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  • Lagos: a cultural and historical companion by Kaye Whiteman
  • Tunde Decker
KAYE WHITEMAN, Lagos: a cultural and historical companion. Oxford: Signal Books (pb £12 – 978 1 908493 05 7). 2012, 256 pp.

This book is a refreshingly informative guide for the scholar as well as for the tourist and general reader, which combines historical analysis, literary criticism, and biographical documentation. It examines the evolution of Lagos as a city whose history and society are uniquely different from those of other ancient and globally renowned Yoruba towns. It emphasizes the development of a multiethnic and multicultural society in Lagos from the mid-nineteenth century. Lagos, the book maintains, evolved as a city with a soul (p. 247), and it was soon recognized as ‘a state of mind’ (pp. xi and xix) and ‘a city filled with “everyday mysteries”’ (p. 221). If cities were to be personified, the author argues, they would have their individualism typified in certain characters who not only understand [End Page 336] the soul of such cities but who also live it. In Lagos, this included the early nationalist firebrand Herbert Heelas Macaulay and the famous social critic Gani Fawehinmi. The ultimate Lagos personality was Fela Ransome-Kuti, later Femi Anikulapo-Kuti or simply ‘Fela’, who gave voice to the rebellious fervour of the masses and those who questioned and queried the city’s rulers.

The book is divided into eleven chapters that examine the growth and cultural development of the city, highlighting the history of Lagos, its unique and historically significant topography, the permanence of its urban culture, and the imaginations of the city in literature, music, and art. Focusing on the social and political activities of different generations of Lagos’s elite, the book highlights the roles of the Saro and the Aguda – returned, liberated slaves educated in Sierra Leone or Brazil respectively – from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and then chronicles the manner in which growing numbers of immigrants from the Nigerian mainland gradually competed with and reduced the influence of these groups. Having controlled politics, governance, private enterprise, the press, and the general urbanization of the Lagos environment since Victorian times, Lagos’s old elite (i.e. the Saro and the Aguda) had begun to lose control of many of these sectors by the 1950s. The book suggests the need for new research into the gradual ‘de-elitization’ of these once highly influential sections of the Victorian and colonial Lagos elite beyond the political sphere.

The author’s familiarity with the city’s social topography is demonstrated in several places. Thus, Whiteman explains the geographical difference and significance of Ehin Igbeti and Ehin Ogba – places that are sometimes confused. Ehin Igbeti is a former refuse dump located on Lagos Island along the Lagos marina between Olowogbowo and Faji (p. 46). Located on the mainland and emphatically outside the old city, Ehin Ogba was a place for a different kind of disposal: it was where the bodies of children known among the Yoruba as abiku, or ‘born to die’, were deposited in order to prevent them from tormenting their parents through another circle of rebirth and death. Illustrating both the relentless pressure of immigration and the ability of Lagosians to remake the city, today this area includes the highly populated areas of Idumota, Ebute Ero and Nnamdi Azikiwe Street, now linked to the island by Carter Bridge. But not all of Whiteman’s local explanations are successful. His reference to Isale Eko as ‘Lagos bottom’ or ‘lower settlement’ (p. 42) does not convey the fact that Isale Eko – better translated as ‘downtown Lagos’ – is the one part of Lagos whose inhabitants consider themselves Lagosians by heritage rather than by migration. As one of the oldest parts of a settlement now spanning many square miles, Isale Eko is still widely considered the city’s soul.

Apart from minor typographical mistakes, such as ‘music al’ instead of ‘musical’ (p. 116, paragraph 3 line 2), and ‘Hi’ instead of ‘His’ (p. 122, line 1), the book also contains some other errors. For example, the image described as depicting Broad Street is more likely to be of the old Victoria (now Nnamdi Azikiwe) Street...


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pp. 336-338
Launched on MUSE
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