A first taste
Since my book on Lagos, with which readers of this column will surely have become familiar, is finally to be unveiled this week in this lagoon-embraced city, I am taking the liberty afforded to me by BusinessDay to include one or two extracts from the book. I was going to talk about ‘my Lagos’ except there is no way I could own it, although it is owned by all Lagosians and not just the super-rich lucky enough to have a spot of land.
Bearing in mind all the time that it is in a series called ‘Cities of the Imagination’, the book has several themes – history, topography, society, and how the city appeals to the imagination in literature, art and music. There are also spotlights on personalities, events, memorable ‘streets of the imagination’ and on FESTAC and the inescapable Fela (the archetypal Lagos boy).
To give readers a small taste of the nature of the book, if I choose to start with history, it is as a reminder that the Brits (my people) got here in the first instance through a classic imperialist exercise – a gunboat sent by, who else, Lord Palmerston. Although the Cession came ten years later, this was the beginning of the British presence:
“Palmerston always linked the ending of the slave trade indissolubly with promoting commerce, and indeed with free trade, the golden principle of the age for the British in their period of supremacy…but it was ultimately the disguised language of imperial domination. Robinson and Gallagher in Africa and the Victorians explain Palmerston’s policy thus: ‘Free trade was the necessary condition for improving Africa. To apply this policy properly, Palmerston saw the need to set up bases from which order, trade and the useful arts could radiate through Africa.’ It may have seemed hardly necessary that these bases should be annexed, as the policy had been successfully applied without conquest by ‘the Palmerstonians’ elsewhere (China, Turkey, Morocco): on several occasions he had proposed that the big slaving port of Whydah to the west be turned into another Lagos, under the same kind of remote control.
“Armed with Palmerston’s endorsement, Consul Beecroft and the Royal Navy combined to stage the deposition of Kosoko and the installation of Akitoye. The first attempt in November 1851 was bungled, in part because of a serious under-estimation of Kosoko’s defences and capacity for resistance, but the second bid which began on Boxing Day eventually succeeded by superior fire-power, and, according to Consul Beecroft, the destruction of half of Lagos. Kosoko and many of his supporters fled to Epe, so the town occupied was a partly deserted ruin…. It was a triumph of force of arms (and for British domestic opinion a blow against the slave trade) but it was not a victory to the long-term credit of the British, even if it changed history forever. Robert S. Smith in The Lagos Consulate says judiciously: ‘The defence of Lagos in November and December 1851 was one of the most determined attempts by Africans to resist the conquest of their continent by the European invaders of the 19th century.’”
Given the limitation of space, it was exceptionally hard to select a second piece, and I had to reject some of the more autobiographical parts. My favourite chapter is probably the one at the core of the book – Nigerians writing about Nigeria. Although there are a host of wonderful recent works, it is inspiring to go back to the writers of the ’fifties:
“The nationalist impetus to literature, and especially fiction in the 1950s (encouraged but certainly not conceived by British publishers) was not a specifically Lagos phenomenon; the writing of Amos Tutuola, one of the first Nigerian writers to be published internationally, was rural Yoruba fantasy-picturesque that although brilliant did not really relate to the big city, and the products of the Mbari club, with its organ, the unforgettable literary magazine ‘Black Orpheus’, were really born in pre- and post-independence Ibadan). However, there are the gems of Cyprian Ekwensi’s novels like ‘People of the City’ and ‘Jagua Nana’ as well as ‘Jagua Nana’s Daughter’, all of which took evident relish from the city setting. If Ekwensi sometimes gets on a moral high horse about the wickedness of the city, one suspects that is for form – he seriously enjoys his subject matter too much. Achebe’s second novel, ‘No Longer at Ease’, is set partly in Lagos, as is his later, often under-rated political satire, ‘Man of the People’. T.M. Aluko’s satirical political novels ‘Kinsman and Foreman’ and ‘Conduct Unbecoming’ also have Lagos settings. Ekwensi was probably the first [Nigerian] writer who hymned the city in the way it deserved. For example, in his novel ‘Iska’ he included a poem praising ‘The Girls of Lagos’:
The city is a girl walking
walking at dawn
handbag over arm,
heels down and hungry
Walking at noon
hunger in the vitals
Walking at dusk
bracelets all aglitter
heels high and flattering…”
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