On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the fifth of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 5 January / Nigeria
Wallace, the taxi driver is a little older than I am. I learn this as Lagos' Murtalla Muhammed Airport is swallowed up by the darkness of the night in the rear view mirror. Wallace is so excited to have gotten a customer after waiting all day, he cannot stop talking. I cannot stop listening. He is a natural born storyteller, peppering his tale with exaggerated facial expressions, body shifts and changes in posture from behind the wheel, where the moon and passing headlights illuminate his face like a mobile lighting rig. It is a forty minute drive and Wallace tells me his own creation myth. He used to be a teacher in Imo State where his best friend who came from a far wealthier family taught him how to drive. He moved to Lagos to live with his aunt and his uncle bought a car for her. Because she did not know how to drive, the car lay dormant. After two days of gathering dust, Wallace persuaded her to give him the keys. He took it out for a spin. A week later, he was on the motor way and two weeks after that, he was making money as a taxi driver. Wallace tells another story of rich man, similar to my height and build he says, who he drove from the airport to Benin, a four-hour drive and a price tag of 40,000 Naira - a fortune compared to 5,000 this will cost me. The rich man was so impressed at Wallace's speed, he let him shower in his hotel room, took him out for dinner, paid for meals (including barbecue chicken which Wallace says he had never tried at the time), bought him two meals worth of takeaway food, and gave Wallace an extra 10,000 just for keeps. We arrive at the 1004 apartments in Victoria Island where I am to stay with a man who I have called 'Uncle' since I was born. He may be my mother's brother's wife's uncle's eldest son, but 'Uncle' is what I have always known him as. He welcomes me as if I'd seen him only yesterday instead of the decade that had passed and this is what I expect in my country of broth, in the Nigerian stage of the research trip: An even greater shorthandedness, a sense of belonging old and natural as blood, barber shops crammed full of stories so fluid, I'd be spoilt for choice. I did very little preparatory work before coming, so it's failure is entirely my fault.
Also, a travel fatigue is setting in and the writer's need to sit quietly now and then, internalising experiences, excavating immortal truths from darkness or whatever has been ignored for five weeks, I've been out and about externalising everything. I'm tired and the West African heat is completely unlike the Eastern African heat, it is unrelenting, sticky and heeds not the pleas of man. I am baking. Monday, 6th of January, I meet up with Fusi, a friend who works for the British Council and we go to his local barber shop in an area called the Dolphin Estate. The talk begins with football, as always, but suddenly shifts to how tribal politics sometimes play into football politics, how for instance it is bad enough being an Edo man (as I partially am), but to be Edo and support West Ham is unforgivable! It shifts to a critique of Kenyan Manchester United fans and I push record on my device as we talk. I eventually choose to sit for a hair cut. My glasses are off and so immersed am I in the tribal football conversation, the cut goes unchecked and barber does what he feels suits my face. When he finishes I replace my glasses, squint into the mirror. My eyes adjust and it is without doubt the best haircut I have every received. Something to do with cutting my beard differently and a moustache that isn't too prominent. A few of Fusi's friends joins us. We order food from the vendor just bedside the barber shops and over a dinner of suya and chips, we reminisce and tell harrowing incidents from our various boarding school experiences. I gather information about the best barbers on the island and make a plan visit the following day. On Tuesday, I write till late afternoon, wait for the heat to subside and go out to a spot a ten minute walk from the apartments. The shop is well air-conditioned, everything is silver and black and spotless including the uniforms of the waiting barbers. This an 'exclusive' spot where cuts cost 3,000 on average. I explain the project to the receptionist seated behind the oak desk and the old man asks me to return at 2pm the following day to speak with the manager. I have learnt not to bother visiting barbers between Monday and Wednesday - they have so little clients, it is a waste of time - so I do not bother seeking another place, call it a day and meet old friends at Bogobiri, an arts venue on Victoria Island.
Fiona (a fellow Irish-Nigerian) from London who relocated to work in the advertising industry comes to collect me from the apartment and at Bogobiri, we meet a friend of hers who runs a package holiday company. The fourth of our company is Wana - a fellow writer/performer and radio personality with an enthusiastic loyal fan base (who pray for her on a daily basis). They call Wana with their problems and she tells us animatedly about the day's discussions, about 'allowances' girlfriends request of their boyfriends or male acquaintances in general; how natural it is for a young woman who needs more airtime on her phone to rather than going out to purchase some, sit and scroll through her phonebook looking for a benefactor. They ask for everything Wana says, cash for hair treatments, deep-tissue body massages, anything. Sometimes the allowances climb into the tens of thousands of Naira per month and some girls will have multiple benefactors. Fiona agrees, says she has friends who think she is foolish for spending her own money on herself, who tell her it is part of the way life - "This is Naija... [they say] ...hustle or die!"
Wednesday 8th, I venture out again to the first barber shop and I am told the manager is not around. However, I spend a few minutes there and notice that no one is speaking. The barbers barely talk to each other or to their clients. I leave thinking this is unusual. I try to follow my uncle's directions to find another spot on the island and end up walking for two hours, twisting and turning down unpaved rocky roads, dodging motorbikes and taxis. I ask various security guards about the place, none of whom seem to know, give up, retrace my steps to the exit of the 1004 estate and start again. This time I accept that my internal compass doesn't work as intuitively as it seems to in London. I ask every step of the way, eventually find a little two-chair barber shop tucked inside a gated community. I pull back the sliding doors, collapse into a chair then launch into the spiel about the project. The three barbers are a little guarded at first but eventually are relaxed enough to tell me they do not really talk to customers either. Their rich clientele sit and barely speak a word for the entire duration of the cut. Some clients even ask if the barber is ambidextrous so they won't have to move when the barber switches from one half of the face to the other. Unanimously, they tell me to get off the island; the stuff I need for the play won't be found here, rich men think they are better than us, they don't care. I thank them for their advice and get a taxi to Tera Kulture, an arts venue where I meet Tolu Ogunlesi one of the youngest, most celebrated and popular of Nigeria's emerging columnists.
Tera Kulture is a low-lit, two story building with a library/restaurant on the ground floor and long winding staircase from the centre of the room to the second floor. Tolu is sat behind the staircase with a friend and I slide easily into the conversation on Nigeria's film industry. Tolu's friend says the World Bank is investing; they have a fund set up to support the industry. I ask how it is such a body can fund an entire genre of entertainment and one as big as Nollywood and he explains the fund is to support bigger budget films (directors apply) and to help re-establish Nigeria's cinema industry. There are only ten or so cinemas in Lagos to supply a population of 17.5 million. All the primetime slots are taken by Hollywood films. The cinema is the first place where directors and investors can make their money back. Because there are not enough screens or programers willing to take risks, they look to street hawkers for distributors and the hawkers pirate the movies for the demanding public. The conversation switches to Beyonce's use of an excerpt of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TEDx Talk in a song from her latest album, and if Chimamanda might have made any money from the deal. We search online for the video and after ten frustrating minutes, laugh at the idea that this late at night, three grown men are searching frantically for a Beyonce song.
Thursday 9th of Jan, I'm tired, losing focus and a little disheartened by the previous day. I potter about the apartment willing myself to write. I sit, completely dispirited before the computer till a friend, the prolific playwright and director Wole Oguntokun texts to say he is on his way. We had spoken earlier in the week when he offered to take me round visiting barber shops on the mainland, but he fell ill and I was unsure if we would meet. We drive to three different spots. The first one, a sleepy place established 20 years before, is run by the lone attending barber, an older, straight-backed, softly-spoken man. There are no ceiling fans or cooling devices and though the door is wide open, it is stifling hot and breezeless. The barber is shaving a client's and he is so skilled, so light of touch, that the client is falling asleep. I explain to Wole that I need a place with people talking and I'd heard of a spot not too far away. The second place is bustling and I attempt to speak to people, but for the noisy ceiling fans fighting to make the temperature customer-friendly and the music shaking the walls and mirrors, it is hard to converse. The clients and barbers are not really speaking to each other either. We leave for the third place where barbers and clients ask if I will pay them for the conversation and more or less clam up when I refuse. Back at the flat, an old friend Ore Disu comes to visit and I explain the problems I had encountered. She assures me an acquaintance, Oscar, will sort everything out on Saturday.
I spend much of Friday attempting to build a scene from the first conversations I'd had and trust that Oscar will deliver. We are to meet on Saturday morning. I finally get through to Oscar at 12 and he says he will be busy till four o’clock. I call Oscar at four and he asks for payment for himself and the barbers he'd found for me to speak with. I explain again that I cannot pay people to talk to each other or to me about anything and everything, but he refuses to engage otherwise. I hang up the phone and everything comes crashing down: my fatigue, frustration at having to give security guards and police officers money to let us pass, haggling with various taxi drivers, the relentless heat, the growing loneliness of the trip and the fluctuating confidence I feel in the entire project. I try one last time, one last attempt and go out to the first barber shop on the island, show the barber a picture of my previous cut to recreate, take off my glasses, sit back and attempt to talk to him. His answers are monotone and monosyllabic. I put on my glasses after he is done and it is the worst cut I have received, ever. The moustache he has given me is two strokes short of Adolph Hitler's. I slip three 1000 Naira bills into his outstretched palm and leave.
I pack, wait for Sunday's dawn to come and at 5am, go downstairs to meet Wallace who is to take me back to the airport for the flight to Ghana. Wallace had had a busy week and when he asks about mine and I tell my problem, he says that I should have let him know, that he would have sorted out everything, taken me to Mushin and Ajegunle where his barber is located, that he'd spent half of the previous day in a barber shop. As we drive, he recounts conversations he'd had, does his best to give an impression of what I had missed. I give him a large tip and join the queue for Arik Air's 7:20 to Ghana. I'd read about and been warned of the airport’s inadequacy and Arik air’s particular ineptitude, but my experiences to date had been fine. On this occasion, the staff really outdo themselves. Firstly they ask passengers from separate flights to queue up together, after sorting through the chaos and checking us in, we wait at the boarding gates as usual. At 7:47, 27 minutes after the flight was due to take off, we are informed that the flight will be delayed by an hour, but we do not leave till 9.40. We swap boarding gates, exit through the fire escape to the runway, gingerly stepping over pipes and wires towards the airplane where one groundsman is sat sheltering beneath the airplane, surfing the internet on his phone. As we walk past Arik Air staff who are entirely unapologetic for the delay, they ask us what presents we have brought for them and suggest we give a 1000 Naira each for the trouble of seeing to our luggage.
As the plane lifts I sink into my chair feeling guilty to be pleased to be leaving my own country, to be rid of its brand of double think and heat. I remember something Wole said, that there are phrases you see when arriving into major cities, 'Welcome to LA' a billboard will say, 'Welcome to London' another chimes, but ours reads 'This is Lagos'. It is a statement. It's subtext is 'Enter at your own peril' or 'sink or swim'. On this occasion, I have sunk. But I am to return in March for three days and I pray cometh the hour I'll swim again. Mid-flight, I make a list of things I have learnt:
1) In Nigeria, nothing, nothing comes for free. 2) "Nothing ever happens quite the way you expect it to" 3) THIS IS NAIJA, HUSTLE OR DIE! 4) '419' refers to section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code. 5) 419 deals with obtaining property by false pretence. 6) The Yoruba are natural dramatists. 7) The Igbo are natural prose writers. 8) The Hausa are perhaps better served by poetry. 9) 100 years ago this year, Nigeria was created. 10) What a creation it is.
Next stop, Accra, Ghana.