Blood flowing through open wounds of broken human body parts and a nation, beaten by ethnoreligious violence, forced Toni Kan and his family to flee to Lagos. They sought refuge from a war they had no role in, abandoning a place they had come to seek greener pastures and have begun to call home.
This was in 1991 during the infamous Reinherd Bonnke riot that pitted Muslims against Christians in Kano state. Kan’s brother and mother would flee to Lagos from Kano wedged between cattle on the back of a pickup truck, inhaling animal hide, dung and the cold October wind.
And so, when Kan says: “Lagos is my playground,” it is difficult to imagine that Lagos hasn’t always been his home. That, like everybody else, it took him years to find and craft his Lagos story too and find his identity in a city flowing with thousands of others, much like Kan, seeking refuge from one thing or the other.
In Kan, Lagos has found a fervent ambassador who, using every platform he can, tells the story of Lagos – mixing the pain and the beauty neatly to form a truly homogenized solution of what Lagos is and isn’t.
Born in Delta State and schooled in Jos, Kan’s Lagos is without embellishment – in that when he talks about Lagos he doesn’t dwell on the uppity stories of Ikoyi and gentrified Lagos, self-righteously ignoring the ruggedness of Oshodi and Agege. Neither does he condescend on one part of Lagos and treat the other with privileged respect. Instead he weaves a narrative that threads through the parts of Lagos, showing its beauty, failures and identities.
“Lagos is like a woman that I fell in love with but not in the best circumstances. But God has blessed me in this town and I think I must use my time to tell her story,” Kan says.
When you want to write about Lagos, it makes sense to consult the man known around town as the ‘Mayor of Lagos’ – a title Kan accepts with a great deal humor but holds sacred in the way he treats and talks about all things Lagos.
Mayor of Lagos was a title that originated from Facebook. “it was just my young friends trying to say that this guy knows Lagos so well,” Kans says, breaking down in laughter. “They said he is always talking and writing about Lagos. And he knows his way around Lagos and he is just like this guy who knows Lagos so well.”
The above assertion gives Kan the credibility as a human directory of where it is happening in Lagos and the in places to hang out within Lagos.
This interview with Kan was supposed to take place at Freedom Park – that piece of property in Lagos Island that serves as a national memorial to Nigeria’s colonial past and failed post-independence governance, but was once home to the old Broad Street prison which was pulled down in the late 1970s. Now it has become a gathering place for contemporary Nigerian artists, who gathered to drown their sorrows and celebrate winnings with life’s little pleasures.
But as timing would have it, Kan and I never met at Freedom Park even though we have scheduled and rescheduled the planned meet-up twice. Instead we decided to hold the interview over the phone, Kan’s voice playing a bitter hide and seek with my ear as the telecoms network fluctuated, leaving blank spaces in his words.
Kan tells me that in the past artists of all kinds used to come to the Island to find a place where people like them, their community, gather. Now, art hubs are spread across Lagos – from the mainland to the island, essentially making Lagos a culturally vibrant place.
He name-drops a couple of places across Lagos, adding that “I mean, these are places that artists can go and be happy. And they are growing day by day.”
With the growth of art centers across Lagos, these hubs have also managed to foster conversation among artists of different genre, while also giving young and aspiring artists an opportunity to learn and converse with established names.
“These places have created avenues for discussion. Basically, these places have opened spots for us to meet. Before if you want to chill you had to go to a hotel,” Kan says.
When Kan speaks, he leaves a lot of verbal ticks, intersecting his sentences with phrases like “you know,” “I mean,” “basically.” Occasionally, he laughs or chuckles in the middle of his sentence.
Kan’s debut novel, Carnivorous City, a sizzling crime thriller that snaked through parts of Lagos mainland and the Island, is his ultimate love song to Lagos. Throughout his talk, Kan will reference Lagos as a woman, using metaphors of love to describe his eclectic relationship with the city.
“A love song is not always happy,” Kan says of his relationship with Lagos, explaining what he means by ‘Carnivorous City’ being a love song. The city has failed him, severally, but it has also given him hope and a space to dream a dream that might have once been unachievable to his younger self.
“A love song is emotional, you know. It captures your feelings about a woman; positive or negative. You meet a woman. You guys fall in love and still quarrel. Despite the quarrels, it doesn’t mean you don’t love her.”
Kan’s relationship with Lagos is multidimensional – assuming different forms that depend largely on what the city presents. Lagos gives hope and then takes it and then it dangles opportunities in front of you, allowing you to seize it if you can reach it – some can, most can’t.
Once, Kan recalls in a meeting with the writer Teju Cole, he said “Lagos is a garden of dreams where we come to harvest.”
It is this aspirational appeal of Lagos that have guided many, like Toni Kan, to her and they stay, enduring different tastes of Lagos and building comfortable identities for themselves.
“People come to Lagos and they change their names. When they introduce themselves, you won’t know where they are coming from – almost as if they’re people without history. People identify you as whatever you tell them,” Kan says.
But Kan isn’t done yet with how one can recreate his identity in Lagos. He has heard stories of people who assume new identities once they are in Lagos, recreating their personal brands as if they’ve been born anew.
“You can be anything in Lagos. You enter Lagos and recreate yourself with the anonymity people offer you – even in other big cities too, depending on the qualities of the city.”
Historically, the Third Mainland Bridge, stretching between the edges of the Lagos Lagoon, has been a bridge that separates the mainland from the island – literally and metaphorically. This bridge presents a physical barrier that shows where ideological differences begin and a different lifestyle meet and then diverge.
“Lagos is basically a place of two parts,” Kan says. “Third Mainland Bridge links the mainland and island together.”
He has always wanted to write a story that sums up both the island and the mainland, showing the individual identities and nuances of each side. With Carnivores City, Kan did this.
Carnivores City is a crime fiction that sees the main character, Abel, a teacher from Asaba in Delta state, dashing through the streets of Lagos, flagrantly crossing socioeconomic barriers while experiencing a huge dose of culture shock, all to find his missing brother, Soni – one of those sudden Lagos big boys that disappear as fast they appear on the stage, riding the waves of popularity till they are knocked out.
In the book, Kan sums Lagos up as “a beast with bared fangs and a voracious appetite for human flesh,” a city where “life is not just brutish – it is short.” But Kan’s decription of Lagos in the book isn’t just dark and gloomy, he depicts Lagos as a city of hope where millions flock to, despite the looming dangers, with hopes that “we will be luckier than the next man.”
Abel in Carnivorous City straddles the not very neat line between the opulence of Victoria Island where he lives and the hoods of Mushin where he escapes jungle justice. He rides through Allen, visiting a strip bar in Ikeja for a night and but is later entertained in the highbrow joints at Lekki – where he also has sexual intercourse with Calista, a girlfriend from University, at her expensive homes at 1004.
In all, Carnivorous City is a summation of Lagos, without blemish or makeup. It presents Lagos as it is, showing the identities of different areas within the city.
“I thought about writing a book that marries both the island and the mainland,” Kan notes that there is behavioral difference between the islander and the mainlanders. To some, like Soni in the Carnivorous City, the island is aspirational, a place where you go to settle when wealth has been acquired.
“There are people on the island that have never been on the mainland or they rarely ever come to the mainland. Others make money on the mainland and move to the island. Because I have an idea of how both function. There are people that I know that have worked on the island for 5 to 6 years but have never entered a house on the island because they don’t understand the island. They just don’t see it as home.”
Asked what the culture of Lagos is, Kan replies that “Lagos is full of culture but I don’t think Lagos has a specific culture.”
Kan points out that because of the multi-plurality of Lagos, it is impossible to point out a specific culture within the city. “The thing about Lagos is that anything you’re looking for, you’ll find it.”
The Mayor of Lagos says this and you should believe it.