Book Review – Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion by Kaye Whiteman

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by Akin Ajayi

The challenges of living in Lagos are widely anthologised, so why would anyone choose to live there?

Kaye Whiteman and Governor Babatunde Fashola (SAN) at the book launch in Lagos Image from

Kaye Whiteman and Governor Babatunde Fashola (SAN) at the book launch in Lagos
Image from

It’s never hard to find someone with an unkind word to say about Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous and possibly most notorious city. Most Lagosians will do the job themselves if you ask nicely enough; if you’ve heard the expression “if you can survive Lagos, you can survive anywhere” once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Inhabitants of the Nigerian metropolis tend to wear the city’s dysfunctionality like a badge of honour, and the challenges of living in Lagos are widely anthologised. All of which begs the question: why would anyone choose to live in Lagos?

Whatever the answer, it seems quite a few do, and many millions more will too in the near future. Lagos is not only one of biggest but also one of fastest growing cities in the world, with its current population of 21 million projected to swell to 35 million by 2025. Indeed, while most contemporary authors who write about the city – and indeed, many of those from the past – focus on the present pathologies facing the city, the counter-intuitive fact is that the imperfect metropolis is drawing ever more migrants from near and far.

Diversity made Lagos

The most attractive aspect of Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion by Kaye Whiteman is its attempt to look beyond the evident and to place the emphasis on its people, tracing the evolution of the city as defined by its inhabitants. Whiteman, a respected journalist and commentator on West African affairs, has a useful perch from which to try to unravel these complexities and contradictions. A former editor of the now defunct West Africa magazine, Whiteman first visited Lagos in 1964, and has reported from and about the city ever since. The length and depth of his engagement with Lagos gives him an advantage in assessing the growth of the modern mega-metropolis.

Lagos is a city whose character has always been influenced, if not out-and-out defined, by outsiders. The earliest records of Lagos – from Portuguese trade maps and records from the late 15th century – are relatively unprepossessing. A visitor from 1485, quoted by Whiteman, observes disappointedly that “there is no trade in the country, nor anything else from which one can make a profit.” The Portuguese thus meandered further along the coast and eventually established convivial trading relations with the Bini Kingdom. But by the late 18th century they were back, conducting a profitable slave trade.

This didn’t last very long: the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, relying upon its dominion of the seas to squeeze out the last vestiges of the trade by the mid-19th century. (In this, the British were not motivated purely by philanthropic values; the politics of abolition were linked closely to the establishment of secure and profitable trading links.) But although short-lived, this period led to what Whiteman describes as the “diversification of the Lagos gene pool,” one that continues to replicate in the present day.

Back in the 19th century, the new arrivals in Lagos were predominantly the Saros – Sierra Leonean creoles rescued from slave ships and settled by the British in Freetown before making their way back to their port of embarkation – and Amaros – repatriated Brazilian slaves returned across the Atlantic. The cultural influences and skills they brought were diverse. The Saros, many educated by missionaries, carved out a niche for themselves as administrative aides to the missionaries and colonial administrators in and around Lagos after its secession to the British in 1861. The Amaros, trained in masonry and carpentry, established the Brazilian quarter of Lagos and brought a distinct physical grace and elegance to the infrastructure of the nascent city.

Too little of this has been preserved for posterity, though there are some vestiges left and Whiteman makes specific mention of the elegant Shitta Bey Mosque on Martins Street. Designed by Amaro Joao Baptista da Costa, and built by native-born Sanusi Aka, it was commissioned bySaro Mohammed Shitta-Bey (accorded the honorific Bey by an Ottoman Sultan, apparently) and remains an excellent example of Lagos’ past eclectic character.

Capturing Lagos

Lagosians have a complicated relationship with their history, not least because the city remains unsettled in its identity. As Whiteman writes, “Like much in Lagos, nothing seems to last: only change is permanent.”

Declared the capital of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914, it was the epicentre of many of Nigeria’s most significant moments, political and cultural: the struggles for independence, the end of the Civil War (Lagos includes a picture of Whiteman witnessing the signing of the treaty declaring the end of the war), the All Africa Games of 1973, and the FESTAC festivities of 1977. But its role as the undisputed hub of the nation ended in 1991, when a long-proposed relocation of the capital to the more geographically central Abuja took place almost overnight, pushed by the not-entirely-misplaced paranoia of Ibrahim Babangida, the dictator de jour.

Lagos had grown, in ungainly and largely unplanned blips and bumps, through the 1960s and the oil boom years of the 1970s. The grand infrastructure of the past – the National Stadium in Surulere, the National Theatre in Iganmu, even the multi-story Federal Secretariat in upmarket Ikoyi – was abandoned. The untidiness that once supposedly gave Lagos its character was now an inelegant dishevelment.

Whiteman’s book documents this but concentrates as much, if not more, on the people and personalities that make up the city rather than the impersonality of the historical narrative. These evoke the unsettled character of the city, and one gets the sense that with a constantly kinetic population of migrants drawn by the city’s cosmopolitanism, there may simply not be enough people with roots deep enough to fight its corner effectively. Whiteman touches on this obliquely in chapters that consider Lagos’ literary and cultural heritage.

In these sections, Whiteman correctly observes that the strongest journalism in Nigeria has always found its home in Lagos, where newspapers and periodicals are free to operate as a true fourth estate, largely beyond the reach of clergy and nobility, and act – in principle at least – on behalf of the common person. Meanwhile fiction about the city, though sometimes capturing the contradictory effervescence of the city, often fails to capture its essence, Whiteman notes. There is some good writing about Lagos for sure – Wole Soyinka’s plays, old and new, Sefi Attah’s Swallow, and a few others beside – but much beyond this has the detached feel of outsiders looking in, chronicling as best as one can, but not, as Whiteman suggests, actually being one with the city.

The future of Lagos

People continue to be drawn to Lagos, steeped though it is in all its contradictions. Trade – no longer of the human variety, fortunately – remains a prize pull. Once it was the Portuguese and the British, now it is the South Africans and Chinese. The only continuity that the city has known is that of change, and it might well be that rather than dwelling on the past, it would be more useful to think towards the future.

Lagos has enjoyed a rare period of political continuity over the last decade, the technocratic-minded Babatunde Fashola building on the political achievements of his predecessor, Bola Tinubu. Both succeeded where many before had failed by drawing on the people of the city. Whiteman references the truly staggering improvements in revenue collection in the city, from N600million a month in 1999 to N14billion ($260 million) a month for the past 6 years. Fashola has grand plans in place for Lagos’ rejuvenation, the most impressive being the Eko Atlantic project, the planned construction of a new district on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed fanciful when it was first proposed a decade ago, but much less so when the dedication ceremony took place earlier this year. Anyone who knows Lagos at all would know that it is still too early to say that the faith of the people will soon be repaid, but it is a start.

Whiteman is by no means a detached chronicler of Lagos. In the final chapter of Lagos, he sums up the city as “sometimes impossibly contrarian but still somewhere to dream dreams.” It has a nice ring to it; perhaps one day soon, Lagosians may no longer feel the need to apologise for the travails that the city imposes.

Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion is published by Signal Books.

This article originally appeared at Think Africa Press on 31 October 2013. Think Africa Press is an online magazine that looks beyond the surface of the global African news coverage.

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About FutureLagos

Olamide Udoma is a researcher, writer and filmmaker holding degrees in BSc Architecture, MA Design and MPhil Infrastructure Management. Olamide has worked in London, South Africa and Nigeria with various organisations focusing on transport management, slum upgrading and housing rights in urbanising African cities. At Our Future Cities NPO, she is the Lagos manager and editor.

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