At 8pm every Friday, Mutari, a tall slim Hausa-Fulani man, arrives at Opebi-Allen roundabout, Ikeja, at the intersection with Toyin Street, directly behind the garden at Allen-Opebi roundabout. He sets up his stand, putting noodles and all his ingredients on display. From 8pm till 6am, the next morning, Mutari will sell instant noodles, cooked with pepper, carrot, cucumber and, depending on the customer’s choice, bread or egg – to hungry club goers, fun seekers and workers who flock to Allen Avenue at night.
“Here is my club! Na here everything dey happen,” he says of his small instant noodles stand.
“Na because of this rain. Wait till eleven, twelve, here go come alive,” a customer says. He places a loaf of Agege bread in front of Mutari, who later slices it in half, puts a load of fried eggs in the middle and then fries the bread in a frying pan with a splash of oil, pressing it down till the bread flattens out and acquires a golden-brown colour as if it was toasted.
Across the road, inside the garden, which stands conspicuously in the middle of the avenue, two young women are dressing up. One is using the yellow-toned streetlight overhead to apply her makeup, glancing into the mirror as she puts makeup on her eyelid. Another is tugging on her shorts, pulling it up and adjusting it around her voluptuous behind. They are laughing at something – a private joke perhaps.
It is 9:30pm at Opebi-Allen Avenue, that chameleon street in the heart of Ikeja, Lagos. At all hours of the day, Opebi-Allen is a business road and constantly alive with human activities. In the daytime, Opebi-Allen assumes a pretentious glow as businessmen, stomach heavy with breakfast prepared by their doting wives, come to work in starched shirts and suits. At night, Allen shows its other face to the same businessmen who return to her in dress shirts or t-shirts and jean trousers, to drink and party away, perhaps, in the company of sex workers.
University of Suya, Faculty of Meateology, is the first thing that welcomes you to Allen. This University, with a select list of courses, stands at the junction leading into Allen as you head up from Ikeja under-bridge. There is a crowd waiting for a course offered by the University. Three hours and a few minutes later, when I cross the same path, the crowd has changed, it was bigger now. More people were waiting for their service even at past midnight.
At the heart of Opebi-Allen is a garden with the bust of MKO Abiola – it is from here that other parts of the avenue draw their energy. Here you will see a larger number of cars passing through, some stopping to dabble in the night commerce offered by Opebi-Allen – suya, instant noodles, drinks, clubs and bars, prostitutes.
“Like now if you cross that road, you go see better woman. Talk price with am well, then carry am enter that hotel way dey there or this other one,” the customer points to a hotel across the road, its blue neon light shining brightly in the yellowish light. He points again to the second hotel behind us, I couldn’t make it out.
I cross the road, a car – black Toyota Corolla, with the driver’s window wound up – is parked in front of a lady. She is peering in through the front passenger window of the car, occasionally throwing her head out to laugh.
“Fine man!” she hails the man in that singsong voice of market women who have long learnt that the best way into a person’s heart isn’t always through his stomach but through words validating his physical appearance.
Standing a few feet away is another woman. Her face has a loud golden glow that is as unattractive as it is scandalous – if not abominable. She considers me briefly – a quick glance that would have been missed if I wasn’t already staring at her. She pulls down the edges of her bum short and looks away at the upcoming car headlights.
Standing here and there, amidst the cars parked along Allen or standing alone, are women of different ages waiting for potential customers. Some are mingling in bars and clubs, flashing sensuous feminine willies and body parts, hoping to land a customer – preferably, a ‘loaded’ customer. Some, like the three sitting beside me at a bar, are here for a good time by themselves.
But still, any way na way; any hustle na hustle.
There is something about music. In the way it causes the hearts and feet of strangers to acquire a unity and agreement as feet either taps along to the music or stand up to show off some moves. Music is the best accompaniment to alcohol, suya (or pepper soup) and cigarette – in that manner that akara and bread are paired together like best friends. Somehow, you’ll find that the throat opens itself up, calmly taking in the substances and the brain and heart gain lives of their own out of excitement from the Afrobeat.
Sitting on an opposite table are two men who completely embody the above statement. They sit silently, occasionally talking, while sipping their beers and eating their pepper soup, and tapping feet. And when a new music comes on, you’ll hear a sigh, a deep orgasmic sigh as if the music, liquid and pepperiness is hitting a sweet spot within them.
It has been a wet Friday, and Lagos seems to have recoiled into her shell to hide from the bitter angst of cold and rain. It took a while but Opebi-Allen is slowly coming alive – not really bubbling yet in that atypical way that defined the area as a hotspot for late night entertainment and debauchery.
Allen avenue has been compared to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. It is depicted as a street full of evil in need of cleansing from its immorality and filth.
The beauty of Opebi-Allen is not just its ambivalent face but in how it accepts this ambivalence and makes an advantage out of it: being a critical nerve centre of commerce and productivity, morning and night isn’t a minor feat. It is an attribute that must have taken years to grow.
But if Allen’s two-faced persona shocks you then wait till you get to Secretariat, Alausa. You’ll go down the road from Ikeja City Mall, past Protea Hotels, and its subdued opulence; further, till you pass rows of government ministry buildings across the minor road you come upon and into the next street by your left.Here you’ll find a totally different world – one that arrogantly challenges the authority that surrounds it on a daily. It is the New Afrika Shrine (informally – perhaps, more aptly – known as Fela Shrine). And it shares the same geographical space with government parastatals, including the Lagos State Governor’s Office.
The streets leading up to Fela Shrine are deserted at night and present an innocent face, making it difficult to believe that further inward is a bed of activity, albeit illegal ones. So, when you burst into the short street that is home to Fela’s Shrine, you’ll wonder how the noise, commotion, excitement and preponderance of marijuana smoke contains itself within here and doesn’t spill out into other parts of Alausa. This, I suppose, is one of the wonders of the New Afrika Shrine.
At the junction leading into NERDC Road (where Fela Shrine is housed), young boys of about 14 to 18 years old, begin to hustle you, asking for money or for you to buy whatever it is they are selling. It is even more embarrassing when they spot you emerging from the ATM a few feet away. They follow you, hands raised in salute, singing your praise.
Fela Shrine itself, shaped like a church – across with its two hands bent at a 180 degrees’ angle hanging over the entrance is an incontestable evidence that the heritage of the Fela Kuti family, is truly a place of worship for lovers of good music, chilled nightlife and a good draw of marijuana.
You see while Allen Avenue has an upscale Sodom and Gomorrah kind of feel, NERDC road doesn’t have time for such fluffy comparison. It is a place for men or people who respect the ways of the streets, who understand the value of a good weed and noisy music spilling out from sets of terrible speakers. If compared, the ratio of men and women here, it will show men in the highest. There are no romantics about the shrine, none whatsoever. It defines itself as a place for all to gather, to live wild and free like outlaws in the mould of Fela himself.
There are no prostitutes standing here either. Not on the street(s) leading into Fela Shrine, or around the shrine itself. If they are here then they must have learnt how to be unobserved instead of exuding sexual charm like they did at Allen Avenue.
Three women are obstructing traffic. They’re arguing, exchanging words in rapid Yoruba, completely ignoring the world around – especially, the slow movement of cars and foot traffic. If not for the occasional laughter, one would assume that they were the worst of enemies. But they aren’t. they appear to be riding the eaves highness, delighting in the euphoria it brings and basking in the unabashed freedom.
Despite the threat of rainfall, the sides of the street are crowded with guests sitting on plastic tables and chairs. Businessmen and women make brisk money from selling drinks, cigarettes, noodles, and about any other thing that makes a night worthwhile.
“Bros see better Arizona, SK. Which one you want? I get am,” a man says to me. His voice is croaked and inflicted with a Yoruba accent.
Fela Shrine itself is chocked full of people, a dense cloud of smoke hanging over their head as it searches for a way to escape. On the wall is a self-defeating warning that drugs are not allowed in the Shrine. I am almost certain that even the wall – to say nothing of guests – do not believe the message it bears.
Read the previous instalment in this series: