Tuesday, April 17.
Sitting in Bogobiri late one afternoon, two friends arrive, pulling their chairs to my table. I had met them over the weekend: architects living in Edinburgh – a Nigerian and an Irishman – who were spending a week in Lagos, conducting a study on something too abstract for me to comprehend through the Star-fuelled haze that surrounded me that night. A few days later Liam sits beside me, his hair matted to his forehead, his shirt stuck to his chest. He is visibly shaken. There was an event, an encounter, a confrontation on the street which he is too distressed to describe. Tolu claps him on the shoulder, laughing gently. They order tall beers and nurse them while Liam repairs his frayed nerves. Finally he starts to explain: he had taken a picture just down the road – of a building? A danfo? A crowd of hawkers? He doesn’t say – and suddenly there were loud protestations. Men shouted. A few angry youths gathered, got in his face. They began threatening his driver, who tried to intercede. Somehow Liam and Tolu extricated themselves from the scene before it became a melee; the driver was unharmed. It could have been worse. Now they sat in Bogobiri, licking their psychic wounds.
The beers go down smoothly; they grow philosophical. Tolu, who was born and raised in Lagos, understands the undercurrents that pull beneath the surface of Nigerian society, like a strong riptide. Liam put a distance between himself and the crowd on the street, Tolu explains. He hadn’t greeted them or asked their permission; instead, he simply subjugated them to his gaze. Their hostile reaction spoke to the complicated power dynamics that play out in every encounter on the city’s streets: the deference for age and authority, the anxieties over social status, and the complex hierarchies of city life. It’s as if some sub-primal instinct is encoded into the Lagosian’s DNA, so that a man can instinctively perform the social algebra demanded by any occasion to see on which side of the divide he falls: the one who is giving respect, or the one demanding it. Stopped at a red light in a friend’s car one afternoon, a traffic cop approached to accost the driver. “How much you wan give me?” he demanded. The fact that she had done nothing wrong was inconsequential; by virtue of his uniform, he felt entitled to demand some small dash before waving us through. Liam’s encounter on the street this afternoon was different – this time, it was he who was in the position of power – but the angry response to his camera was triggered by the same nervous system, a reflex action when the group’s collective pride had been wounded. How dare he photograph them without even exchanging pleasantries, or introducing himself? It was as if he had tried to colonize their public space, was staking his claim to one of the few places where even a poor man might have sovereignty.
“In Yoruba culture, naiveté can be forgiven if your intentions are noble,” said Tolu the night we’d met. “But certain things will not be tolerated. Disrespect will not be tolerated.” A few nights later I watched an angry man being restrained by the neighbors outside my guesthouse. There had been some altercation that I was too late to witness; all I saw now was the fallout. The man was irate, the muscles straining in his neck as two overpowered youths struggled to hold him back. “Not even my father can beat me,” he said, shouting invectives down the street. “I come from a royal family.” In ancient times, in the days of warring clans and epic heroes, perhaps he would have recited that lineage for us in verse. Still, the intensity of his feeling was profound. He was no man to be laughed at: he was his father’s son. Whatever slight he felt, whatever grievance was being marshaled by the terrible force of his anger, was an insult that rocked the graves of his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, and so on down the line. Day after day, who knows what yoke around the neck dragged this man down? But he had his pride and his royal name. Disrespect would not be tolerated.
In Measuring Time, the writer Helon Habila turns this pride on its head; for Habila it becomes a farce when that pride is distorted, reflected in the fun-house mirror of Nigerian politics. In one scene Habila’s protagonist, Mamo, is lobbying some functionary from the Ministry of Education on behalf of his uncle’s school, which the government is threatening to shut down.
“You don’t understand, Mr. Commissioner—”
“You must address me as Honorable Commissioner for Education, or Honorable Commissioner, or simply Honorable, but not Mr. Commissioner. We must respect our public officers.” For the first time the voice was raised a pitch higher.
Zara’s mouth fell open. Mamo could imagine the exasperation on his uncle’s face.
“Honorable Commissioner for Education…”
The school is shut down in the end – a pawn used against Mamo’s father in the town’s party politics. The Honorable Commissioner’s pride, meanwhile, remains intact.
Habila’s novel is a sly jab at the many Honorable Commissioners, both real and imagined, whose public service to the country consists of currying favors and clawing their way to the next highest rung on the political ladder: the shrewd social climbers Habila refers to as “career sycophants.” No doubt the commissioner’s rebuke to Mamo is meant as a reminder of the lowly teacher’s place in the town’s ecosystem. Somewhere in the Ministry is a man who the commissioner himself will have to address with similar deference: one pictures such characters, who appear frequently in Nigerian fiction, as so many pairs of puckered lips. The protocols they cling to like barnacles are as strictly observed as religious doctrine. Not without reason must a long train of dignitaries parade to the mic at every formal function, receiving adulation and bestowing benedictions according to their rank. (The writer Peter Enahoro, commenting on the tedium of their long-winded speeches, observes that “the power of Nigerian oratory is measured by the strength of the speaker’s legs.”) It is hardly surprising that the shelves of the local bookstores are stocked with the hagiographies of leaders past and present, or that the newspapers are daily filled with full-page advertisements in praise of a certain centennial, or a silver anniversary, or a lavish memoriam to a dearly departed. Such testimonies, I suspect, have as much to do with the giver of well-wishes as the receiver. The songs of praise don’t just elevate the respected elder being showered with tribute; equally implicit is the worth and valor of the signatories whose names appear at the bottom, gilded by association. They are no less deserving of praise and remembrance than their venerated subjects.
“How can a white journalist see it? There are boundaries you just can’t cross.”
The photographer Mudi Yahaya is giving a private tour of the Signature Gallery, one of Lagos’ premier venues for contemporary art. Mudi has helped to curate a new exhibition called “Fresh Vernacular,” an attempt by young Nigerian artists to reframe perceptions of Nigerian and African identity. “We don’t want you to see things in one way,” he says, noting that even the way the paintings are hung in the gallery is meant to encourage visual challenges, difficult narrative juxtapositions. Among the works are his own haunting portraits from the “Masquerade and the City” series, an exploration of the mystical sects – widely believed to possess supernatural powers – which are a deep-rooted part of traditional social structures across Nigeria. Mudi has spent years studying the country’s different masquerades, cultivating relationships among them, earning the trust that allowed him to enter into their secretive world. It was this that prompted his question: how can a white man, newly arrived on Nigerian soil, even begin to burrow through all the layers of complexity, to reach some deeper understanding – not only of the masquerades, but of every subtle sign and symbol in the country’s daily life? How can he make sense of it? How can he even see what he sees?
It brings me back to Liam’s encounter, how he failed to instinctively grasp the situation: though his camera was pointed at a group of men on the street, he didn’t even know what he was seeing. The power of his gaze had a profound and unsettling effect on them. In Yoruba culture, says Mudi, “eyeing” another man – looking him up and down – can have disastrous consequences. Fights have occurred on the streets because a man “looked at you up and down and decided you were useless as a person.” If a woman were to eye her husband and give a dismissive cluck of her tongue, it would be grounds for divorce. Mudi laughs softly, as if astounded by his own words. He walks us through the gallery, stopping before a series of Victorian-style portraits of Nigerians during the colonial era. The colorful dress depicted in the paintings is ripe with meanings he interprets for us, explaining how “clothes and fabrics play a very big part in the politics of Nigerian identity.” He removes his traditional, hand-woven Hausa hat and describes the months of craftsmanship that went into it – work that would be instantly recognizable to a Hausa man or woman. It is like a crown, a symbol which commands respect. “If I wear my cap, and I go into a certain place, he cannot just call me mister,” he says. Mudi knows the words, the symbols, the codes. Though we are standing side by side in the gallery, it’s as if we inhabit two entirely different spaces.
The air conditioning is feeble, and the afternoon is hot, muggy, relentless. Mudi is sweating through his shirt, his face wildly animated as we travel with him through the world of contemporary Nigerian art, into the dark corners of Lagos Island, across centuries of Yoruba and Igbo mythologies. Fact, myth, rumor: it is impossible to separate the strands. In the Delta, he says, men cover their bodies with palm fronds to protect themselves at river crossings. It is forbidden for whites to board the narrow dugout canoes: sometimes a jealous river spirit will drag the boat down, searching for a husband or wife. Certain masquerades are called by drums made from human skins; though the drummers beat them wildly, the frequency is beyond the range of human hearing. The dogs howl, drawn into the drummers’ frenzy. It is known that knowledgeable men possessed of certain dark arts can grip your arm and turn the skin to maggots. Sometimes, a drowned man will reappear six months later, as if reborn.
Years ago, when construction began on a certain bridge in Ikeja, the builders kept encountering problems. Four times the pylons were built and the span was raised; four times it all came tumbling down. It was believed that mischievous water spirits were at work and needed to be appeased. A sacrifice had to be made. Thirty-one cows were slaughtered, but the spirits were still hungry. The lives of five white men were needed. It happened quietly, slowly: a foreman would be crossing the site and suddenly – Mudi pantomimes a swift thrust of the hip – he would be bumped into the dark waters below. The spirits were satisfied. The bridge was raised.
The men vanished without a trace.