If you stand long enough on a street corner in any part of Lagos, Nigeria, a story will come and tap you on the shoulder and he will ask you for the time.
Armies, countries, moons, and cities might be she, la, feminine third person, but Lagos is a man, a manly man standing with his hand cupped protectively around his crotch, a pointer to manliness, and to that need for constant reassurance that the cupped items are intact. Waiting to jump on a bus or catching their breath, men on the street stroke this pose, checking and double-checking that their prized appendage has not slipped down their trouser leg, has not fallen into the gutter somewhere, never to be salvaged. And no woman would treat you as roughly as Lagos does: a woman won’t elbow you along, fling you down the steps of the day’s business with barefaced callousness, won’t arch up her eyebrows askance when you protest that you are being manhandled.
Lagos is not for the faint-hearted, not for the poor nor the plodding and meditative. When the city chews you up, it spits nothing out; it grinds you to fragments, cracks your head like fish bones.
There is something about evenings in the city, of course, the suggestion that the abuser might have repentance in him, that he will make it up to you. Tomorrow, Lagos will love you; tomorrow, the residents of this torridly cold-hearted city will have their love reciprocated. People worship the city for all kinds of reasons, but my love of evenings must be the lamest of all. This cliché, that a city compensates for the suffering it inflicts with glorious sun-downs, beautiful dusks, cool evening breezes…. Even if it were more than a romantic notion, doesn’t every city try to redeem itself at the close of day?
Still, people say the night-life in Lagos is unparalleled. Nigerian women have a thing and the ones belonging to Lagos have A THING, shiny unaffordable companions that men break the bank to conquer, and the restaurants are a sketch of international appetites, a primer to prepare your stomach for the world. Lagos is the most urbane city in Africa: the only money worth making is in Lagos; the city grew organically in the soil of defecated good and evil; in such distinctive indigenous filth, it can never be replicated. All these paraphrases are mine: Lagos is an original, a hub pulsating with cultural innovation and wicked entertainments, Hennessy X.O and champagne flows through the veins of its crème de la crème, etc, etc.
Most people won’t just come out and admit that they’ve never known any saner love, which is the real rationale for the bizarre homilies. They are like the friend whose husband pounds on her with fists during the day and at night, every night, summons her to the stadium (“stadium” is the couple’s reserved word) for night time pounding “with a pestle.” She is addicted and mad and covered with bruises and as normal as you and me. She complains and threatens to leave her abuser and stays one more day, weeps, offers her body for more abuse and more of something “like” love and the making or violation of it. She says she loves him and in his own way, he loves her.
Who are we to argue?
After you have collided with Lagos Area-boys, been force-fed draughts of carbon monoxide, dust, and gratuitous cursing; after you’ve been sitting hours in gridlocked traffic in rickety yellow buses driven by fiends reeking of locally brewed gin, masticated kola nut, and blatant marijuana; after you’ve bought your lunch from a place called “Tantalizers,” after drinking water labelled “pure” that is anything but; after all of this, evening comes with its consolations. Insincere you might label them, but life is difficult enough. You’ll take what is offered, gratefully, with both hands.
The busker strikes a pose in the street.
Lagos’ familiarity rises with the stirring in his trousers, and he will precipitously recover from his amnesia: “Ah, I remember you now…” He will create islands of caresses, floating around you, winking, making suggestive eyes and tapping on you like you are a piano.
“Baby what is your current saying?”(Tell him your current is saying a Big Fat No!)
The ruse is complex. Soft wind sweeping in from the lagoon over melting humidity. The rhythmic undulation of water like silk moving around concealed limbs. Fishermen at work on their canoes, meditatively throwing nets, sitting, standing, arms extending in sync with the dance of water.
Let me draw you a picture: the street stalls appear out from the shadows, street vendors’ tables placed on old paint buckets, stabilized with cement. Tables illuminated by night lights made from recycled condensed peak milk tins, or from a carved-out orange filled with kerosene and a wick the length of the night. The merchandise is all the same: Benson-and-Hedges cigarettes, tom-tom and butter-mint sweets, green oranges, roasted groundnuts in cellophane, two kinds of Okin biscuits, Indomie noodles, matchboxes, lighters, mosquito coils… The Suya man gouges spiced beef with sticks, in readiness for the glowing coals; he fans the flames and sparks fly. Crickets and frogs compete for the same podium, radio static, hedges dressed in sparkling fireflies, loud and conspiratorial laughter, aromas, diluting light, all a calming incense. Praise-worship on loudspeakers, but it’s white noise, inferior to the fragrant sermon of the street. Children skip and giggle away their very last allowances of mischief, as mothers call for them and they scurry into the evening shadows.
You are right to be suspicious of this picture, which is old, and doctored. It is cleaned of the grunting, smoke-belching generators everywhere and of the mosquitoes, fat and formidable enough to lift you up and ferry you away. There’s no mention, either, of the traffic between Lagos Island and the mainland, where people spend half their lives. Unspoken the many nights that the heat won’t relent, and that the wind from the Lagoon brings in a stench of death, of something unidentified despondently drinking just enough to sink to an appropriate grave at the bottom.
But where nostalgia is concerned, one evening on one street is Lagos. One day on one street is enough to woo the senses (and to shut down the common sense). I love him and he loves me because… My whys and wherefores for falling for the crooner’s advances are nostalgia mixed with brain damage mixed with more nostalgia. The Lagos of my childhood won’t wash out of my mind because it is a stain of memory on old beloved fabric.
But I was making my case for the manhood of Lagos. The city owns that terrifying brand of egotistical macho-ness that degenerates to monstrosity when cultured in indulgence. Isn’t that exactly like a man? To forget all that has gone before and come hither?
The sudden awakening upstairs and below the waist, the proficiency at sign language and blepharospasms, isn’t it all so that by bed time, sometin’ will drop?He won’t let the dust of the bamboozle he has bewildered you with all day settle before his hand moves up your thigh. He will set up strings, amplifier, oil his croon, and polish his beam in soft light. Back-up singers will appear out of nowhere. You will be caught on the treadmill of a sadistic love affair.
Lagos: “Sista don’t be like that. Is it because of that little thing I said earlier?’
Broken-headed lover: “My current is saying there is No Nepa, bros. No Nepa!”
Lagos: “But the generator, Sista? Let’s turn that generator on.”
Lover: “There is no diesel in the generator.”
Lagos: “Don’t worry Sista, I will fuel the generator.”
Lover: “Bros, the generator engine has knocked and the engineer don enter one chance this morning.”
Lagos: “Ah Sista you harsh o!”
There was a time when your brain, lungs, and reasoning were not overwhelmed from the second you opened your eyes in the morning till the moment you laid your head down. A time when our voices were not drowned out by the groaning and grindings of generators in almost every home and office in Lagos, like mating calls of monsters across the city. There was.
I remember a time when a friend accused me of navigating the city with a dangerous naiveté, a whimsical nonsense that would get me in trouble on the real streets rather that the ones I had drawn in my mind with amorous buskers and muddled women. She was concerned for my safety. I looked out of place, I dressed out of place, and my hair was weird. Having then only just returned to Lagos from the United Kingdom, I was sure to attract a mugging or worse from the moment I stepped out of my front door.
I stood firmly on the other side of this disrespectful proposition.
This was the Lagos I grew up in! Hundreds of thousands of people navigate Lagos without personal cars, hopping off buses that won’t stop at bus stops. Are their brains and instincts superior to mine? I was more Lagosian than Tantalizers I demanded, more Lagosian than “pure” water: more Lagosian than the third mainland bridge and I know many people who were not born before that bridge was built, who didn’t watch it stretched slowly across the lagoon’s waters by Julius Berger Nigeria PLC. But I did. I went to school in Suru-Lere and in Yaba; I lived on Pilot crescent behind Onilegogoro, and I can drive through Ikoyi with my eyes shut, map all the lateral streets and short cuts.
(Anyone looking for the most charismatic haberdashery in West Africa should consult me. It isn’t in Abba. It wasn’t all in one place before it was burned down several times, because one place could not contain it. It was piecemeal, an amoebic organism dividing itself along the dark corridors of Tejuoso market and the backyards of Herbert Macaulay Street, all along the arteries running off Ojuelegba-Itire road. You would…will still… find iridescent pieces of the market in the hands of Igbo men selling imported yards of fabric, cupping their crotches, for manliness. That same hand will reach out to hold your arm.
Sista…fine cotton dey,
100% Linen dey,
Anytin you want dey…)
But the Lagos I knew how to navigate was gone, my friend assured me. Ikoyi was not Lagos, neither was Lekki, nor Victoria Island, certainly not Victoria Garden City. These places were not real Lagos, but fractures in the fractures where you drifted on delusions of safety and normalcy, could afford the pretense that life was an equal platform where everyone was fed, thriving, happy, had access to generated electricity and tap water, and sewage systems. She said I was living on the fringes where people were so criminally entitled that they had forgotten that the proper response to generated electricity was gratitude, Thank you God, not mounting soap boxes to protest carbon monoxide, head trauma, and mincemeat brains under the noise of generators.
“Just one piece of advice,” she said, “If anyone asks you for the time on the streets of Lagos, don’t answer them!”
“What do I do then?” I asked incredulously. The Yoruba can wake the dead with greetings; they have a greeting for rolling along, for sitting still, for tradesmen and absent husbands and new mothers and watching your steps as you walk, and resting on a Sunday, and working on a Monday, a greeting for everything and everyone from here to the moon and back.
“Cross the street,” my friend said, without missing a beat. “You don’t speak to people on the streets. You don’t pick up something that someone dropped and run after them to give it back to them. Don’t ask for directions and don’t respond when someone asks you for the time.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “I’m not going out at night. I’m not even going out in the evening. I just want to take a danfo to Chocolat Royale on Etim Iyang, then take another one down Ajose Adeogun to my Uncle’s house. There isn’t five minutes between the two locations, and the streets are full of people.”
“And you should dress differently,” she said.
“I’m wearing jeans!”
What was the worst that could happen?
I remember that after leaving Chocolat Royale, I crossed to catch my bus like I planned. A car stopped next to me. There was a man driving the car, and another man seated in the backseat; the man in the back, in “the owner’s corner,” as we say, had a beard and glasses, and was sweating profusely into the collar of a navy blue and purple shirt as he leaned forward against the driver’s head rest. His bottom was lifted off the seat as if something was stuck up it and he couldn’t place it comfortably down; he looked nothing like the owner of the owner’s corner. My mind registered these discrepancies and I stepped away; my arm was close enough to reach from inside the car.
“Did I know where the victims of the bomb blast were kept?” The man in the back said.
He was talking about a detonation of military explosives in the armory at the Ikeja cantonment, a long evening of explosions that had, then, just left a thousand people dead. The abuser had once again gone on a rampage, and the hospitals had been overwhelmed with the injured (as were the morgues with the dead). But the problem was not my knowledge. It was with his question, askew like his bottom floating above the car seat. What did he mean “where the victims of the bomb blast were kept?” What kind of question was that? How would I know where they were kept?
“Good afternoon,” I said; “I don’t understand.”
“They said that they brought the people injured in the bomb blasts to hospitals on Lagos Island. Can you direct us to the hospitals?” He smiled again.
“No,” I said, turning to walk away. “I don’t know which hospitals you mean.”
Did the injured truly fill hospitals all the way from Ikeja to Lagos Island? It was probably true, if the hospitals agreed to be inundated (because there was no law stopping them from turning people away). The car moved along the ridges of the road after me, and I could hear the slow scraping of tyres on white sand, the same shade of sand that distinguishes Victoria Island and the tracts of land in Lagos that have been reclaimed from water. I stopped walking, determined to be firmer, the way one turns to face an annoying fly.
“You don’t know where these people are?” The man insisted, his voice like oil seeping out of an undetected hole in a container. I could not get my eyes off his dripping collar, his wet underarms, his oily face. The disgust was probably beginning to curl my lips and contract my eyes, show on my face, though I tried my best to keep my expression neutral.
“The ones injured in the bomb blasts, I work for a charity and we want to go and visit them.” (A charity that doesn’t knows any better than a woman on the street? I thought without daring to voice the words.)
“No.” I said again.
“Sorry Sista but what church do you go to?”
“House on the Rock”
“Is it a good church?”
I started to walk away. The sound of tyres scrunching sand again.
“Sista don’t be angry,” the man said, “When you get home, buy biscuit and sweet for all the children in your compound.”
“OK.” I quickened my steps; the only thought in my head was that I would be forced into the car, but perhaps he was acknowledging that the conversation was over, and I could be on my way. As quickly as possible without running, I increased the distance between me and the car, the man’s liquid smile, the nondescript body, face, and hands moving the wheel and gear and accelerator in the front of the car (until today, I still can’t register anything about the driver).
The day was bright enough, people about, hawkers seated in their roadside shacks; I skipped across to the road adjoining Ajose Adeogun. A man approached suddenly from my right.
“I’m sorry to bother you Aunty but did you hear what that man said?”
“What man?” I asked, raising my voice. “What did he say?”
“The man in that car. He said, ‘Buy biscuit and sweet for all the children in your compound when you get home.’”
“I heard him. Please. I am trying to get somewhere.”
The man let me walk past but remained as if waiting for the pull of his words. As if I would suddenly comprehend and turn back to him. “Yes of course, biscuits and sweets.” I sensed his hesitation without looking back.
I walked a good distance before daring to look firmly behind me. The man was gone. The car was gone. I got on a danfo in traffic on Ajose Adeogun, and—grateful for the indifferent press of people’s bodies—rode it to Maroko, to the stretch called “Sandfill” then to Lekki Phase 1 roundabout.
I discarded my plans of going to my uncle’s house and went to my parents’ instead.
I worried about everything that could have happened without knowing for sure what I was worrying about. What did that tandem of masquerades and words mean? What does ‘buy biscuit and sweet for the children on your street’ mean? I asked everyone. Who would accept my food on the streets without being suspicious of my motives? The arcane guidelines resonated of infancy, the rules rehashed for me and my siblings when we left home for school: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t accept biscuits or sweets, or anything at all from someone you don’t know. And we were warned never to eat the saara food cooked and served to children in neighborhoods on behalf of a sickly child; as children walked past the compound where the child lived, they were invited in to sit and eat, free food, no questions asked, no strings, until they were done eating and had to clean their hands all over the head and body of the child and sing for her:
Ooni saara yi ko ni ku
Ooni saara yi ko ni run
A d’agba, a d’arugbo
(The child on whose behalf this meal is cooked won’t die
The child on whose behalf this meal is cooked won’t deteriorate
He will grow up and he will grow old.)
Misery, pain, and illness cooked into the food, fed to a gathering, eaten by as many children as possible to make the infirmity of the ailing innocuous, and hopefully cured; the sharers, the eaters-of-infirmity, would be fine, unscathed, possibly inoculated. But why should I give sweets and biscuits to children in my compound? Was I ailing?
Why was I walking around? was the constant response to my enquiries. Why was anyone walking around in Lagos? To get where I was going! I said, defensively, irritated with the question.
I remember that I had gone to Chocolat Royale.
Owned by a Lebanese-Nigerian millionaire named Amin Mousalli, Chocolat Royale was two floors of reflective glass: gleaming front panels, doors, windows, walls, counters, and reflecting stairwells. You open the doors to enter and the aroma of baking, of sweet and savory food, and air conditioning (turned to the highest settings) sucks you in. You see and feel yourself straighten in the invigorating blast of cold air, in the company of the most well-to-do residents of Lagos, the beautiful, rich, imported, powerful, and pompous.
In front of the building, a constant genteel exploration for parking space by chauffeured glossy four-wheel-drives and sleek purring penis extensions: if you are visiting the shop, you are one of the people who can afford to eat what is on offer. To be able to blend in, in this room, in the fresh portal of that ground floor, braced on all sides with counters of treats and smiling staff who remember you and your children’s names, who skillfully package up your desires: flawless croissants, salvers of dark, milk, liqueur-filled hand-made chocolates, florentines, oversized golden palmiers crisp with butter, stainless steel buckets of pistachio, raspberry, vanilla, chocolate ice cream, fresh madeleines, muffins, cakes, fresh strawberry, kiwi and peach tarts, hot baguettes efficiently coming and going in long trays from ovens, quiches, mini pizzas… The manager is a thin, dark-haired woman with bright red lipstick, crossing the floors of the shop without smiling, never responding to greetings or making eye contact. The transition through the door of the shop mimics the contrasts of day and evening: no need to wait here for the consolations of the close of day.
In the evenings you can barely find space to park under the palms outside the shop because of diners taking their time on meals upstairs, and on the balcony overlooking the street. Something about the quick shift from the bright light and heat of the street outside to the sheltered cold inside, leaving behind the hovering beggars asking for loose change. Mousalli, like many Lebanese in Lagos, is more Nigerian then the Nigerians, and has very efficiently tapped into our anxieties to make his fantasy irresistible.
The name of his shop by the way is in French, not English; the Lebanese speak French in Nigeria as a signifier of class superiority.
In 2015, the Nigerian National Agency for Foods and Drugs Administration Control found six forty-square-foot cold rooms—containing contaminated and expired produce from as far back as 2004—built on top of sewage pits and in front of outhouses at Mousalli’s home and at the Chocolat Royale headquarters. This was the backstage for Mousalli’s irresistibly-presented toxic buffet, the grimy behind of the showboat. Chocolat Royale was the scam on the street corner that ran successfully for more than a decade on the powerful hypnosis of sight and smells and packaging of baked goods made with rotten, maggot-infested, expired, contaminated, illegally-imported, and stored-above-sewage produce.
When saara is cooked for children on the streets, no formal invitations are extended nor is the reason why so much food is being cooked announced. That would cause problems. The aroma of the food does its work, stimulating the senses and drawing the hungry and curious past the house. (Outdoors cooking does this effortlessly.) It is unspoken stuff. But parents call their children aside, whispering to them “Make sure I don’t see you over at so and so’s house eating that food.” Mousalli’s need of analgesic for terminal greed caused him to feed us embellished poison. We testified after the scandal of Chocolat Royale was exposed in the news, that this food we would not feed to our dogs did not seem to have affected us in any significant way. We were fine, unscathed, possibly inoculated?
It is self-defeating to be smug in Lagos about having survived, whether it was crossing the street without being run over or living a hundred years in the city without a scar. I was smug. I had been standing in the street talking to amateur cons about biscuits and sweets, with bags of Chocolat Royale baked goods in my hands. My friends and family tried to explain what had happened to me: Didn’t I know that I looked like a lost child, a teenager with un-permed hair in clothes that suggested I wasn’t Nigerian? That I gave that air off even, if I wasn’t conscious of it. The script about buying biscuits and sweets for all the children in your compound, it is supposed to send you under… words for hypnosis…like the snap of fingers….
That was why it was repeated by the man standing on the street. The man who approached me after the ones in the car was stationed there in case the first pronunciation did not work. I was meant at the very least to ask why I should buy biscuits and sweets… The language of the streets in Lagos isn’t English; if I was Nigerian, I would have asked “Why?” and the man would have answered with words like:
Because you are dying. I see you have a few days to live, but go to the ATM and draw all the money you can and will see what we can do for you.
The church question was to determine if you went to a good church where effective prayers that would counteract hypnotic words were made; if you had named certain other churches, the man would not have bothered, concluding that you were not a serious Christian.
“Why wasn’t I hypnotized? Why didn’t biscuits and sweets do the trick?” I asked. Was my head so used to violence, to bludgeoning and the boring of generator engine noise, or the cake hole is so stuffed with toxins that my head isn’t first-rate for ritual medicine or hypnosis?
I needed proof of something tangible that I could protect myself against, that I could report to the Nigerian police who mounted the sign-board close Ikoyi’s Dolphin Estate with the words “The Police is your friend.” I needed something I could carry a weapon for. That I could time my going out and coming in as preventive measures against. Please give me something tangible I pleaded.
“Are you not a Nigerian?” I was asked with exasperation.
I am Nigerian. But I grew up protected, I suppose, in a middle-class neighborhood—when there was a true middle class—with red amaranth and thyme and rose hedges, all next to quiet civil servants and teachers, neighbors who spoke textbook English and who thought jumping over their fences to cut the journey to the UTC supermarket on Adeniran Ogunsanya was a jail-worthy offense. I was always climbing fences and responding to people on the streets when they asked you for the time, and our gates were short enough to jump over. You greeted people with the effusiveness of the Yoruba; you left your back door open at night.
You lingered to watch the busker, the man from the North (was it the North?) with a long sword, drawing it back and forth across the skin of his exposed belly on the street corner. It was a peculiar act, tortuous on the ears; all he did, really, was draw that sword back and forth, back and forth. You knew his guts weren’t going to be spilled out on the floor, but you watched anyway, just in case. He wasn’t busking for love, but for Naira. The skin on his stomach was puckered, scarred from his daily performance. It was uncomfortable to watch but you dawdled, and eventually left because of the pain in your ears from the screams of cutlass against skin.