Wednesday, April 11.
Organizers of the second Festival of African Culture (FESTAC)*, held in Lagos in the first two months of 1977, were hardly modest about their intentions. The festival, which took place eleven years after the inaugural edition in Dakar, arrived amid a growing tide of nationalism, alongside the conviction that Nigeria – “a nation favored by Providence,” in the words of Achebe – was ready to assume its rightful place on the global stage. The oil boom of the ‘70s came as a sort of benediction for the country’s leaders; flush with petrol dollars, they introduced an ambitious national agenda, building highways, hospitals, and schools, doubling public-sector salaries, and embarking on a bold course of modernization that reflected the country’s newfound prominence as black Africa’s political and economic powerhouse. “To succeed,” said the festival’s organizers, “we must restore the link between culture, creativity, and mastery of modern technology and industrialism…to endow the Black Peoples all over the world with a new society, deeply rooted in our cultural identity, and ready for the great scientific and technological task of conquering the future.” FESTAC was meant to be a triumph of progress and pan-Africanism, a celebration of black culture that drew delegates from around the globe, but Nigeria was clearly both the hostess and the belle of the ball. It was doubtless no coincidence that the new National Theater – said, by some, to resemble the military hat worn by Major General Yakubu Gowon – resembled a crown. FESTAC was Nigeria’s coronation party.
The National Theater was an architectural and technological marvel; FESTAC President Chief Anthony Enahoro called it “the center of Nigerian national life.” (Enahoro was later dismissed for embezzlement.) The 5,000-seat main hall included a rotating stage, an orchestral stand, and headphones at each seat, so that audience members could listen to translations in eight languages. Closed-circuit TV sets lined the halls and were installed in each of the bathrooms. Along with the performance spaces, two massive exhibition halls were used to display sculptures, musical instruments, and works of modern art by African artists. In the conference hall, a wide-ranging colloquium drew scholars from more than 40 countries.
If pan-Africanism was on the agenda, dissent was in the air, too. Wole Soyinka, unmoved by the lavish spectacle put on by FESTAC’s organizers, was critical of “the robots of leadership with their narrow schematism” who had mismanaged the continent in the two decades since independence. Soyinka – prescient as ever – was in fact foreshadowing the dark years that lie ahead for his country. The collapse of oil prices in the 1980s put an end to the ambitious development agenda of the ‘70s, while structural readjustment sought to rein in soaring foreign debt. Parastatal industries were sold off; the civil service was decimated; the naira collapsed. After a brief fling with civilian rule, Nigeria returned to military dictatorship in 1983, with the first of a series of coups. Though Lagos – the economic and cultural heart of the country – continued to grow at a rapid rate, infrastructure projects were put on hold. The city became unsustainable, and in 1991, the government fulfilled its long-planned goal to relocate the capital to Abuja. The National Theater, though still a source of great civic pride, rusted with disuse, and was virtually abandoned. In the years that followed, FESTAC’s legacy was tarnished by leaders of Nigeria’s religious establishment, who claim the festival’s traditional spectacles had lured the country into idolatry, and precipitated the downward slide that began shortly after the closing ceremony.
Driving out to the National Theater on Wednesday morning, the forestalled vision of past urban planners is like a concrete pall over the city. Lagos’ web of multi-lane highways and cloverleafs and long, arcing bridges was built for a city of three million; today, with more than 15 million people wedged into this rapidly growing megalopolis, you can feel the infrastructure straining under the weight of the constant traffic flow. “Go-slow” is an optimistic euphemism for Lagos’ traffic jams; often, you’re not likely to go at all. Capitalizing on the gridlock, young entrepreneurs snake through the logjams, hawking cold water and soft drinks, DVDs, Nollywood tabloids, belts, shoe racks, hard candies, flavorless biscuits, cellphone credit, wristwatches. (A curious phenomenon: the DVDs are almost entirely sold by dwarves, who congregate in hostile-looking scrums along the road’s shoulder.) This form of creative self-sufficiency – a determination to find a way in response to the failures of the formal economy – seems to permeate every quarter of Lagos life. I have hardly noticed any beggars during these first days in Lagos, but nearly everyone is engaged in some sort of commercial hustle. The security guard at a fast-food joint requests “something for Christmas” after opening the door for me; a group of area boys harasses motorists for a small contribution to reward them for filling a pothole with gravel. Beneath the city’s flyovers, men shave heads with electric clippers; women braid hair; tailors mend pants with foot-pedaled sewing machines. At a wedding reception outside City Hall, men greet arriving party-goers with stacks of 1,000-naira notes. Wedding guests will often “spray” the bride and groom in tribute, laying bills on their foreheads and shoulders as they dance. But to spray with musty old naira notes is unthinkable, so these money-changers will swap your rumpled bills for crisp new ones at a 15 percent mark-up.
Disorder reigns in Lagos. Yet while the relentless growth of the past three decades has hardly been kind to the city, attempts are being made to return to the great master plan of the ‘70s. Since taking office in 2007, Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola – whose name and smiling visage appear on garbage trucks beside the slogan, “Excellence starts with cleanliness” – has introduced sweeping initiatives to pick up where his predecessors of the ‘70s left off, building new highways, improving old ones, and implementing projects to add more green spaces to a city whose palette is varying shades of rust and gray. Beside an expressway off-ramp, men in city-issue overalls tend to a modest garden in a small public park, another man sleepily mowing the lawn. Not far from the National Theater, a vast compound ringed by concertina wire-crowned walls bears signage, emblazoned with Chinese characters, for the Lagos Rail Mass Transit Project, a $3 billion initiative to relieve traffic congestion and stitch together some of this city’s far-flung quarters. Later in the week, at Bogobiri, an oil executive will laud the effect that Fashola and a generation of young technocrats are having on the country. “There’s very small numbers who are effecting change, but they are becoming very powerful,” he says. “They’re not shouting, but they are whispering.”
This morning I’m sharing a ride with a group of German performance artists, co-habitants of mine at the AAF. They’ve come to Lagos on a fact-finding mission, hoping to link up with local dancers and artists ahead of a performance they’re planning for the Lagos Live arts festival in December. Today they’re meeting with a dance troupe called the Squad 1 Republic, one of more than 50 groups of artists, dancers, filmmakers and musicians who make up the Artists’ Village: an informal collective that has mushroomed on the land adjacent to the National Theater. Though the theater, despite recent renovation efforts, effectively stopped functioning years ago, the surrounding land – something like sacred ground – continues to sprout artistic seedlings. There is something powerfully symbolic about this yearning for continuity, for totems that hold their mythic weight. When we arrive, a young dancer named Mike greets us warmly and leads us into Squad 1’s performance space: an open-air studio with a sloping concrete dance floor, shaded by zinc awnings and lined with narrow wooden benches and stools. For six months the troupe has been using its own money to slowly improve the space. First they poured the concrete; then they staked a few wobbly posts into the earth and hung the metal sheeting. There are small improvements to be made when they find the money, but for now, their presence here in this much-coveted space is good enough.
The group has already finished rehearsing for the day; under the midday sun, without a breeze stirring, the heat even in the shade is appalling. Mike walks us through a traditional mask dance Squad 1 is preparing for an upcoming performance – something that highlights “the good, the bad, and the beautiful” of Nigerian life. Like many young Nigerians, the dancers have strong opinions about the wayward path their country has taken, the steady decline since a Golden Age they are too young to remember. Memories of FESTAC had already begun to dim by the time the dancers of Squad 1 were born; throughout their lives, the National Theater has sat like a toadstool among marshes and reeds which a reporter for The Punch once described as “a dumping ground for all manner of wastes, as well as an abode for nefarious persons.” Well, the nefarious persons are in government, too, and decades of corruption and mismanagement have made sub-Saharan Africa’s erstwhile beacon a symbol of something bleaker. “All the thing that hasn’t changed is our tradition, our culture,” says Mike, his face fixed with a pride and perseverance that seem to mark Lagosians, like the tribal scars of the north.
In the afternoon I have a meeting in Ikoyi, near the gray concrete shell of the old Federal Secretariat building, a monolith that was abandoned when the capital relocated to Abuja. The Germans drop me off outside a mechanic’s garage, an open-air graveyard of rusted minibuses and sedans on cinderblocks, awaiting the life-giving alchemy of some mechanic-mage in soiled overalls. It’s the lunch hour, and a Coca-Cola umbrella guides me to a chop stall in the rear of the garage, a brisk woman in a colorful wrapper circling, spooning out rice and peppersoup, counting out change from the roll of bills rumpled into her bosom. There are three long picnic tables crowded with mechanics on their lunch break, and a few men in business suits waiting on oil changes and tune-ups. The matron stands over me and cocks her hip. I scan the plates of nearby diners, the dark sauces and stews. “We have rice,” says the woman. “We have fish. There is no chicken.” A young serving girl says something from behind a large, bubbling pot. “We have chicken,” says the woman, correcting herself. I order a plate of white rice with a small dollop of a dark, peppery sauce, and a single breast of stringy chicken. A small wooden door swings from an opening onto the street. Written across it, in chalk, are the words: Mama Segun Food Canteen – As u come – God Bless u.
A handsome young man in an agbada sits across from me, working at his teeth with a toothpick. The place before him is empty, flecked with bits of rice, pools of stew. He has already eaten, he says, but he’s waiting to collect a passport from the a government bureau nearby. Is he preparing to travel, I ask. He laughs. No, it is the passport of a Chinese businessman; a company employs him to bring the documents of foreign nationals to the immigration office: to wait on the queues, hand over the relevant forms, wait for their processing. The tone of his voice is neutral; it is a job. A young girl with tribal scars across her cheeks squats behind him, sifting through groundnuts, raking them with her fingers. Each time I glance toward her our eyes meet, then she quickly looks away. Which of us, I wonder, looks more exotic to the other?
I shovel the rice into my mouth, eat like a laborer. The food is mercifully bland: my taste buds have already been scorched by Nigerian spices, the maniacal reverence for chili peppers. I make eye contact with an elegantly dressed older man nearby, tipping his bottle of ‘33’ Export Lager into a glass, and make a few comic complaints about the heat in Nigeria: the food, the weather. “That’s why Nigerians are so strong,” he says, his face lit with pleasure as he takes a long sip of his beer. The man’s age and comportment, the royal cut of his agbada, the bearing that gives his cheap plastic chair the look of a throne, give him an air of eminence. Mama Segun exchanges frequent words with him, soft asides, and I suspect this canteen is a joint enterprise. I mop at my brow. An old man, hearing our conversation, my complaints, shifts his belly and adjusts his glasses. He has been waiting all week, I suspect, to find an audience for his grievances. The rains used to come this time of year, he says; now everyone is waiting for them. The weather is unpredictable. “The water is rising from here to Vietnam,” he says. “China. India. Malaysia.” He pauses. “Australia.”
We mumble our general agreement.
New customers arrive. The turnover is high. Men eat, depart; others replace them, smiling at me, offering greetings. A small bar, dusty bottles arranged on a wobbly table, offers all the disreputable liquors of the developing world: Esplendido, Elliot rum, Seaman’s whiskey, Night Train Express. A girl is selling individual cigarettes. The scarred woman rakes the groundnuts with her long fingers.
“Japan,” says the old man.
On the pavement outside there is a mechanic, a man in his twenties, bare-chested, the muscles piled one on top of the other, like a totem pole. His head is poking into the driver’s side of an SUV, where a plump woman is staring impassively into the middle distance, unwoo’d by whatever advances he is trying to make. He sees me walking on the passenger side and calls out. “Hello!” he says. “Salaam!” I go over to greet him, and he seems taken aback by the gesture, the obinyo’s sudden warmth. His name is Aladey. “I’m the big man in Nigeria,” he says. “Second only to Obasanjo.” His voice has a beautiful, musical lilt to it, the inflections of pidgin English, of Lagos’ working-class slums. The woman in the SUV, he says, is his wife. She laughs, protests, playfully waves him off with the back of her hand. I laugh, too, shaking my head. Aladey fixes me with a look and asks why she can’t be his wife. He says it in a friendly way, but I can see there is a test implied, too. Is it because he is poor, because he is uneducated, because he is not really the big man in Nigeria? I tease him, point out that she repelled his kisses. “In my country,” I say, mimicking the woman’s gestures, “that is not how we kiss our husbands.”
Aladey laughs. “I can see that you are very playful,” he says. “I greeted you, and you came to me.”
He takes me gently by the wrist and walks with me along the road’s shoulder. He came to Lagos from Oyo State – Yoruba country – but he speaks Igbo, and Hausa, and English. It allows him to communicate with his customers and neighbors, with everyone in the mixed-up cauldron of Lagosian life. “I love everyone,” he says. “That is why we are alive, oh. We must love each other.”
*For the following passage, I am indebted to Andrew Apter’s FESTAC for Black People: Oil Capitalism and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria.