Sunday, 13 October 2013

Notes on Lagos (British Council/Through My Eyes)

Your correspondent in Lagos. (Photo by Sue Parkhill)
At the end of September I spent a week overseas teaching creative writing under the aegis of the British Council’s Literature department – my third such excursion for them, following previous adventures in Buenos Aires and Seoul. This time I dropped into Lagos, Nigeria, for a project entitled Through My Eyes.

It was my first visit to Africa, and thus not a bad baptism to begin with the most teeming city on the continent – a place, moreover, with a fast-growing reputation for high accomplishment in contemporary literature, thanks to works by the likes of Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, Teju Cole and others. Right now must be the most exciting ‘moment’ for Nigerian literature since the 1950s/60s heyday of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

Before I set off, the rightly much-praised Teju Cole, with whom I share a publisher and indeed an editor, was kind enough to mark my card on things I might go and see locally. Other than that, I relied for guidance in Lagos through our hugely personable British Council host Fusi Olateru-Olagbegi and on my collaborator in the Through My Eyes project, the brilliant photographer Sue Parkhill, who was also new to Lagos if rather better travelled than me in Africa per se.

The idea behind Through My Eyes was that a group of young writers and photographers, selected on the strength of joint application, would work in their pairs to express through related text and image some poetic truths about the world around them. (Some of the texts and images they submitted in application to the course are collected in this link.) I must say that, having been thrilled to be invited to Lagos, I was fascinated by what I found there and really knocked out by the verve and accomplishment of the students. Their strong opinions and personalities will live with me.

Sue and I were based not on ‘the mainland’ of Lagos but rather, ‘the island’ – in Ikoyi, on the island’s eastern side, where one can observe some notably plush properties, among them the diplomatic quarters of the great nations. Said properties are notably well guarded from the street; but then large numbers of people in Ikoyi are living in compounds of one sort or another, even if the walls be made of concrete blocks, un-rendered and topped with razor wire, gated by reclaimed corrugated iron.

Conversely, as you drive about Lagos a lot of what you see has a somewhat ‘provisional’ feel: from shanty lean-tos to dilapidated structures that clearly didn’t work out, to hastily assembled things that someone thinks just might... Big new-build structures often overlook empty lots of barren land with makeshift barriers, as if a movie crew or some such travelling show were about to roll in and set up. But Ikoyi is, for sure, an aspirational part of Lagos to be living in. As for Banana Island in the nearby Lagos lagoon... Well, it need only be said that I carried the Lagos edition of Monopoly home to London as a gift for my children, who now understand that Banana Island is the spot in Lagos where you should build your hotels.

Shall we deal quickly with a few local-cultural stereotypes that I might have brought with me to Lagos, stuffed in my old kitbag, on the plane over?

1. I expect a lot of Europeans stepping out for the first time on an African evening take a moment to note the lushness of the skies, and feel the difference as thick, warm air settles on your shoulders and disparate aromas come and go in the space of a short walk. That air seems to bestow a botanical, vegetal quality on a lot of what you see: for an idle second you can imagine how easily nature – given six months or so – might reclaim any developed plot.

2. Traffic conditions in Lagos are to be viewed with concentration, good reflexes, and good humour as and when one can muster it. Anything else is a waste of time in a place where white lines are not considered to mean anything special.

3. ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ was said to me by students sporting sardonic grins on more than one occasion – first, when I registered a shade too much surprise about an incidence of electrical power outage caused by generator failure. The locals have long since wearied of complaint on this matter. You have to buck up and get used to it in Lagos, so I did. (In fact I rather liked the low-level of generator hum you heard continuously in larger buildings. It even inspired me to tell my students – some of whom were curious about what might be the ‘ideal’ conditions for writing – about how Faulkner wrote much of As I Lay Dying while working as a night watchman in a power plant.)

4. The second ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ came about after I’d had to press my hands to my old ears during a lunch break, since the lively exchange of views going on around me had risen very suddenly to a stunning cacophony. I gathered this was just one little distinctive facet of how Nigerians like to conduct an argument – robustly, in the best sense.

5. As a middle-aged guy with a bad back I really had to force myself not to look hard and repeatedly at all the young women swaying eloquently down the roadsides with large loads of goods balanced upon their heads. It is quite a thing, though. One of my students, who had a special interest in the issue of how Nigeria’s capital Abuja was constructed on the dispossession of tribal indigents, told the group of the Gbagys people, who buck this trend of head-carriage – indeed swear against it, using only their shoulders – since they consider the head to be exempt from such indignity as the seat of our higher faculties.

On our second day in writing class I ran an exercise that I always find useful, where the students and I spent 45 minutes or so perusing the morning paper from cover to cover, whereupon I asked them to tell me what, for each of them, was the authentic ‘front page story’ – i.e. which item in the paper, wherever it got printed, and whether large or small, felt to them like the best insight into what happened in Nigeria the previous day (and which could therefore offer good source material for a story...) The discussion we then fell into for an hour or more was probably the keenest of this sort that I’ve ever had the privilege to moderate.

If you follow the news in Lagos you are, for all sorts of reasons, quite likely to get angry – angrier even than those of us who routinely shout at Radio 4’s Today programme. One student in my group is the very capable host of a drive-time talk radio show, and national issues are certainly familiar and vexing to both her and her listeners: Nigerian democracy just does seem markedly at odds with the Nigerian demos. (Another cliché I had in my kitbag, once read in some or other journal, was one about there being ‘no middle class in Nigeria.’ That’s not strictly true, but a lot of Nigerians graft for very little or just about enough while the phenomenal proceeds of oil seem to course around within a golden circle. University teachers and resident doctors, I learned from the paper, were both on strike while I was in town.)

Teju Cole had told me to go to Bogobiri House, and that’s where Fusi took Sue and I, unbidden, on our first night in Lagos. Bogobiri is a terrific little hotel and arts venue with a weekly open-mic performance evening, called Taruwa, which happened to be celebrating its 6th birthday on the night we visited. I was introduced to Lydia Idakula Sobogun, who devised the whole thing.

And in the midst of some rambunctious emceeing and music and impressive ‘slam’ poetry, I watched a fellow named Icee paint a canvas from scratch, in about five minutes, using his fingers and a plate smeared with oils. (That’s it depicted above.) It reminded me, I must say, of how I can't seem to live without the religious in art, if not in life. And the painting sold in auction, for about £400, I think. But if I'd had a better grasp of how to ship stuff out of Nigeria I reckon it would be hanging on my wall right now.

On our penultimate day we went on a class trip for a highly diverting coach ride ‘downtown’ to the marina part of the island – it’s not a place for mooring yachts, mind you, it’s more interesting than that. There I saw a bit of the densely-packed urban tumult for which Lagos is renowned. (For instance: pavement cyclists in London always make me feel narked and aggressive, but they’re charmers next to Lagos’s keen pavement motorcyclists, who growl down the middle of the walkway shooting glares at pedestrians with their footling complaints.) I saw one or two things at the marina that I’d maybe rather not have seen. But I was struck by the commotion, for sure, and by evidence of bits and pieces of civic-municipal renewal. Fusi explained to me how a lot of menacing spaces under bridges and flyovers had been cleaned up and landscaped to move the hustlers along - much as has been done in King’s Cross and Times Square during my lifetime.

We moved on through the Balogun market area, down Broad Street and Breadfruit Street: a proper street hassle, hectic with market-stall and store-front commerce, vendors hailing you at every turn. Vehicle traffic was hindered, mercifully for our purpose, by a JCB stiffly shovelling pieces of the broken road into a pile. But again I had that sense of things in Lagos being very often improvised, tried out, to see what might pay dividends. It certainly felt as if every square yard in Lagos was getting used for some purpose, every little thing that one might pick up was being employed somehow...

Inevitably, this being the Big City, not all of its trade is done by the letter of the law. I became very curious to see the number of buildings around Lagos that were paint-daubed with the same angry message: ‘419-Beware-NOT For Sale’. It was explained to me that ‘419’ is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code concerning fraud; and that it is, regrettably, not uncommon for a truly bold fraudster to advertise, offer and present for sale a large building of which he is not, in fact, the owner.

These sorts of everyday tales of the city are why - as has been observed by smarter heads than me - Lagos is a place that offers rich pickings for thematically ambitious writers. I certainly got the feeling it's producing the right kind of talent to harvest the crop.