Wole Soyinka on Lagos

City of Lagos, Nigeria circa 1967 Bruno Barbey / Magnum

How does one translate Oge? Reluctantly, I had agreed to receive the newly crowned, new-generation Sisi Oge—Lady of Chic?—of Lagos. She wanted my advice on the social agenda for her year on the throne. With her "court"—photographer, chaperone, press secretary, etc.—she turned up in a small convoy of cars, head framed in a tiny coronet. As we sat in my home of dense foliage, any semblance of which had long vanished from most of Lagos, I listened to their dreams, wistfully pondering—were these young enthusiasts the hidden spirit of Lagos, a butterfly seeking to break free of its cocoon?

The Lagos of my childhood was a well-laid-out maritime city. The adventurer Leo Frobenius fantasized the lost city of Atlantis sunken in its bay. Washed by the Atlantic, pocked by lagoons, and veined by canals through which canoes plied a steady commerce with inland riverine settlements, memories of that past provided the setting for my radio play, A Scourge of Hyacinths.

Lagos was … exotic! Brazilian architecture—names like Pacheco, Pereira, Santos, da Silva, etc.—still links Lagos with the history of slavery. The "returnees" brought back the culture of Brazil: cuisine, music concerts, street spectacles like the caretta (satyr-costumed riders), and, simply, a distinctive lifestyle. There were well-tended, landscaped green areas along the beach and inland—one, lined with royal palms, was known as the "Love Gardens." At Ita Faji cemetery, in the heart of this island city, students, workers, petty traders, and the "area boys"—that early urban breed of mildly violent street gangs—all intermingled. They shared the broad shades of breadfruit, local apple, and cashew trees with the true landowners—the departed—in their subterranean abode.

The post-independence cannibal feast, accelerated by the incursion of military rule in 1966, grew insatiable after the petroleum boom. First the trees were eaten, then the lagoons and canals swallowed. They vanished under a steady vomit from sand chutes, to be surmounted by putative skyscrapers and fortress architecture—for this violation brought the death of community and the ascendancy of violent, urban crime. Even the dead did not rest in peace. A military governor ordered the total evacuation of their coveted land, banished the bones to the outskirts. On their hallowed abode rose his concrete banality in town-hall architecture. The leavings were shared among the favored.

The trend became irreversible. Lagos became ugly—physically, socially, and spiritually. The traditional compound architecture—encased spaces of humanized dwellings, usually with a well at the center, where families congregated, nursed infants, cooked, gossiped, quarreled, and settled disputes—crumbled before the advancing maw of "development," in reality, naked land greed. Organized crime flourished in the choked streets and behind ornate gates. Lagos suffocated under population crush and commercial explosion; traffic became one frenzied, writhing dragon, vainly seeking escape.

Remedies were superficial and rhetorical. The city's trapped inmates sought to make up for their daily nightmare with ostentation. Parties spilled onto streets, with all-night bands, nothing on tap but XO cognac and champagne. Beer?—screamed an outraged Mamma Oge—beer is for drivers. In my house you drink only champagne! But the city had aged prematurely—only one title then befitted her—Arugbo N'soge—the gaudy, mincing hag. To that period belonged the provocation for my play The Beatification of Area Boy.

Yet numerous redeployed expatriates and visitors return again and again, complaining that they cannot get Lagos out of their system—these devotees have a huge surprise in store! The butterfly is emerging from the chrysalis, a reversal of the cannibalistic orgy from the '60s into the '90s. How often—South Africa excepted—does one encounter a historic prison transformed into a Freedom Park, with a theater implanted where the gallows once stood! The scale of ambition is staggering. Side by side with a refurbished Lagos, the foundations of a sister city are being laid—the Eko Atlantic City—rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic. Frobenius would be pleasantly astonished!

My callers proved, unwittingly, emblematic. From Arugbo N'soge to Sisi Oge, Lagos is mastering the art of rejuvenation.

Soyinka was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature.