My childhood years were spent in Ibadan, in a once prosperous middle class neighbourhood, where gentrification currently seems to be fighting a losing war with faster moving slum encroachment. The sixties of my childhood evoke delightful nostalgias of farm fresh milk being delivered in the morning by a milk van. The newspaper vendor roamed the streets happily tooting his two-tune horns to announce his presence and no day was complete without the merry chime of the ice cream van coming by in the evening. Even though many of the conveniences and gadgets we today take for granted were to most people not affordable or did not even yet exist, life was joyous and beautiful.
The Liberty Stadium was less than two hundred yards away from home, and there a frisky little lad could play to his heart’s content before crawling home tired at dusk and with no other wish than to eat your supper with the remaining strength you had and thereafter stumble away to bed. Children’s television programmes were sparse and ran for only an hour or so each day and when your television broke and slapping it in whichever way possible didn’t correct the picture, children created their own entertainment by telling folktales and raising loud sing-songs.
My primary school was about a mile away from our house. It was nevertheless enjoyable morning walk in the morning, the little kids scurrying along, carrying little painted metal portmanteaus in little hands; the bigger kids more jauntily with the straps of their school bags slung across their shoulders. Cars were few on the road and those cars were more sensibly driven, so there was little fear of being run down as you crossed the roads to school and back. Life was enjoyable and exciting.
In those times, Ibadan was the administrative seat of a huge regional government and so was a bustling civil servant city as well as a political stage. Ibadan was home to the first university in Nigeria and also the first university teaching hospital in the country. Ibadan was home to the first television station in Africa and thus naturally home to anyone with the wish for a prosperous career in entertainment. Ibadan of the sixties was a melting pot for whatever could be considered excellence in whichever field of human endeavour and especially for education, entertainment and commerce. The social scene was brisk and lively, highlife music and varieties of the folk musical genres rocked street parties. Key talents such as Sunny Ade and highlife debutant Fela Ransome-Kuti became newly discovered. Young educated women proudly showed off their English schooling by overt display of well rehearsed etiquette at every social engagement. Younger trendy ladies in their smart hot pants and ‘bonfo’ miniskirts, heated up youth parties where they smooched in dark halls with slim-trouser young men to the music of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. More reticent and rebellious fellows gathered discretely in smaller darkened rooms, to quietly affirm their support of the Black Power Movement and to share personal stashes of marijuana with Jimi Hendrix , The Rolling Stones , The Beatles playing loud from the tinny loudspeaker of portable gramophone. The social landscape had a resident feeling of peace, prosperity and contentment.
The opening years of the seventies found me a student at the Government College, Ibadan, a school set up in 1929, by the colonial government, in an attempt to replicate the Oxford and Cambridge school traditions in Nigeria. Tucked away in the town outskirts, school grounds covered a total area of nearly half a square mile of prime woods, a size which should make many universities envious. The school activities were aggressively British education, the purpose underscored by the long lineage of British principals since its establishment. In this school I would sojourn for nearly five years before fleeing at sixteen to the University of Lagos, initially to study Chemical Engineering and to eventually graduate a Civil Engineer ; but this is another story altogether.
The early seventies came with curious social and economic challenges alongside the oil boom years – a situation in which the Arab oil embargo resulted in astronomical rise in crude oil price and therefore a huge and continuous windfall for the Nigeria. Enhanced salaries, especially in the civil service made it possible for many all over the country to purchase luxury items which had previously been out of reach. Cheap cars shipped in by the tens of thousands every year from Asia, more expensive ones came in thousands from Europe. I do remember that my mother, a salaried public primary school head, bought herself a new car which she really didn’t need, but for the peer pressure. Her last attempt to drive a car, I learn, had ten years before and under the tutelage of my deceased father ended rather disastrously. She hired herself a driver nevertheless; she could afford to do so, even from her new salary. The social and economic climate of the modest city got hotter. Folks, who before considered themselves teetotallers, primarily because it was unaffordable to do otherwise, now discovered that alcoholic drinks were a social necessity. Families, who had been notoriously thrifty, blew huge portions of their income on drinks of whatever type of description and concoction. Public drunkenness became the new fashion of the day.
Social icons received exciting facelifts and uplifts. Fela got more popular, his highlife music rebranding into a very inventive Afrobeat, which borrowed not a little bit from the percussions of Latin American music , consequently spawning an unprecedented number of followers and copycats . Sunny Ade boosted his music with the introduction of unusual instruments and a prodigious style, igniting the growth of a new genre of Juju music, promoted by drunken orgies, offensive lyrics and copycats destined for failure. The new wave of disco music opened up dozens of new nightclubs all over town and dexterous disk jockeys like Alex Conde and Ben Jay became heroes of radio music programs. In tandem with the trend moved in the first generation of mobile discotheques – Tower of Power Unlimited, Sound Warehouse and others with shockingly short lives .The popular cinemas of that time raked in huge profits ,from the audience’s growing addiction to spaghetti western , Chinese martial arts and the incipient Blaxploitation films .
Women and men upgraded their party attires to gaudy lace fabrics .Youngsters proudly prowled the street in amazing bell bottom trousers, Oxford bags trousers, tank tops, monkey jackets, and platform shoes with soles as high as nine inches and in loud parties and in dark halls smooched to soul music of Marvin Gaye, Barry White and Isaac Hayes.
The economic climate was also naturally brighter. More available money meant more residents could afford to build their own houses, in which new incoming residents lived for a while before they also built their own houses. The city widened outward very rapidly, but in much of the middle class colony, the peace and modesty essentially remained unchanged.
Elsewhere in the country and in a bigger picture, Nigeria’s image became unbelievably transformed. The US Dollar was just worth only about half of the Nigerian Naira, which now became acceptable currency in most of the reputable commercial establishments all over the world. The generous military government of the day made it priority foreign policy to play the big brother with the big wallet to less fortunate countries all over the world. Huge ships sailed to Lagos with expensive junk destined for the newly rich country. Millions of tons of knick-knacks and factory processed food, came sailing in , half of it to be eventually tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as impatient ship captains wisely figured that with the lengthy queue at the only working port, it would probably take them about two years before their cargo could be discharged. The importation bill was nevertheless passed on to the country’s foreign exchange account. No problem we can afford it, the military government fellows laughed; there are banker guys out there who will lend us money to pay up if we fall short of payment, since our credit is good.
A thoroughly inept democracy soon replaced the military junta, in the charge of which, corruption, theft, outright looting of treasury and various larcenies soared sky-high. Miscreants from all over the world with mindsets ranging from merely adventurous to plainly diabolic came in for their share of the Nigerian gold rush.
Severely heavy with debt, the eighties struggled to maintain the social character of the seventies. Nigerians continued to gorge on imported foreign things to a state of stupor – foods and drinks, music, clothes, electronics and anything the imagination is able to cobble up. . It was in the eighties nevertheless that the chickens finally came home to roost. The fall in oil price which started in 1981, quickly had the profligate civilian government paying out more than the country was earning , plunging the country into an economic mess, which paved the way for ousting the civilian president by another military government , preaching hell and fire. Tight money situations foreign bankers, who had constantly extended credit, could regularly deal with since their liquidators had no problem with bringing madmen and robbers playing government, to their senses. But, tackling cranky political situation, especially when it involved dealing with opinionated uniformed men who carried guns for a living, was not the natural elements of bankers, so they did the wise thing and called for their money.
Another set of military people promising to correct the errors of the predecessor soon forcibly took over government and everything went downhill from there, with economy, heritages and societal values gradually and efficiently eroded away right down to the most remote towns by military incompetence. As I write this and for a measurable perspective, the US dollar is nearly four hundred times the value of the Naira, from a lowly half of the value in the seventies. As I write this, just one single tire for my car now costs about six times what I paid to purchase an entire brand new car in the early eighties.
As I write this in Ibadan, the Liberty Stadium is being gradually lost to savage bush and brambles, the television station now nationalised is struggling to achieve sub-ordinary tasks with obsolete equipment, the college hospital, once one of the best in the world, must sometimes perform candle-lit surgical operations because the electricity supply has severe challenges, the university is overpopulated and ill-maintained and the once graceful public buildings and amenities of the city have fallen to ruin .
In the neighbourhood of my childhood, once an enviable middle class colony, the original owners of the houses are long dead, their offspring have fled to Europe and to America, away from the hopelessness of their country, or just fled to relatively more prosperous cities of the country. The once beautiful houses have now become deserted, decrepit and not anymore of much commercial value, the paved streets are reduced to gullies and potholes, all a sad testimony to a blight of bad government.
Nevertheless, quite like a well-bred peer unfortunately fallen on hard times but determined nevertheless to retain that ingrained polish, the spirit of the city remains suave, smiling and still inviting. You are welcome to Ibadan, it constantly chimes.
From my coming book of Autobiographical Writings – Gathering the Words
Read Somber City