The Mad and Impossible Poetry of Lagos

Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion

by Kaye Whiteman

Oxford: Signal Books, 2012, ISBN 9781908493057, 256 pages

 

It is extremely difficult to rhapsodise about a city built around a jigsaw of lagoons and islands that never sleeps and where everyone has a short fuse because every available space has been taken and where the heavy humidity provides a good reason to curse and swear endlessly. It is hard to adore a city that has been so brutally abused and that like a cornered, maimed, feral cat lashes out with the fury of fangs. But Kaye Whiteman, who first stepped on Lagos in 1964, has succeeded in conveying what he admires most about Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria and perhaps the entire West African region. He received some unsympathetic glances from those who believe, as so many others, that writing a book about Lagos is a lost cause and can only be dreamed of by the insane. Lagos derives its name from the Portuguese word for lake which is lago, while the plural is lagos. Also, the Portuguese word for lagoon is laguna.

Femi Okunnu, a one time federal commissioner of works in the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon, has written a foreword for the book in which he draws attention to the fact that Whiteman does not mention the pioneering work he had done in building the highways and bridges he claims makes Lagos a major city. This seems unnecessary. But Okunnu’s view that Lagos both has a ‘soul’ and is ‘a state of mind’ is one that is echoed throughout the book. Indeed Whiteman’s overriding inclination is to conceive of Lagos as a triumph of the imagination rather than as a veritable ‘hell-hole of crazy slums, endless traffic jams, con-men and chaos’ (p.xvii), as would be the immediate reaction of an uninformed beholder. In this regard, the opinions of writers, journalists and poets are highly valued by Whiteman, who in various ways explores the realities of the city as transformed by its authors in the manner Dublin is re-imagined by James
Joyce, London by Charles Dickens and Paris by Emile Zola. This, undoubtedly, is an arresting manoeuvre.

In spite of the sheer physical and conceptual challenges involved in attempting to capture the soul of Lagos within the limited spine of a book, the town is rich in history, folklore and myth and should ordinarily fire the imagination of a gifted and enterprising literary artist or even a historian. It is believed that Lagosians originally descended from Ogunfunminire, a hunter who had ventured from the ancient town of Ile Ife. Having first settled at Isheri, he later became the chieftain of Ebute Metta meaning ‘three wharves’. The traditional name of Lagos is Eko, believed to be a derivative in Bini language meaning ‘meeting place’. The king or oba of Eko was called the Eleko. However, it eventually became more common to call him the Oba of Lagos, as is often the case in Yoruba and Bini languages. Trade with Portuguese and British merchants changed the fortunes of Lagos by drawing actors of different backgrounds, interests and skills. These ingredients boosted the commercial potential of the burgeoning town. From the hinterlands of the savannah country, the Nupes also arrived and, in time, would make an indelible mark on the historical evolution of Lagos.

The slave trade in the eighteenth century played a very significant role in diversifying the gene pool of Lagos in that, after its abolition, the Saros (Sierra Leonean Creoles) and returned Brazilians (locally called amaro and aguda) settled to give it its highly distinctive flavour and complexion. The colonial configuration of Lagos was
defined by the activities of Samuel Ajayi
Crowther, a Saro and freed slave who
by dint of his intelligence became a
bishop. Crowther wanted to see the end
of the slave trade in Lagos which, under
the reign of Oba Kosoko, had become
somewhat intractable. Ajayi Crowther,
who later became a legendary subject
for historians and even playwrights such
as Femi Osofisan, appealed to the
British Foreign Secretary, Lord
Palmerston, to intervene in halting the
trade. It is interesting that Crowther is
often cast as a nationalist when a crucial
part of his activities was as a British
collaborationist that resulted in the
destruction of Lagos through ‘gunboat
diplomacy’. Indeed, as he ended his
tenure as a bishop, he was increasingly
at odds with the authorities of the
church who viewed with hostility his
efforts to introduce African and
syncretic elements to the conventional
modes of worship. The abolitionist
movement was not motivated by purely
altruistic reasons as such but rather was
a result of the diversification of the
British economy from a mercantilist
orientation to industrial production.
Thus, instead of requiring slaves, Britain
now needed cotton for its cotton mills
and palm oil for its industrial plants.
On Boxing Day in 1851, Oba
Kosoko was deposed in a bitterly fought
battle and Akitoye was installed in his

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

place. In the following year, the
Consulate of Lagos was proclaimed.
Kosoko fled to Epe, where he employed
the ports of Lekki and Palma for trade
in palm oil and slaves. With the Lagos
Consulate firmly established, the colonial
penetration was well on its way as
missionaries entered the scene
beginning with the Church Missionary
Society (CMS) which acquired some
land in 1859, where it eventually built a
church in 1880. The Wesleyans also
built a chapel. The CMS Grammar
School was established in 1859, the
Methodist Boys High School in 1879,
St. Gregory’s College, a Catholic
institution, in 1886 and Baptist Academy
in 1891. Many Saros sought the benefits
of education in these various institutions
which they believed would propel them
to the upper echelons of the colonial
administration. Some prominent
Lagosian families of Saro origin include:
Coker, Williams, Johnson, Cole and
Macaulay.
However, alongside the Christian
presence, there was also a marked
increase of Muslims involved in the
socio-cultural existence of Lagos
brought on by the twin factors of war
and trade. Prominent Muslim figures
included Saliu Shitta of the famous
Shitta-Bey family, who first arrived at
Lagos in 1844, Muhammed Savage,
Amodu Carew and Abdallah Cole. This
compelling mix of Muslims and
Christians peacefully cohabitating had
always been a unique feature of Lagos
and contributed to its particular brand
of vernacular cosmopolitanism.
Currently, ‘the French and other
Europeans, the Lebanese/Syrians, the
Cypriots, other Arabs, the Indians and
Pakistanis, the Chinese and even
Japanese, Iranians and Turks’ (p.31)
continue to deepen the city’s
cosmopolitan feel which had begun
many generations earlier.
Whiteman mentions that ‘no one
would have planned to build an
enormous city on the basis of such an
unusual configuration of lagoon and
island’ (p.35). This is indeed true. Being
a major commercial centre in West
Africa, Lagos has always drawn huge
numbers of people pursuing different
business interests, fortunes and dreams.
But the way in which these various
goals have been pursued have been
particularly brutal on the landscape of
Lagos. With concerted industrial
development beginning in the 1950s,
suburbs such as Apapa and Surulere
emerged. So did the seedier settlements
of Mushin, Ajegunle, Somolu, Bariga,
Idi-Oro and Agege. Indeed, there has
been ‘considerable urban overspill in all
directions northwards, westwards and
eastwards, which are parts of what
might be called the Lagos conurbation’
(p.53). This tremendous overspill has
created immense problems regarding
transportation. To ease some of these
problems, the nineteen mile Third
Mainland Bridge, one of the longest
bridges in the world, was constructed
by the ubiquitous Julius Berger
construction company.
Before the modernist intrusion of the
Third Mainland Bridge, Lagos was
dotted with other sights of architectural
accomplishment. The Brazilians, unlike
the Saris, did not immediately make their
mark on education and instead became
skilled artisans and craftsmen. For
instance, a gifted mason, Juan Baptist
da Costa headed the collective that
constructed the Shitta-Bey Mosque in
Martins Street which opened in 1894.
The Brazilian connection in Lagos has
always been particularly strong. There
are prominent similarities, for instance,
in the architecture of Brazilian cities like
Salvador de Bahia and Recife and some
of those to be found in old central Lagos.
In 1910, J. Laotan published The
Torchbearers, documenting the
achievements of the Brazilian
community in Lagos. Antonio Olinto,
who had worked as a cultural attaché
to the Brazilian Embassy in the 1960s,
published a novel, The Water House
(1969). Olinto’s work bears more than
a passing resemblance to the saga of
Joao Esan da Rocha who had been
captured as a slave and taken to Brazil.
He regained his freedom and returned
to Lagos with his wife and child in the
1870s and was granted land on Kakawa
Street, where he built the non-fictive
Water House. The da Rocha family
subsequently made their mark in the
fields of medicine and business. Other
notable Brazilian families include:
Fernandez, Pereira, Medeiros, Gomez,
da Costa, da Silva, da Rocha, Pedro,
Agusto. These various families have
been part of the cultural life of the city.
The Carreta festival that originated from
the Brazilian connection is practiced to
this day. Frechon, an amaro meal eaten
on Good Friday and prepared from a
recipe of fish, rice, black beans and
coconut milk, is another legacy of the
Portuguese/Brazilian link.
It is claimed that crops such as
cashew, cocoa and cassava became
cultivated in West Africa as a whole as
a result of the Brazilian connection. The
migration of the cocoa bean into what
eventually became Nigeria is quite
interesting. Historians believe that
cocoa was first smuggled into the area
from the secretive Spanish plantations
located in Fernando Po. Also, a Niger
Delta merchant, Squiss Ibanango, is
believed to have first planted the crop
in Opobo. These historical details
cement the city’s links to other sites of
innovation and culture and add to its
highly intriguing pedigree.
Apart from the Brazilian
architectural influence, there are other
notable contributions as well. John
Godwin, a long time Lagos-based
British architect pioneered the method
of blending tropical architecture with
modernism thereby coming up with a
distinctive style that has in turn had an
impact on the likes of architect/artist
Demas Nwoko. Godwin has also been
in the forefront of drawing attention to
the achievements and legacies of
Brazilian architecture in various parts
of Lagos.
The inhabitants of Lagos have not
always been kind to its natural
endowments and its architectural
history. The pressures of unrestrained
commercialisation have disfigured many
of the more inclusive features of the
city. As Whiteman writes, ‘one of the
worst effects the “Bergerization” of
Lagos was on the Marina itself. It was,
alas, a frustration of the dream of
modernization because it destroyed the
urban togetherness of central Lagos that
had always focused on the Marina.
However hard the efforts at rebeautification,
the early special
ambience of the Marina can never
really be recovered’ (p.80). Indeed this
is quite a pity. If great wealth could be
made in Lagos, it could also be a virulent
site of mass dispossession as evidenced
in the rise of ‘area boyism’. Area boys
are more or less street thugs who roam
about the city extorting pedestrians and
motorists alike with a not uncertain hint
of menace and violence. From the 1980s
onwards, they became a permanent
feature of the city as they were able to
create a subculture and their nefarious
activities transformed both the business
and cultural life of the city, in most cases
for the worst. An entrenched form of
social Darwinism sort of became the
norm in Lagos and when the federal
capital shifted to Abuja, a noticeable
institutional vacuum was created. The
Lagos island on which the
aforementioned Marina is located ‘is
now a bizarre and dysfunctional mix of
the wilderness of skyscrapers, street
markets, old shops and residences, all
under pressure from the ubiquitous and
extortion-demanding “area boys”’
(p.81).
Within the graphic sights and
instances of urban decay are often to
be found ‘trappings of consumerism and
modernity’ (p.86) in the shape of fastfood
franchises which come and go as
trends of fashion. In order for global
franchises to make an impact, local
considerations are usually quite
significant and Whiteman observes that
‘the resistance of Nigeria to certain
brands […] is a refreshing mark of
individualism’ (p.86). The
distinctiveness of the city is further
underscored by the fact that it also a
magnet for flamboyant socialites who
always make their presence felt at
lavish weddings, elaborate burial
ceremonies and dazzling birthday
parties. Whiteman suggests that
creative writers haven’t really
succeeded in capturing aspects of the
city that have not gotten much to do with
squalor, crime and decay, but that was
not for want of trying. Indeed, he
attempts a rather usual and
commendable move in exploring the
various authors who have attempted
with varying degrees of success to pay
homage to the more worthy facets of
Lagos. A central part of Whiteman’s
efforts is geared towards re-discovering
the humanity of the city and, in so doing,
the inventiveness and uniqueness of its
culture provide the best possible
avenues.
Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ben
Okri, Helon Habila, Seffi Atta, Chris
Abani have all addressed different
realities of Lagos. But none of them has
captured the broadest spectrum of its
existence and realities. Lagos seems to
surpass the imagination of the best
Nigerian writers. Achebe never really
felt comfortable with living in Lagos.
During the colonial era, he felt isolated
in the mostly white neighbourhood of
Ikoyi, which was dull and uninviting
when compared to colourful hot spots
such as Abilene, which was filled with
life, sounds, conviviality and vigour.
During the postcolonial era, he
complained that Lagos was the most
uncreative place a writer could be
because of the superabundance of the
very qualities that had marked out
Obalende in the colonial era. The cities
depicted in Okri’s novels are a
composite of towns from probably midwestern
Nigeria and parts of Lagos and
critics have noted they strive after a
universalism in which most of the signs
of Lagos are lost. In his first book,
Waiting for an Angel, Helon Habila
depicts parts of Lagos that often
overwhelm the senses. Observers have
noted that the book is fragmentary,
episodic in structure, and have sought
to know the reason behind its apparent
disjointedness. Habila on his part has
revealed that the sheer existential
conditions surrounding the writing of the
book is responsible for its random
structure. Lagos is a place of incessant
power outages, irregular water supply,
chaotic transport systems and a host of
other difficulties; so he had had to adopt
a guerrilla approach to writing his work
rather than tackle it with a settled,
measured mindset. Perhaps this
disjunctive narrative is especially
resonant because it is true to the random
nature of the city.
Chris Abani gained considerable
notoriety in Nigerian literary circles by
passing himself off as a former inmate
of the nefarious Kirikiri Prisons in
Lagos. He had claimed that on account
of his novel, The Masters of Board,
which is about a Neo-Nazi invasion of
the country, he was detained in the
infamous prison for predicting a military
coup. Many well informed followers of
the Nigerian literary scene have
strongly debunked Abani’s unproven
claims and this has consequently
tarnished his credibility as a literary
artist. Uncharacteristically, Whiteman
does not dwell upon these distressing
developments and he takes Abani’s
word for it. More credible authors who
have focused extensively on Lagos are
Maik Nwosu in Invisible Chapters and
Seffi Atta in Everything Good Would
Come. Nwosu’s novel is about the
destruction of Maroko, a squalid
informal settlement that used to be on
the ‘elite slum’ of Victoria Island. Atta,
on her part, tries to capture the
ambience of old Ikoyi, the former
colonial upscale neighboorhood which
was where she had lived out her
formative years. Bernadine Evaristo’s
poetic novel, Lara, explores the
continuities between a Nigerian-British
and the Brazilian community in Lagos.
The theme of biculturalism or even
multiculturalism is increasingly
preoccupying a number of Nigerian –
as well as African – authors.
Arguably, this bicultural shift in focus
vitiates some of the vitality of Lagos as
a site for self-making. Obviously, this

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