I went to Nigeria this week.
Even writing it feels astonishing to me – in many ways Nigeria, as with any of the African nations, feels much further from Tokoroa & my childhood dreams of how and where to travel than Europe, more different, and therefore more distant.
Also, I’m not very good with heat (freckled skin) and I get claustrophobic in crowds. So naturally, I jumped at the offer when the British Council Lit dept asked if I’d like to fly to Lagos (wikipedia says it’s the most populous city in Nigeria, the second fastest-growing city in Africa and the seventh in the world), then travel on to Abeokuta and the Ake Arts & Books Festival, to teach some workshops.
It was brilliant. Utterly different and yet, also, not that different at all – book festivals are not that different the world over, writers are not that different, teaching workshops is not that different, people keen to write are not that different, teenage students are not that different, people are not that different.
But it was new. Very new. I think, the older I get, the better I am with new. I think this is a good thing. This is a repeat version of what I shared with friends & family on facebook …
Sunday flight into early Monday arrival :
Women carrying huge baskets of bread on their heads, people hanging off the open sides of buses (which are vans anyway), glorious old buildings in Havisham-style decay, a fuzzy sun, electric wire tangles, people collecting water from plastic tanks, a child brushing his teeth at a street tap – really brushing hard, shanty towns, little ones dotted, then one wide, shanty villages under bridges, Jesus and the Prophet vying for attention, mini-commerce of every kind, a tailor ironing on the street, a man shaving another man’s head on a step, beeping cars and vans hairs’ breadths apart – or not, everyone up and working early early, a rubbish dump -picked over, old colonial buildings pretending it was all fine, always fine, and across the bridge higher and taller in the hazy distance – island of Oz? Made it. Lagos (driving in and out of for four hours) looks astonishing, felt thrilling, more there on Wed, for now Abeokuta, lush hills and red red soil and still noisy and busy, but far smaller, and, after 26 hours awake, a little nap before it begins. Oh and lizards. lots of them, big and leaping. Yay for lizards.
Monday : This afternoon, in Abeokuta, after the Lagos early morning speed-date, we went to two hotels before finding ours, met the glorious festival-maker Lola (a Fun Palace maker if ever there was one), failed to sleep despite having flown all night, swam to wake myself up (and scare the teenagers who think pools are for kids), ate okra stew/soup and pounded yam (liked the yam, okra yummy spicy but a bit too gelatinous for me, crab claws, beef in stew good, liver and tripe less keen on – but I tried them!), then climbed Olumo rock. The tree in these pics translates as “dogged and resilient” – so I hugged it. Of course.
The story of this rock and this space was told by two brilliant guides who were speaking of their own ancestry/whanau/whakapapa which was very moving, it’s an astonishing climb esp when not quite dressed for it (small heels, didn’t know it was planned after lunch!). I made it to the top and got to encourage brilliant Winnie from Lagos to go for it, and had the joy of her running – up the steep scary bit – into my arms, thrilled she’d broken her heights fear. Running up rock, 75 degree-ish rock (really, that steep at the top). Incredible. SO life-affirming. On the way back to dinner with the volunteers and French contingent, we went to a street market (more literally street than I’ve ever known) where I bought one of those tops I’d never buy at home. It was, I now see, made in Thailand. On the way from the market we drove past a little girl, my guard-daughter Ruby’s age, in school uniform, doing her homework, using a stool for a table, outside the street stall that might also be her family home. It was dusk and dusty and hot and noisy and she was engrossed. And it didn’t make me think ‘oh we have so much and she so little’, it made me think she was amazing. Pen, paper, sorted. Teaching schools workshops tomorrow. Heading to bed after 36 hours awake. Feeling lucky. Sending you all love. (I know this is lengthy, feel free to ignore, I tend to have health or work adventures, not travel ones – often the former precluding the latter – so am revelling for now.) Night all. Morning NZers.
Tuesday : Taught all-day workshop to 21 x 15/16/17 yr olds, impro for writers, brilliant kids, private school, parents often in UK/US sending them home to get educated, def not an Eton-type private school, but likely making future leaders nonetheless. Outed myself because it was relevant, tiny frisson, no more shock waves than would be among same age kids at home. (Which, assuming they do become future leaders of Nigeria bodes very well.) Teachers were in room too and no-one made a fuss. No pics today cos def not touristing now, knackered in the way only physicality of impro and specifics of writing manage to bring together – also the way that teaching 16yo’s with only one break in hot hot room can do! Depressing conversation withWinnis about how she and friends don’t vote cos they KNOW it’s rigged and how different that is to people in UK thinking there’s ‘no point’ where at least, as she said, ‘Your vote is counted’. Much less touristy day, much more how it probably really is. No less enjoyable. Lit Fest evening to come, next workshop tomorrow, singing for my supper (lunch actually, egusi made with stockfish). And yam. Obv.
Wednesday 2am update (with 9am ‘address’ from First Lady of Ogun State to come, tra la la), anyway … Had brilliant conversation with Tayo Aluko re his Paul Robeson solo show/solo shows generally/making work, and saw Tunde Kelani’s film-play adaptation of The Government Inspector. It’s great (could be shorter – it’s a play, couldn’t they all?!) the play-film experiment worked and it also didn’t work for me (filmed play, 4 cameras, no audience, actors acting – brilliantly given it’s farce & no audience – as live), but I love the guts in trying it (and he’s not a young man and very successful and respected, such a great role model for working differently when established, not doing the same old, hugely impressive), trying a thing that ISN’T film, and consciously is play-on-film. Second half absolutely took off. TRSE should do his adaptation. Really. (I’ll edit.) Tomorrow another workshop, more of festival, then back to Lagos. Also – the DRIVING HERE!! I have totally stopped looking anywhere but out the non-road side of the car. And yet … ppp/ttt/touch wood … haven’t seen one accident. Maybe we need to start beeping from behind, rather than indicating from in front? (Serious question.) Night all. I fear I may not be my First Lady best in five hours …
Wednesday evening : After the constant bustle and difference, alone in a perfectly nice, perfectly anonymous, hotel room in Lagos. Five hours sleep, an address by the state governor (or was he the senator?) and shaking hands with the Cultural Minister (stunningest, dimple-smiled, warmest-seeming, poss one of the most beautiful women I’ve even seen), then a three-hour no-break impro-writing masterclass with four fantastically willing students (one of whom, an English lit teacher, is going to take it all back to the kids he teaches – brilliant), explaining the Snow White/Jesus/Mohammed (Hero’s Journey) story form, ably assisted by one of the four, who got all enthused by the Hero’s Journey (as form, NOT plotting method!) and before I’d even got to that bit, she pointed out that Moses is a Hero’s Journey too. Always useful to have biblically-versed students when explaining Hero! All of them totally up for impro and for writing, all of them giving up paid work to be there, all of them SO passionate about writing. Because there had been no time in the morning, I ate sweet white bread and eggy-spicy thing for breakfast during workshop. Yum. I like the eggy-spicy dish. Caught up with some more writers and artists over lunch, German doc maker to follow French doc maker from last night, met lots more arriving now as I have to leave (Totleigh Barton for my Arvon workshop on Monday),
and then a long traffic-y drive back to Lagos. Where I saw the ‘city farm’ below beneath a road bridge. Don’t quite know what to do with myself in the relative quiet (though there are beeping cars/bikes outside, obv), but a swim for a start … It’s positively chilly in Lagos at 28 degrees …)
later on Wednesday night : I am eating fish soup (mmm, fresh) in Lagos, alone in a hotel restaurant (I was 27 before I ever stayed in a hotel, and that was for work), with a nice glass of wine, a good book (Americanah, obv!), and a view of a soft pool. I wish my mum was alive to ring her and tell her about my adventure. Feeling deeply grateful.
And that was it. All done and dusted in four days.
So, from the briefest of visits, my entree to Nigeria (and indeed to the whole of Africa), made me want lots more. I’d like to teach more teachers so they can take it to their students. I’d love to see more of the land and maybe have more time in Lagos. I’d like to go to a not-private school (schools) and see if there is anything I can offer with impro-for-writers that could be useful. I think sharing with teachers so they can share with students might be useful. I’d like to go back.
Enormously grateful to the British Council Literature Dept in the UK, the British Council Nigeria, the Ake Festival and the force of nature that is the brilliant Lola Shoneyin, who created and runs the festival.