A Tourist’s Weekend In Lagos

Tolu Ogunlesi | Originally written in 2015

It is a piece of trite wisdom that you will always see your city differently through the eyes of others. Those others could be locals like yourselves, or outsiders/foreigners. I am writing this particular letter from Cape Town, where I am part of a group of journalists attending a series of design events.

Last weekend, while we having dinner at a restaurant on a street on which Nobel Laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once both lived, our conversation touched on the places where we had come from. I will never tire of pointing out how Lagos is ‘Two Londons Without The Tube’, the only city of its size to not have made any seriously efficient plans about mass transportation.

I also enjoy startling people with my announcement of the fact that in Nigeria we pay home rents a year or two in advance, and that mortgages come at a minimum of 16 to 18 percent per annum (to which someone retorted: “That’s like paying for a mortgage with a credit card!”

Lagos is also not a city made for tourists; sidewalks are not a common feature, and the city is too hot and humid to encourage the spending of extended periods outdoors.

But that does not mean tourists are not welcome. One of the things I often think about in my spare moments is designing a weekend experience of the city for tourists — the city as I know it, I must clarify — kicking off on a Friday afternoon and ending late on Sunday night.

Friday would start with a late lunch at Terrakulture, my favourite arts venue in Lagos. Jollof rice, ‘swallow’ (shorthand for the starch-laden staples that we eat by tearing off balls from a mound and dipping in soup), pepper-soup (goat, fish, chicken), sweet potatoes, fried yam, grilled croaker fish, chicken or beef suya.

On a Friday evening Terrakulture is fairly busy. Sometimes you have people coming for office dinners, sending off departing staff or celebrating a birthday or a milestone. It’s also popular for one-on-one meetings; I schedule most of mine there. The waiters almost always never take down orders on paper, which creates the occasional tension-filled moment when a guest realizes her order has slipped through the cracks of the to-ing and fro-ing. Adjoining the restaurant is a book-and-crafts store.

Ascend the gently sloping ramp — the only one of its kind I’ve seen in Lagos — and stroll through the gallery space on the first floor. Outside is a garden that is too hot in the daytime but perfect for beer-evenings; on Fridays live music and barbecue smoke wreath up the cool, humid ambience. Overlooking the garden is a roof garden extension of the restaurant, again preferable in the cool of the evening.

Terrakulture done, we will make our way, around 9pm, towards Bar Beach, past the stretch of sand that a few years ago was the Atlantic Ocean (and has since been sand-filled into the $2,000 per square meter ‘Eko Atlantic City’) and on to the busy Adeola Odeku street. Our destination, on one of the side streets: Rhapsody, a popular lounge and restaurant. In its heyday (see NOTES) it was almost impossible to get in after 10pm, unless of course you were white — or, if black, well known to the bouncers or driving a car showy enough to assert that you were a person of means, the type able to tip bouncers with a wad of notes you obviously haven’t bothered to count.

After dinner we will convert our sitting area into a dancing circle, and swap our Chapman and cocktails for Hennessy-and-Coke, and Moet champagne. In the daytime Victoria Island is dressed in dark-hued jackets and monochrome ties; under the cover of darkness it slips into T-shirts and jeans, its shoulders and hips slacken, and its whole body surrenders to a alcohol-fuelled series of wild twists and gyrations that bear names like ‘Shoki’ and ‘Azonto’.

Before or after Rhapsody we could make a quick stopover at Pablo’s wine bar, on Awolowo Road in South West Ikoyi, for me the most down to earth drinking place on the Island. It’s tiny, able to seat no more than 20 or 25 people comfortably, but the drinks come as close as possible to shelf prices, and the DJ is not above playing Shinamania from start to finish.

We’d leave Victoria Island at some point and make our way to Lekki Peninsula, through the new suspension bridge, opened in May 2013, and insisting on being referred to, in typical Nigerian manner, as the first in Africa. It’s a beauty, especially at night, when it is swathed in coloured lights. From Victoria Island we will ascend the Falomo overpass, descend into the roundabout (where since sometime last year the names of the 219 girls abducted by Boko Haram have been on display), and make a left into Bourdillon Avenue in Old Ikoyi, one of the most exclusive parts of the city.

Bourdillon is a tree-starved dual carriageway that weaves arrogantly past large gated villas and rows and rows of luxury apartment blocks (many of them empty because they’re too expensive). Just after St Saviours School (one of the most expensive primary schools in the country) is the roundabout from which the Lekki-Ikoyi (Lekkoyi for short) bridge takes off. Beyond the roundabout Bourdillon confusingly changes name, to Alexander — the city’s colonial past hits you hard in these parts — but still retains its serene, elitist parade.

The Lekkoyi Bridge sweeps across the Lagoon for about a kilometer, past a tollgate (the most expensive of the handful of tolls in the city), and then berths on the grandly named Admiralty Way in the mainly residential Lekki Phase 1, the Ikoyi of the Peninsula. Lekki offers a diverse array of spots, from conventional lounges like Mouse Pad or Switch to the windswept lagoon-side ones like Bay Lounge or the charming, boat-shaped, half-floating Sailors. (Nightlife in Lekki often has a clandestine feel to it; full as it is of unmarked guest houses and lounges that are accessible only to small groups of initiates).

On Saturday we will sleep till late, and then gatecrash a Lagos wedding party. For that you’d need to be properly attired, men in suits and ties, or traditional buba and sokoto (with or without the agbada — the billowing gown that once made Britain’s Prince Philip quip to former President Obasanjo: “You look like you’re ready for bed.”); the women in brightly coloured dresses or in the traditional buba and iro, with elaborately constructed headgear (iro) to match.

These days many women get their make-up professionally done for wedding parties, for about $30 you’d come out looking, as we say in Lagos, sufficiently ‘takeaway’. I recently realized that many foreigners have no concept of what it means to get married in Lagos: the blindingly luminous, art-installation-grade uniforms of the guests (organised along family-and-friend lines), the swell of the crowds, the depressing struggle to catch the attention of the waiters.

Saturday evening we would head off to Bogobiri, an ethnic-themed boutique hotel and gallery in Ikoyi, for an evening of live African music.

Sunday morning, while the rest of the city is stirring for church (which is treated with the same enthusiasm extended to nightlife), or for a morning of chilling at home (for non-Christians), we will head out, on an open-roof bus, for an early morning city tour. The city takes on a convalescent character on Sunday mornings, one it can never quite manage to achieve at any other time of the week. It is when you can go from Victoria Island to the international airport in twenty minutes.

We’d finally get a chance to leave the Islands, and head out north, to Ikeja, the seat of government, where, decades ago Afrobeat musician Fela Anikulapo lorded it over his Kalakuta Republic. From Ikeja, we’d go to Oshodi (a decade ago it was a bustling market cum bus park that often served, in photographic books, as the face of the city) and then on towards the Expressway that leads to Badagry, which, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade, was a famous loading point on the journey of no return.

There will be no time to make it as far as Badagry, alas. From the road to Badagry we will make our way back to the Island, through Ikorodu Road (the dominant thoroughfare through the mainland; until the third mainland bridge was built it offered the sole access to the airport from the Island), past Yaba, Ebute Metta, Oyingbo, Iddo (the Lagos terminus of the century-old railway line that runs 1,300km north to Kano, the commercial hub of Northern Nigeria), across the Carter Bridge (the oldest of the three bridges that cross the Lagoon between Island and Mainland) and onto the Marina, and then on to Freedom Park on Lagos Island.

The Park used to be a colonial prison until about the 1960s or 1970s, when it fell into disuse. Then it became a rubbish dump, and then, around 2010, was transformed into an arts park that manages to fully preserve the character of the prison it replaced (the food court stands on the spot where the prison kitchen was; the main outdoor stage replaced the gaol’s gallows; the prison cells have mutated into same-sized shop stalls) (See NOTES). Freedom Park sits in an area of Lagos waiting, just waiting, to blossom into the city’s West End.

A cold drink at Freedom Park, and then we would head off again, to Victoria Island, to catch a boat to one of the several small Islands that fringe the main ones. We could head out to Tarkwa Bay, or Ilashe, or Coconut Island, or the Inagbe Grand Resort. The idea would be to get a quick taste of life away from the concrete hustle of the city; a chance to experience the surreal realization that an unreal scale of sanity can sometimes lie only a quarter of an hour from the city.

Sunday night, back in Lagos, we’d return to Ikeja, to abandon ourselves to the intense rhythm of three-time Grammy nominee, Femi Kuti, Fela’s oldest son, at the Afrika Shrine — swirling with marijuana smoke and bum-shaking female dancers — until midnight.

NOTES

1. In 1991, President Babangida, shaken by an April coup attempt that claimed the life of his aide-de-camp, and almost claimed his, ordered the relocation of the seat of government from Lagos Island and Ikoyi, to Abuja, the new, built-from-scratch capital hundreds of miles to the north, in the center of the country. Unlike the one in Lagos, the presidential residence in Abuja was a purpose-built (Israeli-built, we hear) fortress tucked safely beneath the rocky outcrop (Aso Rock) that gives it its name. It is easy to see why Babangida decided it would be a much safer place than Dodan Barracks in the bustling Obalende area of Ikoyi Island. The hurried relocation to Abuja badly affected the fortunes of Lagos Island, as it suddenly went from being a ‘happening’ place (home to several vital government and military offices, like the Defence Building on Lagos Island; in its heyday twenty-three floors of military might) to being a forlorn, emptied-out shell. By the time democracy returned to Nigeria at the turn of the century Lagos Island was a wholeheartedly blighted region. Governor Tinubu soon kicked off a regeneration project that has since dramatically altered the fortunes of the area, and Governor Fashola, his successor has kept the vision going. The regeneration started in the Central Business District, the area in and surrounding the Marina. Those who recall Lagos Island in the early days of democracy either find it hard to believe just how much has changed, or have forgotten just how much has changed: the open-air markets that once sprawled across the streets have been pushed back and kept in check, streetlights have sprouted, and sidewalks have taken up confident position on the roads, which have themselves smoothened and widened. Near the site of the first power plant in Nigeria, the state government has built an independent power plant that supplies electricity to the Island’s streetlights, and to government sites like Freedom Park and the General Hospital.

2. Nightlife on the Island is a strange animal. Victoria Island is the hub of Island clubbing, home to the hottest clubs (I might be biased). New clubs are always seeming to pop up, making serious plays for the attentions and affections of the upwardly mobile generation of Lagosians who help keep the clubs open. In reality most of the new clubs are no more than reinventions or rebrandings of old ones, usually by new owners. The standard story is that it is not easy to break even in the nightlife system in Lagos, on account of a combination of factors: thieving waiters and bar staff (who have been known to sometimes smuggle in their own drinks to sell), debt-loving patrons (with a special talent for racking up mind-boggling levels of champagne-tainted debt), and a herd mentality that, like a somewhat mischievous version Adam Smith’s invisible hand, drives people like sheep from today’s hotspot to tomorrow’s. And that invisible hand is at work so often that only very few nightclubs are able to maintain their favored positions in the hearts of revelers for anything longer than a few months. All therefore strive to milk that moment in the moonlight for what its worth, and the biggest evidence of this is in the arrogance with which the bouncers wield their power. With a reigning champion club its often not easy to tell which crowd is larger, the one inside or outside. Sometimes you make it in and wonder why you bothered to come out — there are so many people you’re constantly having to make sure that those hands you assume to be yours, holding a glass of champagne, are actually yours. In those circumstances dancing becomes an extra challenging proposition. And then it occurs to you that it would actually be unfair to blame the bouncers for their arrogance.