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Oríkì: Oral History and Memory in Post-Colonial Lagos

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In Yorùbá culture, every family has its own Oríkì: an oral tradition that documents and celebrates notable ancestors of a family and their achievements. Like many aspects of indigenous Nigerian culture, knowledge and practice of this oral tradition is rapidly declining (Fabunmi and Salawu, 2005). Many young Yorubas are unable to recite their family Oríkì, with an overwhelming majority completely unaware of this practice existing in the first place (Coker, 2015). “Memory has emerged as a corrective to the silences, lapses and exclusions of official history” (Crysler, 2011, p. 325). I hold that memory and storytelling can be used as instruments for decolonisation. They provide an accessible “way to challenge the ‘unbudgeable hegemony’ of nineteenth-century historicism” as is often discussed in Lefebvrian discourse (Crysler, 2011; Soja, 1989).  Imperialism, civil war, and countless military coups have disrupted the memory of Lagos; which in turn has had substantial architectural and urban implications. Much like oral history and storytelling, architecture carries cultural identity for subsequent generations. “The stories we choose to shape our behaviour have adaptive consequences'' (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 30). I would argue these adaptive consequences are evident in our cities as architecture acts as a point of reference to the memory of those who design, build and dwell in these built structures. By using Oríkì as a means to access the memory of Lagosian architecture, I am exploring three significant points in the city’s history that have defined its current form. The first being the influx of Afro-Brazilian migrants in the 19th century, followed by the post-independence movement during the Cold War era and finally the bloodied #EndSARS protest-turned-massacre in October 2020. The current fight for systemic change mirrors the fight for the preservation of Nigerian culture and vernacular architecture, which, much like the rights of the people, has historically been devalued. Unearthing the memory of Lagos through indigenous customs such as storytelling and oral history reveals the ways in which past residents have overcome spatial inequality and claimed their Right to the City as described by Henri Lefebvre’s 1968 written piece of the same title.


Due to the immaterial nature of language; oral history customs have the potential to be more accessible than the formal “storage of memories” (Crysler, 2011). For example, museums typically provide space for “the selective construction of national memories” whereas Oríkì and storytelling use memory and nostalgia as mechanisms for creative cultural production. Individual accounts of events create a “transit from unreliable messenger to critical counter-narrative” (Crysler, 2011), which in turn provides a unique narration of an event with their own biases and knowledge saturating a story with rich detail and understanding. I used the historiographical mode of inquiry by listening to older Nigerian storytellers or interviewees, some of whom worked in the construction industry during the country’s transition into independence from British colonial rule. I also conducted unstructured interviews with my Grandparents to uncover their account of our family history including our ancestral migration to the city and inhabitation of Lagos. The following story pulls from “eclectic sources to piece together narratives from the other” (Hosagrahar, 2011).  The narratives are an amalgamation of their memories as well as historical accounts which have formed the palimpsest of urban Lagos.  


Following the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the descendants of formerly enslaved black Brazilians migrated en masse to Lagos and the hinterlands of the Yoruba region, reaching as far as the historic city of Abeokuta, to the undulating highlands of Ekiti. In addition to their customs and cuisine, the Brazilian migrants— sometimes referred to as Amaros or Agudas— brought with them a trade, craftsmanship and a distinct architectural style. The buildings often took a box-like form with gable roofs; merging elements of the Mediterranean culture of the conquistadors who had once owned their families, with the subtropical vernacular architecture of Latin America. Though many Agudas held on to their catholic heritage by observing liturgical customs such as attending mass and cooking sweet frejon pudding on Easter morning, many also reverted to Islam as was the case for my Great Grandparents. Alongside residential, commercial and recreational buildings, the Agudas built churches and mosques; on the latter, inscribing Arabic text on neo-baroque facades (Teriba, 2017).


Some of these buildings still stand today in the Brazilian quarters of Lagos Island. They sit at the intersections of multiple fading empires; the Portuguese Empire of their origin, the British Empire that still ruled Nigeria at the time of migration and the multiple pre-colonial empires of West Africa. The cultural residue of contact between Yorubas and the Mali Empire infuses the Islamic influence in Lagosian architecture from that era. The flat facades are arguably a vestige of the ascetic philosophy of Sufi Islam commonly practised by Yoruba Muslims and adopted by the Afro-Brazilian returnees who intermarried with locals and reverted to the faith. According to cultural geographer Karen Till, lost memories coagulate into palimpsest forming the sound of “a city’s collective memory albeit in unsettled arrangement”. This palimpsest described by Till exists in the urban fabric of Lagos Island. The street names, architectural styles and diverse places of worship reveal a rich tapestry woven together with threads from various migrant groups, empires, faiths and ethnicities. The architectural Oríkì is increasingly being disrupted by overzealous demolitions under the guise of “development” by the Lagos State government. The most recent loss of the city’s memory being the Ilojo Bar in Tinubu Square, Central Lagos Island. The building, which stood neglected in the heart of the Brazilian Quarters for almost two centuries was demolished by a Lagosian property developer in 2016 (CNN, 2017). The descendants of the Brazilian migrants and their collective memory is being pushed out of these areas due to the rising land-use tax which was introduced in 2001. The legislation was later changed in 2018 with a doubling of most land-use charges including residential properties (Erikume, 2019).


In the tradition of likening memory to a palimpsest: the next “horizontal strata” in the urban story of Lagos is the Post-Independence era. The years discussed during the unstructured interviews span from 1954, the year Nigeria transitioned from British colonial rule to form the Federation of Nigeria, until 1985, the year military leader General Muhammadu Buhari was overthrown in a coup d'état led by the Chief of Army Staff General Ibrahim Babangida. The thirty-year span of this layer in memory is indicative of the unstructured format of the interviews. Our conversations often jumped, stopped, started, blocked and omitted, and went backwards as each interviewee reminisced about the tumultuous decades. The interviews were conducted with a retired architect, a retired civil engineer, a doctor and two university graduates who were students in the late 1970s. The identity of the person interviewed had a significant impact on their recall and interpretation of past events. class, age, profession, gender, tribal ethnicity, religion and political sympathies led to “sensitive interpretation of past events and imputed representations, as well as careful negotiations over the future of [the] nation” (Boyer, 2011, p. 325). For example, during the interview with the retired doctor, 68, recalled the assassination of journalist and political activist Dele Giwa (Soyinka, 2019). The doctor was part of the medical team who treated the journalist who was attacked using a parcel bomb; suspected sent by the military regime at the time in response to his critical reports of widespread corruption in the early 1980s. The doctor's response is a far cry from the accounts of the architect and civil engineer, who were both critical of the various abuses of the military regimes but who still benefited during those years as much emphasis was placed on infrastructure development and foreign collaboration. The following account follows the line of thought pioneered by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs who argued “the actual act of remembering always takes place as a group memory”. This fundamental process of remembering together he labelled ‘collective memory’ as it operates as a framework limiting and binding intimate acts of individual recall (Halbwachs and Coser, 1992, p. 52). In his piece “On Collective Memory,” Maurice Halbwachs argues ‘the mind reconstructs its memories under the pressure’ (1992, 51). Similar to spatial design and architecture, memory and individual recollection cannot be separated from its contextual bounds.


Although socialism was never officially embraced by Nigeria during the Cold War era, military leader Yakubu Gowon encouraged collaboration with Eastern European construction companies to bolster Nigeria's construction industry (Łukasz Stanek, 2020). This was a deliberate move by Gowon’s regime to nullify the influence of the West in the newly independent Nigeria. Unlike neighbouring Ghana, who eagerly adopted socialist ideals under Kwame Nkrumah’s — viewing the socialist model of development as the most viable route to post-colonial development.  The Nigerian political elite, however, was naturally apathetic towards socialist ideology. This attitude persisted throughout the Cold War years despite positive Nigerian-Soviet relations during the previous decade due to the military and financial support rendered by the Soviet Union during the Biafran War (Stierli et al., 2018).


Despite many architects and contractors from the socialist Second World operating in major cities across Nigeria, they were met with suspicion of proselytizing socialist ideology through design (Łukasz Stanek, 2020). Despite the undertones of ideological tension, collaboration with the Second World was still seen as the more equitable form of partnership on the road to development, industrialisation and the most viable route towards postcolonial cultural emancipation. This is especially true when compared to the hegemonic relationship many post-independent African countries still had with their former colonial rulers which only perpetuated imperialism, economic dependency and cultural subordination. This birthed an urban architectural language that deliberately broke away from the architecture of the British colonial administration whilst igniting Nigeria’s love of concrete (Stierli et al., 2018). Modern architecture in Nigeria was conceived in solidarity and the worlding of socialism. This newfound love of concrete coupled with the rise of political corruption following the oil boom of ‘73 led to the ‘Cement Armada’ scandal of 1974-1980 as reported by The New York Times. According to the publication, who covered the story in 1976, under Gowon’s leadership, 20 million tonnes of cement was imported in the space of 12 months; most likely under dubious orders in an attempt to embezzle funds (Darnton, 1976). As a result, the capacity of the port was overwhelmed and millions of tonnes of cement were left to rot for months resulting in the loss of elasticity, ultimately rendering the cement unfit for use. This incident significantly drove up the price of construction, leading to the overthrow of Gowon’s military rule with Nigeria’s second coup d'etat in 1975 following a damning public tribunal.


A product of the Nigerian-Eastern Bloc collaboration is the International Trade Fair (ITF) designed by architect Zoran Bojovic in 1977. This monumental building is an example of brutalist Yugoslavian architecture in Lagos which hints at the socialist ambition gaining favour in Sub-Saharan Africa at the time (Łukasz Stanek, 2020). This illustrates how the architectural Oríkì was abruptly changed by Nigeria’s attempt at forging a distinct postcolonial identity but also how the dubious acts of corrupt government officials had a direct effect on the construction industry during this period of rapid change.


Festac Town (near the ITF) was also completed in 1977 as part of the African Festival of Arts and Culture. The FESTAC event was a landmark international festival, drawing black contributors from all over the continent and diaspora for a month of momentous celebration of black pride and pan-Africanism. Notable attendees included Minister Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam as well as musician Stevie Wonder who headlined the festival. The neighbourhood development coupled with the development of civic buildings such as the National Theatre and the International Trade Fair served as markers of a new chapter of reconciliation and rehabilitation following the three-year Civil War that concluded in 1970. The idyllic suburb of Festac was designed to be the accommodation site for the black contributors and visitors during the month-long FESTAC ’77 celebrations. Once the festival came to a close, the visiting artists, musicians and contributors vacated the properties. The Nigerian Government commissioned a lottery system, awarding-winning families with a property in the new development. However, the now forty-three-year-old residential development is barely recognisable. The once leafy and picturesque streets have deteriorated into over-commercialised, congested conduits with crumbling infrastructure. The original master plans for the federal housing estate included bicycle lanes, public parks and public services boasting a fire station and public library as designed by Romania's state-owned engineering company Romconsult and the Design Institute for Housing.


In the early 1980s, oil prices declined and the wealth enjoyed by the Lagosian elite began to dwindle. The International Monetary Fund recommended austerity measures in exchange for financial assistance and debt-deferment (Gargan, 1985). These stringent policies were put in place by Nigeria’s third military leader Mahammudu Buhari. However, this was not enough to counter the looming economic decline of the mid-80s. As the middle class disappeared, the effects began to show within the architecture of middle-income neighbourhoods like Festac. Front porches were converted into small convenience shops selling pantry food and confectionery. Servants quarters (locally known as ‘boys quarters’) were turned into seamstress parlours and ad-hoc workspaces as families attempted to find additional sources of income. Informal production of the built environment is a known symptom of poor governance, a lack of regulation and a subsequent rise of economic hardship.  


Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle (really, in fact, struggles develop in a kind of conscious moving forward of history), if one controls people's memory, one controls their dynamism. And one also controls their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles (Foucault, 1977, p. 25)

Despite being an oral history and storytelling custom, Oríkì can also hold an aspirational element to it as it is an opportunity for a community to express their ambition and foretell a narrative they hope to achieve. The urban ambition for Lagos is embodied by Eko Atlantic City, a new district under construction along the Lagosian shoreline (Hoelzel et al., 2016). This 'megacity', as it has been dubbed, signifies the present state of Lagos - one of class division, foreign investment and ecological degradation (Maas, 2019). This narrative has only been heightened by the recent clash between Nigerian youth and government authorities. On October 20th, during the peaceful protest against the police brutality exacted by the Special Anti-robbery Squad, the Nigerian army stormed the Lekki Toll Gate, opening fire on demonstrators, injuring and killing many (Orjinmo, 2020). This violent incident sparked riots and international outcry as many witnessed the massacre through social media. It is yet to be seen how an atrocity on this scale will impact Lagos. Police brutality, slum demolitions and a lack of infrastructure only serve to widen the wealth gap in Lagos and further divide the urban landscape into the “haves” of the future Eko Atlantic and the “have nots” of the existing city. As shell casings are removed and the streets cleaned and restored, the events of October 2020 are seemingly fading from the collective memory of the city despite the feelings of loss, pain and resentment that remain within its residents. Such incidences must not be omitted during “the process of memorialization” as “history, memory, identity and the nation underlie architectural practice” during such processes. (Boyer, 2011, p. 325). I would argue that the future design of space within the city could “material evidence and artefacts of recall” (Boyer, 2011). The design of commemorative public spaces and preservation of historic structures are key to preserving the “architectural collective memory [which] is literally carved or erected in stone, and thus...the archetypal collective memory (Olick 2007, p. 89).

Lagosian architecture practices such as MOE+AA and SISA are cultivating an indigenous architectural language in the design of public space such as the Falomo Underpass and public buildings such as the ‘JK Randle Centre for Yoruba History & Culture’. Design projects such as these further push the interests of the masses in terms of infrastructure, public space, cultural preservation and commemorative spaces for remembering and healing from traumatic memories. The onus is on architects and spatial practitioners to use memory as a mechanism to centre “the most marginalized populations [to] actively shape and negotiate the spaces they inhabit…[and] destabilize the singular authority of those in power” (Hosagrahar, 2011, pp. 72-74). There are certain events in recent history such as migration, military coups, civil war and protests that have defined Lagosian architecture and its urban form. It is key that the Oríkì told in Lagos today is inclusive of its rich cultural past, honest about its tumultuous political history and commemorative of the lives laid down for its ambitious future. 

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