by admin | November 29, 2016 9:45 am
When Femke van Zeijl heard about the demolition of Casa do Fernandez on Lagos Island, her eyes glazed over. But not from grief about a pile of old bricks. The destruction of this major symbol of cultural heritage represents a much bigger problem, she argues.
The ornamental pilasters and window arches were crumbling, the glass panes in the balcony doors had been mostly replaced by wood or cardboard and the wrought-iron balustrades were rusting away, but if you squeezed your eyes closed and peeked through your lashes, you could still see the splendour of Casa do Fernandez, built in 1855 by former slaves who had returned from Brazil. Until recently, at least. On Sunday, September 11, a giant shovel demolished 161 years of Lagosian history in just a couple of hours.
When I heard about the demolition of the building – a National Monument since 1956 – I did not believe it at first. And when I saw the evidence, a pile of rubble facing Tinubu Square where the 19th century building used to be, my eyes glazed over.
I know you are thinking, ‘This oyibo woman, aren’t there bigger problems in Nigeria to cry over than an old ruin?’ And I agree that the famine in the north-east, the recession and the deplorable state of public education are causes for deep and long-lasting sorrow – and long-overdue action. However, as I see it, these issues are all connected to the attitude that makes it possible for someone to destroy a major symbol of cultural heritage without fearing any consequences, and without causing a public outcry. It is not the brazen disregard for the law and the expectation of the perpetrators to get away with it that troubles me most – used as I am by now to the law in Nigeria only applying to those who cannot pay their way out of it – nor am I grieving about a pile of old bricks.
What I am sad about is the absence of any sense of identity: a fact which is revealed by the illegal demolition.
Imagine any Frenchman unscrewing the Eiffel Tower’s bolts on a Sunday afternoon to take it down; or an Egyptian driving a shovel into the Great Pyramid of Giza; or a Mexican razing the ruins of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza to the ground; or the Dutch sand-filling their canals overnight. The Islamist militant who led the destruction of ancient shrines in Timbuktu in 2012 – causing international and local outrage – has just been sentenced to nine years in prison by the International Criminal Court. Yet a private developer in Nigeria can bring out his excavator in broad daylight and illegally annihilate a unique building given special protection status as a National Monument by the Federal government of Nigeria through Gazette 25 Vol. 43 of
April 5, 1956, without a single police officer stopping him or any bystander intervening.
When my mother came to visit for the year-end holidays last December, I took her on a walk around Lagos Island. We stood in front of Casa do Fernandez for minutes. Even in its crumbling state, old Ilojo Bar (the name Casa do Fernandez got later when it was turned into a restaurant and bar) seemed to breathe with rich history. I told her about the freed slaves who helped shape the heart of Lagos Island in the nineteenth century, enriching it with the baroque door posts and balconies of Brazilian architecture. And how, during the street parties on Campos, a short walk away from Ilojo Bar, the Brazilian bands peppered Yoruba music with maracas and samba rhythms, resulting in the juju music you hear in the streets of Lagos today.
In the thirties of the last century, the Olaiya family bought the house. One of its descendants was highlife trumpeter Victor Olaiya, a mentor to many Nigerian musicians. He had his music shop in the building on the busy Tinubu Square. This is where the other musical giant, King Sunny Adé, bought his very first guitar for one pound and nine shillings, on which he taught himself how to play.
I was explaining this rich legacy to my mum, when the area boys started harassing us for money. They did not care about cultural heritage and history, what they cared about was lining their pockets. And who can blame them? Even many ‘exposed’ Naija Twitterati don’t value Ilojo Bar’s legacy. One of the responses on Twitter to my indignation about the bulldozing of this communal heirloom was the following: ‘But really, what purpose does the decrepit structure serve?’ The tweet added, of course, that the space could now be put to better and more profitable use.
It is not surprising. After all, we live in a country that for years hasn’t had history on its school curricula. The values held dear are imported religions and cutthroat capitalism (not necessarily in that order), but the very roots of history a
re often held in disregard, first shattered by colonial plundering, then further crushed by military regimes averse to a people with a memory, and now what is left of it is bogged down by the kleptomania of an elite showing the rest of society that only money matters. They remember Nigeria’s cultural and historical background only when they can gain political points from it, but are not truly invested in it – otherwise the museums, libraries, and public schools in this country would not be so dramatically underfunded.
This is what breaks my heart. How can you build a future if you don’t know your own history? When an entire nation does not believe in its own intrinsic cultural value, it will never stand up for itself, not internally, not internationally. I’ve come to see the lack of cultural awareness as a root cause of many of the issues Nigeria has been dealing with, and one of the reasons why change is so hard to effectuate.
Nigerians, deep in their heart, do not take themselves seriously, not as a country. Nigerians are boastful, yes. Yet that boastfulness is only skin-deep, like the anger in Lagos traffic. If you scratch that surface, you will find insecurity about who they are and what they represent. When there is so much to celebrate about this nation, if only the knowledge were spread more widely.
Of course, it is not just foreigners who realise this. There are many Nigerians vigorously advocating historical awareness. It is to them I am addressing this column. There’s no need to wait for government bodies or committees weeping crocodile tears about the demolition of Ilojo Bar they’ve allowed to decay for decades. We should each adopt a spot we hold dear, and tell others about its values, starting our do-it-yourself historical campaign.
In my own Surulere I can name several sites worth preserving, documenting, and celebrating. The National Theatre and the art around it – I have written about it in this magazine before – is an obvious choice. And for anyone in Lagos, the National Stadium, which attracts thousands of sportive people every weekend, is an easy choice. Even the charming rows of town houses on Adeniran Ogunsanya Street, with their typical peaked roofs echoing the iconic painted ladies in San Francisco, deserve to be a protected cityscape.
If we talk about these sites often enough to anyone who wants to hear, they will become part of the urban and national conscience. Then maybe next time the bulldozers arrive, the bystanders will not remain passive. In my dreams, they will now step in, forming a human chain around the house, shrine, old cinema, or ancient palace, and protect it from the vandals, because Nigerians refuse to wake up again hearing that yet another irreplaceable piece of their legacy has been destroyed.
Then maybe next time the bulldozers arrive, the bystanders will not remain passive. In my dreams, they will now step in, forming a human chain around the house, shrine, old cinema, or ancient palace, and protect it grom the vandals, because Nigerians refuse to wake up again hearing that yet another irreplaceable piece of their legacy has been destroyed.
Femke van Zeijl is a Dutch journalist and author living in Surulere. You can find her on Twitter @femkevanzeijl
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