The morning after my beers under the stars with Haruna, I got up early so as to have a walk around the Presidential Library complex before the heat got unbearable.
This meant breaking with a long-held personal principle of doing absolutely nothing other than getting dressed (and sometimes not even that) in the morning before having breakfast. It was a necessary break with tradition though, as the heat was already over 30 degrees by breakfast time and would reach almost 40 before noon. The Nigerian climate is not made for the faint of heart or Irish of origin.
The grounds of the library were very impressive and totally at odds with the poverty that I had seen on my way from Lagos to Abeokuta. As well as all of the facilities that I listed in the last post, there was a wildlife park, lakes, an outdoor eatery and a bar (covered in Guinness paraphernalia) housed in a bamboo clearing between the hotel and the Library building. Many of the rocks in between the various attractions were home to incredible looking lizards with green bodies and orange brazen faces that looked straight back at the uninitiated visitors who stopped to observe them.
President Obasanjo conceived the idea of the library in 1998, modelling it on the presidential library system that has been in place in the United States since FDR donated his official documents for national use in 1941. The goal of the Library, as quoted in the brochures and other official documentation, is ‘preserving the past, capturing the present and inspiring the future’.
Although a number of smaller events had been taking place since Thursday, today (Saturday) was the first day of the celebrations at which all of the major dignitaries would be in attendance. The first order of business was the official opening of the Library, which involved an Oscars-like entrance for guests who walked up a red carpet with members of the press lined along either side.
After enquiring with an official, I was informed that the only way invitees could enter the building for the event was via the red carpet so, to my mortification, I had to run the gauntlet in front of the press cameras with the other celebrities. I cantered up the carpet with my head down so as to avoid being asked who the hell I was and how I’d manage to weasel my way into proceedings.
The guest list included many of the governors from Nigeria’s 36 states, several current and former international heads of state and an impressive selection of big names from the world of international diplomacy. Posses of varying sizes and ceremonial extravagance accompanied each of the governors when they entered. Some were positively understated while others had announcers, singers, umbrella holders and musicians to mark their arrival.
The posses caused something of an issue on the Saturday morning at the point of entry, as a significant number of guests attempted to enter through one set of double doors. The dignitaries themselves weren’t the source of any problems but their accompanying numbers jostled and shouted angrily at each other on numerous occasions as they argued over whose boss was more worthy of entering first.
At one point, two parties, both in the company of governors and all dressed in the most extravagant clothing, almost came to blows over who had the right of way. In the middle of the dispute, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan slipped in through the doors behind all of them, almost completely unnoticed by the crowd.
Within minutes of everyone on the list getting into the building, everyone left again to be taken on a walking tour around the complex by President Obasanjo, or ‘Baba’ as many Nigerians know him. For the first of many times that weekend, I was struck by the incredible energy and mobility of the octogenarian former President. He led a crowd of over one hundred people around the grounds at a good pace and in heat that had me sweat-soaked and lagging within the first few steps of the tour.
After the walk was complete, the museum section of the Library was opened. Featuring artefacts from throughout Obasanjo’s life, including his early military uniforms, pictures, audio-visual accounts and newspaper clippings of pivotal moments in his presidencies, an enormous display of gifts presented to him by heads of state and official correspondence to other world leaders. It also features a full recreation of the cell in which he spent three years as a political prisoner between 1995 and 1998, before being released and returning to the leadership of the country via a democratic election following the death of the Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha.
As fascinating as the tour was, and it truly is a treasure trove for anyone with even a slight interest in African politics, I couldn’t stop myself from obsessing over the fact that it was Saturday and I hadn’t a single interview conducted. To make matters worse, I could not make contact with any of the organisers I had spoken with prior to my arrival. In their defence, I could understand their lack of communication, given the packed schedule of events and the esteemed guest list, which I was at the bottom of, in terms of importance.
In fear that my existing contacts within the Obasanjo camp might not be able to guarantee my interview with him before my departure the following Wednesday morning, I did my best to ingratiate myself with other associates of the President. This involved ‘networking’, a pursuit that makes my skin crawl with discomfort, but which I’m fast learning is one of the most valuable skills to have on a research trip.
I managed to meet with one of the President’s aides, who told me that it was unlikely I would get to conduct an interview before Monday. He did give me his card though, and said that if my sit-down with Obasanjo hadn’t occurred by Monday afternoon to get in contact with him then. I had heard this new acquaintance’s name before, as the organisers whom I had been dealing with up until this point had told me that he worked for them. It left me a little confused and concerned when he told me that in actual fact, he was in charge of those with whom I had been liaising to that point. Over the course of the next few days, though, I grew accustomed to conflicting accounts regarding the nature of the hierarchy under the President.
Later that day, I managed to finagle my way into the VIP section of the huge and elegantly kitted-out marquee that had been set up on the grounds for a large evening banquet. I had made friends, by this point, with a trio of jovial British men who had past dealings with the Obasanjo Government by virtue of their involvement in the import industry. I spent a few hours eating and drinking with them at the banquet. They were great fun and shared my appreciation for bawdy humour but I still don’t know a single item that they import or what being in the ‘import business’ actually entails.
Crucially, though, one of them did tell me that it would be worth my while going to the squash tournament that was taking place the following morning at the Presidential Library’s courts. It was kicking off at 7am in the morning, meaning that it would attract the smallest crowd of the weekend’s events but it was sure to feature Obasanjo, a squash nut by all accounts who still plays several times a week despite his 80 years.
“Do you play squash? They might even be looking for players to fill up the numbers,” one member of my new trio of friends informed me.
The tournament the following morning consisted of the President playing three different members of a local squash club one after the other. Once more, I could not believe the vitality of the man. There might have been some question over the commitment of his opponents at times but he was spryer on the court than your average 40-year-old and better able to swing a racket than I have ever been.
Unfortunately, there was no requirement for additional players so I didn’t get the chance to bring myself to the President’s attention with my squash prowess, or lack thereof. As he was leaving though, I’m pretty sure he did glance up curiously at the solitary white man in the audience, looking deflated in his Bruff rugby shorts at the back of the viewing gallery.
Later that morning, a mass service took place to mark the opening of the Library and the President’s Birthday. Having been brought up attending services that were relatively sombre affairs, this mass was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The perimeter of the church had a significant armed presence, understandable given the status of some of the service attendees, and one had to walk through a metal detector when entering the building.
Inside the church was the stuff of a Health and Safety officer’s nightmares. Despite the building being quite large, there was only standing room available and it was the type that had you rubbing off worshipers on either side. Unlike the standard Irish Catholic service, this one was delivered in a much more ‘fire and brimstone’ fashion by several speakers, none of whom seemed to be working off a set script.
Audience participation also played a much bigger role than I had experienced in my church-going youth. There was a lot of dancing and highly spirited singing that you couldn’t help but shuffle your feet to, despite the cramped quarters. While the convention at home is to mutter prayers quietly, here the standard practice was to say them out loud so when the time came to request something from God, I became privy to the desires of all those around me that were within earshot.
The entire service went on for over two hours, by which point many of those in attendance must have been exhausted given the heat and the exertions required of participants. Just before the service ended, the priest announced that not everybody had come to praise God but some had come to line their pockets. A purse had been stolen during the mass, he announced, before adding that the thief should come forward and confess, if he did not want to face the wrath of God. Presumably, the thief was more worried about the wrath of those in attendance, as he did not reveal himself.
After the service, another banquet took place in the marquee which was thankfully a short walk from the church. A very large crowd had gathered outside, however, and armed guards had stopped letting people in by the time I arrived.
We were told that we would have to wait until those attendees who were just inside the door had taken their seats before we would be allowed to enter so as to prevent a crush just inside the entrance. The heat at this point was the most oppressive I had ever felt, although it was probably amplified by having a swelling and impatient crowd at my back and a line of arm-linked soldiers at my front blocking the entrance.
Within a minute of waiting and trying not to be pushed forward by those behind me, I became aware that there was a chance I might actually faint from the heat. I felt pre-emptively embarrassed at the possibility while also a little concerned that dropping to the floor might result in my getting unintentionally trampled on by those around me.
“Are you ok?” asked the soldier directly in front of me, apparently concerned by the steady tap-flow of sweat running down my forehead and my drooping eyelids. Conscious of appearing like a pampered Westerner, unable for a bit of hot weather, I tried to put on a brave face by telling him I was fine.
Unfortunately though, the relocation of all the moisture in my body to the surface of my skin had left my throat bone dry, so what was meant to be a “yes” came out like a final wheezing death rattle. Feeling sorry for me, the soldier temporarily broke the chain link he had formed with his colleague on one side and beckoned me to slip through and into the air-conditioned marquee.
Once inside, I managed to get my hands on a bottle of water from one of the waiters. Briefly, I considered emptying the entire thing over my head but I managed to restrain myself. As wonderful as it would have felt, it would not have been a good look for any potential interviewees that were watching.
With the fear of fainting subsided, I started to seek out a spot at a table, but each of the several hundred chairs seemed to be occupied. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a hand waving at me.
It belonged to a very friendly and sincere Nigerian guy named Kusimo, whom I had met the day before in the section of the museum dedicated to Obasanjo’s work in the African Union. Kusimo and his friend Oluwemimo (or ‘Wemi’), who I had also met at the same exhibit, were sitting together and had made space for me next to them at the table.
After several hours standing in the church and my almost-fainting outside, I was incredibly grateful to my two new acquaintances for their kindness. We sat for the next two hours, listening to speeches by various dignitaries, chatting amongst ourselves and eating the lovely meal that followed after. All the while, I continued to check my phone at intervals that were too regular to be polite, just in case word came from one of the President’s aides regarding my interview requests for Obasanjo or any of his advisors. To my disappointment but not my surprise, no calls or texts came.
Over the course of dinner conversation, I said to Kusimo and Wemi that I hadn’t planned on venturing outside of the Presidential Library complex, having felt particularly vulnerable when getting my sim card earlier in the week and without the guidance of Haruna to rely on anymore.
They were aghast at the idea that I would come to Abeokuta and not get a proper taste of the City. After a little convincing, and once it was apparent that it was going to be another interview-free day, I agreed to come with them to see the City’s main tourist attraction, Olumu Rock.
When we walked outside the gates of the complex, the two guys told me to hold back a few paces while they hailed one of the local taxis and haggled a price. If the driver knew that I was a passenger, they explained, the price would go way up.
We travelled for about ten minutes, with some of the journey along a motorway and the rest through a residential area leading up to the Rock. All of the homes we passed along the way were very small, by Irish standards, and other than for sleeping, eating and cooking, the houses weren’t made for people spending lots of time indoors, like we do in Ireland.
It occurred to me while we drove through the neighbourhood, with all the adults and children outside talking to one another, that despite the enormous income disparity between here and my homeland, the sense of community here must be incomparable to most places in modern Ireland, where people often don’t even know their neighbours’ names.
Olumo Rock itself was amazing to behold. True to its name, it is an enormous rock perched upon a hill that overlooks Abeokuta. The Rock and the caves under it were used as a fortress by the Egba people, the founders of the City, who fled inter-tribal wars in the 19th Century and sought refuge here.
That history provided the City with its name. ‘Abeokuta’ directly translates to ‘the underneath of the rock’ or indirectly to ‘refuge among rocks’.
It takes about 20 minutes to climb Olumu Rock and the view from the top is stunning, you can see all of Abeokuta and a good stretch of the Ogun River, after which the state we were in is named. Kusimo and Wemi played a blinder as tour guides, enthusiastically pointing out various points of interest in the City as we climbed and more locations became visible from our height.
In the gift shop at Olumu Rock, they even managed to convince me to buy my own shirt made from local adire material, although I absolutely could not pull off the look, especially standing next to Kusimo and Wemi who looked terrific in their local clothing. It was one of the few times in my life where I agreed with those who cry foul about cultural appropriation.
When we had descended Olumu Rock, there were no taxis to be found and the best next option we could get was to jump on a motorcycle taxi, or ‘Okada’ as they are known locally. Wemi jumped on board a bike of his own as a passenger and Kusimo and I shared another Okada along with the driver.
Wearing no helmets, with three of us on board the motorcycle, we took off down the crack-laden road with people lined along either side, at a pace that was somewhat quicker than I’d anticipated. Shortly after taking off, we lurched over a bump in the road and I tensed up all of a sudden, which did not go unnoticed by Kusimo behind me.
“Have you ridden a motorcycle before?” he asked.
“Ya, I have, a few times actually,” I responded with a slight quiver in my voice. “I’ve always worn a helmet though.”
He started laughing out loud behind me and relayed my fears to the driver in Yoruba, who also chuckled along.
“This is Africa, my friend,” said Kusimo, by way of explanation, when the laughter had subsided. Before long, though, I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the ride back. Some of the most fun things in life require a liberal helping of danger and that journey was definitely one of them.
As we motored past a crowd of people close to the Library, I heard a man shout out “Oyibo” at us, followed by a guffaw.
“He’s talking about you,” Kusimo explained. “’Oyibo’ means ‘white man’. People wouldn’t be used to seeing people like you on these bikes.”
With that explained, all three of us laughed.
Many people who travel to Africa from the West come across the phrase that Kusimo had used – ‘This is Africa’ (or T.I.A.) – at some point. Generally it refers, in a somewhat derogatory but also often accurate way, to the more chaotic elements of life on the continent, such as unreliable services, the ‘fly by the seat of you pants’ way in which things are done, the occasional necessity for bribes and other general inefficiencies.
However, after dismounting the bike in one piece at the end of the journey, I started thinking that the phrase could just as easily be applied in another sense. Certainly, I have already had several experiences to which the unflattering ‘T.I.A’ label could be applied, but I have also experienced a welcome, which, to me, seems uniquely African.
Since landing in Jo’burg, I have been invited around for dinner by several erstwhile strangers; every person I have had the pleasure of meeting at my temporary university has provided me with the warmest of welcomes; even the Uber drivers – many of whom don’t know where Ireland is – have made me feel gladly received and are only ever a sentence away from a big laugh. Now in Nigeria, two more strangers had shown me the best of what their City had to offer and provided me with a memory for life in the process. I would struggle to see a lot of this happening in Ireland to a visiting African.
With another day down in Nigeria, and still no interviews conducted, I consoled myself with the thought that I had the wonderful memory of that day at least. Someone much wiser than I said before I left that, even if things don’t go to plan, I would be richer for the experience, regardless. I would have given several of my back teeth on Sunday night for even just five minutes interview time with President Obasanjo but, at the same time, I couldn’t deny that she’d had a point.