It is late on a Friday evening that I arrive in Lagos for the first time. It is from a six and half hour journey which I had begun around 12pm in Asaba, where I boarded a bus to bye-pass in Benin, and then another which took me through the midwestern route to Lagos. The city doesn’t welcome me warmly, or let me say I get an unusual welcome; before I have moved a few feet from the bus, I am hit by the edge of a heavy long plank which a man is carrying on his head as he turns nonchalantly, trying to cross the rowdy road swarmed by people and numerous vehicles. I yelp mildly and the man, in a hurry, barely manages to mutter an apology before he moves on as with the rest of Lagos where everything seems to be in constant motion.
I am headed for Freedom Park on Lagos island, for the 2018 Lagos International Poetry Festival. I have made enquiries on how to get there, and this was how I came to alight at Ojota; fellow passengers in the bus from Benin City said it was the easiest location to get a BRT bus headed for CMS, where I would get a vehicle to take me to Freedom Park.
The whole place is still new to me and my mind is almost too busy trying to take everything in while registering the accuracy of all I’d heard about the city’s rowdiness. I ask a middle-aged man headed the same way as me on the main road where I can get a bus to take me to CMS. He tells me as I have been told: the only buses going there from Ojota are BRT buses. I am thinking the danfo, the iconic Volkswagen Vanagon commercial buses, whose conductors are calling out indiscrete names of places are the BRT buses. I stop on the road, pondering for a while before I ask another woman and she points me to the park where I am to board my BRT bus.
The BRT bus turns out very different from the danfo after all; it turns out to be a modern luxurious bus painted white and blue, with red neon screen at the top of the large windscreen, displaying the names of the location to which the particular bus is headed as it arrives in the middle of the calibrated road which is their park.
The official ticket vendor asks me to stand on the rail and wait. The BRT buses coming and going for the first 30 minutes of my waiting are headed to many other places like Fadeyi, Mile 2 and some other places, but none of them is going to CMS. I am becoming impatient because the night is catching fast on me and the spoken word event which promises to feature poets like Titilope Sonuga, Tobi Abiodun, Lebo Mashile, Graciano Enwerem amongst others must be underway by this time. And, so, I grow increasingly anxious, until a BRT bus headed to CMS shows up. I am issued a ticket and I board the bus. It is new with a shiny interior and a working air conditioner. I sit next to a huge man dressed in a hood and a head cap and we make ourselves comfortable.
As the bus moves for about twenty minutes, I find that before it stops at any bus-stop, the name of that bus-stop is displayed on the neon screen. Somehow, sleep creeps in hideously and knocks me off for what might have been a few minutes. When I wake up at another bus-stop I am scared that we may have passed CMS.
I tap the huge man seated next to me on his hood and face cap, ‘Bros abeg, sebi we never pass CMS?’
He relieves me with his reply, ‘We haven’t reached there. I will tell you when we get there.’
I relax. Not knowing that I had once again given sleep another chance to knock me off again. When I wake up again, my fears are renewed because it is improbable to me that by this time, I am yet to reach CMS, because I did not expect the distance to be this long. Of course, the huge guy with the face cap is still next to me, but what if the bus got to CMS while I fell asleep for the second time and he failed to wake me, what if he forgot? It feels awkward to ask him a second time, but just in case, so, going back would be made easier for me, I decide to ask again, at the risk of being a bug.
‘No,’ he says kindly when I ask him. ‘I told you I will tell you when we reach there.’
Before long, we finally arrive at a place on the island which overlooks a bridge and the neon screen display, ‘CMS/Marina resort’ and he signals to me that this is the place.
I find myself beneath the large flyover which overlooks the very tall Union Bank building. Beside me is a park where some wrecked buses are parked. Here some women are selling food and some other women, alcoholic drinks, cigarettes, sweets and all. I have asked a number of people about a place called Freedom Park around Broad Street close to this place and none of them seems to have an idea of what I was talking about – or maybe they do, but do not care enough to tell me. And since my phone’s battery died on my way to Lagos, there is no way to call my friend, Cynthia Okpala, to ask for further directions on how to locate Freedom Park.
Where the women sell things in the park, there is a confrontation between two men whose voices are flaring up the high heavens as they throw violent cusses at each other. So fierce is their confrontation and the rapid reeling of cusses in Yoruba that it seemed anytime from now, they would erupt into a violent fight. And I have often read, mostly from my Facebook friends, about how Yoruba people were masters of verbal exchanges without blows. It is commonly said that two grown people could literally spend the whole day saying unprintable things to each other, without one party ever daring to throw the first punch. But the narratives I had heard were mostly about Ibadan people. And so this seems like a very good opportunity to verify all I have been hearing. I want to see if the Lagos narrative will defy the Ibadan stereotype. So I stand there and watch like a WWE spectator seeing a faceoff between two wrestlers. One of the men is so keen on the quarrel that he is flaring up such that his body is raised up and only momentarily held by his toes, his fist pounding the air as he cusses. I suspect that anytime from now, he will pounce on the other man who is returning his insults less violently. But I am now laughing, after a few minutes of seeing that blows are probably never going to be exchanged in this brawl. This is especially when one of the men who had repeatedly told the flaring man to calm down, became angered at his disobedience and gripped him on his shirt, daring him to do what he wanted to do. And the flaring guy keeps flaring, shaking his head violently towards the other guy, without paying much attention to the one who is gripping his shirt.
It is now past 8pm and I am yet to locate Freedom Park. I have given up on attending the spoken word event. From my calculations from my Ake Festival experience, two years ago, everybody should be getting ready to go home by now. So what am I going to Freedom Park for again? It is sad that I have missed what, perhaps, should be one of the most interesting parts of the festival.
Nevertheless, I still have a more pressing issue at hand: how to get myself properly settled in Lagos, because it seems I am kind of lost. I camp in a barber’s shop by the park and plug my phone there, for which he collects N50 from me, safely tucking it into his drawer where it would be safe as he goes about his business. I took my ATM card and headed towards the Union bank building which seemed it would be just at the other end of the flyover from where I stood. It was only when I crossed to the other side of the flyover that I discovered that tall buildings have a way of appearing to be close, when they are not. The building is actually on a street after another motor park, after the flyover and opposite a magnificent cathedral painted light ash with an inverted V-shaped roof, standing tall over the city, lending my encounter a feeling of being in one of the famous European cathedral cities. The Union bank building is surrounded by several other tall buildings, including First Bank and what seemed like Co-operative buildings. It is not the first time I am seeing so many tall buildings in a place: I am very familiar with Onitsha, a city where it seems to be a crime to erect less than a three-storey building. But Lagos is the first place I am seeing tall buildings with the architectural resemblance of those in American movies. And here I have to say I get a little kick from walking the streets on my way to and from Union Bank to withdraw money to pay for a hotel room and my upkeep the following day, which was to be the last day of the poetry festival.
I wake up the following day, it’s a Saturday, with a desire to roam the city and a yearning in my spirit. It is not fully dawn yet but Lagos is already wide awake, replete with numerous danfo and their conductors shouting ‘Obalende, Obalende’ which is the one thing I remember most about Obi Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease because he lived in Obalende.
I hop on a motorcycle to take me to the nearest catholic church so I could attend morning mass. Lagos motorcycles are higher than the ones we are used to in the South East, so it is a kind of struggle for me since my trouser is tight. The bike man takes me through a circumventing route and drops me before the same magnificent cathedral which had me drooling in awe the previous night. I am a bit surprised. I do not expect him to bring me here, because I am not sure this is a catholic church; there are no statues outside, not even a grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary, no billboard bearing the name of the church, nothing. And if I was coming here in the first place, I wouldn’t have taken a bike because I am sure it is less than 500 metres from my hotel. But I pay the bike man. The time is about 6:10am and morning mass is due to begin in 20 minutes’ time.
It will not until 7:30am that the morning service is scheduled to hold and that the security woman ushers me into a small section of the cathedral which has a series of pews positioned before an altar, like a chapel of its own inside a bigger cathedral. The pews are caramel in colour, with a smooth amber surface, the cathedral is fully lit with numerous chandeliers hanging down from the ceiling. Beside the altar, there is a magnificent piano, the kind used by professionals with a board held by a wooden rod over the pianist’s seat. I imagine myself sitting on the black sofa-stool next to the piano and animating this beautiful cathedral with great music. The mass is already starting by the time I am ushered in. There are very few attendants, a handful of men flung and scattered all over the pews, a very tall guy in front alongside me and the security woman who ushered me in. It is when the prayers are being recited, and when ‘The Lord be with you’ was replied with ‘And also with you,’ as opposed to ‘And with your Spirit’ that I realise that the church isn’t Catholic. Supposedly, it is Anglican, but there is something so unassuming about it and from outside all the way inside, there are no definite pointers about its denomination or anything.
After the mass, I take some time to look around the cathedral once more and it inspires a feeling of awe in me. I am happy I came here even if it is not the place I expected it to be. Afterwards, I set out to roam as I badly wanted to do when I woke up.
I find myself once again under the flyover from where I sighted the Union Bank building the previous day. It is an almost full-blown market of its own in the morning with people selling clothes beside it, shoemakers fixing shoes and even food vendors frying akara, yam, potato and plantain. I am hungry, so I go for the fried yam and plantain. After eating, I proceed to the shoemaker to shine my shoes because I figure it wouldn’t be a bad idea looking presentable. One of the long sleeves being displayed by the man selling clothes beside the shoemaker catches my eyes and I go for it. It will make a good innerwear for my jacket.
It is around 1pm when I finally get to Freedom Park, after having left my hotel room before 11am. I don’t know what I was thinking when I left – I was discouraged from asking, because I asked yesterday and nobody seemed to know where Freedom Park was. And I entered into the bait of Lagos conductors, the people I now know as one of the most mischievous and inhumane lot I have encountered anywhere. I had crossed to the other end of the road where, I think, they were loading to Ajah, and I asked the conductors where I could locate Freedom Park and he said he’d take me to a place where I would enter a bus which would take me there. I was naïve enough to enter and soon the bus was full and en-route to Ajah. On the way, I keep reminding him not to forget he was going to drop me in the park where I was going to get a bus going to Freedom Park. And each time he kept nodding. Thinking of it now, it became clear, why the guy sitting in front of me, with his arms across the girl next to him, kept stealing suggestive glances at me. Perhaps, at that moment, my newcomer status was not in doubt! Aside from the fact that one could be robbed or defrauded, against which I had long put on my guard, I should have known that Lagos was a place where you had to open your eyes both literally and figuratively or things unfold in such a way as to strip you off what you think you know, leaving you naked and naïve to be played around like a ball till you arrive at safety with the remains of the day. When we got to Ajah, I reminded the conductor once again, he was supposed to show me the park where I would enter a bus to Freedom Park. And he nonchalantly pointed to a park across the road. I crossed the road and began asking where I would find a bus to take me to Freedom Park and they said I would first have to enter a bus going to CMS! Ah! I was overwhelmed at this point and a little too embarrassed to say I had just come here from CMS. I thought about crossing the road to meet the conductor, so we could put our legs in one trouser and digger it out. But I hesitated because of how well I was dressed that afternoon.
A young lady with a kind face, whose hair was dyed red, wearing a black blouse and jeans, told me she was going to help me locate Freedom Park when we got to CMS. And so we entered the bus together. I was at this time, feeling bad at how vulnerable, I had been, but I was determined to not let the afternoon get the better of me. We got to CMS where I came down with the kind lady, and I followed her to a place where she asked a bike man to take me to Freedom Park. I thanked her and the bike man drove me to a place where there was ash or black animal statues side by side on the road and said it was Freedom Park. I paid him and he left. Long story short, I eventually had to enter another keke which eventually took me to Freedom Park, not very far from where the bike man dropped me.
^We hope you enjoyed reading this narrative piece. It is the first installment of a two-fold narrative essay. The final part will be published tomorrow morning.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer and journalist who works for Voice of the East Media. He is completing work on two novels titled Waiting on a Dream and Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories. Connect with him on Twitter and Medium: @ChukwuderaEdozi.
Cover photo credit: tola4luv2001