By Ayodele Olofintuade
Photo by Osisiye Tafa
As a child, Lagos was my cityscape of fantasies. The stories told to me by Alhaja, my grandmother, populated my imaginings of Lagos.
Stories of how she raced her mates through the streets of Aroloya – Ita-Faaji, Idumota, Oke-Popo – butt-naked, until someone drew the attention of her mother to the fact that she was no longer a child, that she’d sprouted a pair of breasts and hair on her pudenda. Alhaja was thrown a cotton wrapper. She reported that this minor distraction did not stop her from winning all the races.
Stories of how she was withdrawn from school, because the schoolmaster whipped her a little too hard for her mother’s liking, and was immediately apprenticed to a Sisi, women suspected to be earthbound daughters of the sea because they were educated, sophisticated and well versed in the art of seduction. A Sisi would take in your half-wild daughter and turn her into a business savvy coquette.
My grandmother was a storyteller, passing down ancestral memories through her words, through her gestures. Memories of mad, bad women, who did what they liked, exactly how they liked it. In the evenings, she would lie down on her king-sized bed, a gaggle of grandchildren around her, and tell us about Yemoja, the lord of the seas. She, who came out of the waters of Okun at night to seduce mortals and afflict them with an itch in their loins, one that no matter how hard it was scratched – with other women, parties, or even godliness – would not be assuaged.
I remember a particular one, whereby, Yemoja stayed so long with a man, that she had a daughter with him. But when it was the agreed time for him to return the girl to the seas, the man ran to the hinterlands. Yemoja took him, her daughter and the house where they lived, by flooding the little town the man had chosen as his hideout, and dragging the whole house back to Lagos, into the sea.
My holiday trips, and periodic lengths of stay in Lagos, mostly with my mum’s cousins and step-siblings, were inundated by urban myths. Myths full of otherworldly beings. The cloven hoofed woman that prowled the Third Mainland Bridge. The man with a mouth full of sharpened iron teeth that gave ‘innocent’ young women rides of no return.
One of my aunts claimed an encounter with this legend. According to her, the man had picked her up somewhere on the Island, offering her a ride to Yaba around 3am. After they drove off, my aunt described the silence in the car as blanket-like, making her chatter nervously. As they climbed the Third Mainland Bridge, she claimed she started telling her benefactor about that legend, she scoffed at the impressionable young women with overheated imaginations. She asked if he believed there could be a man in existence with a mouth full of iron teeth. The man turned towards her, flashed a mouth full of iron and asked, “You mean, like this?”
My aunt, who was apparently of super-hero persuasions, jumped out of his car while in motion. She showed off the bruises and abrasions she got from rolling on the Third Mainland Bridge for weeks.
And then there were bits of reality too, of men and women who took suicide jumps off the bridge. Children, who should be in school, hawking, begging or stealing. Bands of violent armed robbers, fleet fingered pick-pockets and bold-faced bag snatchers. Conmen that took your money simply because you were fool enough to reveal your newbie status by gawking at the high rises and skyscrapers that made up Broad Street. Vagrants building kingdoms under bridges. Sex workers (male and female), trawling the streets of Ayilara, Ikeja, Ikoyi. Corporate beggars dressed to the nines, spinning sob stories that made you dip into your handbag for your last naira note.
“My heavily pregnant wife was involved in a car accident. The doctor says they need to carry out an operation urgently or she will lose our triplets and die!”
Protesters, hungry activists, gun totting policemen harassing commercial bus drivers – “Show me your particolas!” – ‘Area boys’, whose ages range from 15 to 50. The stupendously wealthy, insulated from everyday life by triple glazed glass and air-conditioning in their homes, in their cars, within their heads.
Everything happens in Lagos. There were rides on the now defunct Molue Buses immortalized by Fela in his song, Shuffering and Shmiling;
Everyday my people dey inside bus
49 sitting 99 standing
Dem dey die, dem dey wake like cocks…
Shuffering and Shmiling…
Molue rides of bodies, piled one atop another. Old men groping young women (and receiving slaps); snake-oil merchants selling cure-alls (from the common cold to the not-so-common fhilariasis); preacher men, telling you the ‘one-and-only true path to heaven’, (after you donate your widow’s mite).
Molue bus rides that made your head spin with their airlessness, literarily snatching your breath away, while you were squeezed between the stomach of a pregnant woman standing right behind you, and the gigantic buttocks of the woman standing in front of you. Your short arms barely reach the overhead handholds. Washed and unwashed bodies, sweat mixed with perfumes sprayed so generously you reel drunkenly as you alight from the bus, unsure you got off at the right stop.
By my teens Lagos had morphed into a woman who grew up in Lafiaji, a tiny street in the heart of Eko, where the true daughters of Okun thrive. Their Yoruba drawled in that manner that could fool the uninitiated into thinking they were laid back. She became the business savvy Alhaja with skin bleached the colour of ripe oranges, dark knuckles, knees and ankles, a couple of gold teeth flashed in insincere smiles and overflowing curves, sitting in her tiny shop at Balogun Market, selling exotic lace.
Lagos became her children, male and female she made them. Raised on the streets of Omidun to the beat of underground fuji music. She was part of the dust kicked up by their dancing feet, a cumulus of smoke, puffed from expertly wrapped weed, hanging over their heads. Lagos is set apart, the all-seeing one that smirks as her children run to Oluwole, to obtain fake WAEC results, fake university degrees and fake travel documents that would give their feet wings on adventure to other cities of the world.
She became the cocaine capital of Nigeria, when her children returned from England, America, from Latin America, with pocket-full of easily made foreign currency. Oju-Ina, the haven for drug mules, drug barons and drug users. The decadence of those years that spanned the late eighties to the early nineties captured in timelessness by the music of Shina Peters.
Ijo Sina pelemo
Orin Sina pelemo
Sisi kan ngbe Ketu
Baby kan ngbo’jota
(refrain: pelemo pelemo)
The young men and women that would become evangelists, pastors, imams and the sundry ‘older generation’ (now policing our morality) were twerking to the beat of cocaine in their bloodstreams.
Lagos is. The old coloniser’s enclave of Ikoyi and Victoria Island, she looks down her nose at the mainlanders. People living in Yaba, Shomolu, Bariga, barely escaping that little curl of her lips, as they tell their stories of belonging. Ikeja, Iyana-Ipaja, Orile would only be allowed to kiss the hem of her garments, for as far as Lagos is concerned, they are Ogun State getting ideas above their station.
Lagos was Madam Efunronye who traded in firearms and slaves. She who fought the colonisers till her banishment (and eventual death), when she discovered how her brothers and sisters, the ones she’d blindly traded for bits of gold, were being ‘transported’ across the seas, how they were being treated, over the seas.
As an adult, Lagos had turned into my master, my playground, my mistress. She would lure me in with promises of art, music, plays, books – fun! … then kick me out once I ran out of funds. She is Freedom Park, a former colony prison where past leaders like Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe were incarcerated in prison cells no larger than a sugar box. The colonial gallows stand proudly, smack in the centre of the prison, where everyone who dared the authorities were hung by their neck until they died.
She is the open air concert curated monthly by Ade Bantu. Lagos wilding. A concert full of old hands in the music industry and young, upcoming artistes. One moment you are be dancing to the latest hip-hop song, exported to the rest of the world by these amazingly talented young people, who would not take a ‘no’ in their quest for international stardom. The next you are sunk in nostalgia and ‘fandom’ as the musician you spent most of your teenage years crushing on, rocks the stage, reminding you of time’s total disinterest in your mortality, giving you a fresh perspective about how strong these ones have been, their staying power. Salawa Abeni, Fatai Rolling Dollars, Abass Akande Obesere, these ones that made music against all odds – terrible studio conditions, thieving music promoters, non-paying concert organizers, piracy.
You forget politeness, self-consciousness, you forget your ‘home-training’, as you dance until your bones remind you that Time has passed. You scream out the lyrics of half-forgotten songs until your voice become hoarse, your throat sore.
Lagos, my first true kiss, the city of my awakening.
Lagos is a culinary delight of crabs and other crustaceans, freshly caught that morning from the ever generous waters of Osa, steamed in their own juices, a dash of lime, garlic, ginger and salt to taste. Tilapia, obokun, eja-osan, stewed over a low fire in tomatoes, onions and generous helpings of bell peppers that have your eyes streaming tears of joy. Plantain, fried to a state of golden brown perfection. All heaped on a bed of long-grain rice that have your salivary glands working overtime.
She is Ewa-Agayin, beans cooked to a state of fluffiness, the grains clinging to one another lovingly, beans drowned in pepper that has been fried to a state of near blackness, in palm-oil.
Lagos is all glitter, no substance. Eko for show. She is to be found, always, shorn in the latest international fashion. Eons ahead of all the other cities in Nigeria. Lagos is a trap. With her false promises of wealth that lures the young and old in, women and men willing to work themselves into the ground, willing to do whatever it takes to ‘blow’.
They work, they make the money, their heads spinning from all the excitement of keeping up a social life that seems never ending. Lagos never sleeps. There is always a party, a child naming ceremony, a wedding. Then these ambitious ones wake up one day and realise that Time, the betrayer of all humankind, has slipped out of their grasp. They pick up their calculators and weep, all the money they made has been spent on keeping up appearances.
Lagos is ruthless with her poor, rendering them homeless willy-nilly. Land grabbers, aided by the government, throwing people out of the seafront shanties that they’ve occupied for so many years.
She is that old, sex-worker that demands payment before services, her ancient eyes looking through you down to your soul. She is a vampire; one bite from her and you’re forever hooked. She would take you and take you until there’s nothing left of you and then throw you out, a husk, ever looking back.
But she can also be tender, this old sex-worker. She would pick a child and nurture her until she’s the perfect representation of all the good that’s within her, she would present this child to the world, ‘in whom I’m well pleased.’ And this child would walk the streets of other cosmopolitan cities of the world, oblivious to the privilege that brought her there.
Her head would be held high, her intellect sharpened, her tongue fluid in the language of the powered. She will be the envy of all that behold her and they would stare at her in wonder, they would ask where she is from, and she would tell them about Lagos, Nigeria, the place her heart calls home.
Lagos is the past, revels in the present and makes her own future.