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Review of Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion


By Femi Osofisan

Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion. Kaye Whiteman. Signal Books, Oxford, 2012. Pp. 271. ISBN. 978-1-908493-05-7 (pb). £12.

‘Love’s Labour Won’:  Kaye Whiteman’s Lagos. It would sound trite perhaps to employ the familiar cliché and say that Kaye Whiteman’s Lagos is a labour of love; but that is what it is—a magnificent paean from a doting lover to an admittedly difficult but greatly misunderstood, alluring mistress.

Whiteman obviously loves Lagos, perhaps even more, on the evidence of this book, than the Lagos indigene himself. He first visited the city some four decades ago, in 1964, and seems to have never left it. Since that first visit, he has been a regular visitor there, with a prolonged sojourn once in what he describes as two vitally important years, from 2001 to 2002.

This fact, of its author being an ‘insider-outsider’ (a term made current in the recent title by Keith Richards, another expatriate lover of Nigeria), accounts no doubt for some of the book’s shortcomings, in terms for instance of some unfortunate omissions such as those pointed out by Alhaji Femi Okunnu in his Foreword. But it also gives the book considerable leverage in terms of objectivity, because Kaye is able to navigate above the—at times merely fictitious—allegations of ethnic, political or religious prejudices that usually bedevil local accounts.

Thus he has produced a work which Okunnu, even with his reservations, still calls a “tour de force for all lovers of history [and for] those interested in Nigeria’s political and socio-economic development and future role in the world economy.” The praise is by no means extravagant. Lagos is a compendious effort to capture every facet of Lagos life, from its crude beginnings to the most recent developments, and the effort is for the most part richly informative and entertaining.

Lagos, it is well known, has up till now been the object of sustained hostility from the global community, especially the international press. Most often, as Whiteman points out, the city is publicised by journalists and even visiting diplomats as “a hell-hole of crazy slums, endless traffic jams, con-men and chaos,” creating a global picture of total dysfunction which fills intending visitors with panic, if not revulsion.

Indeed, when one recalls the statement by Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin that Russia is “Nigeria with snow”, on account of that country’s image as a sty of festering corruption, crime and violence, one thinks spontaneously of nowhere else than Lagos as the primary instigator of this unfortunate analogy. Whiteman’s account is designed, aggressively, to interrogate and correct this negative impression. For him, he argues again and again, Lagos, even with all its confusion, “is full of emotional warmth…[and] raw intensity.” And it is a credit to his power of narration that throughout the length of this nearly 300-page book, one continuously feels the pulse of the city’s “intensity”.

The book is divided into eleven chapters. The first two cover the history and topography of the city; and the third deals with the evolutions in the society and in the city’s physical outlay. The fourth and fifth chapters deal with the imaginative/creative life of the city, that is with the developments in the area of literature, music, and art, not forgetting the watering holes that a bon vivant like Whiteman describes as “havens in the wilderness.”

After these more or less general studies, Whiteman devotes the remaining chapters of the book to a deeper exploration of select topics: to what he calls “memorable stories”; then the ambitious, controversy-ridden FESTAC experience; profiles of chosen prominent personalities (“Lagos boys”); and the explosive phenomenon that was Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. These are followed by a chapter on some significant streets of the city, highlighting the reasons that make them historic; and then a final chapter examines the implications of Lagos’s prospective development as one of the world’s future megacities.

This outline alone is enough to indicate the tall ambition behind this book, and also of course its necessary selectivity. It is obvious that no book can be so fully comprehensive, and still escape the error of vital erasures. Inevitably some of the finer details will be sacrificed, because the decision about what to include or not cannot but be subjective, if not even arbitrary.   Kaye himself confesses to these limitations in his illuminating Preface. All the same, however, the material that survives exclusion is prodigious, and in many ways praise-worthy. This book will stand as an eloquent companion piece to that other love-song to Lagos edited by Odia Ofeimun, entitled Lagos of the Poets, from which Whiteman indeed draws substantially. And also to be commended is the author’s attempts to treat his material with honesty and candour. Even where the story concerns British agents and the machinations that led to the annexation of Lagos and the eventual colonization of the entire territory, one can see that Whiteman tries as much as possible to offer a balanced account; as he also does indeed in the chapters dealing with Nigeria’s violent history, and its impact on Lagos.

But arguably the best chapters are the fourth and fifth specifically, where Whiteman deals with “the evocative streets” of the imagination. Kaye is a journalist and chronicler, not an academic. Right from the outset, the itinerary he sketches for himself is to produce a book that is “an empirical adventure, and not so much a scientific study with academic pretensions.” His goal is to capture “the soul of the city,” not so much its statistics. Thus when he asserts that “above all, Lagos is a city of people”, one understands when these “people” turn out to be more specifically the workers in the field of the imagination, the writers and artists and culture producers. Unapologetically Whiteman directs the main focus of this book therefore on exposing “the impact that the genius of the city and of its astonishing melting-pot has had on the creative output of its people, [and] those from outside who have been drawn into its vortex.” This is why one can boldly say that, above all else, the book is a celebration of the creative passion that makes the city “above all a triumph of imagination over reality.”

This review, as must have been observed by now, has been unusually laced with copious quotations from the book itself. The excuse for this, if one is needed, comes from the book itself, from what I consider its main attribute—that is, the fact that it is written in extremely lucid and elegant prose. Every page glows with the imprint of an author of so many years’ experience in international journalism and who has been acknowledged as one of the masters in the field.  Lagos is, quite simply, a good read. The prose flows effortlessly, gracefully, invitingly. The sentences are uncluttered; the pace of narration is brisk; the details are well-researched; and the pages of print are regularly relieved with appropriate illustrations, even if one regrets that none of them is in colour. Regrettably too, there are a number of printing errors, quite disappointing in a book of such a high standard. But these errors are minor. All lovers of Lagos will be grateful for Whiteman’s Lagos.

Reviewed by: Femi Osofisan, International Research Institute, Freie University, Berlin.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 117-119]

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