Unsinkable City

Wole Soyinka reflects on a lifetime in Lagos

Street preacher. Ikeja, Lagos. 2018. Photograph by Hamed Adedeji.

Going to the Portobello Road Market for wosi-wosi— the Yoruba name for odds and ends, antiquities true and fake, and general bric-a-brac of even unmapped nations—has remained my routine destination whenever I find myself in London. It may have commenced in curiosity, provoked by the aqueous association of names—Portobello, Beautiful Port; Lagos, Lakes, originally Lago de Curamo—I can only testify that it all began while I was a student in mid-1950s and has remained ever thus. Periodic forays into Britain even decades after my first student incursion have failed to diminish the tug, despite deleterious changes at the Lagos end of the axis. Each visit still registers personal correlations, some stimulating, others sobering. It is no longer the innocent, prying eye on antique oddities, ogling, desiring and caressing art objects of dubious pedigrees; it is now both attraction and repulsion, but always evocative—in absentia—of that amphibious city, thousands of miles away, called Lagos. It was the official capital, once upon a time, but it is still the commercial capital of the most populous, and perhaps most unmanageable, black nation of the world: Nigeria. Lagos exerts a secretive, sometimes resented, but tenacious hold on all who pass through its steamy streets and tumultuous markets. Do not take my word for it. Ask any foreign resident or mere bird of passage through that frustrating capital. The accustomed expression is, “You can take the expatriate out of Lagos, but you cannot take Lagos out of the expatriate.” The less charitable version goes, “Lagos is akin to a mosquito bite: the malaria spores never completely leave your bloodstream.” The ever-popular high-life song with fluctuating lyrics that give away recent peregrinations of whichever band leader appear to settle the matter once and for all, applicable even to Portobello addicts, but with increased dosage of disenchantment:

Lagos is the place for me

Lagos, this lovely city

You can take me to England and Amerikay

Keep your Paris or Roman city

Give me Lagos any day

Lagos, for my temperament, is perhaps best enjoyed vicariously and in small doses. Luckily, the city shares many features with the antique mart or, perhaps less glamorously, a flea market. Sometimes one feels that the world’s discards, the detritus of the constantly surging ocean, eventually come to rest on the beaches of Lagos. No wonder, the argument also rages forth again and again, especially at election time, that Lagos is a no-man’s land. Historical facts jostle with myth, migration waves with politics of concessions, attributions and conquest. Were the monarchs of Lagos truly vassals of the Benin kingdom, or was Benin a mere occupation force on military camps established in parts of Lagos island? Does the name by which a large Lagosian group of settlers, the Awori, are known, truly derive from the triumphant cry Awo ri? This would lend credence to the Lagosian origin myth that claims a roving hunter from the Yoruba hinterland, having decided (or been forced) to migrate with his people, consulted Ifa, the Yoruba divination system. The outcome was instruction that he place a bowl on a stream and follow its progress. Wherever the bowl sank—ibi ti awo ri—that was the destined habitation.

Lagos’s numerous ties to the ancient Benin kingdom—culture, trade, indigenous names, etc.—are not disputed, only the details. A Yoruba war leader wrote a unique chapter in war chivalry by journeying for several weeks just to return the corpse of his slain foe, a Benin war commander, to the king, the Oba of Benin. As a reward, the king sent him back as regent over one of the Benin war camps and its zone of authority. Just as strong are the claims of another set of “true owners”—the Idejo, the Olofin, plus the radiating lines from a great hunter, Ogunfunmire. Ogunfunmire wandered in from the heart of Yoruba land and founded Isheri, from where his 12 descendants fanned out along the coast and farther inland to establish a clan dynasty. Was that the same hunter? Or a different ancestor entirely?

The Lagos of today is what preoccupies, agitates, repels and seduces, and from widely different causes. Lagos is truly a Joseph-city, a garment of many colors, textures and stylists. Try to imagine a straight line, drawn from any point on the border of Lagos across its land mass until it terminates at the beach. Walk that straight line through buildings, markets, lagoons, canals, upscale and hole-in-the wall shops and residences, flyovers and clotted streets, shrines, parks, warrens, mosques, churches, etc. You would end up surfeited by sheer variety, like a jumbo meatloaf attempting to set the world record in the stuffing of incongruities. I suspect that it was a whiff of that wanton ecumenism of identities that I sensed in those stalls of Portobello markets at my very first visit as an impressionable youth. I gratefully found it a generous, accommodating substitute that served as relief from the notorious British inhospitable and insular character, plus the unpalatable weather menu of the 1950s—cold, wet and dismal.

But even as Portobello began to burst its bounds, both in its capture of neighboring streets and enlarged cosmopolitanism in its offerings, opening out to other continents, so did Lagos begin to expand, become more haphazardly textured, more daring, with insertions of thematic galleries and mobile stalls, its squares and traffic islands pocked also by itinerant performers and lethargic to enraptured audiences, vanishing into endless by-streets and cul-de-sacs, in and out of festive seasons. The pace has become so rapid that it is hard not to imagine a Lagos of the future, prefigured in those intensive transformations, including new hordes of visiting or relocated nationalities—Japanese, Chinese, Caribbean, and other babblers in their own tongues and accented English. Let us traverse backward through the years to a significant fin de siècle transitional phase in the life of this writer, for a sampling of human and other exotic wares.

Occupational risks, of the political extracurricular kind, eventually prescribed exile. I returned to Nigeria in 1999 after a compulsory spell outside her borders, an exile of some four years. Before that hasty departure, I had lived mostly in my hometown, the rockery encrusted city of Abeokuta, but also with a foot in Yaba, a Lagos suburb where the trees had not been eaten, and even enjoyed residential, integrated status. By then, I had long terminated a career of regular teaching at my former university in Ile-Ife. It had served as the transient third of a residential triad of unequal occupancies. The other two were Abeokuta, maternal home, and Isara, paternal, a small town of unremitting red laterite whose dust permeated even the human skin, giving it a russet pigmentation.

Back from exile, I found myself obliged to seek another toehold in Lagos. I found one, right on the island itself and close to a sandy stretch known as Bar Beach, largely a weekend and holiday relaxation recourse that also serves as a buffer between the Atlantic Ocean and the newly developed residential zone known as Victoria Island. That habitation sometimes felt, in some ways, a further extension of my exile, as so much of it had changed. My awareness of the sea, from childhood vacations spent in Lagos, had been formed by friendly surf and wave-sculpted sand. Nature was then at its most placid and collaborative, in peaceable partnership with the lagoon and sluggish canals that threaded the marshy islands—Obalende, Ebute Metta, Ikoyi. Apapa, Isale Eko—each wet surface with its own network of plying canoes, shacks and shanties, cries and gurgles, whispers and raucous sales chants and dark silences, even in brutal daylight.

Abeokuta of the rocks was my principal home, Isara a stolid, impregnable linkage with time past. Lagos of the canals was my escape into exotica, yet also within the seamless consciousness of a personal proprietorship that comes with affinities. Bar Beach was still a stranger to public executions of armed robbers, by firing squad, under a military regime, a spectacle that was open to all non-paying audiences, including children. Until then, that beach was little more than a home to makeshift churches—more accurately, bamboo and palm fronds around a cross-topped mound of sand, the cross itself sometimes made from fresh palm fronds. They were presided over by colorful charlatans who would later people such plays as The Trials of Brother Jero and even pop up in everything from cameos to major roles in stories such as my novels The Interpreters and Season of Anomie. My mother being an itinerant trader, and with a family line stretching through Lagos, the lagoon city became a mere extension of the maternal home, Abeokuta.

My mother being an itinerant trader, and with a family line stretching through Lagos, the lagoon city became a mere extension of the maternal home, Abeokuta.

So did the markets. I grew up familiar with all the open-air markets—Ita Faji, Iddo, Ebute Metta Sangross—a name derived from a corruption, it is claimed, of the sand grouse that once populated the area. I did eventually take to the hunt, but as I was not remotely close to conception at naming time, and no historian has traced my ancestry to the alleged founder of Lagos (the hunter Ogunfunmire) I could not be held responsible for the extinction of the grouse population. I do not even know what a sand grouse tastes like. It was a different matter from the flavors, smells, colors and sounds of the market itself, identical—except for the riveting forms, the heady smells of freshly delivered fish, crabs and lesser shellfish—with the markets of Ibarapa or Iberekodo in Abeokuta. All provided a medley of sensations that relegated Portobello to the ranks of deodorized human spaces, nonetheless irresistible. But then, I was prejudiced. My vacation home in Lagos was Igbosere Street, just a stone’s throw from Sangross. To seal an unspoken pact, one of the more famous juju bands took up residence in a night-shack that opened its doors after the market women had departed. It became a favorite haunt after I joined the ranks of lawfully and lowly employed school leavers.

My mother, that enterprising lady, had her main shop in Ake, Abeokuta, quite close to the palace, reigned over by a monarch who exuded much mystery and dignity until his downfall at the hands of rebellious women in the famous anti-tax riots of the 1940s. They were led by my aunt, the feisty Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti—name sound familiar? Substitute Ransome with Anikulapo, and the equation reads Anikulapo Kuti—yes, the Afro-beat king, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who dominated the Lagos—then the entire Nigerian—music scene, extending into the continent, the Diaspora and even Europe. France was certainly the earliest European conquered territory. Fela’s “Afrika Shrine” remains a pilgrimage destination today for a cross-section of avid music consumers or simply the merely curious—indigenes and expatriates, diplomats and the underworld, even foreign presidents with a yen for the raw, raunchy and raucous. His sons, also musicians with their own bands, keep up the legacy, including a guaranteed line for the fattest smoke wraps to be encountered in the world’s republics of nightlife.

That much, at least, has not changed. An extension of that shop, in a coincidence that took years to register in my mind, was my mother’s stall in Isale Eko, near Iga Idunganran, the seat of another monarch, the Oba of Lagos. We shared our vacations between Lagos and my paternal home, Isara, a city bereft of either rocks or canals; it had just a stream, and a deep-wooded spring that appeared to be the source. Isara was a somewhat in-drawn village of supernatural and numinous forces, steeped in tradition.

Between Lagos and Abeokuta, there was a special bond of both opposites and affinities. Certainly the Lagos traffic of inland canoes that sliced their way around human habitations and offices, including the pioneer police headquarters in Obalende, set Lagos apart. I knew of no other place where humanity interwove with water in such an organic, understated flow. It left a deep impression on me, so deep that I eventually paid it tribute in a radio play, A Scourge of Hyacinths, that later found its way into the Diaspora as an opera by Cuban composer Tania Leon. It all felt like a flawless logic acted out. Lagos was the prime host to the returnee children of the Diaspora. Brazilian architecture dotted the city, clustered together sufficiently to earn designation of “Brazilian quarters.” From those returnees flowed the carnival spirit, manifested in the caretta, the meboi—animal masks—and the special Easter cuisine: the frejon (frejones), farofa (refined gaari, or farina), a cultural return for the Yoruba religion of the Orisa that had accompanied them across the Atlantic, resisted the interdiction of their masters and remained vibrant in their candombles, santerias and bembes of the New World.

Water enclosed Lagos. Water opened up Lagos to the world. It was that same watery landscape that opened even wider the wide-eyed curiosity of the child. The hyacinths came later! In my childhood, the canals were limpid, unimpeded. The creeks, with exotic, history-laden names—Five Cowries Creek, Cow Creek, Badagry Creek, etc.—meandered into invisible horizons, uncluttered by carpets of the deciduous growth that increasingly clogged water traffic and turned into yet another issue to be left unresolved by successive governments, despite a relay of chemical terminators. There was, at that time, no such word as hyacinth, except as a name bequeathed by extravagant parentage.

The former colonial prison in Lagos is now Freedom Park, an artistic green space open to the public. The park hosts art shows and live performances. The former gallows is now an open-air stage. Prison cells have been repurposed as quiet work spaces (see left). Wole Soyinka has his offices in one of the park’s main buildings. 2019. Photograph by Kira Brunner Don.

No, there were no hyacinths. They seemed to have arrived with the dredgers, the sand merchants, and seemingly on government invitation. It is difficult even to recall which came first, but those dredgers on their task of land reclamation went to work with diabolic zeal, beginning with the canals, which offered no resistance. They scooped up sand, drained the mush in their insatiable maw, virtually drooling, lowered the morsels onto already protuberant stomach heaps and returned for more. Then came the turn of the lagoons. The Nigerian military that shot its way into power in January 1966 proved to be a special species of avaricious dinosaurs. They ate up foliage and washed it down with water from the brackish lagoons. The parks of Ikoyi, the so-called Love Gardens of Onikan, were fenced off, shared piecemeal and bulldozed. Next came the cemeteries, home to layabouts—locally known as “area boys”—but which also served as open-air reading rooms to pupils and adult workers battling their mail order texts under the glow of street lamps. That free illumination transformed many lives as they powered their way through correspondence colleges, garnering certificates and diplomas, thanks to their peasant families who harvested cocoa seeds, palm kernels, copra and gum arabic that would dispatch their children overseas to earn degrees and professional certificates, returning home with the famous “Golden Fleece”—in adopted parlance, guaranteed at send-off ceremonies—to raise their sacrificing families one or two rungs higher on the social ladder. They were the self-taught avant-garde, the Argonauts of the 1940s, even into the 1950s and 1960s generations. They produced the cadres of early nationalists, technocrats and unionists.

All that had vanished. Even the cemeteries that served both the living and the dead, for once truly “evergreen memories” under the shade of breadfruit trees, citrus, cashew, crab apple, bougainvillea were also places of repose for workers—and sometimes gladiatorial arenas where scores were settled among the area boys. An unprepossessing building called Civic Hall now squats on perhaps the most famous of them, Campos Square, the ancient bones of illustrious tenants banished to the peripheries of Lagos—Alago-meji, Bariga, Akoka. If the streets, because they served high and low, the parasitic and productive, idle and industrious, thought they were exempt, they had a surprise in store; they joined the ranks of sand-filled canals and lagoons as the new uniformed elite made their choices of the choicest, marked them “MILITARY ZONE: KEEP OFF!” and built private estates over the commandeered streets, some already macadamized. It seemed impossible, but nothing stood in the way of the rapacious praetorians.

But the lagoons provided the most spectacular appropriation. Between the University of Lagos in Akoka, at the mainland end, where I would later teach, with its concrete sampan architecture, and the pioneer National Broadcasting Station, Ikoyi, on the island, there was a glorious spread of the lagoon whose dusk choreography of makeshift sails—tarpaulin, burlap, woven mats, stitched-together jute bags and flaring fishing nets, a picture-postcard favorite—held us riveted from the sampan decks of the central building, known as Union Building. Aesthetic rapture aside, the sanity preservation of already heated-up academic brains trumped the hypnotic vistas. We entered the outboard motor-powered canoes at Akoka and alighted at the Ikoyi end of that expanse, thereby skirting the clogged traffic that made commuting between mainland and island an exercise in pure masochism. While motorists chug-chugged their way through the high-decibel purgatory of exasperated horns and bilious belches from clogged compressors, we calmly stepped into a waiting canoe and sliced through the lagoon to commandeered land transportation that awaited us at the other end. The short clip to whatever island destination had uprooted us from the calm of Akoka was still comparative bliss. In the evening, when the doomed motorists were still locked in a repeat endurance test, we were already ensconced in the musical solace of one favorite watering hole or another—Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo on Ikorodu Road, Roy Chicago further afield in Oshodi, Kakadu in Yaba or at the other axial end, the juju and sakara night spots, dominated by Ayinde Bakare, Dele Ojo, Orlando Owoh, a visiting Tunde Nightingale or Waka Queen Abeni, from Ibadan, or the ageless Moses Olaiya.

And then the land reclamation venture distended, inward and outward. It took over, overwhelmed and eliminated the market cries, the hustling touts for public transportation—the molue, bolekaja and the blaring of car horns from exasperated, frustrated drivers. Lagos had begun to choke on her vomit. Fumes from vehicle population explosion, the rewards of oil discovery, polluted the atmosphere, blackening out the sun on the lagoon horizon. The sea-borne breeze was blocked by high-rise buildings. The creeks were shrouded in blackened mists. You looked out from the sampan viewing decks of the University of Lagos and, in place of the shimmering water surface, there was only the solidity of sand. Nothing but sand. Then the concrete spans of flyovers and long bridges followed. Lagos had forfeited her chance to become a true marine city, perhaps the closest thing to a Venice of the continent, even a modernized version of the pristine stilt village of Ganvie in the neighboring Republic of Benin.

Today, but only in my personal register, only a bungalow of that time past survives. It is a childhood landmark strategically at the abrupt end of the highway from Lagos to Yaba, like a volunteer guard over the T-junction of Third Mainland Bridge, unremarked by the millions who drive past it every day. What could they know of bonds? How would I know what the true indigenes feel? Closer, admittedly, than many, I was still a bird of passage, not an Awori descendant or an Idejo.

My ties to Lagos sometimes offer some truly strange turns. That self-effacing building, straddling Third Mainland Bridge terminus at Yaba, was once the Lagos base of a young unionist who would later become the traditional ruler of the third member of my childhood city triad: Isara. It was owned by a famous Lagos businessman but occupied by a lifelong family friend: the Odufuwa, my father’s schoolmate, one of his circle of debaters on every subject under the sun. I spent part of those childhood vacations there, looking over the marshlands of Yaba that housed fishermen in shacks of raffia and bamboo stalks, and of course the ubiquitous barefoot Cherubim and Seraphim holy rollers in their all-while devotional outfit. They rent the air every evening with their tambourine-assisted hymning and the occasional screams of possession. We dug in those trickles for mudskippers and trapped crabs, though the crabs sometimes saved us the trouble by floating in as uninvited guests during the then-mild flooding and ended up on our impromptu in-between meals menu. Today, the word “flood” has become inappropriate. Nothing less than inundation will suffice to convey the reality of a community recirculating its own breath and the noise and fumes of cancerous vehicles, as the waters invade homes and flush out residents. Even so, long after the fact, I extracted from that nondescript building the conspiratorial location for the conversion of the trade unionist, Akinsanya, to the paramount ruler of my paternal home, Isara in ISARA: A Voyage Around Essay. (Essay was the nickname I accorded my father.)

Today, the word “flood” has become inappropriate. Nothing less than inundation will suffice…

From one end of Lagos to the other, a new city texture predominates. It is a texture into which new generations are born, and it is one from which it must be difficult for them to extricate themselves and imagine what pervaded the lives of their predecessors. For my generation, that texture was straightforwardly fluid: matter flowed into light, which permeated water and returned to irradiate matter. Today, that texture can be summed up as solidification. Cruising through that time, I would sometimes pause at an epitaph to a vanished pulsation, still standing resilient guard over the invisible past. Over the front doorway, on the wall itself, is the name Agbonmagbe, meaning Wisdom that Never Dries. How time makes mockery of prescience! The builder of that faded pale blue bungalow has been spared the irony of what the name spells for the Yoruba culture of naming. But there is another, unaffected saying, one that remains immune to time even in an era of global warming. It is usually expressed in the local lingo, known as pidgin English or patois—Sea Never Dry. I find myself remorselessly haunted by that. Far from any thoughts of challenging the lagoon prophets at their trade, innumerable, even tiresome have been the times I have looked over the altered landscape and shaken my head dolefully over a prediction whose inevitability hit one plainly from my first sighting of the reclamation engines at their earth pounding—the new rhythm that dominates the Lagos habitat. One day, I would loudly exclaim, these waters will rebel. These waters will rise and claim their own.

Oh yes, Portobello Road is still on my mind, Lagos constantly repaying the compliment whenever an evocative item thrust itself on my ritual visitations. Usually, it was a colonial pith helmet, recalling our former district officers, or the sanitation fixture in his khaki outfit—coat and trousers, topped by a helmet—the sanitary inspector. A Dane gun might find me equally riveted, conjuring a hunter Ogunfunmire on his lone expeditions. Or just a locket, an ancient family bible, an escritoire, a framed photo of a missionary adventurer, an ancient crochet antimacassar, or complete sets of dining silver, redolent of Victorian Lagos and her “colonial aristocrats” that provoked the déjà vu and out-of-body sensation, levitating over Lagos overseas. However, on one of my more recent incursions into that London market, each of which revealed new street appropriation, compelling increased skill in threading through the price of fame—tourist congestion—I ran into one of those sore thumbs that stick out in the midst of arrested time: an all-purpose shop full of sporting goods and modern domestic gadgetry. My eyes first instinctively settled on some hunting gear before moving to the display of fishing equipment, thigh-length wading boots, then an inflated rubber dinghy, clearly a discard from the British Navy, mothballed since the Second World War. Both sight and mind were suddenly transfixed. Lagos had instantly intruded, the mosquito bite at work, and definitely in a deleterious mode!

That dinghy floated on my mind quite matter-of-factly. It spelled a solution, some way of reconciling myself to the prospect of resuming residence in Lagos, a prospect to which I had become reconciled after my return from exile. The city’s theater scene had become increasingly adventurous. I resumed my affiliations. Commuting for rehearsals from Abeokuta, however, had become a strain; traffic between the interior and Lagos, to which I was once indifferent, was turning into a daytime nightmare. I had looked over one or two pied-à-terres, the most immediately affordable being close to the beach; that, paradoxically, was what made it affordable! Prospective clients discovered that, despite its fair distance from the beach, its ground floor was occasionally subject to the ocean’s overflow. They nodded their heads and never returned. They were right. After I moved in, the ocean indeed deposited its debris right in the yard and flushed out the ground floor verandah in one manic surge, seeping even into the sitting room. We investigated. It came via a mysterious tunnel, claimed the Navy experts, dating all the way from colonial times. It had been constructed to channel the ocean overflow into those canals, a tunnel that was also linked to the dockyard of the Nigerian Navy in Apapa, a distance of some 10 kilometers in another part of the island. It was all highly technical. Navy divers had been sent down to tackle the problem since, apparently, they were also subject to the same gushers. Thus went the official spiel.

I hold on to my reconstruction which goes thus: As the Second World War heated up and extended to colonial possessions in Africa, the British commenced construction of a secret submarine depot from where it could launch torpedoes on approaching German U-boats. After all, ecological abuse inflicted by the Nigerian ruling elite in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, continuing even into the present, did not begin with them; it began in early colonial times. On the agenda of all the British agents, one item—land reclamation—remained preeminent, with one colonial administrator named Egerton earning a reputation for being obsessively affected by “terraphobia.” He is reported to have viewed this organic cohabitation of land and sea as a personal affront, so he set about sand-filling with all the resources he could muster, which was largely human labor. Was it truly reclamation? Or was it all camouflage? One can only guess at what Lagos would have become, and much earlier, if those servitors of Queen Victoria and her succession of governors had had access to modern sand-pumping machines. (That privilege would be left to his Nigerian military and civilian successors.) Within their means, however, the British servants laid the foundation for the truncation of an alternative vision: the maritime city.

My theory against theirs, I insist! The Nigerian Navy did not quite know what to do with the British tunnel. Perhaps they had even discovered the caved-in catacomb, the ghost vessels and skeletons of luckless sailors, and were induced by the British to keep their terrible secret—just seal it off, unfortunately not quite water-tight, the walls soon breached by surging waves. No matter; the probable history of colonial misadventures in Africa was only of marginal interest to this house hunter, and so, undeterred, I settled for the affordable orphaned dwelling.

The house had two floors, and the upper floor had a balcony. It would serve perfectly as a dockyard for a craft, provisioned in advance: iron rations and a wine bottle or two, ready to be launched on Judgment Day. I paid no heed to that hollow promise of “no more floods, the fire next time.” What did they think Lagos was undergoing? My friends, with whom I had not bothered to share my war theories, thought I was being facetiously alarmist over the dinghy, but no, I was dead serious. Whether climate change, global warming, improvised town planning or subterranean pools where the ghosts of war casualties splashed about in some Davy Jones domain, the effects remained the same: flooding! Mini-tsunamis. An equally morbid but resigned view was voiced by the wife of a friend, a banker, then working in one of the glasshouse architectural wonders for its time, an aspiring cubic skyscraper, blue tinted, just across the street from the beach. As the ocean advanced on its own campaign of land reclamation, she shook her head after she had returned home and sighed:

“One of these days, you’ll be outside watching us like we were goldfish, our mouths wide agape.”

Indeed, Lagos had long ceased to be that city of childhood exotica, the well-laid-out maritime city in the making, as testified in surviving plans, sketches and daguerreotypes. The adventurer Frobenius fantasized the Lost City of Atlantis sunken in its bay—did Frobenius’ fantasy, modernized, play its role in my own projection of the British answer to the deadly German U-Boats? Regardless, Lagos had become a high-rise, unfeeling trap. The city’s trapped inmates sought to make up for their daily nightmare with ostentation. Parties spilled onto streets, with all-night bands, nothing on tap but XO cognac and champagne. Beer? screamed an outraged mamma oge, beer is for drivers. In my house, you drink only champagne! But the city had aged prematurely. Only one title then befitted her: Arugbo ns’oge, the gaudy, mincing hag.

And yet, despite distortions, Lagos remained exotic. Brazilian architecture, foreign-name retentions—Pacheco, Pereira, Santos, da Silva, etc.—still link Lagos with the history of dispersal and homecoming. The returnee culture from Cuba and Brazil, the “colonial aristocrats”—better known as the been-tos—dialogued and clashed with the traditional. The Oba of Lagos presided over his iga. The white-gowned Eyo, who seemed to relish sweeping the streets with their costume overflow and broad-rimmed hats, emerged to mark a commemoration point in the calendar, anniversary of the death of a notable or simply celebration of a family event. Outsiders might not recognize which Eyo belonged to which family compound, but all knew that each was a manifestation of some indigenous family or clan—no outsider could don the costume of an Eyo. They massed, paraded, rent the air with their throaty, other-worldly salutes with the hoisted paddle-staves, the eyo unique insignia. I kept waiting for one of the Eyo to trip on those disorderly trains, but none ever did. Somehow, as they leapt high in the air, they manipulated the loose folds in swift, swishing leg movements—invisible under the trail—and cleared a space for landing on both feet, unimpeded. It was impressive. Children fled while adults shrank into themselves or turned aside at the emergence of the most dreaded of them all: the adimu. The legend was that no “carrier” of the Adimu mask survived more than a handful of outings, such was the aura of demonism that surrounded him, since he bore, under his masking, all the plagues of the city. Such was the powerful hold of the Adimu on my youthful imagination that, as that loose faculty became reinforced by some of the more turbulent episodes of Lagosian history, the Adimu became conflated with a particularly gruesome rivalry between two “white cap” chiefs, equivalent to an “advisory council” to the Oba of Lagos.

One, to show the uttermost contempt for his rival, staged an insult that reverberated throughout Lagos and percolated through to the hinterland. He dug up the bones of that rival’s mother from her resting place and scattered them all over the face of Lagos to the accompaniment of derisory songs and drumming, to ensure that the desecration was widely known. The riposte was not long in coming. The humiliated chief laid an ambush for him, captured him, encased him in a barrel, set the barrel on fire and rolled it through the streets of Lagos until it ended up in the lagoon. Only an Adimu, I felt, would be capable of such a terrifying revenge. And yet, all that violence seemed to be, somehow orderly, restrained and principled, near-ritualized compared to what I would come to witness, as Lagos fell to the ravages of military rule, unnatural, unrestrained, unconscionable, answering to no one, a modern Adimu monster that had broken loose from his handlers, the “white cap” custodians of Lagosian humanity. Lagos sank physically, its self-esteem correspondingly lowered. It was not simply that its very land mass appeared to be squeezed of substance, swallowed under an insatiable military maw, overwhelmed by a blind population influx. Successive hammer blows descended on a collective soul from oil derricks, the claws of excavating limbs fused with human claws, deformed from avarice and indifference. We watched a people’s humanity, no matter how already flawed before military incursion, drain away, vanishing completely into the soakaways of those neat, ordered, Lagos compounds. The community that gathered around a central well vanished into schemes of a Nigerian El Dorado, the military as the conquistadores. They had brought in their own community, and each wave was one of an unrelenting predator’s call on the very community whose misgovernance, they claimed, had “invited” them in as agents of moral transformation. What succeeded them was worse: a hybrid of the worst of both civilian and military to which was given the name “militricians.”

And yet, that same city, one that readily boasts that it has seen it all before and weathered worse, never ceased to smile beneath her chagrin. She had an answer, knew when to retreat, regroup and recoup. She had learned how to abandon a route made impossible by circumstances and embark on new rites of passage. B’ilekunn kan o ba ti, omiran ko lee siif one door does not close, another cannot be thrown open. In all likelihood, that proverb had its origin in Lagos, where the oil boom created a new environment for the venturesome, bringing a steady influx from all corners of the nation, come to find their fortune in the melting pot of humanity and cultures, insiders and outsiders in pursuit of their share of floating fortunes. Organized crime flourished in the choked streets and behind ornate gates. Lagos suffocated under population crush and commercial adventurism, her traffic a frenzied, writhing dragon, vainly seeking escape.

Lagos had become a boom town, frontier palladium of multiple swing doors, a guaranteed sea-change for many who braved its promise and succumbed to its seduction. Community may diminish, but opportunity oozes freely from oil wells in collateral novelties. The city continues to expand, distend into neighboring states, then into the Atlantic, dredgers and steel cylindrical pestles pounding through the wide-open mortar of the ocean itself. It was indeed the turn of the sea deities to be woken up from their watery beds by irreverent land dwellers. Atlas makers must be kept busy with such permanent revisionist labor on once-familiar boundary lines, but of course one keeps forgetting the rival sky deities, the GSM satellites whose all-seeing eyes record the minutest shoreline alterations and beam them back to earthlings. That speeds up the hustle, as the very seabed comes under auction, even before the saline waters have been driven back.

Lagos had become a boom town, frontier palladium of multiple swing doors, a guaranteed sea-change for many who braved its promise and succumbed to its seduction.

And yet, Lagos is changing. Youth is also carving a niche for itself. Its ambassadors are everywhere, asserting their place, their belonging, their mission of renewal and innovation. Reluctantly, I agreed to receive such triggers of human anticipation. She was newly crowned the Sisi Oge—Lady of Chic—of Lagos. Her mission? She needed advice: what choices to make, what social targets to address during her year of reign. She was determined to “make a difference.”

It so happened that, in that year, Lagos was approaching the 50th anniversary of her creation as a state within the federation. I was involved in designing the celebrations and, from practice, I worked to ensure a lively youth component. This consisted of a painting and literary competition on a set theme. What could be more stimulating, I thought, than to place the city under the scrutiny of those little sharp-eyed monsters?

The theme emerged without effort: Sisi Eko @ Fifty: Ageing Gracefully or, Na so-so Pancake? The submissions proved as anticipated: a sumptuous feast of riotous, uninhibited imagination.

So now there was Sisi Oge, Caroline Oresanya Yetunde, personification of Lagos chic, asking to be received by this very agent provocateur. I wondered if she would accuse me of nudging the children toward a view of Lagos, that she now personified, as an old woman under heavy make-up. Had she taken it personally? Would she think I was attempting to belittle her victory? I was already on record as consigning beauty queen contests to a less-than-worthwhile preoccupation for young or old. Indeed, the youth division of the festival had been slyly slanted as a creative challenge to that very dubious pastime of a flesh parade. Finally, I shrugged my shoulders; if she was crowned for “chic,” she would hardly attempt to gouge out my eyes in my own sitting room. Framing the encounter in the mode of an encounter between Beauty and the Beast also helped with its injection of self-mockery. I submitted and prepared to receive the delegation.

The appointed day descended and the queen, her head framed in a tiny coronet, rolled in with her “court”: chaperon, photographer, press secretary, social secretary, a small convoy of cars. As we sat in my home of dense foliage, any semblance of which had long vanished from wide swatches of Lagos, the interior twilight cast by wraparound trees appeared to lift and the air grew lighter, as if a blithe spirit had slipped in with them, unnoticed. I listened to their dreams, wistfully pondering: were these young visionaries the hidden spirit of Lagos, the butterfly seeking to break free of its cocoon? They sounded like beings from another planet. I discerned passion, sincerity and confidence. My grumpiness gradually dissolved. I had allocated them 30 minutes at the most, but we were still at it, exchanging ideas, reminiscing and projecting excitedly after two hours. We ran over the makeover exploits of the city, its changing cultures. We debated the new Lagos’s thrust into the ocean. The landscape was changing, yes, but change was inevitable. The butterfly was emerging from the chrysalis, a reversal of the cannibalistic orgy of the ’60s into the ’90s.

South Africa excepted, how often did one encounter a historic prison transformed into a humanized concourse—renamed Freedom Park—with the conversion of prison cells into art stalls? Nowhere near the scale of Portobello, but could that haven of antiques boast a performance stage with stirring affirmations of life on the very spot where the gallows once performed its gory contrary? Side by side with the remodeling of a cityscape, the foundations of a sibling habitat were being laid—the Eko Atlantic City—rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the ocean.

The floods have not ceased; the secret tunnels continue to spew and inundate Lagos. However, Portobello’s dinghy should look no more in this direction for a tropical home. My callers proved, unwittingly, the heralds of an emergent city. From Arugbo n’soge to Sisi Oge, Lagos appeared to be mastering the art of rejuvenation.


Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, poet, author, teacher and political activist. In 1986, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Our Lagos guide will absorb, fascinate and entrance. Featuring some of the biggest names in Nigerian journalism and literature—including an original essay from Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka—the guide offers an intimate portrait of modern Lagos. Experience the extraordinary breadth of ...

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