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

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.

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

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

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

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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