A City at Work: Heat, Hawkers and Hustle in Lagos, Nigeria

Nigerian-born Otegha Uwagba revisits her homeland, diving into the heat of Lagos via its silver-tongued storytellers and cosmopolitan entrepreneurs.

Lagos is the city that taught me to read. Growing up here, I became so fascinated by the ease with which my two older sisters had mastered what to me seemed like the coolest magic trick in the world that, aged three, I insisted my mother teach me as well. She happily obliged, frequently arriving home with a fresh selection of books bought from a bookshop that in turn imported its stock from the UK. So it was that I grew up on stories populated by fair-haired, rosy-cheeked children with names like Janet and John, who lived in bucolic English villages and went apple picking in their spare time.

Travelling back to Lagos via Amsterdam with KLM some 25 years later, things are rather different. Flipping through the bookshelves at Terra Kulture, an arts and culture centre that hosts a busy programme of theatre, art exhibitions and live music events, I'm cheered to find a cornucopia of children's books with African children adorning their covers, Yoruba storybooks jostling for space with Igbo alphabet books. Elsewhere, the shelves are a mix of Nigerian authors and a more international crowd, but one thing is clear - there is plenty of space for homegrown talent.

Visit Lagos and you'll quickly discover that Lagosians (and indeed Nigerians in general) are natural-born raconteurs. Everyone - from an Uber driver describing his various "hustles" to a market trader trying to entice you over to his stall - has seemingly mastered the art of storytelling, often recounting tales with an ease that suggests they've been told many times before (and are all the better for it). Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the city has birthed a host of thrilling literary talent, and in recent years a crop of new names has begun following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka - the godfathers of Nigerian literature - in putting Nigeria on the literary map. In 2017, Lagos-born Ayọbámi Adébáyọ's debut novel Stay With Me was published to widespread critical acclaim, while Nigerian- American novelist Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone was an instant New York Times bestseller and is now set for the Hollywood blockbuster treatment.

Perhaps the apotheosis of this is Jazzhole, a bookshop in Ikoyi named by literary darling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as her favourite and a cornerstone of the city's literary heritage. Owner Olakunle Tejuoso originally opened the shop in 1991 to sell music (and the store has a well-stocked selection of vinyl), later adding the books that now make it a destination for bibliophiles. A jazz buff - the store takes its name from his love of the genre - Tejuoso rhapsodises about Johnny Coltrane and Miles Davis when I quiz him for entry-level recommendations and nods vigorously when I ask whether he sees what he does as political.

"Literature is a stimulus. We should use it to examine how to break down myths, how to harness culture to transcend differences, how to transform society." To that end you'll find Nigerian-American renaissance man Teju Cole's elegant photography and musings on society nestling alongside out-of-print publications that include Lagos: A City At Work, a coffee-table book Tejuoso published that documents the energy, the heat, the very pulse of Lagos life.

To be a writer one of course needs to have stories worth telling, and in Lagos ample opportunities arise from even the most mundane of circumstances. Setting off from The Blowfish Hotel each morning, a relaxed affair with an Instagram-friendly, Barbie- pink exterior, the city's famous traffic is constant but never dull: turn left and you'll spy a car boot stuffed full of plantain (a staple of Nigerian cuisine); turn right and a goat peers inquisitively at you from the roadside as you drive by. Street hawkers selling packets of nuts weave in and out of the slow-moving traffic, a mix of jeeps and kekes (yellow tricycle taxis) side by side with okadas (motorcycle taxis) in an organised chaos that probably shouldn't work, but somehow just does. This is a city dense with people, noise, life. Shy and retiring, Lagos is not.

Nowhere is that better epitomised than at Balogun Market, a sprawling maze of buildings and alleyways where traders sell everything and anything: food, clothes, hair extensions, electronics - even visas, or so the joke goes. My photographer for the week, Lagos-born Kadara Enyeasi, advises me to "walk with purpose" in order to navigate the constant calls of "aunty" from traders beckoning me to their stalls and occasionally pulling me gently by the arm. "And at least try to look like you know where you're going."

At Balogun you will see Nigerians' trademark "hustle" at full throttle - a mixture of their ability to find opportunity in any situation, an innate sense of enterprise and a boundless faith in their ability to overcome obstacles, often through sheer force of will. Taking a few minutes' respite inside a shop selling heavily embellished traditional fabrics, I ask the owner if business is good and she looks at me as though offended. "What do you mean? Of course business is good. I'm Nigerian. I know how to do business."

It's a thrilling if somewhat exhausting morning and I come away laden with goods - fabrics, stationery, a bag of fruit that I have no use for but was momentarily dazzled into buying by a sweet smile and a deft joke. But the market is also not for the faint-hearted - or those with a poor sense of direction, which one might easily conclude of Lagos at large. When moving from one area of the city to another - especially from the upscale Victoria Island and Ikoyi to Lekki or Ikeja on the mainland - leave plenty of time if you're travelling during the week and even more during peak commute hours.

That Lagos can at times be tricky to navigate is mitigated by my trip having been organised by ìrìn travels, the travel concierge arm of travel and culture publication ìrìn journal, which aims to document the continent's culture and facilitate a pan-African cultural exchange. Founder Mimi Aborowa presses a copy of Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater into my hands upon arrival, the author being another member of the new crop of young Nigerian writers gathering global acclaim. With my itinerary and travel logistics taken care of, I'm free to immerse myself in the city's creative scene, where the lack of infrastructure presents both an obstacle and an opportunity for young artists to experiment. Increasingly many of them are trading the big commercial galleries for more rough-and-ready spaces and there's a proliferation of informal pop-ups and grassroots operations with an emphasis on making art more accessible, both in its creation and consumption.

One such example is The Treehouse, an experimental art hub located on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi. A breezy plant-filled space on the seventh floor of a residential apartment building, artist and performer Wura-Natasha Ogunji opened The Treehouse as a way of encouraging experimentation, curating a regularly changing programme of exhibitions and installations (at one point Wura-Natasha was hosting a different exhibition every week) bookmarked by informal salons where an eclectic community of creatives arrives with food and drink in tow. Her only criteria for the artists she invites to show work is that they create something that expands the boundaries of their chosen medium. The Treehouse has quickly become a key destination for those in the know and I can see why - the space's location high above the Lagos traffic makes it something of an oasis.

Aadesokan at hFACTOR

Onwards to hFACTOR, a similarly alternative outfit operating as an offshoot of 16/16, a Victoria Island-based art space founded by Tushar Hathiramani and home to boundary-pushing exhibitions and installations, as well as a small number of Airbnb rooms. A social enterprise collective that transforms underutilised spaces into interactive galleries, hFACTOR's raison d'être is facilitating community projects that platform and create commercial opportunities for creative talent.

Arriving at its gallery space in the Obalende district on a Saturday afternoon, I'm met by a friendly group of young creatives lounging on its sofas, including artist Aàdesokan, whose work addresses mental health, delving into the complexities of the human mind. Many of the artists and curators I encounter readily give voice to the same conviction: that art can be used to effect social change, that culture is an effective mechanism for social and political shifts, and that their efforts are richer for it.

Perhaps the most famous landmark on the Lagos art scene is the Nike Art Gallery in Lekki. Opened in 2008 by artist and textile designer Nike Davies-Okundaye - or Mama Nike as everyone calls her - the gallery is a four-floor warehouse filled to the rafters with work by Nigerian artists and a must-see for anyone serious about collecting art. Though a grand dame of the Nigerian art world Nike is extraordinarily warm, inviting visitors to stay for coffee and switching out my drink for a tea with a wink when she catches wind of my English accent.

ART X Lagos, an international art fair that is a relatively new addition to Nigeria's cultural calendar, tries to marry the two strands of Lagos's art scene - its big galleries and wealthy collectors with money to spend and the dynamism of its emerging artists and curators. Founded by Lagos-born entrepreneur Tokini Peterside in 2016, the fair has already become the linchpin of a burgeoning art "season" in the city that starts in late October and includes Lagos's own biennial. One gets the sense that the Nigerian city is on the brink of becoming a key destination in the art world and there is a palpable sense of excitement at the prospect among all involved.

Beyond Lagos's literary and cultural scene its contributions to fashion have also garnered international recognition - and rightly so, given Nigerians love nothing more than to "do yanga", meaning to pose or show off, particularly if one is flaunting new clothes. The David Adjaye-designed Alára, a high-end boutique whose offering encompasses fashion, furniture and homeware, mixes heavy hitters such as Saint Laurent and Christian Louboutin with trendier, more offbeat labels such as Off-White and Jacquemus.

Nigerian designers abound too, including womenswear brand Maki Oh (which has been spotted on everyone from Michelle Obama to Solange Knowles) and skate brand Wafflesncream, which a shop assistant informs me is what "all the Lagos cool kids are wearing these days". Alára's attached restaurant Nok is where the Nigerian elite go to see and be seen - on a Sunday lunchtime after church it is full of amiable air-kissing and the scent of expensive perfumes that linger long after their wearers have left the building. Temple Muse, another high-end lifestyle store that trades in both international brands (Givenchy, Sophia Webster, Sister Jane) and local names (Lisa Folawiyo, IAMISIGO, Grey Projects) has extended its offering to contemporary art, with Ghanaian artist Victor Butler's striking full-colour works hanging in-store when I visit.

Travellers looking to escape from the relentlessness of the concrete jungle for a few hours would do well to venture to Tarkwa Bay, one of the many beaches accessible by a short boat ride from the Marina (referred to locally as CMS). There you can rent a chair from one of the many beach huts, sip on fresh coconuts and tuck into grilled fish, or - if the mood takes you - do a spot of surfing. I'm rather glad that by this point I've moved on to the sleek K Tavern, a small, 11-room boutique hotel with modern interiors and tech-enabled fittings, as it proves the ideal spot to freshen up after an afternoon spent clambering in and out of the banana boats that make the trip to and from the beach.

By far the highlight of my trip is Sunday Jump at the New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, a cavernous music hall constructed in homage to Nigeria's most famous musical export, one Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Though the air is thick and smoky with the smell of "Indian hemp" when I arrive, the atmosphere is buoyant. Waitresses take drink orders while hawkers circulate selling suya, a spicy beef snack you must try at least once during your trip.

All of this is a preamble to the main event of the night - Femi Kuti and his band the Positive Force, who perform at the venue most Sundays. Accompanied by a line of female dancers in beaded outfits gyrating energetically, covered in sweat but beaming throughout, they play a mixture of Fela's greatest hits and Femi's own music, and as the night wears on, gradually the audience gravitate from their seats to the floor in front of the stage, joining the on-stage dancers in their exertions. Several hours later I bounce home, euphoric, the city's energy pulsing under my skin like an electric charge, or a bolt of lightning, or a flame.

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