Learning from Lagos: A City of New Meaning – Iweka Kingsley

by Iweka Kingsley

OCL_Kingsley_Text_Graphics_1In war terminology, ‘Open City’ refers to forsaking all defensive efforts by a city’s government or military in the face of imminent capture. Declaring a city ‘open’ during war often saves civilian lives and preserves historic landmarks.

I have always regarded Lagos as an open city in the light of its vibrancy and energy, the resilience of its residents and the unending transformation and revelation of itself to all those who are connected to it. Thinking on the city with others – developers of the project, fellow shortlisted candidates and other interested stakeholders who are also connected to this city in different ways – at the Open City Lagos Brainstorming Brunch brought me closer to existing realities of this city. It was a rare moment in which I became more aware of how this city continues to accommodate non-indigenes (even international migrants and populations) and enable them to contribute and benefit from the city’s economic, political and social success. Lagos belongs to nobody. Lagos belongs to everybody.

For a gathering set to discuss openness, it began for me with closed introspections as I sat in the reception of the Goethe Institut, next to Logo Adeyemi, another shortlisted candidate and a Lagos-based photographer whose works exude a raw authenticity and resonate powerfully in his poignant portrayals of the city, its people and spaces. Logo’s monochrome photos transformed otherwise preconceived frightful quarters of Lagos – like underneath the third-mainland bridge at Yaba/Ebute-Metta, Ojuelegba Underbridge and parts of Mile 2 – to unexplored and misunderstood spaces that could be reassigned value. It led to a conscious reimagining of the potential of places already familiar to me: could Ojuelegba Underbridge be turned into a space for public art exhibition? Could beneath the third-mainland bridge at Yaba be turned into a fish trading zone for the fishermen who fish in the area?


It occurred to me as I listened to different theories and ways of understanding ‘openness’ that there are diverse expectations for what an open city should deliver. For one person it may be a city with a network of coffeehouses, ‘Food is Ready’ canteens and bars that open 24 hours a day. For another it may be a city that maximises little spaces to make wide-reaching and lasting impact. One of the images displayed was a drawing by Elizabeth Adenugba of a small bukka flanked against a makeshift structure for a nursery school. A street gutter lined the built spaces as though marking this shared territory. This is one of many private initiatives undertaken with minimal resources where little spaces find new use. Yes, perhaps not the best use but notable in ways that serve local communities.

OCL_Kingsley_Text_Graphics_2On a larger scale, as with other examples shared from Germany and the United Kingdom, spaces in Lagos are being remade to reassign purpose and retrieve value from them. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Freedom Park in Lagos Island, the former colonial prison ground which is arguably now the most vibrant art and leisure centre in this city, hosting events like the Afropolitan Vibes and the Lagos Book and Arts Festival.

It was also refreshing to learn how policy researchers and advocates from the Centre for Human Development (CHD) work to uphold inclusion for women who are largely marginalised in this city. This particular topic led me to question a few concepts about the role women play in this city and the extent to which our patriarchal system excludes women from certain benefits and prohibits the involvement of men in activities that are culturally but not physiologically sensitive. It is great to advocate for the special needs of women in state policy and planning, like CHD is doing for female traders or market women, but why are men (especially those from the east and south-west parts of Nigeria) not encouraged to take on petty-trading, hairdressing or food vending to cater for the family like the women do, especially in situations where they are not otherwise engaged? Surely, a city is open if it yields to its occupants irrespective of gender, class or race.

OCL_Kingsley_Text_Graphics_3“Openness is enduring, insatiable and limitless,” I remember saying at some point, after listening to what others had to say made me critically re-evaluate my understanding of openness. Lagos represents a complex interplay of interactions of two major forms, person-to-person and person-to-space. Elizabeth’s pastel drawings depict a few scenarios of both forms that I might readily miss or ignore. Such vivid encounters that characterise the unique quirks of the city usually go unnoticed, as I, like most, am often so engrossed in my daily priorities I fail to note with interest common interactions that colour this city.

This city is very alive. Even with spatial constraints due to its large population, it manages to breathe and hold it all together to make a vibrant and liveable city that we all can enjoy.


Kingsley Iweka is a writer and media/communications consultant based in Lagos. He is the author of fiction novella, Dappled Things, and the Founder of Africa-OnTheRise.com. Follow him on Twitter @IwekaKingsley


This article first appeared on Nsibidi Institute.

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