Uluku pepe in Lagos

Uluku pepe in Lagos

”Uluku pepe, uluku pepe”, young men repairing their motorcycles at the street say, when I pass them by with my personal body guard, Chris Ihidero, who has promised to show his skills in martial arts if somebody dares to approach me too closely. But there was no need for any protection, since everybody left me walk completely peacefully. With Chris.

These were my free days out, after Lagos Book & Art –festival in September 2006. With the kind help of Chris and The Guardian editor Chuks Nwanna, a great music enthusiast, I have succeeded in purchasing probably the best Nigerian/African music collection in Finland. I am so proud of my rap-, high life-, gospel and soul-records that I managed to buy on my way there. Without a Chuks I would not have found the cd´s of soukous singer Awilo Longomba, or mbalax and other treasures that now find their place in my book shelf. Not to forget excellent Seyi Solagbade and Black Face I got to know at the Book & Art –festival!

In Lagos I have also encountered the first cockroach in my whole life, lying at the bath room of Selina Suites in Surulere, Lagosian city centre. Before this I lived in Lekki in a hotel where richness and poorness stood side by side: next to the hotel was a barrack, a home of a local family. Lagos was friendly mostly, even if the common people living at the street are trying to make their everyday living in hard conditions. Corruption goes through the whole Nigerian society. Even the children go on begging the money, without any favour in return. Mental re-education and chancing the attitudes, mainly rising the respect of work, importance of reciprocal giving and getting.

In Lagos Book & Art -festival I have participated in a discussion about translating African literature and read one of my poems, manically repeating: “It is amazing…” in Finnish. Jumoke Verissimo has read the poem in English for the audience, that seemed to have like it. I have learned about the rough situation Nigerian (and African) authors remaining in their home country face mainly in the form of lack of resources (books, Internet access, other daily facilities that are so self-natural for us “westerners”). Ex-patriate authors are thus in a much more advantageous situation than their colleagues, who cannot develop their literatures in such environment, where there is lack of the basic working facilities. Ex-patriate authors had not been noticed tn the prize-giving of NLNG, the most prestigious literary award in Nigeria, but in 2007 this situation was supposed to be changing. I hope the changes have come into being, and that the poor working conditions of authors living inside Nigeria have somehow bettered.

I also interviewed female authors Mobolaji Adenubi and Aracelli Aipoh, and met shortly the very busy president of Nigerian PEN Centre, Femi Osofisa. During the Lagos Book & Art –festival was also published an important anthology of female writing, Wings of Dawn, sponsored by British Council, and co-edited by Ronnie Uzoigwe, whom I had met already in May 2006 in PEN Congress in Berlin. I learned that women had freed from traditional gender roles in literature so late as in beginning of 21st century, and had started to write without fear and self-censorship only now. I wish them all the best in this slow development and healing process. In Finland this liberalization process took place as early as in 19th century, and was carried on throughout whole 20th century.

Of course the festival and Lagos left me with more personal memories also, not only with lot more information about the current situation of Nigerian society in general and literature especially. I bought at the festival scary-looking paintings with animal and human figures and local motives from a local painter. The paintings are still in my living room waiting to be hanged on the floor. I have met so many enthusiastic and devoted young writers, who have came to me and offered their books, which I have with great interest taken back with me. I wish I would have had something to give them in return! I was happy to hear so many other local experiences, that I almost exhaustively wrote down still during many weeks after I returned from Nigeria back to Finland.

I had a chance to visit the editorial of local The Guardian. Editor Uduma Kalu asked about pictures or representations of Nigeria in Finnish media, to which I only could say, that Nigerian delta oil conflict and human kidnappings plus stories about corruption among politicians are the most usual stuff about Nigeria we read about here.

I tried to bring out the more positive picture about Nigeria to Finnish media, the vibrant culture you have in this huge country, without forgetting the critical edge that is always needed. I wrote a bunch of articles to Finnish press media about Nigerian literature, antiques, Nigerian Delta oil conflict. Lagos also left certainly a mark on me and my fictional writing: my third poetry collection Elämää Lagoksessa (Life in Lagos, ntamo 2008) includes a whole section of poems inspired by this huge and speedy town, estimated to be third or fourth biggest city in the whole world after fifteen years or so. The atmosphere of these long poems, which are like rewriting the African proverbs in a speedy city environment, can be best summarized in Chunks´ words: “Lagosians live like they would constantly be at the border heart attack.”

Local media also showed some interest in a curious Finn, who had decided to come so far down as to arrive to Nigeria. I was interviewed for example in a morning show of television channel NTA, and to my personal wonder many Nigerian people I have met even one year later in different contexts have remembered the interview! I remember only that I had hard times in getting there in time by taxi, and long waiting after I had arrived there. I had put a black UNIFEM shirt with a logo: “No women left behind” on me, and spoke about the importance of women in a society, and the importance of empowering the women. I hope that this political message got through, is understood and implemented in future. It seems to me, that at least I left some memory trace in you, because some of you still remember the interview of Book & Art –festival.

Last but not least, great thanks for a great man behind all this, one of the best cultural journalists in Nigeria, Jahman Anikulapo, who so kindly took care of me and my needs during the whole festival and afterwards. I must have been a sight when I passed the Finnish custom with a long, traditional blue dress Jahman had gave to me, not to forget his other presents. I still cannot cook Nigerian food, and sewing I do not do in general, but all this information about local traditions will stay in my memory.

Luckily Toyin Akinosho had left some brochures of Book & Art –festival at the festival table of International PEN Congress in May. Otherwise I would not have known anything about this beautiful interartistic event in one of the largest cities in the world, and would not have certainly participated it. I wish all the best for nice people I met in Lagos and hope that we have a chance to see each others in some context in future too. It was you that made my time in Lagos. I also remember you, warmly.

And do not even think that I have forgotten Africa! Right now I am co-ordinating a project between Finnish and African authors, and one Nigerian female author, Toyin Adewale, will also participate in it. There is so much to do, and so much to write about. Let´s go on with that precious task.

Rita Dahl
Finnish author, editor and vice-president of Finnish PEN-Centre, who participated in Lagos Book & Art 2006

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