Then there are those who live on the estate to serve the middle class: those who deliver the water, and do odd jobs. These were mostly Nigerians from the north of the country; it’s much poorer there, so many northerners travel south in search of manual work.

Dolphin High Rise Estate in Lagos. With an estimated 21 million inhabitants, Lagos is Africa’s biggest city, with a population that's increasing faster than almost any other in the world
Dolphin High Rise Estate in Lagos. With an estimated 21 million inhabitants, Lagos is Africa’s biggest city, with a population that’s increasing faster than almost any other in the world.

The more I delved, the more colorful and diverse Dolphin became. There was the young woman studying Russian at university—she proudly told me of her trip to Moscow; the young girl who wanted to be a writer, but she couldn’t read because her glasses were broken; the robe-wearing evangelist; the Manchester United fans (they’re everywhere!); the guy with the little photo studio who Photoshopped exotic backgrounds into his photos.

There were teenagers whose parents had a generator and who watched “Spiderman” while the rest of the estate was without power; their apartment was so loud they couldn’t hear us knocking on the door. I met a couple who ran a non-governmental organization who proudly announced they were HIV positive before even telling me their names. I watched Chinese soap operas while children prepared for school and their father, a Muslim, made his morning prayer. I ate rice and canned fish under a spotlight after the electricity went out and plunged the apartment I was in into darkness. I peeked in on a private gym where muscular men lifted lumps of concrete, and into a makeshift fitness studio where women did aerobics.

Aminat Gbadegesin at home in the middle class neighborhood of Dolphin High Rise Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos.
Aminat Gbadegesin at home in the middle class neighborhood of Dolphin High Rise Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos.

Complex communities are a challenge for storytellers. Those boxes we use to simplify and compress are helpful when describing a place—especially when you have a limited number of words and photos. But they are also a problem, especially when it comes to Africa.

One of the reasons I decided to make this project about Lagos was that I wanted to make work that challenged our view of the continent. So often, people describe Africa like a single country with a single culture. I’m often asked by well-meaning people to explain the African mentality towards such and such, or what do Africans think about this or that? On a continent with a population nearing a billion, and 54 countries and many, many more cultures, there is no single answer.

Picture of: Lagos, Nigeria
Dolphin High Rise Estate in Lagos. Lagos is home to the richest people in the richest country in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), but the riches have hardly trickled down—it is also one of the most unequal cities in the world.

Part of the reason I went to Lagos was to do a story about Africa’s diversity. Rather than trying to define a place with a few pictures, I wanted to create work that embraced the city’s complexity—that showed a small slice of the continent and left people with the idea that there is much more to Lagos, and to Africa, than can be captured in any article or photo essay.

I went to Dolphin to find Lagos’ rising middle class. I went there falling into the usual trap of trying to define a people and a place in a narrow way.

I did find the rising Lagos’ middle class in Dolphin, but I also found much more.

VIDEO: Meet the people of Lagos and hear what makes their city special—in their own words.

Read Hammond’s other blog posts on Proof, covering Nigeria’s Fashion week, the upstart Nollywood film industry, sand diggers at the bottom of the bay, and the roar of big religion.

See more of Hammond’s photos from Lagos, including a gallery of portraits, in the National Geographic story “Africa’s First City.”


Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk.

There are 25 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. ola alagabi
    August 15, 2016

    This is why the west is hated all over the world. You only show the best of you to the world and when you portray other cultures, you show their worst. How can you ever call this trash a good documentary. So many beautiful and clean middle class neighborhoods spread all over Lagos and you only show this. Pathetic. Its like portraying Peckham as London or Harlem as New York. Racists.

  2. nedu
    May 13, 2015

    Nonsense article!!!

  3. Leroy Jackson
    May 10, 2015

    Beautiful place would love to live there.The people are beautiful especially the ladies(smile).

  4. LL2
    March 4, 2015

    National Geographic should be ashamed of itself for passing this off as a middle-class neighborhood. If I didn’t actually spent time on the internet interacting with people who actually live on the continent, I would believe this article was accurate. I am usually the first one to critique Nigeria and point out its problems but I don’t like people who distort the truth to fit their narrative. This is a new low for National Geographic. I lost a lot of respect for you. My parents were missionaries for two years in Nigeria in the 1980s and the middle-class neighborhoods we stayed in looked way better than the slum you showed in this article and believe me, my family was not rich. Missionaries don’t exactly make a lot of money if any at all.

  5. Omowale
    February 28, 2015

    This is a clip made by white people for white people….there is the usual European attempt to trivialize Africa. The people are dehumanized to fix the bigotry of the film makers. The narrative is shaped to support the images.
    One could go to any American city or rural area and film far more signs of social pathology.
    As my great grandfather would say: olori buruku!

  6. Lekan
    February 3, 2015

    Am shocked by what my fellow Nigerians are saying here…there is serious poverty here, no jobs,no light, serious insecurity. There are 36 states in Nigeria and not one can boast of total wealth equality

  7. Ayoola
    January 26, 2015

    while i commend your effort to coin a good story and fools play some insight to your readers about Lagos, I also employ you to research more and exhibit the actual middle class, I am Lagos middle class, please visit my neighborhood not the dolphin slum you portrayed.

  8. HKT
    January 26, 2015

    poverty porn

  9. He Qingyan
    January 18, 2015

    This artical has opened my eyes. I could never picture a middle class like this. I am curious about how do they define middle class.

  10. Tobbhiyah
    January 6, 2015

    What I got mostly from this was that our concept or idea of middle class looks different in other places. Our idea of development and improvement is based on technological advancements rather than the overall feeling the people have about their community’s direction.

  11. Rotimi Ogunsuyi
    January 5, 2015

    Please quit minimizing the challenges of Lagos and Nigeria. Population in itself is not a sign of anything, unless it is well managed.

    Having 1/8 of a country living in 1/800 of its space is a sign of 1.) lack of universal opportunity, so everybody goes to Lagos 2.) poor planning – that doesn’t seem to improve.

    Nigerians would say: “na population we go chop”. Ask for the translation 🙂

  12. Monifa
    January 3, 2015

    Great article and photos! I felt as if I traveled to Lagos and visited a variety of neighborhoods in this immense city; the largest on the continent. Inequality certainly marks the lives of many in the city, yet, I am struck by the image of the golden ladder, where most are working to achieve economic success.

  13. Yomi
    December 22, 2014

    @ Aurthur how can they boast when the biggest generator market in the world is Nigeria, when China has got a dedicated village to produce generator for Nigeria, when the western world has refused to share with the country or approve a nuclear power licence in order for the nation to be able to get in the manufacturing game? And please don’t tell me it’s all down to corruption not like all the stolen money is kept in Africa in the 1st place. If there’s no external encouragement, there would be no where to hide the stolen money.

  14. Arthur
    December 22, 2014

    Who cares about the largest economy in Africa when Nigeria cannot even boast of a consistent power supply. Evidently, international media hasnt made accurate representation of Africa but Nigeria and its infrastructure scheme is worst case scenerio. I’m a Nigerian by the way!

  15. Yomi
    December 22, 2014

    First of, dolphin estate is a slum not the place most middle class citizens live, and second of all it’s miss information so the person that wrote the article should have done their research before publication as it’s wrong information about Africa’s biggest economy

  16. Doniece
    December 22, 2014

    I would love to visit Lagos. Other African states as well. From what I’ve seen, especially in rural areas, Africa is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

  17. Pete
    December 22, 2014

    “Alpha”: The article doesn’t say that Dolphine High Rise Estate is home to the riches, it describes it as middle class. Please read the article again, and get your facts right.

  18. Shirish shah
    December 21, 2014

    It is clearly evident that the wealth of the Nation is not treacling down to the citizens. As the second richest country in Africa it compares poorly in infrastructure to South Africa. Even Kenya which is not as rich has better infrastructure. The middle class in Nigeria are the ones who can change their Nation.

  19. SLH
    December 21, 2014

    Well said Joan D. & yes facts should be facts!

  20. Joan D
    December 21, 2014

    In response to the comments by “Alpha” I wish to correct his/her remarks…the author of the NGEO piece did not make a mistake as he said that “Lagos is home to the richest people…” Not Dolphin High Rise Estates. Please read more carefully before making your comments blasting the article’s author.

  21. Vanessa Williams
    December 21, 2014

    I have been to Lagos, very poor country were there’s no balance, I was told in order to get a job u must know someone, the water was walked to me, electricity went out all the time. The roads were terribly, but it was a beautiful sea of blacks everywhere very loving people, but they had their hustlers too. I will be returning to Lagos once more. PA it is just one country of many in the great continent of Africa

  22. ReadandShare
    December 21, 2014

    A middle-class neighborhood appearing poor to us Americans? Not surprising at all, if we compare our $49,000 per capital GDP to Nigeria’s $2,600. As well, we should be reminded just how rich (and lucky) we are. A $10,000 per capita GDP would qualify a country as solid middle class in the eyes of the world, but that would be considered ‘real poverty’ in America.

  23. Jack
    December 21, 2014

    This was a great story, showing whoever judges that there is more to Africa then black and white. Great journalism. I have fallen in love with Africa, and this only further supports it

  24. Alpha
    December 20, 2014

    Totally disappointed with the national geographical society. There is a huge responsibility that goes with writing for this world acclaimed society . Your facts are wrong. How on earth can you confidently write that dolphin estate is home to the richest in Lagos. Absolutely diabolical. Get yourself down to ikoyi ,leKki,banana island ikeja ,Maryland etc. not good enough. Facts should be facts

  25. Yomi
    December 19, 2014

    Funny how only slums are shown in documentaries about Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. I watch programmes about the western part of the world and I don’t see them focusing on the slums but the posh and well to do parts. Your work is fantastic but it’s about time Nigeria and Africa is portrayed and given the respect it deserves as it’s the cradle of civilisation. This has gone on for too long, giving the world a paspective of a thriving ghetto rather than what it really is.

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