• Saturday, April 13, 2024
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BusinessDay

Back to the future (2)

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In the time-capsule which this city munificently affords me, the dramas of the world – the change of popes (il papa), the passing of Hugo Chavez (el comandante) – seem oddly transient. I have been here, as I said at the launch of my book on Lagos (described in last week’s column), to simply celebrate a city. And how better to celebrate it than to repair to the Freedom Park for an unofficial launch, described as ‘a conversation around the book’? This was organised by the Arthouse Forum, a programme of the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), now in a new phase of its existence since one of its animators Jahman Anikulapo has left the Sunday Guardian and gone full-time as a cultural organiser. He was the impresario of the conversation, which was moderated by lawyer-writer Deji Toye.

It also marked my 77th birthday which I celebrated here. It was not quite an “elders’ night” such as we were wont to mark at Ojez at the National Stadium, but it was still a privileged experience. It was a delight for me to be faced with such a trenchant debate about my book that, even with an exhausting two-and-a-half hour grilling, I found myself wanting to do it again the next day. Strangely, I had barely thought about the veritable content of the book since publication towards the end of last year.

I should here repeat my expression of gratitude to the Africa Centre in London for having made my visit possible. The launch we had at Daunts bookshop in Holland Park was one thing – a delightful publishers’ party with Prosecco and quails’ eggs on a cold November evening – but here in the iconic venue of Freedom Park this was the real thing. Nigerian readers will know that the Freedom Park is a remarkable new Lagos institution constructed on the ramshackle old site of the Broad Street prison built early in the colonial period, which once housed Awolowo when he was being tried for treason in 1963. This, however, was my introduction to it, discovering its role as an arts centre (with one part named after Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest) as well as a history-aware memorial for heroes.

Many of the themes of the book came up in the discussion, such as Fela’s “Mushin mentality vs Ikoyi mentality”, which evolved into a discussion of whether Lagos was predicated on class divisions or could claim to be ‘one city’. One questioner commented on the quote used in the book from Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease where the hero Obi Okonkwo says that the city reminded him of “twin kernels separated by a thin wall in a palm-nut shell. Sometimes one kernel was shiny-black and alive, the other powdery-white and dead”. This is the cue for me briefly to pay tribute to this towering literary figure who passed away last week, and whose prose and fiction has been a model to so many Nigerian writers. Achebe may have become disillusioned with his own country, but because of the clarity of his vision of the damage done by colonisation, and his mastery of the language of the former colonial writers, he surely belongs in any pantheon of great Nigerians.

There was also the issue of the colour picture on the book’s cover. This is a fantastic shot of the old Oshodi before it was cleared in 2011, but there was lively discussion on whether the cover of a book that looks to the future should so obviously represent the past. Or is the cover more symbolic of the vitality of the city? There will always somewhere be traffic, go-slows and street traders. Even if the Keke-Marwa motorised rickshaws have replaced the okada motorcycles, they have also preserved the bright yellow of the taxis and the now danfo which are, my friends tell me, ‘un-kill-able’ even if the banned molue are now more or less extinct.

One of the questioning writers, Toni Kan (of The Night of the Creaking Bed) raised the debate between the Rem Koolhaas view of the city’s autonomous operation and the imposed solutions of the state government. He also touched on the question of ‘urban legends’ encouraged by not having footnotes, a worry raised by a Lagos-based Dutch journalist Femke van Zeijl.

Journalist Tolu Ogunlesi and others highlighted the new wave of writing about Lagos, and asked if I hoped the book might encourage writers. There is a tremendous chemistry in Lagos that stimulates creative writing and if we are on the brink of a golden age, I hope in pulling it together I may have played a small part. This may become reinforced with the Nigerian edition to be published later this year by Cassava Republic.

In conclusion, I have called these two columns ‘Back to the future’ because I am sure that the next thirty years in Lagos are going to be hugely exciting. And its culture, especially its literature, will surely keep abreast of physical development.

KAYE WHITEMAN

From Lagos

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