Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Lelethu on Okada

First Time in Lagos Article Preview
written by Lelethu Lumkwana Features Writer for the True Love South Africa
To be Published January 2008 Issue

After flying six hours across the continent, where a strapping young man Femi, decided to play our personal in-flight host, plying us with copious amounts of Merlot and plates of jollof rice with chicken strips, our first glimpse of Lagos was through a curtain of rain, its corroded tin roofs swimming in pools of muddy water, spreading as far as the eyes could see. At an aerial glance, it seemed like a mixture of order and disorder, clusters of houses mixed with occasional grid avenues with a sprinkle of shacks across the city. Would it be the predicted nightmare or the ultimate adventure of my traveller fantasies? I didn’t know. Up until now, Nigeria had been a wild enigma, its speedy culture and robust personality almost an urban legend. Having decided to travel with two friends – Thando, who’s also a colleague and Adewale, who is from Nigeria and would be our host, I had no clue what to expect – from my friends or Lagos. If our visa debacle where our late application resulted in having to pay for an ‘emergency visa’ fee; the numerous tales we’d heard about paying entrance and exit fees in the country as well my body being racked with pain from a basketful of compulsory vaccinations (you can’t leave the country without a yellow fever card) were anything to go by, then we were in a bit of a pickle.

Our first encounter of the much-publicised Nigerian ‘sex in a dashiki charm,’ is when the immigrations officer threatens (read: promises) to lock my friend up in his room for filling in her immigrations forms incorrectly, much to our amusement and shock. Outside the airport gates, a gush of hot, humid heat greets us while a scrum of people offer all kinds of services - carrying our bags, opening the car door, hailing a taxi, you name it, they can do it. We soon learn however, that none of these are for free and under the auspices of Adewale’s suave Pidgin speak (‘Oga, I beg, we don’t need help’), we manage to escape spending our entire holiday budget getting from baggage claim to the car. Our driver, Mr Sanya is waiting patiently for us and our arrival hits a dramatic peak, when while taking in the scene and chatting away, a very heated Adewale starts barking: “Let’s go, let’s go,” sending us scurrying into the car, bags over heels. It later turns out that far from turning into an aggressive stranger, our host was hurrying us because we were parked in a clamping zone. As he puts it, in Lagos you either do business or you become the business.

Our first stop is in Ibadan, a bucolic city which lies about 100 kilometres outside of Lagos and our host’s hometown. Here, we attend a wedding, celebrated with no less than five ceremonies, which means conjuring up five different outfits, much to the fashionista me’s glee. Having heard about the notorious Lagos traffic, we’re fully prepared to spend the better part of the evening on the road but surprisingly we wade through the traffic easily, passing images of men and women wearing a mixture of traditional buba (top) and shokoto (pants) suits and corporate clothing walking home; while street businesses selling fruit, meat and fish rush to make closing sales or the transition into night trade. At every street corner, billboards advertising everything from cellphone networks to religion (‘Befriend Jesus Now’) adorn the city. On the road, every second or third car is either a Mercedes Benz G-wagon, a black BMW 3,5,7 series or a Hummer (we even spot one which operates as a taxi) and the über important are led by convoys of security cars while riding in bulletproofed cars. I can feel my heart thumping loudly in my throat and the airport that frazzled me a moment ago, seems a distant refuge. Spotting repeated religious messages is as irking as it is comforting (Never Fear God is Near); while our host’s constant reassurance and Mr Sanya’s skilful handling of the okadas (taxi scooters) snaking though the cars also brings relief. When we suddenly come to a complete standstill in Sagamu, a commercial centre that oil tankers have turned into a trailer park, we meet a veteran Nollywood actor who advises us on which detour route to take to Ibadan. This experience soaks up the last residues of travel tensions in the car and we return to our original camaraderie.

In Ibadan, we head straight to the after party for the traditional wedding, with no time to freshen up. To christen the city, our host decides to take us to a roadside suya (braai) where we have our first meal in Nigeria - heavily spiced meat that has been hung up to dry in sunlight and then braai’ed until it is crisp and brown. News of our arrival is the talk of the party where each of the guests, depending on whether they are friends and family of the bride or groom are dressed in colour coded Nigerian attire – the men wear grey and black buba and shokotos while the women look mesmerising in long A-line dresses with short puffy sleeves, complete with touch-the-sky, oleander shaped headwraps. Clad in jeans and vests, we’re obviously underdressed but it doesn’t seem to matter as everyone welcomes us with warmth and curiosity, liberally affirmed with an endless supply of wine and cognac. A live band whose signature style is juju - a fusion of African drumbeats and steel acoustics is our entertainment for the evening and on each song, the main singer playfully chants a guest’s name, cajoling them to dance on stage while being serenaded by the band. We spend the night at Davies Hotel, a boutique hotel with a distinctly contemporary African aesthetic: high walls, ethnic chic artefacts and a thatch roofed bar area outside where we enjoy a nightcap and some suya.

The next day, the church wedding is an explosion of carnival colours and Lagos personality, with guests wearing mostly matching but customised garb, all with a touch of pink. Just like in Mzansi, there is no such thing as a guest list at a black wedding so guests arrive in hoardes, filling the room to the brim. The reception is something of an indoor Mardi gras and we dance with strangers of all ages, the flirtatious currency being people randomly dancing up to you and sticking Naira bills on your clothing if they like your moves. From 18 year-olds to 80 year-olds, Nigerians are an exuberant, sensual and graceful people with a deep reverence for one another and an overflowing love for life and having fun. Everywhere we go, photographers take pictures of us and our vanity gets the most of us before we are told that we actually have to pay for the pictures. Thousands of Naira’s poorer, we set off for Lagos, the main course of our holiday, via a scenic route of farmlands, villages and a fish town.

Lekki, our home for the next week is a suburb is a microcosm of the rest of the Lagos– patches of Tuscan style houses and mansions immersed in shantytowns, street vendor structures and formal shops. As if to welcome us, the electricity goes off, something that will see us having many candlelit dinners during the week. The chef of the house, Mr Joseph has laid a spread that is guaranteed to pile on whatever excess kilos we’d tried to shed before the holiday.

Trying to cram Lagos into one week proves impossible but we do get a sumptuous taste of Lagos living, starting with cocktails at Churassco, a popular cylindrically shaped lounge bar, which sits on the lagoon. Today, the place is empty because of Ramadan month (in Lagos, 50% of all residents are Muslim). Nevertheless, the Lebanese bartender works his magic, keeping us entertained with his experimental cocktail mixes and party tricks, stripping me of all my jewellery, which he graciously returns as we leave.

Throughout the week, we travel through the city’s jam-packed roads to its lavish restaurants, guesthouses and exclusive clubs. Because Lagos’ structure is concrete skyscrapers on mire, almost like Sandton City plonked right in the middle of Alexander, going anywhere feels like going on a treasure hunt and finding some of its best-kept secrets. Like Yellow Chilli, a must-visit tourist eatery in one of the city’s business hubs, where we eat authentic Nigerian cuisine like Amala, which looks like brown pap with spicy ewedu and beef soup, which has a sticky texture because of the yam flour ingredient. Later on, after whinges of needing to eat real chocolate, our second host, Hakeem (who’s really an angel sans wings) takes us to Chocolat Royale, an ice-cream-cum-chocolate parlour that would put Häagen-Dazs to shame with its array of delectable French chocolate and ice cream. That night, we dine at Maroccaine, a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant where you choose your meal’s ingredients from a buffet of raw foods ranging from chicken to fish, turkey and beef as well as stir-fry veggies, made on a massive wok shaped stove while you wait. Although a classy joint, Maroccaine provides ‘eat as much as you can’ dining and customary in Lagos, you can buy an entire bottle of alcohol and take it home if you don’t finish it.

Our second last night in town proves to be full of surprises. After having lunch at Double 4, the city’s oldest restaurant, where we are served by its’ restaurant’s veteran waiter, who has been working there since it opened, we head off to a non-descript shebeen shack where Hakeem breaks his fast with grilled catfish while we sample some Guinness stout. Tonight’s party spot is none other than Fela Kuti’s shrine, built by his son Femi in a dilapidated warehouse in downtown Lagos. Every Thursday, Femi and his band perform for local fans, bringing alive an entire music economy where entrepreneurs and hustlers can sell everything from beer, palm wine, cigarettes, suya, t-shirts, as well as Femi and Fela Kuti’s CD’s. Standing next to Fela’s shrine is an ethereal experience and for a moment (or maybe because of the whiff of ‘lala’ all around me), I feel his spirit while an avid fan concurs by sprinkling water on his picture, which sits with his shirt hanging above it as well as other memorabilia from this iconic muso. The night comes to a climatic end, as Femi sings a sexually charged song, him and his dancers gyrating fiercely on stage, while he screams: “I dey come, o” (I’m coming).

Friday is a full day as everyone from new friends to people who’d like to meet ‘the girls from South Africa’ want an evening out on the town with us. First, we have sundowners at one of the most an invitation only club in Lagos – Club 288, where we bid a chic farewell to the city over bottles of Moët et Chandon. Mixing with some of the country’s most prominent businesspeople we are forced to take a stand on why exactly it is that Nigerians are treated so badly in South Africa, when in fact the country supported Mzansi during apartheid, even to the extent of taking in and paying for South African exiles’ expenses during those years. The only answer we can mumble is that perhaps not many people in South Africa know this. After the political soiree, we head to News Café at The Palms, an upmarket mall that boasts exclusive boutiques such as Tiffany Amber, indigenous bookstores and coffee spots and cyber cafes. Here, a live band doing classic cover songs like Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s Umqombothi gets us into the swing of things. In the wee hours of the morning (that’s when the real party begins) we go to La Casa, a nightclub whose bouncers’ snobbishness almost put us off, save for our friend flaunting that we’re from South Africa. Inside, party people get down to the DJ’s fusion of local and international hits (think Rihanna’s “Umbrella” mixed with Nigerian’s Faze’s “Loving You Everyday”). It’s not uncommon to see perfect strangers grinding as if they were in the boudoir and then casually parting ways after the song is finished. As the time nears Hakeem’s early morning Muslim prayer (3am), we decide to call it a night and head back home.

Our last day is perhaps the only time I ever feel the speediness of Lagos – up until now the Lagos flow is, well, the Lagos flow but for some reason, with only 12 hours left in the city, everything seems to be happening too fast. Before we know it, it’s mid-afternoon and we’re at the craft market, perusing through rows of art, jewellery, clothing, Nollywood DVD’s, African artefacts and other garb, trying to get last minute gifts for friends and family. As we drive to the airport, an air of melancholy hangs in the air. After spending nine days in Lagos, we’ve almost settled into city’s pattern of endless possibilities and excessive but endearing rawness; a cultural collision where everything and anything can happen; both the blessing and the curse of Lagos. We’re all trying to act as if this was just another holiday, something we’ll boast about at media do’s (“I’ve just done Lagos, darling) but deep in our hearts we know that things will never be the same again. That is until the customs officer at OR Tambo reminds us that the countrywide suspicion of our now favourite African metropole still exists: “Nigeria! You were on holiday in Nigeria?” he says making disapproving clucking sounds. Welcome back to Mzansi, girls.


Sherri said...

nice angle,
makes me miss home...

Anonymous said...

Who and what are South Africans to sit in judgement over Nigeria? The silly prejudiced SA customs guy should take a hike. I don't care for the ingratitude of these people who bite the fingers that fed them.

In Nigerian high schools in the 70s, we had kids from SA being sponsored by the Nigerian taxpayer among other support we gave them. What do we get in return now, abuse, rudeness and stereotyping. They better face their AIDS epidemic and sky rocketing crime wave, especially the rape of very young girls. Shioo

Onibudo said...

How is your response a way forward? Yes there are things that irritate about the behaviour of some South Africans but it is not miles away from the view of fellow Nigerians. It all ought to be challenged. AIDS is a human problem and it should never be source of insult. We did what we did because we believed in the cause of fighting Apartheid lets not diminish it . The future of Africa might depend on the relationship between both our countries so lets find a critical way forward.

Anonymous said...

Didnt recognize this 'Lagos'....