Lots of ‘peppe’ and fermented food: Diary of a visitor to Lagos

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“A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” — Virginia Woolf.

During the ‘FEMRITE at 20’ conference in Uganda, I met the patron of the Ebedi residency, Dr Wale Okediran, who told me about the Ebedi Writers’ Residency.

The idea of a room of my own and time to write appealed to me and was in line with Virginia Woolf’s argument in her essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. I warmed up to the idea of the residency immediately and off to Lagos I went soon after our meeting.


Contrary to what Kenyan friends had promised, it takes me just 30 minutes to clear with immigration at the Murtala Mohammed airport.

I had been told I’d spend hours clearing and that I’d definitely pay a bribe. I had small denominations of dollars, but nobody asked for a bribe. The pink suitcase, which I had forgotten to wrap while in Nairobi is intact. Lagos is, so far, my success story.

As I cart away my luggage, I get a text from dad: “Gen Murtala Mohammed was a revolutionary military Head of State in Nigeria. He was assassinated in a bloody coup.”

Dad’s is the first history lesson I’ll get on the bloody political history of Nigeria. Later, when I visit the National Museum in Onikan, I’ll marvel at the number of coups, though the guide will firmly forbid me from taking a photograph of the bullet-riddled Mercedes Benz Gen Mohammed was killed in.

Lagos is a lot like Dar-es-Salaam; a city clad in hot, humid coastal air. Yet its rather indifferent sign, ‘This is Lagos,’ makes me realise that this is not an easy-going Swahili coastal town, and I should not let my guard down yet.

I am afraid but manage to shake off the fear. After all, I tell myself, Lagos is an old friend. A place I have been to with Adichie and Ifemelu. I know the old yellow matatus are danfos. I know, too, that the tuktuk, which was a Bajaj in Dar-es-Salaam a month earlier, has become a keke. The women hawkers in wrappers with wide trays of bread on their heads must be agege bread sellers.

The Kelin Heights Hotel in Surulere is my first home and I am welcomed with a shocked, “But you have an accent?”

He is the dark, muscular type and the reason he came to my room was to bring a flask of hot water. It is a question and so in response I confess my nationality.

‘Yes, I am Kenyan.’ He lingers, listening, then offering bits of himself in return. He is from Port Harcourt and came to Lagos to look for work. Later, I  throw a yellow Lipton teabag into the cup and watch sugar cubes dissolve but then there is a power cut and  then it is umbra in Lagos.   


“The city’s air is dense with story” — Teju Cole in Everyday is for The Thief

“Bros, make I carry am enter inside. I go find you small something.”

That is my cab driver Kolawole, pleading with the gateman at Bar Beach to let us see the place. We are allowed in, thanks to the magical words ‘something small’ but we find that Bar Beach no longer exists. The place is now private property, bought off by rich businessmen. Sand is being imported to fill up the waters. Lorries and cranes stand where palm fronds used to swing in the afternoon breeze. 

Later, stuck in the infamous Lagos traffic jam near third mainland bridge, I will notice the interesting architecture of the Lagos National Theatre. Shaped like a military cap, it will make me wonder if, perhaps,  military-like  discipline is responsible for the flourishing arts and culture scene in Nigeria.  


“Siku Njema Huonekana Asubuhi” — Swahili proverb.

It is a Friday and I leave the hotel room early because I have a breakfast date with a Kenyan friend who lives in Ikoyi.

Unlike Surulere, Ikoyi is a clean, quiet and well-kept mistress. Most of the houses I see have outdoor potted plants and, from my host’s balcony, I can see the red-roofed buildings on Victoria Island.

For lunch, we visit another Kenyan friend’s house on Banana Island where the manicured golf courses and tennis lawns lie at the feet of huge apartments whose chins stand defiantly high, as though aware of the rich, important lives within them.

The conversations are varied and, like the Biblical Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego, we are joined by a fourth person, a Kenyan businesswoman visiting from Paris. She is in Lagos to scout for clients. The conversation then shifts to the flamboyant lives of the rich in Nigeria and how Nigeria alone accounts for more than half of the luxury goods market in Africa.

Someone makes a comparison with Kenya. “Kenyans, we are just obsessed with buying plot after plot of land. Many of us care less about investing in experiences and travelling, though that is the only way to live fully, to interact with other cultures. We need to think beyond our ka-ploti mentality.”

At 7pm, I am dropped off at Eko Hotel on Victoria Island where I hope to get a ticket to watch Fela, the musical inspired by the life of Nigerian music icon Fela Kuti. But this isn’t Nairobi and tickets are sold out, so I have to miss the play.

But then again, this isn’t Nairobi, so theatre options exist. I cross over to Terra Kulture and watch Wakaa, the musical. It is well choreographed and with excellent décor and costumes.

Performed as part of the Lagos@50 celebrations, Wakaa followed the lives of ordinary Lagosians and their efforts to better their lives. The meshing of old and new music, from Fela to Davido, lends originality and a Lagosian feel so successful I could see the streets in the theater hall.  


Ibadan, running splash of rust and gold-flung and scattered among seven hills like broken china in the sun — J.P.Clark

This poem comes to mind as I stare out the window and marvel at Ibadan’s architecture. I am here because I itch to feel the old city that bears much of the African literature that I have read. And because I am to meet playwright Rotimi Babatunde at the University of Ibadan.

We go to a highlife concert on the campus and intersperse our literary conversations with stories of the origin of highlife music in West Africa. When the Swahili song, Malaika, starts to play, I feel an orchestra of emotions swell up inside me. This feels like home. This is home. 


Indigo dyed fabrics, they explained, come in many different types: Eleko, Alagbole, Alabere, Obiriki, Eleso and so on — Nigerian Festivals by Pelu Awofeso.

Nigerian foods, like Nigerian fabrics, come in many different types. And so to eat Nigerian food is to savour the strong aroma of red palm oil. It also means accepting the inevitability of the mortar and pestle business with its hardening of palms and dripping foreheads.

It means to enjoy fermented food, something my foreign tongue refuses to get accustomed to. My Ghanaian housemate, after seeing my struggle with Nigerian dishes, offers to make her country’s favourites. I am delighted at the offer but the joy is short-lived for the banku, made from fermented maize flour and fresh cassava rolled into fufu-like balls, is also foreign to my tongue. In the end, I go to the market and buy maize flour. That is how ugali becomes part of our weekly meals.

You carry your memories tied up in a lipstick-stained kerchief — Wisteria by Kwame Dawes

The days are spent behind closed doors as each resident struggles with writing. Evenings at the dining table are about taking tea, reading, critiquing and, of course, pounding tomatoes, yams, pepper and onions. Other days are spent out of the house, where the university lecturer, Bello Alhaji, takes us on visits to the king of Iseyinland, or at the Iseyin Grammar School where we teach creative writing.

I am absorbed in the fabric of the everyday. Until I have to pack my suitcase and head back to Lagos to attend the book fair and meet  Prof Wole Soyinka at Freedom Square — the very place where I first ate my favourite Nigerian dish, egusi soup with beef and pounded yam. But, they use too much pepper, these Nigerias!

The writer is a teacher in Baringo County

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