Now, I am going into Freedom Park through its narrow entrance, with the stage not very far off by my right hand, enlarged photographs of some very famous people like the poets Wole Soyinka and Niyi Osundare, the YPP Presidential candidate Kingsley Moghalu, and a number of people who I do not know, but I’m sure are important people. I find my way around the big compound to the event location. At the hall entrance, a young lady is wearing a black shirt labelled LIPFEST, on which a bus, the logo of the year’s theme, is drawn, accompanied by the words: Wide Awake. She welcomes me nicely and I sign in, thank her and move up to the hall upstairs. A discussion on fake news (including its effect on the masses and how many establishments have come to ruin because of it) is being held between Toni Kan and Wana Udobang, anchored by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún. The discourse is sometimes interesting, important and occasionally funny. Shortly afterwards, the audience is asked to make their contributions or ask questions if any, and afterwards, the session is rounded.
Another discussion tagged ‘We Remember Differently’ is held between Wana Udobang and Lebo Mashile, after which Kwame Dawes, the founder of the African Poetry prize initiative, is interviewed by the poet, Dami Ajayi.
There is a short break and I go downstairs to the other side of the park where a large basement is divided into sections. There I meet Jerry Chiemeke and Ikechukwu Nwaogu, fellow writers who I’d met before two years ago at the Ake Book and Arts Festival in Abeokuta, and they introduced me to the other man with them as Femi Fairchild Morgan, an event curator, writer and publisher, most notably of Bura Bari Nwilo’s A Tiny Place Called Happiness. We soon get engaged in the writer-reader chit-chats, how this was the first time they are seeing me in Lagos, as opposed to my posts on Facebook about my frequent visits to Port Harcourt. In the course of the discussion, I get to know about the Lagos Book And Arts Festival (LABAF) which is to begin the following week and whose poetry night is scheduled for Tuesday – my initial plan is to leave Lagos on Monday morning.
I head back upstairs with Jerry Chiemeke where we listen to a chat between Niyi Osundare and the Sierra Leonean poet, Syl Cheney-Coker. Both poets discuss African history, their heydays and what made them go into writing poetry. Niyi Osundare, who is also a professor, tells us about how poetry saved his life, since he was increasingly becoming restless till he found it as a vocation, and began by drawing parody cartoons and writing anti-government poems in newspapers. When asked by Cynthia Osuchukwu, the founder of SynCity, if he was disappointed in poets of these days, who are less into the political activism which marked him and the poets of his day, Professor Osundare recounts his days as a young man and how different the status quo was at the time. ‘When I graduated from university, there were four jobs waiting for me,’ he recounts, ‘And I purposely chose to teach. But today, graduates don’t even have one opportunity, how much more as many as…’ Of course, this is not a direct answer to the question, but has many indirect meanings, including one in the direction of the recent lamentation that many Nigerian writers are nothing but hustlers. Osundare also talks about the sorry state of affairs of things in the country presently and laments that it is as a result of us having rulers and no leaders. And because of the ethnicism which results from the fact that we have not discovered, like Ayi Kwei Armah said, that ‘We are one river, flowing from Congo through the Niger, uninterrupted…’
Syl Cheney Coker tells us about his time in Nigeria, about Sierra Leone and the history of the Fourah Bay College, the oldest tertiary institution in West Africa, established in the 19thcentury and how even as early as then, women attended the college, earlier than women were allowed to do so in many European societies. He draws a parallel with much of what Chimamanda Adichie has been saying about the marginalization of women in African society. It indeed proves to be a great session, listening to two veteran poets discuss history and poetry.
Later, Jerry Chiemeke and I head to the building behind the hall where upstairs is the bar, a large room with dull lights, furniture typical of a dining room arranged in sets, typical of an elite bar. Here, we meet with the poets, Tade Ipadeola, Niran Okewole, and the American scholar, Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, and a discussion on literature, politics, LGBT+ and history ensues. The Nigerian election is barely three months away, and at a point, our discussions centre around this; on whether it was relevant to vote or not to vote since it was very unlikely for Muhammadu Buhari, the dictator that he is, to conduct a free and fair election. I am of the opinion that voting is useless since the electoral system is largely compromised. It is at this juncture that a black woman who was discussing with a white man at the table beside us becomes interested in our discussions and why I am of the opinion that we shouldn’t vote. She introduces herself to me as Dr Naaluembe Binaisa, a Kenyan academic, teaching at the University of Lagos. One of my reasons that the problems of the country are fundamental and due to the structure, which enables outright ethnicism coupled with the marginalization of the South by the North, rendering votes useless, does not seem sufficient for her.
‘I think young people should vote,’ she says. She gives me a lecture on Pan-Africanism and how my idea of decentralisation of power was going against the idea of Pan-Africanism of our founding fathers.
The 2018 LIPFEST closing party is my first silent party experience. Everybody is putting on a headset connected to the DJ, and music is playing through the headset in two musical genres – foreign and local. You can switch your headset to whichever genre you want to listen to. When I put on my headset, I feel the vibe of the party and the dance steps of half of the people make sense to me (at every given time, the other half is listening to another genre). When I take off the headset, it is as though everywhere is quiet and the hall is populated with crazy people dancing to imaginary music. And these schizophrenics would include Jerry Chiemeke – unlike Ikechukwu Nwaogu who sits quietly in a corner with his headset.
When the party closes later in the night, Ikechukwu Nwaogu offers to accommodate me in his house. We are walking with a young man whom I don’t really know. Our discussion centres mainly around Kings College as we pass through it, their alumni and how people like Bola Tinubu and many other ‘important’ people are regular visitors to the school. Soon after, we go our separate ways, and me and my friend are walking so fast along the express road as he repeatedly tells me, ‘Michael, gbadokwa anya, Michael shine your eyes.’ He has this habit of being protective and indirectly enforcing that notion on you that Lagos is not safe.
We chance upon a Hilux van which pulls up by the side of the road. The driver is with two men, one in the passenger seat and another at the back. ‘Oshodi!’ Ikechukwu calls. The driver asks us to get in for N200 each, and takes us on a high-spirited ride through the free expressway to Oshodi. The roads are very sparse, till we finally get to the long one which leads to Ikechukwu’s house. We might have walked three-quarters of a mile, but I don’t feel it, maybe because Ikechukwu is so full of infectious energy.
We wake up the next morning to a neighbourhood which is already getting fairly noisy. And when I go out to buy a toothbrush, I find that all the shops in the neighbourhood are already open by 7am on a Sunday morning! When I return to the house, my friend and I have to rush our preparations because he has a thanksgiving service to attend at the toll gate, for which he was already late. And I have to attend mass before heading for Berger, where I was to wait for my uncle who would pick me up on his way from Oyo state later in the day, and take me to his place where I am to stay till Tuesday, when I am to head back to Lagos island for the poetry event of the Lagos Book and Arts Festival.
It is not until about 5pm in the evening my uncle finally calls me that he is at Berger. Before this time, I have been roaming the place freely, after failing to locate any Catholic church in which I could attend morning mass and not bothering to ask anybody for directions because it seems the people living in Lagos do not know anywhere apart from their house and where they are headed. So, I spend the first few hours of the morning in a bet9ja shop where I listen to people arguing about football as they forecast games. Afterwards, I roam the crowded streets, the Ansar-ud deen community and also the flyover, which makes a big impression on me, for it has two staircases on each side; one for going up and one for going down, and both the staircase and the flyover have rails. I watch people streaming up and down simultaneously on each side of the bridge, it was like watching ants on a cross-country trail.
My uncle quickly makes me comfortable in the house and even makes food for me; pap with a lot of milk and sugar which we eat with the bread we bought on our way coming. He is my mother’s younger brother. My relationship with him dates as far back as 18 years when he, and my aunt, was just a teenage boy living with us. We spend the night talking about many of the people who lived in our neighbourhood back in Benin City. He asks me questions about my cousins who lived (some of who still live) with their parents in one of the flat upstairs of the house. We talk deep into the night, discussing our shared acquaintances and shared history. My uncle is surprisingly compassionate and tells me of the plans he has even for me, should his plans of his whole family leaving Nigeria succeed, which is kind of flattering. I am very impressed with what he has done for himself as a man in his early thirties.
It is not quite 6am when my uncle and I set out on Tuesday, he to the market and I, once again, to Freedom Park. Sango junction, when we come out, is already full of people and danfo. We say our goodbyes and I enter one of the danfo headed for Oshodi. One thing about these Lagos buses is how they are so rickety that you wonder how they manage to ply the roads even as they make loud and squeaking sounds as though about to disintegrate. The seats are made of metal and wood and for every bus you board, you are most likely to meet people rapping the Yoruba language among themselves, that is to say, the language is sure to serve you, all the time, an atmosphere of consciousness, concerning where you are.
Freedom Park is remarkably empty this morning. No event has begun yet, neither does it seem like any was to begin in the next couple of hours. Since I had the island to myself, it doesn’t feel right that I settle for reading when I could either explore or meet a person or two. I call my good friend, Odeyemi Bolutife, who had told me that her workplace is not far from the park. She asks me to come to Sapetro towers on Adeola Odeku Street in Victoria Island, opposite The Place restaurant. There, she directs me on how to take the lift to her office reception. The receptionist asks me to sit there and wait for Odeyemi. I am seated, thinking about how Lagos island is indeed, very impressive. And not long after, my friend comes out looking far younger than she does in her online photos, and we are both mildly excited to see each other. The receptionist gives her an envelope that had just come for her. My friend introduces me to the receptionist as her friend, a writer and also to another colleague, the first Yoruba person I have met in all my life who speaks and understands Igbo to the extent of being able to interpret the exact meaning of my middle name, Chiedoziem, God has repaired me, because she grew up in Enugu state.
She takes me to Cubana, not far from her office, and by their bar, she orders parfait: banana flavour for me and avocado for her. We begin discussions from pleasantries which soon focus on the topics of mutual interest to us throughout our friendship in the virtual space which was manifesting in the physical for the first time. First, I tell her about my journey and how it is really my first time in Lagos, which seems to surprise her, because I seem like much of a traveller and two years before, I had travelled to Abeokuta through the same route.
‘Ah! Ah! Did you not go to Abeokuta the other time,’ she asks, ‘Did you not pass through Lagos while going?’
‘Yes,’ I reply, ‘But passing through a place doesn’t always pass for having been there. At the very least, I should step foot on the soil and spend some hours…’
‘Yes, that’s true,’ she replies.
We talk about family, the Lagos life, writing, our respective university days, places travelled to, work experience in general. I generally enjoy the conversation and the compassion which seems to come with every word my friend says. And at a point, we talk about things that are quite intimate when I tell her about my father and some of the recent arguments we are having and instead of taking my sides, she tries to make me see things from his perspectives. In lieu of this, she relates to me, how motherhood was teaching her lessons which helped her understand aspects of her own parents which she could hardly understand some years ago, and how it has made her come to appreciate them, even more now that she is a parent herself. Fortunately, we do not talk about the topic that is dichotomous between us: the topic of Biafra, a proponent of which I am, while she is a proponent of unity and a better country (by God knows how?).
We meet two men at the front of her office building, one of whom she introduces to me as my Biafran brother, who, she jokes, should leave Lagos for the east. I shake hands with him, really excited about the idea that there are men approaching middle age, living in faraway Lagos who still have their eyes set on home. My friend and I soon say our goodbyes, after which I head back to Freedom Park.
By the time I head back, Femi Morgan is already around and the banners to be used upstairs at the hall are already much in place. Not long after, the event kicks off with a chat between three fine artists. By evening, many poets begin to arrive at the venue, including Michael Akuchie, Jerry Chiemeke, Oko Owi Ocho, and William Moore. Femi Morgan kicks off the show and a delightful evening of a poetry reading. We sit around tables in front of the centre stage, everyone with a bottle of what he or she drinks as we listen to poetry upon poetry and Lagos, showing as always why it is the centre stage for a great many of our poets. I am particularly fond of the love poem, ‘Tokwase’ performed by Oko Owi Ocho in the African fashion of the days of yore. Soon, it is my turn and I read a love poem titled ‘Love Is Not for Perfect People’. A great many other poets read us their poems and soon we grow deep into the night and soon have to go home.
Now that the end of my visit to Lagos has come, for while the festival is to continue for over a week, I have to go back to work in faraway Asaba. The parting highlight of the night is the love shown me and Femi Morgan by Mama Freedom Park when she packages my food for me and gives us enough money to pay for our hotel rooms.
Alone in my hotel room that night, I look through my window the many lights which spread out on the island. I am thankful that cities do not always run away and are there waiting for us when next we return. Even though, in my little way, I have experienced the hostility of Lagos and the fast pace of living which could be a deterrence to serenity, the heightened struggle in which most people have lost their humanity in the race for survival, even the attitude of some Yoruba people who wanted to begin a discussion with me in Yoruba because they expected that everybody in Lagos was conversant in the language. Even though I had seen all these things in Lagos, it doesn’t escape my notice the evident thrill brought about by the adrenaline rush. The energy in the populace is real and infectious; it isn’t a city which slows down for you to catch up; it just continuously goes in its usual fast and furious pace and does not even bother to watch you cope, the adventure in the city is left all in your hands.
‘I am definitely coming back someday,’ I say to myself.
^This is a two-fold narrative essay and the concluding part of the post published yesterday. You may read the first part here.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer and journalist who works for Voice of the East Media. He is completing works on two novels, Waiting on a Dream and Loss is an Aftertaste of Memories. You may follow him on Twitter and Medium: @ChukwuderaEdozi.
Cover photo credit: Lagos International Poetry Festival