Monday, 3 May 2010

Rome away from home

For those of you that might be thinking I’d snuck back to Europe without telling you ... this is not indeed a picture of Rome, or any city in Europe.

This is a tiny snapshot of one of West Africa’s largest cities: Ibadan, located about 60km away from Lagos in Oyo State in the south west of the Nigeria. Perhaps some of you are thinking that I’ve definitely been in Africa too long to even consider that this might look like Rome however there are a number of other reasons that Ibadan – appearances not alone – reminds me of Rome, a city that I have been privileged to spend some time in.

I travelled down to Ibadan to attend the wedding of a friend of a friend... obscure you may think – but a connection a lot closer than many of the couples who are considerably surprised to see a white person showing up for their happiest moment.

‘Travelling’ really is travelling in Nigeria: in this case 11 hours in a (s)lightly air-conditioned bus across roads that, between them, could pick up prizes for the best in Nigeria (a short stretch of brand new tarmacadam in Ekiti State), most post-holed (all the other 300km of roads in Ekiti State), most dangerous (Abuja-Lokoja – mentioned before) and most devoid of rules (Ibadan Expressway, although this might be an ‘also-ran’ as there’s a lot of competition).

I’m sure the story would not be that different driving from London to Rome after negotiating German autobahns and more provincial Italian strade.

The bus deposited us under a crowded overpass late on Friday evening from where we found a bus to take us to ‘Roundabout’ in Mokola in the very centre of Ibadan. I’m not quite sure how ‘Roundabout’ got its moniker as (a) it’s not a roundabout (b) there are about 50 other similar junctions/roundabouts in Ibadan so I’m not sure why this one stands out. However there you are.

After a swift couple of meat pies at ‘Tantalizer’ – Nigeria’s answer to KFC but so much better named, we began the search for accommodation that took us from one side of Ibadan to the other (no mean feat). Unfortunately no suitable accommodation was forthcoming so our extremely gracious host took us back across town to his place, a peaceful suburb on the ‘outskirts’ of town graced by silence and almost continuous NEPA, both relatively rare in any Nigerian city.

The traditional Yoruba engagement party and civil wedding went without a hitch, though once again I’d made the dire error of going to a wedding without small change and spent most of the time desperately trying to avoid all the ‘tolls’ that the groom’s side were required to pay on behalf of the bride. I did manage to earn myself about N200 in N10 notes dancing at the after-party but by then, it was too late.

Having covered the traditional engagement formalities, the couple make a quick costume change before heading off the the local registry office.

Challenging the groom and his men to a dance-off.....

My earnings

The next few days were spent visiting friends and relatives around Ibadan which is where I got the feeling for Rome:

Ibadan is a huge ‘small’ city. Unlike Lagos, or even Abuja, which have cosmopolitan centres filled with people from all over the country and even the world, Ibadan is Yoruba. Somehow there’s not the stress and tension of Lagos with a more friendly, laid back attitude. Anyone who’s spent time in Italy will appreciate the comparison between the Romans and the Milanese. I rest my case.

(Left) A serious game of Ludo taking place metres from Ibadan’s ‘Roundabout’ nerve centre in Mokola, whilst there’s none of the insane Lagos congestion in the busy market area of Bodija (centre), close to the University of Ibadan (right), Nigeria’s first.

And, like Rome, the locals will always be able to find you the best places to eat and drink offering great company as well as refreshment.

A group of students gather for palm wine at ‘Profs’ (2nd from right) situated down a pathway in the University of Ibadan’s leafy campus; a local Mokola restaurant where I got to eat the best amala and bean soup in Ibadan.. made by Mama Raheem, pictured here in her roadside kitchen.

And for the occasional luxury there’s the hill top Premiere Hotel. A hefty N300 entry fee however cold Star and a peaceful environment.

And one thing both Ibadan and Rome have in common is history: or should I say the term ‘historical’. All Nigerians I have spoken to describe Ibadan as a historical city and as you travel around amongst the trademark rusty roofs that cover virtually every building in the city, you can’t help but think what it must have looked in the days before the old stone buildings with their fine ornamental windows, doors, pillars descended into today’s decay.

Perched on a hilltop the grand Mapo Hall is a favourite venue for conferences, church programmes, wedding, barmitzvahs (ok - perhaps not so many of those), whilst Ibadan's Adamasinga Stadium (previously Lekan Salami - name kinda goes with the Italian theme I thought?) hosts Ibadan's Shooting Stars, one of Nigeria's top football clubs.

Ibadan is also hilly – you notice this sitting in any battered public transport vehicle struggling up frequent inclines or (more worryingly for me) switching the engine off completely to coast down a busy urban street to conserve fuel before deftly joining the two ignition wires under the steering wheel to re-start once the bottom is reached. And no visitor to Ibadan should miss the tremendous view from Bowers’ Tower – a viewing tower situated on a hill in the very centre of the City.

A keke driven by Suraj, more comfortable and safer than an okada, cheaper and more manoeuvrable than a cab: the view across Bowers’ Park from the tower, definitely past its prime. My friends venture to the very top of the tower to get the best view.

And in fact, as Suraj, the keke driver told me, “Ibadan is built on seven hills”. Remind you of another city?


Anonymous said...

Great blog Cecil!! Have you ever thought of writing for Africa's equivalent of Lonely Planet! I feel like I know the place without having even thought of visiting there. Great to see you are earning loads of money dancing....I hope some of it went towards a Star or two .... and to the wedding party of course.
Bye for now.
Jared xx

Anonymous said...

I have just stumbled on your blog! I grew up in Ibadan but left 27 years ago to go to University in the US! Great pics of Ibadan! Miles and miles of rust colored roofs! Wow! Makes me feel a little nostalgic! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Looks less chaotic than when we were there in '74-77!After Addis Ababa Ibadan seemed pretty hick. Glad you enjoyed the trip. I wonder if they still sell bushmeat?Try the giant canecutter rat or the snail kebabs we used to get at cocktail parties. Bush medicine stalls also fascinating.
Belinda & David Marler