The Oases of Lagos

Michael Grecco

Between the oil-rich elite and the hectic streets exists a thriving café culture that is turning the city into the continent’s creative epicenter.

Lagos is a maddening paradox. As Nigeria’s commercial capital and Africa’s biggest city—a designation it took from Cairo last year—with a population of about 21 million, it struggles to keep up with the needs of its citizens. Lagosians must often endure traffic jams, violent crime, electrical blackouts and the noise of generators. An inexhaustible supply of hustlers looking to earn a little extra money can make strolling down the average Lagos street an ordeal. Lagos has long been this brusque: These were the same challenges that provided source material in the ‘70s and ‘80s for the churning music of the celebrated Afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo Kuti. And yet the city is also home to many people made exorbitantly wealthy by oil deals, banking or stints in government. The rich, surrounded by poverty, no longer need to leave Lagos to spend their money. They can now go to the Porsche showroom or high-end fashion houses like Ermenegildo Zegna or spend thousands of dollars at posh nightclubs like Rhapsody’s.

This gap between the haves and the have-nots adds considerably to the tensions of the city. When there are incidents of theft or armed robbery—like many a Lagosian, I have been held up at gunpoint in traffic and lived to tell the tale—it is frightening but easy to understand as an expression of the city’s unresolved economic contradictions.

But from within Lagos’s hectic neighborhoods, a number of oases of culture and tranquility are now blooming. These institutions, most of them quite small, are helping to transform Lagos into a cultural epicenter in its own right. At the same time, they serve as a balm for the frazzled nerves of the city’s cosmopolitan residents. Two decades ago, places like the New Afrika Shrine, the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Jazzhole Bookshop did not even exist; the National Museum in Onikan did not have the regular program of well-curated shows that it now does; and Freedom Park, a beautiful retreat in the heart of the city, was untouched and undeveloped for years, a rubbish dump in what used to be the old colonial prisons. What all these spaces have in common—be they theaters, restaurants, galleries or cafés—is an artistic optimism and a sense of focus that is distinct from the rowdy energy of the streets without. They have all emerged thanks to the end of military rule, the liberated creativity of longtime residents and the return of expatriate Nigerians. Some credit is also due to the state government, which has brought more prosperity to the city by focusing on internally generated revenue (“Pay your tax!” signs are everywhere) and being less concerned with the Lagos state share of Nigeria’s considerable but highly contested oil wealth.

I visit Lagos once or twice each year from my base in New York. From kindergarten through the end of high school, I was a Lagosian. It is still, in a sense, my home city. Lagos excites me each time I’m here—as I am excited when I’m in New York, Paris or Rio de Janeiro—because I know I will meet people with tremendous creative energy. These are musicians and novelists, fashion designers and Nollywood filmmakers, architects and conceptual artists. In them, the complexity of the city elicits a corresponding complexity of response. What seems to be developing is a critical mass of creative people who have turned Lagos into Africa’s cultural headquarters, perhaps not dissimilar to how Vienna became the leading light of European culture a century ago.

Of the many places in which to encounter such people, there are two that I particularly love now, neither of which existed when I was growing up in the city. Without them, my current experience of Lagos would be much poorer. They are a boutique hotel in Ikoyi called Bogobiri House and a cultural center in Victoria Island called Terra Kulture. Both are located on “the island,” the name Lagosians give to the complicated assortment of islands, creeks, lagoons, rivers and peninsulas that, taken together, constitute the oldest section of the city. Culturally and institutionally speaking, the island is where most of the action is. (Everything else, distinct and largely unzoned neighborhoods stretching endlessly north of the island, is called “the mainland.” But on the mainland, too, things are changing; the new Fela museum is in the neighborhood of Ikeja, and the Centre for Contemporary Art is in Yaba.)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well before Nigeria’s independence from Britain, Ikoyi, which is on the eastern half of Lagos Island, was developed as a residential area for Europeans in the city. The demographics of the area have changed, but Ikoyi still retains the prestige of those days. Bogobiri House, on a quiet street off Awolowo Road, is a funky little hotel with a subterranean ambiance. The architectural and design details, from the seashell-and-pebble wall patterns to the timber rafters, have a 1960s feel. In its simplicity and charm, the hotel is a relief from the overpriced and bland international options available elsewhere in the city. The other main draws of Bogobiri House are its café and live-music stage, where on a Thursday night and all through the weekend, one can find a hip, dashiki-wearing crowd taking in jazz, blues and Yoruba roots music. Regular performers include the likes of Duro Ikujenyo, who played keyboard with Fela Kuti in the late 1970s; Jimi Solanke, the gravel-voiced juju music pioneer; and, until his recent death this year at 85, Fatai Rolling Dollar, a joyous exponent of the Cuban-inflected high-life style that ruled Lagos after independence.

In the afternoons, quiet little groups of the culture set sit with their computers and coffees, taking advantage of the free WiFi and enjoying the tranquil, alternative Lagos, an echo of the hipster hangouts of Islington, in London, and Brooklyn. If the hotel bars at the Radisson Blu and the Eko Hotel are the places to find wealthy and eager-to-be-wealthy businessmen, then Bogobiri is where one is most likely to encounter graduate students in anthropology, independent filmmakers or owners of fashion houses.

No less tranquil or creative but with a more spacious and light-filled vibe is Terra Kulture, on Victoria Island. The café, bookshop and reading room there serve as de facto offices for many writers and budding entrepreneurs. Mornings might be taken up with a breakfast of coffee and dundun (fried yam) with hot pepper sauce. Afternoons are languid and might see the swirl of a visit from the pupils of a neighboring private school. The evenings unfold to the convivial clink of bottles of Star Lager and Guinness and steaming plates of spicy Nigerian food set on rough-hewn tables. One might pass hours here in just this sequence. A second-floor gallery features contemporary Nigerian painting, and the bookshop contains volumes ranging from Chinua Achebe’s classics to the latest novels by Sefi Atta and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Behind the main building is a performing-arts space that hosts a regular roster of theatrical works, including plays by the Nigerian dramatists Ola Rotimi and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. A program of Soyinka’s early farces—notably his knife-sharp satirical masterpiece, The Trials of Brother Jero—had a recent Sunday afternoon crowd rapt and thrilled.

When one emerges from these spaces, it can be a shock to be thrown once again into the madness of the crowds and cars of Lagos, “all of them in a rush / like the gush / of a cataract war,” as the poet P. Amanchukwu put it. But the rush by now serves a purpose: as a counterpoint to the oases.

Teju Cole’s most recent novel, Open City, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 2012.