“Journey to Ake”

If you’ve only watched Lagos Airport – the infamous documentary about said airport, your impression of Murtala Muhammed airport will be a bit skewed – and far off; though it has little of the grandeur of Heathrow, Schipol or Jo’burg, MMA II is still one of West Africa’ busiest hubs – and it works. Though on arrival, many fellow travellers were irate because we had to wait a long time for our bags to drop; but few drew the connection between the excess of luggage many had packed and the length of time it took for bags to drop onto the carousel; despite the grumbles, our entry into Nigeria was smooth, and given the recent scares about the outbreak of Ebola, there were necessary but cursory temperature checks. There was pleasingly only one limited outbreak of‘big man’ syndrome, someone protesting their temperature should not be checked – and our queue moved swiftly. Similarly, flying Arik Air was a new experience – as one of the newer African-owned airlines, it’s had a few incidents of worrying publicity, famously the ‘air-conditioner’ breakdown with Banky W. Yours truly was a little apprehensive but patriotically willing to try it out. (Full disclosure: As a BNET member I got 20% of the fare from Arik Air)

The harried check in staff, besieged by customers with varying weights of bags over the limit, were friendly – but to my disappointment, no upgrade; the in-flight entertainment system didn’t work and I noticed as with almost every airline nowadays – Air France, British Airways, whichever – cabin crew are essentially un-solicitous in economy, it seems genuine courtesy and politeness has migrated along with most company’s best margins to business and premium economy class, but we travelled, slept and landed in relative comfort, touching down in Lagos, just a little after 4.00 in the morning.

If you went by reputation alone, walking unescorted out of Lagos Airport into Nigeria is not for the fainthearted – but the reality is far more quotidian; Lagos Airport is the place to arrive as a gateway to the rest of Nigeria’s south – for most international travellers – the only place, unless you’re arriving by road or sea. So this was the destination for me in trying to reach this year’s Ake Festival taking place in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. Festival organisers had recommended hiring a car via a recommended company, however, along with a trusted friend, I took the road less taken.

To get to Ake from Lagos Airport, we connected first to Ikeja – and then got a taxi from Ikeja to Oshodi-Isale; there are buses and cars going from here to all over the south, and after careful haggling, we paid 2000 Naira for the journey, sharing the car with four others. The drive took us from Oshodi straight through to Kotu, one of the large markets right within the city of Abeokuta itself, in under three hours.

The hotel we’re staying at is called the Green Legacy Resort – it sits within a large complex of buildings that house the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library. The complex is a public space, well-used by local people, but the resort restricts taxis from coming straight to its front door, instead there is a shuttle to transport guests.

A potent but not altogether incongruous or inexplicable mix of the balance between public engagement and private luxury that the complex encapsulates; luckily for me I arrived on the day there was a site visit and get a tour of the vast presidential library grounds; when it’s opened the plan is that it will include a youth centre, an amusement park, a beautiful, but still poorly named, Rock of Inspiration, and various other green spaces for the public. For me the most striking and exquisite part of the site is the Bailey Bridge which straddles a lake and links the arrival and registration suite with the main library itself; bailey bridge’s are makeshift bridges built by soldiers, usually an army’s engineer corps – this one has been made a permanent fixture of the site, pointing poignantly to Obasanjo’s role as a link between both Nigeria’s military and democratic histories.

On my way to Abeokuta, throughout Lagos and Ogun State there are vast posters of gubernatorial candidates, and at a car park, I see a sign for a youth sensitization programme about elections and violence, sponsored by the US embassy in Nigeria; it seems election season is in full swing – but the young people I’ve met in Abeokuta so far, are not interested in politics or politicians – at least, not deeply; they’re interested in books, and lots of them.

www.akefestival.org – 18th November – 23rd November 2014

Dele Meiji Fatunla