Saturday, April 14.
The poet Odia Ofeimun is launching his new stage production Friday night, a song and dance spectacle called Itoya, at the Musical Society of Nigeria (Muson) Center on Lagos Island. Ofeimun, a wry man with gray tufts of beard and a mischievous wit, notes, as he greets us at the door, that his performance’s maiden voyage falls on the same week as the centenary commemorations of the Titanic’s sinking. We offer our hopes for a slightly safer passage. I am introduced to Ofeimun by my friend Mike Jimoh, a fellow writer, and he shows some interest as I tell him about my work. He offers me a preview copy of the Lagos Review of Books, an intellectual journal he’ll be releasing to the public later in the year. Modeled on its New York and London counterparts, the inaugural issue features essays from Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and Ofeimun himself; a novel excerpt by Tolu Ogunlesi; a handful of poems. Ofeimun wrinkles his face, his pride tempered by typos and problems with the lay-out. “I have a problem with it, too,” says Toni Kan. “I’m not in it.” Toni, a big, boisterous, candid man, a respected writer and critic, is one of Lagos’ social pillars. If he doesn’t appear in the Lagos Review of Books, as I’ll soon learn, it’s just about the only place he doesn’t pop up. Ofeimun promises to include him in future issues; he solicits me, too, for a contribution. “I will not pay you, but the day after, you just might get a check,” he says. Leading us into the hall, he hands me a copy of Lagos of the Poets, a collection of poems about the city, which he edited. Opening it to the front page, he writes an inscription: Christopher, You became a Lagosian after the first day.
Itoya, writes Ofeimun in the program, is an Esan expression that loosely means, “I can’t tell what sufferings I have been through.” It is, in essence, a short biography of the continent, from the horrors of the slave trade through the crimes of the colonial era to the turbulent, corrupt, post-colonial state of affairs today. Hardly has the play begun – the audience still trailing in, adjusting their agbadas, joyously greeting friends over the din of the band – when I hear the sound of beer cans popping open behind me. The sound and light crew, it seems, has decided this performance would best be technically supervised from deep within the sauce. Not long into the first act I feel a tap on my shoulder; a hand in the darkness passes me a beer. Despite the abundant signage warning against the consumption of food and drink in the hall, it feels like a minor heresy. While the audience is mostly entertained by the onstage spectacle, the conspicuous glow of cellphones, the murmured conversations, the couples strategically seated by the doors for a fast getaway, suggest that the Nigerian theater is hardly a sacrosanct space.
Itoya itself feels reined in, as if the shabby pageantry of its costume and set design can’t quite match the soaring vision behind it. Ofeimun addresses the challenges of Nigerian theater in the program, and the need to achieve what he describes as “a living, and standing, entrepot of creativity.” Given the collective talent onstage – the wailing of the horn section, the rhythmic stomping of the dancers – it is easy to imagine how much more could have been done with a bigger budget. Still, it is an entertaining show, marching toward a bright, pan-African vision of the future as the audience bursts into prolonged applause. In the lobby after the performance, Ofeimun is glowing. A few young poets crowd close to him, looking for an autograph, or advice, or some sort of benediction. Five years ago, the Oxford-educated Ofeimun was denied an entry visa by the British Consulate in Lagos; some clueless consular bureaucrat scribbled in an attached note, “He claims to be a writer.” No such difficulties for Ofeimun in Lagos: the reverence for him is absolute. Behind him I see Toni Kan moving energetically through the crowds, laughing his boisterous laugh, greeting everyone, then signaling when it’s time to make our speedy exit.
Earlier that night I had met Toni and his friend, Rafael, at a Lebanese-owned restaurant called La Pizza, next to the parking lot at City Mall. It was an open-air place populated by a mostly male clientele, an after-work crowd in open-collared shirts, a few women in business-length skirts, preparing for the weekend. Fans mounted to wooden support beams pushed the hot air in circles. Rafael and I ordered cold Gulder beers; Toni nursed his signature Guinness and Coke. We’d met through a mutual writer-friend in the U.S., and he was offering me a brisk introduction into the city’s literary scene. Lagos is a city of writers and poets and thinkers, of passionate souls. (Rafael, too, had introduced himself with a self-effacing smile as “a failed writer.”) As we drank our beers, headlights from the adjacent parking lot flashed across our sweat-dampened faces, slowly trailing along the wall, as if in search of some elusive meaning. Toni was telling me about his current book project when the phone rang. It was Mike Jimoh, waiting to meet us at Muson. “We’re on our way,” said Toni. He put down the phone and continued to nurse his beer. Phrases like “I’m on my way” or “I’m coming” signaled, in Nigeria, just the first spark of intent. They comprised a duty-bound obligation that was not, however, bound by time. We drank our beers. Toni wanted to write a Lagos book that hadn’t been done before – something that united the different spheres of city life, the penthouses of V.I. and the slums of the mainland, to show how those spheres intersected and overlapped. “There are people on the islands who have never been to the mainland, except to go to the airport,” he said. Another phone ringing. It was Mike Jimoh again; this time, he was calling me. “We’re on our way,” I said. More headlights lit our faces. I slowly sipped my beer.
After the performance we return to La Pizza, our group having grown exponentially. A surly, hirsute Lebanese man circles the restaurant like a pit boss, barking orders. Tables are pushed together, chairs marshaled into service. Beaded bottles of Gulders and Guinnesses appear, growing warm as fast as we can drink them. It is after nine and the crowd has grown younger, the dresses tighter, the skirts shorter. The air is charged with sex and mischief. Hip-hop videos play on wall-mounted TVs, drawing everybody’s attention. We have to shout to hear each other, the conversation drowned out by the music and the clatter of the fans and the rambunctious laughter coming from each table. Friday night. Toni calls for the waiter and orders two plates of fried gizzards and suya: skewers of grilled meat, rubbed with pounded groundnuts, chili powder, ginger, paprika, and other spices. At night you will see vendors selling suya on the side of the road, grilling the meat over massive braziers, their faces lit by kerosene lamps. The food arrives on paper plates soaked through with grease, a toothpick for each diner to spear the meat; sliced onions and chili powder serve as an accompaniment. We’ve been drinking for hours, straight through the performance, and have worked up fierce appetites. The suya goes quickly. Soon we are drowsy with food and alcohol, a long day spent under the sun, wading through the heat. Beyond the lights of the parking lot, the Friday-night traffic on the street, the dark city is poker-faced, revealing none of its secret meanings. “Lagos is a cauldron,” says another poet at the table. “You can be killed for one dollar, or you can make millions of naira.
“Lagos is an enigma.”
“A city is like a poem,” wrote Ofeimun in the book, Lagos: A City at Work. “You enter into it, and you are into a world of concentrated time. Different ages are brought together. Different histories spanning a common geography. And so, you are in the City of God but have not left the City of Man.” The next day I read these words of Ofeimun’s, printed in the magnificent coffee-table tome which, I am told, after its fourth and fifth and sixth editions, continues to sell out as fast as the publishers can print it. I’m fortunate to find a copy at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Yaba, on the mainland, where I’ve come with the German artists from the AAF for an afternoon presentation about performance art. Bisi Silva, who runs the CCA, has managed to put together an extensive collection of art and photography books in the center’s library, in spite of the difficulty of acquiring such books in Nigeria. When friends visit Lagos from abroad, she always has a wish list for them; when she travels, a spare suitcase is always reserved for books. She sighs. Nothing in Lagos comes easy. To run a place like the CCA is to run your own personal fiefdom, where the only way to ensure the lights are on and the paintings are hung is to handle it yourself. “You work for nine hours, and you spend six just trying to make sure everything works,” she says. “It exhausts you.”
Recently a New York-based artist had come to the city for an exhibition. No doubt she had a clear vision of how the show would come off. “Two hours into the opening,” says Bisi, “they were still nailing,” hanging pictures, making adjustments. The artist was nearly in tears. It was the way things went here. “Lagos doesn’t work when you go like this,” she says, making a brisk, chopping motion with her hand. “It works extremely well when you go like this.” She wiggles her hands every which way, as if to illustrate how the dysfunctional chaos of Lagos serves its own peculiar ends. In the art world there are no government grants, no official support. Artists exist in their own shrunken space. Still, they persevere. “There’s so much creative energy here, in spite of the lack of funding,” she says. “People are still doing things.
“It’s a beautiful city, warts and all.”