I had arrived in Lagos courtesy of the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards ceremony, in my capacity as a nominee in a collaborative work of art. It was a tight schedule, practically in an out and one day in between for a gala award event. With stories of Lagos legendary traffic, it seemed a bad idea to even try and explore the city for fear of inconvenience. But Lagos State officials, had something lined up, a trip to the Kalakuta Republic. I really struggled to contain my excitement.
Kalakuta Republic was Fela Kuti’s independent state that operated on a different set of libertine rules and drew the ire of the military government. Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a musical legend, the father of Afrobeat, a revolutionary, a human rights activist, a deeply spiritual entity whose life and music had a profound effect on all those who listened to it. Fela spoke against institutionalized crime, the necessity of carving out an African identity and the disguises of neocolonialism. He spoke of African traditional religion and emphasized on the knowledge of one’s culture as a channel to one’s higher sense of being. He also made some bloody good music.
Whizzing through the congested Lagos streets, the tour guide, a tall large man with a gentle manner, shared highlights of Fela’s life and how his defiance elevated him to heroic status. Fela had taught millions of Nigerians what it meant to stay true to your roots and fight oppression. He was a revolutionary that the government discredited, frustrated and often brutally beat up.
The Kalakuta republic was not a grand mansion. It was the house he lived in until his death in 1997. Three stories, in a paved and walled compound, a freshly painted house in a neighbourhood dominated by rain streaked ashy grey walls with faded paint. The plaque on the wall read “The Kalakuta Republic Museum, opened in October 2012 by his Excellency Babatunde Raji Fashiola, the Governor of Lagos”. The irony was not lost on me. The same state that had spent a lot of energy trying to destroy this lone rebel had now turned his home into a star attraction for visitors coming to Lagos.
Yeni Kuti, his daughter now acted as the curator and spoke frankly about the complicated man her father was. It was in this house that Fela received some of the most severe beatings of his life. Kalakuta Republic had been raided and burned down twice but like Fela’s spirit, it always rose again. The house had received a face lift. There were plans to build a restaurant, add a lift and a gift shop where you could pick up a souvenir. Hanging on the walls, paintings, photographs, newspaper clippings all celebrating Fela’s memory. His modest bedroom had a glass wall. A sax, a guitar, a wall of shoes and his personal effects all on display.
17 years since his death, Fela’s spirit still looms large in this place, his political commentary still relevant, his music still as fresh as the first time I heard it. Fela Kuti had talked about the need for Africa to celebrate their own and deliberately sung in pidgin English to reach many. He detested the idea of other Africans suffering in oblivion and used his music as weapon against all forms of oppression.
That pan African clarion call is somewhat muted these days. What we hear is “Africa Rising” commercials sponsored yet another generous multinational.
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A TALE OF TWO CITIES
A woman who appeared to be in her 50s, wearing short cropped hair, in an ethnic patterned dress walked up to me at the cocktail party and introduced herself as an official from the Ministry of tourism with a flowery title that escapes me. “Welcome to Lagos, the centre of excellence”. It was my first time in Lagos and Nigeria. Lagos was many things but centre of excellence was certainly not my first impression. Lagos is Africa’s most populous city with an estimated population of 21 million or thereabouts depending on who you ask.
I had heard lots of stereotypes about Lagos. The horrendous traffic, the power black outs, the opportunistic criminals everywhere, loud and aggressive Nigerians but I could only confirm one thing. The weather is a tad bit too humid for those of us from Nairobi who enjoy great weather 12 months a year.
Nigeria is a country of contrasts and contradictions and nothing illustrates it better than Lagos. Nigeria is Africa’s second largest economy on the verge of overtaking South Africa but arriving at the Murtala Muhammed airport in Ikeja felt like walking into a sauna in Lodwar. No functioning air conditioning and filled with the kind of commotion typical of a country bus stand. Outside, the place looked shambolic. All manner of vehicular transport, cars so old, it felt as real as time traveling back to a West African movie set in the seventies. Juxtapose that against an ambition reclamation of the sea and plans to build an ultra-modern Eko Atlantic city and the splendour that comes with it. Lagos is a city that is not afraid to show its scars and bears its soul. Nairobi used to be like that, back when it was called ‘the green city in the sun’ and somewhere along the road we lost our soul and left our destiny in the hands of ‘investors’.
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