Yaba was not the same when I returned homeless thirteen years after I left. The murals and signposts on each side of Herbert Macaulay had been replaced by buildings waiting to be occupied, and restaurants making a mockery of the country’s minimum wage. Everything here had begun to take a different look, save the memories my parents left me with when we initially moved to this part of Lagos a few years after the Abacha coup. I grew up calling this place home. My earliest memories were made of monthly visits to the health centre on Harvey Road, the riot of school uniforms after school closing hours on Murtala Mohammed Way, the gathering of catholic faithfuls at Saint Dominics in the early hours of the morning, the sound of Juju music, the rise of stand up comedy at O’jez Bar, and the famous short dark traffic warden, with his grey moustache and potbelly stationed at Saint Agnes bus-stop. I learned he died a few years after we left. This was the Yaba that made up my formative years, the community that has continued to shape me into what I am becoming.
Just a few years before the millennium, it was the search for a Lagos dream that made my parents relocate to this part of the city as a young couple, finding a lease to live. It was here the aftermath of them growing up poor and disposable began to lose grip, with my dad getting his first job as an office clerk before riveting into auctioning Lagos properties. My mum, on the other hand, was a civil servant working for a government she had little or no trust in. But there was something about Yaba that sold hope.
On Commercial Avenue, there were still the leftovers of colonial administration, like the traces of the British-patterned bungalows scattered along Adu Ibrahim to Regan Memorial College, and the namings of the streets, a reminder that here once felt like luxury. A special kind of quietness often fills this place, with dog warnings on electric barbwires, high trees, and the bungalow rooftops peeping from a distance, away from their brick fences. On Little Road and Montgomery Street were small businesses owned by families who had been privileged to work for the colonial government as clerks, administrators, junior staff and everything else but mid and senior-level workers. One of the many popular outlets along Commercial Avenue was Uncle Mo’s shop. Uncle Mo was everyone’s family friend, but still, we never knew his real name. His shop was located a few stalls away from the popular Domino Plaza on Commercial Avenue and a few caution signs away from Army Barracks. It was the perfect fit for a Friday nightlife with Yoruba highlife sounds playing from the speakers he hung on the four corners of his tent. His favourites were a mix of Ebenezer Obey’s and King Sunny Ade’s, a rivalry he coveted. Famous for his smoked spiced meat, popularly called suya, and the conglomerate of beverages and alcoholic drinks piled on empty crates. Stories lived here. Stories about coup and coup-d’etat shared by dog-tired soldiers, stories of infidelity and cheating wives, suspicious myths and legends, and the stories inspired by the many empty bottles of 33 and Heineken. It was Uncle Mo my dad filched, the robbery incident that occurred at the Bureau de Change once situated at Sabo Market, leaving more than two scores dead, and how the NIPOST office used to have long queues of white men and women sending and picking up letters– this was long before the widespread use of the telephone. At Uncle Mo, there was a sense of belonging and ownership. Everything lost about Yaba could be found— the people who once lived on its street and the events that had occurred in the past.
This used to be where my dad often got his Suya, something to compensate for our eager waiting for his arrival after each day’s job. Some nights, he would reference the middle-class families living along Montgomery, their kids and the schools they attended. He was fond of Regan Memorial School and Methodist Girls, but we were boys, and from the way he talked about them, I and my brothers knew he wished he could mould us into their image. But we lived in the part of Yaba that the city tries so hard to hide, and even though he wanted a bit more for us, our pocket could not afford some of his dreams. On Queen Street, Alagomeji, is Uncle A’s fashion shop founded in 1948, and unlike Uncle Mo’s, the fashion shop had survived long enough to attract the middle class and a few wealthy folks that once lived here. In similarities, Uncle A and Uncle Mo shops kept stories. In the evenings at Uncle A, you will find droves of luxurious cars, men in suits and military uniforms, only their escort boys looked like us. My dad would tell my siblings and me that when he was much younger he wanted to become a tailor just like Uncle A, and hoped he would become successful like him. As young kids, Uncle A was living our dreams. He was quintessential, with his often well-ironed white shirt tucked into sometimes black and navy blue pants, accompanied by beautiful suspenders. He always wore his soft smile below his golden lens glasses. He loved little kids. In the evening, you would find little boys gathered at his shop to pick up stories and instructions on how boys should behave. This was the Yaba I knew while growing up. But things began to change in the millennium.
In the year before the 2000s, the country had witnessed a transition from military rule into its first democratic government and optimism had become the new narcotine. It was the year of drafts and goals, with the millennium goals serving as a pact to steer the country’s direction towards economic growth. As industrial businesses began to spring up again in the various commercial areas within the state, some small businesses metamorphosed into larger ones while others could not survive the corruption that also heralded the beginning of our democracy. It was a paradox of realities and Yaba became a tale of two different worlds. One afternoon on my way back from school through the Yaba neuropsychiatric hospital route, the Domino plaza that had lived here long before Herbert Macaulay’s statue was erected at the traffic signpost that connects the Sabo Market to the dual road, was left empty with a caterpillar smacking at its roots. The Crusader House it was facing, a twelve-storey building, looked like the next victim with
St. Luke’s hospital which flanked it at its left. Luckily both survived. The old were beginning to be replaced by new and Uncle Mo’s business and many others suffered for this. The absence of Yaba nightlife and the strings of stories that held us together in places like Uncle Mo’s had become casualties too. Buildings and families were beginning to be dispersed as everyone sought something new.
Little wonder, thirteen years after returning to the place I call home, I found nothing that I could call mine. The years had gone lost on me, and like my parents a few decades back, I wasn pursuit of this Lagos dream, finding my return to where I left a year after the completion of my junior secondary education. Everything has changed, save the pocket of faces and families that had endured enough to see this place go through its own evolution, too expensive to afford, too chaotic to absorb. The family houses along Custom Road had taken a fall, each unit dispersed, while the camaraderie among those who lived in this area, those whose names I knew like the lines on my palms, had become a mere memory. Along Custom Road, the Low-Cost Houses were gradually becoming a shadow of what they used to be. O’jez bar with his Friday night jokes and comedies had been replaced by shops with expensive items. The plaza at the entrance of University Road had been replaced by undertakers and coffin makers. After all, the death of ideas, places and people is inevitable. I had returned to this part of Lagos, a few distances away from the Island, in pursuit of the Lagos dream. The grandeur of the city had returned me to this place of my birth, between old and the new, between the longings for more and empty bank accounts. Everything I had known and loved had forcefully been taken away, demolished or bought over.
But this afternoon, thirteen years after leaving, twenty-two years after the beginning of a new millennium, I find myself walking the length of Commercial Avenue once again, looking for anything that points me in the direction of the old, in the direction of the things and people that I grew up knowing, to the compass of this city. Crusader House has taken a new name, Domino has been whitewashed into a Shoplet and now into something I find hard to recognise. Regan School and the Baptist church had not suffered much, but I could tell a lot had been lost through the years. The inner streets had no reminiscence for businesses like that of Uncle Mo’s, no space for a night hangout. Yaba had welcomed new visitors with large pockets, had turned itself into a technology hub, and left its past hunting men like me. Harvey still hides from the noise that assembles at Saint Agnes, the Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital has beefed up its security after many casualties, and one wonders if the barracks are still what they used to be.
Thirteen years later, my pocket cannot afford a comfortable place to stay. Everything here makes a mockery of me. I wonder what has happened to Adefila and the Abiodun brothers, what new books will be there to buy, what publishers are still lurking around, in what used to be popular bookstores. I wonder what has become of this place. I wonder if the schools I attended here see through me. What do they think of me? Across the third Mainland Bridge is that part of Yaba we try so hard to hide but its people have not revolted much.
Joseph Akinnawonu writes about everyday events and happenings within Lagos, where he currently lives. With works published on Aljazeera, Kahalari Review, and elsewhere.
Social media handle: Twitter @mayoakins