So we set off about midday with our security escort courtesy of PRESCO PLC: two armed guys in uniform, Sani Mohammed and Kingsley Nwaokoro, riding behind us in a bakkie driven by Uzochukuru Okonkuro. This was quite handy for overtaking as they would block the fast lane to allow us pull out, and they also swept us through roadblocks that had held us up on the way there.
However once again we had trouble with the exhaust brake, stuck on and smoking, which delayed us an hour or so while we waited for it to cool down. Chatting with policeman Sani, Sampson found out he only gets paid R3000 a month. With a starting salary of R1000 p.m. it’s no wonder so many policemen rely on extra security jobs and ‘bonuses’ at road blocks to feed their families.
No one was expecting heavy traffic on a Saturday evening, but as dusk fell around 6.30pm, 50km outside Lagos we hit a massive jam. Two lanes quickly collapsed into four as minibus taxis, huge trucks and luxury sedans all tried to scramble over the bumpy dirt on either side to gain an inch on the gridlock. Our machine gun-wielding escort moved up to wave off those trying to squeeze into the tiny gap between us. It felt like carnage just waiting to happen.
Ninety minutes later, only about 2 km further down the road, we phoned Uzo and asked if we could pull off to eat. We hadn’t seen a single market along the way – not surprising at the pace Uzo had been pushing us – and were expecting to find one as usual on the outskirts of the city. But we never got that far. With absolutely nothing left in the larder apart from Sophie’s gifts, I was rather chuffed with my scratch green plantain-and-tinned-pea curry. When ripe, plantains cook like a fruit, and when unripe like a vegetable: baked in the curry it tasted rather like sweet potato, mmm.
While I cooked, Sampson was outside amongst the roadside stalls buying the chewiest chicken imaginable. He found out there was a Christian festival starting at midnight and we had driven right into the middle of it. That would explain the church lit up like a nightclub on the way in.
It was only when he tried to get out of the cab to tell Uzo we were ready to move on, that Sampson realised the bolts connecting it to the chassis had broken. The weight had all shifted to one side and he couldn’t open the driver’s door. (Thinking about it, I remembered there had been a suspicious bang on the bumpy road following Godfrey and Bestman on the way to Aba). The cab was listing dangerously and we obviously weren’t going any further. We told Uzo they’d just have to leave us there, not to worry – they weren’t going to get back home until the middle of the night as it was.
So there we were: Nigeria, country number 7, breakdown number 9. It was 9pm and we were stuck 5m off the highway, an hour outside Lagos, in the middle of a transport hub on a Saturday night. You had to laugh: with distorted gospel music blaring, motorbikes revving and traffic roaring past, it was possibly the most hectic place to try and sleep, in reputedly the most hectic country so far. We had no choice but to roll with it. The kids thankfully sleep anywhere despite anything; the parents on the other hand took quite a while to drop off…
Nigerians use their horn liberally, more to say “Hellooo! I’m here” to fellow drivers rather than “OY! What do you think you’re doing???” as we do in SA. They were honking past at 5am. Trying to doze on a bit at 7am, we were woken by Uzo knocking on the door. PRESCO security chief Philippe had told them not to abandon us, so the three of them had spent the night in the bakkie, and had returned first thing with a mechanic.
While I was hugely appreciative they’d come back to check on us, I was horrified to find the mechanic looked between 12–14 years old! He didn’t seem at all confident, but then, in this context – surrounded by guns and strange-talking whities – why would he be? I had to trust that he knew what he was doing, and once again, Africa’s bush mechanic confounded us. While he disappeared to find a part, Mark did stretching for an hour outside, much to the amusement of the taxi rank; we sat in truck, me writing and the kids thankfully wrapped up in Lego.
We were back on the road by noon, excited to be approaching the fabled metropolis of Lagos. Entering the city limits, there was a giant billboard stretched across the dual carriageway:
This huge tribute to Madiba was so unexpected, it made Sampson and I turn to each other and clutch hands. We were so moved that Lagosians shared our pain and our pride, there was a lump in my throat.
We called the children to come see as we sailed across the Third Mainland Bridge, at 11.8km the longest in Africa. It stretches across the lagoon, connecting Lagos Island to the mainland, and was nearly empty – we were blessed with Sunday traffic. Lagos, at 21 million people, is no longer the political capital of Nigeria. In an attempt to restore balance between the power bases of the north, east and southwest, 25 years ago the administration moved to more central Abuja. But like Jo’burg compared to Pretoria, Lagos is the undisputed economic and cultural capital.
My friend Ayodeji Olatoye a.k.a. Deji Toye, an enterprise lawyer and governance professional, poet, playwright and another graduate of the Arterial Network’s Cultural Leadership Training course, had arranged for us to stay at Freedom Park, in exchange for a show. Freedom Park is right in the centre of Lagos Island, situated in an ancient quarter very different from the wide, modern boulevards surrounding it.
Uzo, unsurprisingly tired and rather grumpy after his night in the car, was going round in circles in the middle of this maze, leading us down streets too narrow for the truck with zero height clearance. Ironically, the guy charged with protecting us could’ve caused a nasty accident if we’d followed him into the low-hanging wires.
After the mayhem of the journey to get there, Freedom Park was an oasis of green leafy blissful calm with just a hint of cool breeze. The kids were delighted. We had a wander through the bower and around fountains, feasting our eyes on an array of exquisite life-size bronze sculptures depicting local cultural traditions. I absolutely loved them.
After cooking an eggy lunch in the truck, I was dripping hot and had to shower, just before Deji arrived looking glorious in an ice blue suit. That’s how cool Deji always is. I was dying to hear how he was getting on with his Masters at Cambridge, but we hardly had a chance to chat because of the constant stream of ‘visitors’.
Nigerians are beyond friendly. This effusiveness seems to be part of the national character. I can’t explain how winning a quality this is: they are positively fulsome in their friendliness. You don’t feel invaded because their interest is so warm and so genuine.
First, COO Mrs Aboaba came and related the history of Freedom Park – these were the same walls built for the gaol in 1875, which lay empty for 30 years after independence in 1960. The space was then reimagined by architect Theo Lawson, for Lagos State Government and opened for the 50 years’ celebration of independence in 2010.
Sampson was told the story of Esther, one of the first ‘mixed race marriage’ wives, who caught her colonial husband cheating, stabbed him with a pair of dressmaking scissors and was sentenced to hang. The gallows were next to the truck where the stage is now. Esther was saved by a pardon on the very eve of Independence Day. There is a cocktail bar in Freedom Park called Esther’s Revenge!
Next door to it, is a fast food restaurant called Grubs which was run by a lovely lass from Birmingham called Sue! She and her Nigerian husband have 3 kids and prefer life this side although she misses family and the UK weather. It’s such a long time since I heard a Brummy accent – all my relatives are from the Midlands and my parents were both born in Birmingham – I used to hang out at Grubs just to listen to her with nostalgia.
Other people who were passing by and popped in for a chat included:
That first night, Sampson did a 30 min set in the outdoor food court area, with Deji having packed the front row with his mates. It was very pretty, under the stars with the noise of the city muffled by the thick walls and tinkling fountains, and glowing lilac neon lights that draw Lagosian bohemian-types like moths. Despite suffering the worst stage fright so far on this trip, intimidated by the combined IQ of the crowd, Sampson soon won them over and started enjoying himself. He ended with a Q and A session, which proved lots of fun. I think he got away with his hopscotch of hilarious ideas mostly through his sincerity and heartfelt observations. Those who’ve seen him perform know what I mean.
Mr Hussaini Solomon, a man who had been emailing the blog since Angola, styling himself head of the African Biodiesel Association, arrived with his beautiful young wife, who disconcerted me completely by bobbing a curtsey whenever I glanced in her direction. (Sampson felt equally disconcerted when the young staff of Freedom Park addressed him as “Master”. I wonder why such a colonial term hasn’t fallen out of favour and become as un-politically correct as “Baas” in SA?)
Onstage, Sampson credited Mr Solomon as our saviour – the 400L of biodiesel given to us by BioGreen in Cape Town, which Big Reg needs to start up and flush the engine while running on used cooking oil, was running low and Mr Solomon had offered to replenish our stocks. This was vital if we were to continue with our attempt on the Guinness World Record for the longest journey on alternative fuel: the rules do not allow you to flush with diesel even if you are stationary.
Another lawyer friend of Deji attending, Niké, was mother of two girls back from boarding school in Durban, who hung out with Ruby and Zola and offered to take them on a playdate the next day. Her surname rang a bell: she was a Ransome-Kuti, and I wondered if she might be related to legendary musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. With some research I discovered that not only is she Fela’s niece, she’s also granddaughter of anti-colonial feminist icon Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, (who died aged 77 of injuries sustained after being thrown out of a second-floor window by soldiers ransacking Fela’s Kalakuta Republic commune) and daughter of human rights activist Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, who was imprisoned by dictator Sani Abacha. Why do we only know the names of our own struggle heroes and not those of our African neighbours? Forgive my ignorance Niké, it was an honour to meet you.
Afterwards, with the kids tucked up in bed, Sampson and I sat chatting with Deji’s boss, veteran arts journalist and former editor of the Guardian on Sunday, Jahman Anikulapo of CORA and his friend energy journalist Toyin Akinosho, whose conversation we found fascinating. CORA (The Committee for Relevant Art) are conveners of the annual Lagos Book and Art Fair at Freedom Park. We were also honoured by the presence of veteran writer and theatre critic Kaye Whiteman, author of “Lagos, a Cultural and Historical companion”. He’s in his late 70’s, but is still being called back from UK to give feedback on new plays in Lagos.
All of this happened on Sunday. Our visas expired on Wednesday, so we only had two more days to spend in this most buzzing of African cities.
Freedom Park on Monday morning was stiflingly hot but lovely and quiet – it was wonderful to do yoga on the grass. Niké came to fetch the kids at 11 for their day out with Erin and Amy at the gym, swimming and watching DSTV. I don’t know who was happier, them or me. This felt like a gift: the first time my husband and I had had a day alone together since… I couldn’t remember when!
When we arrived, I’d mentioned going to a nearby market to Mrs Aboaba and she’d said I must take one of her young assistants “or else they’ll shoot you”. It seems it’s not only foreigners who scaremonger about Nigeria, and it was comforting to note they have homegrown detractors like we do in SA.
Sampson and I set off to draw money but were only successful at the sixth ATM. The streets of the CBD were full of ordinary people going about their day: street traders, businessmen and women, security guards. “You are welcome”s rained upon us from all sides. It was much less stressful being without the kids and with a ‘guardian’ husband walking beside me; if anything I was more relaxed than on my usual mission to a market. Once we realised the system in SA was down, I went back to get the pin of our alternative UK bank account. It’s funny how much less anxious I was on the second leaving from the truck, as it became apparent that all the scare stories about walking round Lagos had been somewhat exaggerated.
Sampson was quite blown away by Sandgrouse Market – he’d never been in a big city market before; usually that’s my job while he’s lying down in the back of the truck recovering from negotiating some inner city gridlock. He was especially impressed by the muezzin in the middle of it – we’d never watched someone doing the call to prayer live before; it was awesome and passionate, like opera.
Sangrouse had people living there, sleeping in storerooms squeezed along tiny alleyways. We bought fat fresh vegetables and traded tricks with small children ‘studying’ on the floor. We chatted without much language with an old woman who kissed the passport photos of my kids I carry in my purse. I also liked her because she asked if I was Sampson’s daughter. HA!
Sampson bought fresh bread from a woman carrying half a bakery on her head balanced on an enormous tray complete with a 1kg jar of mayonnaise; I helped her lift it down and it was so heavy, I don’t know how she spends every day carrying that around. We also bought two pieces of sugarcane, the children’s favourite treat, cut expertly by a young man with a machete into chunks perfect for popping in the fridge. It took him 10 minutes for 1 Naira apiece (R1.50). Hard ways to earn a living.
We had salad with real lettuce for lunch, for the first time since Namibia I think. Ruby had sms’d to say they were “Having a great time” so I could completely relax. We set out for a supermarket recommended by Sue called ‘Goodies’ and it was joyous to have moments of carefree hand-holding, walking down Campbell Street. We went past the stadium in Tafawa Balewa Square, which seemed to have the Four Horses of the Apocalypse towering over three huge statues of men swathed in rags. Ominous and powerful, they appeared to be dressed as Eyo masquerades, part of a traditional tribute paid to a city elder.
The Lagos Mall reminded me of the old Sun Valley mall. Apparently there are bigger and perhaps cheaper supermarkets on Victoria Island but we never got there. I declined to pay R80 for a head of broccoli – though I stood a good half a minute considering it, it’s been so long since we’ve seen any. (At our wedding, both Sampson and I made mention of broccoli in our after-dinner speeches. Make of that what you will.) We spent our remaining Naira stocking up mostly on yoghurt, biscuits and chocolate. Sampson was like a child running up and down the aisles in delight. I couldn’t help indulging him, he was just so happy. Later, at the border, I was to wish we’d kept back a bit of cash.
We took a keke-napep back to Freedom Park. As I squeezed in next to him around our six bags of shopping, he pointed to another tricycle taxi ahead of us with its wheels sagging at 45 degrees scoffing “Look at that!”. “You checked ours before we got in then?” I replied. That wiped the smile off his face, before he pissed himself laughing. It was a good day; we needed it. We had fun and there was such a sense of peace and ease between us, I felt more hopeful than I had for months. It was like I had my husband back from his grief. And all this just doing a bit of grocery shopping…
The next day, Sampson had an interview with Raymond Bola Browne at iGroove Radio, stationed in Freedom Park itself, followed by another with Dennis Ejiogu for his internet TV station M1.com, with whom he bonded hugely. Dennis, who has the air of a Nigerian George Clooney, told him all about quitting his job as a pilot to follow his passion for media. Dennis was so enthusiastic about Sampson’s prospects that, by the end of their chat, my husband was convinced he could live here, with a whole new career as the honky comic of Lagos.
Meanwhile I was busy being impressed by Joey Okhiku, his cameraman. Joey had recently returned from studying in Oxford and Glasgow and was wearing a tartan-edged T-shirt and a ‘Jesus Loves Geeks’ badge. He obliterated all first impressions of shy stammerer with a magnificent discourse ranging from how to handle Glaswegian racist taunts (laugh at them: “Monkey? HA! Can a monkey discuss this with you? Let’s have a drink…”) to coming back to Lagos to make a difference and the tragedy of Nigerian politics.
The country is so phenomenally rich in resources, both tangible and intangible, he feels no one should be hungry in Nigeria. But then, the same could be said of SA or UK: I remember returning to London in 1992 after travelling in Bangladesh and India and thinking it was unforgiveable to still have homeless people in Western cities: there’s no reason for not dealing with it but a lack of willpower.
Joey sees Lagos as full of dynamic go-getters who make a plan, despite their government. “We don’t have leaders, we have rulers” he explained, “A leader is supposed to take you forward, not hold you back.” I said he must go on an Arterial Network Cultural Leadership Training course; the continent needs more arts practitioners with vision like him.
It was Joey who taught me the phrase ‘Eko o ni baje’, which loosely translates as ‘Lagos will not spoil oh’ or ‘Lagos will always prevail’. It is the motto of the city, and the correct response is: ‘O baje ti!’
I was so inspired by Joey’s positive and pragmatic outlook. Freedom Park was full of such fascinating and challenging conversationalists. It was not enough to trot out the usual ‘why we’re here’s and I felt back on my toes. Urban Nigerians make demands; they push you to be clearer, cleverer, funnier, your best self. Not everyone would respond well to this, but Sampson and I thrived on it.
In the afternoon, I had an appointment, kindly arranged for me by Jahman, with Professor Tunde Babawale at the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation. It was just a few blocks away, but I needn’t have worried about finding it: it was the most beautiful building, decorated in the style of the National Art Gallery in Cape Town’s Company Gardens.
I was itching to explore the FESTAC exhibits ranged in several rooms around me, but was first taken to the Director General’s office. I was wondering if the Professor was making me wait for a pointed amount of time, when I noticed a succession of people bursting into tears around me. They had just received news that an esteemed colleague had died, only 10 mins after hearing he’d been taken to hospital. The whole staff was in shock: he had been at work only yesterday.
I felt Emmanuel sitting beside me and silently relived my sorrow for his sudden passing in their company. When I was ushered into the Professor’s office only a few minutes later, I said I could not possibly intrude on them at this sad moment. I’m very sorry the time was not right to find out more about the huge scope of conferences, exchanges and research that the Centre is involved in, but I hope this gives me an excuse to go back. Assistant Chief Research Officer Mr J.A. Dosumu kindly dispatched a few of their publications, including a delicious book on the history of Nigerian costume, to the eMzantsi office in Cape Town.
I was escorted to the Archive where, alongside all documents relating to FESTAC, was a photo of Nelson Mandela on his first official visit after his release in 1990 collecting his Freedom of the City of Glasgow that the government of Nigeria had held in safekeeping for him. He looked so sprightly, it was a joy to behold.
Finally I was taken round the collection. FESTAC was a glorious and (sadly) unique coming together of artists from African nations for a celebration of African culture in 1977. There were 9546 participants from 59 countries including the diaspora – aboriginal artists from Australia and Canada also came. The Nigerian government built an Olympic-style village ‘FESTAC Town’ to house them. They estimate a million people saw the opening ceremony in the national stadium.
Each country donated at least one cultural artifact to the collection. The much-copied mask logo has since been abandoned in favour of a drawing of a sculpture of a Zimbabwean medicine man, representing “the link between the seen and unseen, the known and the unknown in the African context”.
My guide, Razaq Folami, was so enthusiastic and so full of fascinating facts, it took half an hour to get past the first photos and that was before I found out that he’d done his Masters on the Egungun masquerade connected with ancestor worship. HOW riveting? He’s also an artist, and I loved his paintings:
It was he and his friend, sculptor Bello Layiwola, who did the murals outside; Razaq told me they’d been inspired by South African Ndebele décor – of course!
Razaq also explained to me the principles of Yoruba sculpture. The fact that they proportionally represented the head as a third of the size of the body was seized on by Europeans eager to prove the inferiority of African art. In fact this emphasis on the head was symbolically representative of ‘oni’, the force of destiny of the individual relating to the magnitude of their wisdom.
Razaq told me a little of the history of ancient kingdoms in this area and pointed out some glaring parallels that highlight the commonalities between African nations: the Asante chief’s stool and the Zimbabwean head rest, which share the same shape; the similarities between the Yoruba and Cuban Bata drums; the agogo handbell used by the town crier to disseminate information in Nigeria was the same I had bought as a percussion present for Sampson in Bahia, Brazil.
I was also fascinated to hear that Freedom Park was situated in the so-called ‘Brazilian quarter’ built by descendants of slaves who had returned from Brazil and Sierra Leone in the nineteenth century. The carnival connections continue – I am so keen to find out more!
I could’ve talked all day and beyond with the lovely Razaq, but had to tear myself away as I had another appointment with Sola Alamutu who had come to interview me for Waka-About tourism magazine. Sola (pronounced Shola) spent 11 yrs in UK but returned to Lagos 15 years ago to start her own NGO Children and the Environment (CATE). While Sola is obviously passionate about green issues, she is also the only African I’ve ever heard rhapsodise about brown rice! When Sampson interviewed her, he found out she was the daughter of a hotel mogul, so immediately christened her Paris Hilton, which she endured with very good grace.
Meanwhile Sampson spent an hour with Topé Sadiq on iGroove Radio, revelling in the company of one of the most articulate, spiritual and funny interviewers he’s ever had. Topé was totally on his wavelength, and Sampson felt he really brought out the best in him, like all interviewers should do. However, in Sampson’s experience, most radio hosts either demand ‘Be funny and dance for me monkey boy’, or ‘Don’t be funnier than me’. Topé, on the other hand, was unthreatened, sans ego and just gave him respect, support and encouragement. Sampson saw a lot of this giving nature amongst Freedom Park’s artistic community, and felt Lagos was very warm and welcoming for such a big city.
Topé does a lot of charity work around the arts, motivating people in a series of gigs around Lagos called Freedom Hall, offering Open Mic opportunities in a safe environment, rather like the Cape Comedy Collective’s Comedy Lab workshops Sampson used to run back in the 1990s. He’s dying to go back and work with him.
That night I sat chopping vegetables in the truck, finally getting round to having a chat with Deji about the Nigerian character. Deji said Nigerians don’t wait for their government to do things for them. The state of the roads proves the pointlessness of that. So they get on and make a plan. They are resourceful, industrious, persevering; they get up early and they work late.
The energy of Lagos is tangible; it sounds like such a cliché, but you can practically hear it crackling all around you. Nigerian networking is a tour de force: every conversation we had in Lagos led to another handful of contacts; people were almost falling over themselves to help us, and all expressed the most flattering admiration and excitement about what we are trying to do.
We felt the Lagos media were prouder of us as Africans than the SA media are of us as South Africans. Truly, for the first time, we began to grasp the magnitude of what we are doing, what we already had done. We thank our Lagosian friends for pointing it out to us. Demonstrating the exact opposite of the British tendency to pull people down, Nigerians talk you up and are proud of you.
Sampson was convinced that if we had another week, with all the contacts we’d been offered, we could have nailed the cash sponsor that eluded us at the other end of the continent. We even debated extending our visas. There was so much we hadn’t seen: Victoria Island, the museums, the Benin bronzes, Femi Kuti live at The Shrine (he was in Italy this week). But it just means we have to come back…
Meanwhile the kids were being spoilt on all sides. Erin and Amy had been dropped off to play for a couple of hours and complete strangers were gifting pizza to the happy bunch! iGroove had given them presents, and to top it all, at bedtime, Sue dropped off three bagfuls of Goodies’ goodies with everything from biscuits, chocolate bars and peanut butter to showergel and Dettol hygienic wipes for us, bless her!
Mr Solomon, however, had been avoiding Sampson’s calls all day. We even sent Deji on a stealth mission to get through to his second phone number, but still he prevaricated. We weren’t going to get the sorely needed biodiesel after all.
This was Nigeria: land of contradictions offering such a contrast of high and lows. We hadn’t had a day full of such inspiring conversations and insights for many years. At same time, we were crushed by being let down by Mr Solomon, and couldn’t understand what had motivated him to chase us via email for months, and be so keen to promise us something he couldn’t deliver.
Please note that although Nigeria, with its 419 scammers etc. is infamous for (if not synonymous with) fraud, yet of all countries we have travelled through, Nigeria is the only one where cell phone recharge vouchers have a visible pin number rather than one you scratch off. We were convinced there had to be widespread abuse of this system, and were prepared to be conned by being sold one already used, but this never happened. So, the internet connection may be weak and ferociously expensive, but it runs on trust. Eko o ni baje!
We had to leave very early on Wed morning to avoid getting caught in Lagos traffic, so we were up and out by 5.30am on our way to Badagry. Despite being on time and according to plan, Sampson was stressing out – irrationally I thought – and I was fuming at the unnecessary darkening of our day. We ended up having a massive ‘Life, Love, the Universe and Everything’ row while the kids slept blissfully on, unaware of the potent fumes of pollution and divorce wafting about them.
The road was terrible, but the conversation was wonderful. He talked. Talked like I can’t remember him talking in so long. Talked like he talked when I fell in love with him many years ago, because he ‘talked like a girl’, expressing his feelings and everything.
He sounded like himself. For the first time in ages, he wasn’t shutting down or making excuses. He was saying that for a long time he’s been weak and not pulling his weight, and now he was taking responsibility. He’s utterly inspired by Lagos and really feels he could make a living there, which is good as there’s no guarantee I’m staying with him – he said – so he’s prepared to step up and become self-reliant like his Dad. This trip has made him realise his capacities as a survivor, and Lagos has made him realise that what we’re doing is amazing, while reminding him how good he is with people. It was heartening to hear him be reminded of his strength, and remember how he could always talk us better.
So thank you Lagos for giving Sampson his confidence back, and me my husband back. You were a shot in the arm, a pure shot of life and enthusiasm and possibility. (Like Calabar was for me.) Like NYC or London last century, in today’s Lagos anything seems possible, there is so much innovation happening; on every street corner, there are people working and playing very hard.
Despite all the nightmarish difficulties of Nigeria, it’s the people that save it. Their dynamism and positivity turned us around. These are Sampson’s people, he loves them, feeds off their energy and spirit: “Everyone knows someone who can help you. And they do.” There’s not even any surf in Lagos – that’s the measure of his enthusiasm!
O baje ti!
Drafted around Jan 10th