Eloghosa Osunde is a Nigerian writer and artist. In 2021 she won the prestigious Plimpton Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review. Here she takes us on a personal, literary journey through her hometown of Lagos through the perspective of a fictional character in her novel.

What is a city?

Look, every place has a spirit to match its concrete, a temperament to match its beauties — a genius loci. It’s just the way it is. To gather any set of buildings, people, things, roads, sky, waters and call it a place is to make something alive. And what did you learn from Genesis 1? To breathe life into a created thing is to give it permission to use its own lungs. It will walk one day, talk one day, reek of its own independent desires, bite into an apple you forbade, and there will always come a point where you — creator and inhabiter — will no longer be able to control it. 

Street vendor selling oranges on the streets of downtown Lagos.
Every city has its own spirit and Lagos is no exception © Jorge Fernandez/Getty Images

 Ok fine, maybe that’s untrue. Some cities stay docile forever, loving the surrender of agency, wanting the submission. Some are sharp animals, chameleons. Others happen like a light broth added to a pot already on a sure fire, wafting off gently into the air. Easy to miss their hereness if you walk too fast. Some cities are children, wide-eyed and hopeful, demanding. Others are cheetahs, swallowing ground in long strides. 
 
But Lagos? Enter it and what you will meet there is a sprawling shapeshifting masquerade.  When it encircles you and makes a whirlwind of your world, stay calm. We’re only trying to move beyond that script you prepared, we’re trying to sniff your skin, assess your desires. It will only take a few seconds.

The five commandments of Lagos

Ah, so you are hunting down the art, the books, the music, the culture and colors that’ll keep you coming back? I won’t lie, I’ve met your type. Plenty. This will be a memorytrail for me, having done this many times before, but I know the first stop you’ll enjoy. In the meantime, let us go through the commandments: 

1. This is a city for all. You share this place with flesh and not-flesh, and it’s just as much their city as it is yours. You’re not more important because you’re alive or because you see this way up or because you walk with your legs and breathe from your face. That it’s the only way you know does not mean it’s the only way there is. Don’t think that just because spirits forgive you all the time—for running into them, for bumping against them, for slamming their fingers into doors, for not answering when they call you, for stepping on them as they’re sunbathing on the road’s shoulder– they no longer exist, that their lives will not still touch your life. They are only giving you chance. 

2. This cityspirit has uncountable parallels, is something different to every person - its spiritface a mirror. If the city answers to many names, if even it cannot define itself, then just as the world will never agree on the color of God’s iris, we cannot agree on who or what Lagos is. 

 3. To look closely at what this place produces is to look at yourself, to watch your own face, to meet who you are when there is no witness and only you can see you. To say, just as there are twenty one million Lagosians, there are twenty one million Lagoses. Choose your own adventure.

4. Be careful, keep a few eyes at your back, and have respect.
 
5. This is the only commandment with a promise: that if you do anyhow, you will also see anyhow.

Men sit and read the morning papers under a bridge in Lagos.
You'll get from Lagos what you put it into it © Stefan Heunis/Getty Images

Secret bookshops, magic portals, laughter and tears: a tour

Now this is Jazzhole — a book/record store, an intimate concert venue, a magazine collector, a hideout from the noise outside. If you’re the kind to lose your head in a book or lose your shit to spinning vinyl, this is the one for you. You can stand under a single roof and find words and sounds from Arundhati Roy to Billie Holliday, Hemingway to Soyinka, Tutuola to Onyeka Onwenu, Femi Kuti to Somi to Angelique Kidjo, Celine Dion to Janet Jackson, Prince to Gil Scott Heron. It’s okay to get lost and have some of your hours eaten out of your hand. I’ll be outside when you’re done. 

Deeper downtown, our next stop is Freedom Park — a converted prison turned gallery, food court, rehearsal center, music venue, leisure area. Depending on the day, anything can happen here from exhibitions to food festivals, dance recitals to concerts, book fairs and panels. Two Octobers ago, exactly where you’re standing, I saw a man dance himself into a breakdown during Felabration. It was a sight to see. Something in the air, I think. Something in the ground, we’re told. 

Dancers perform on the stage of the Felabration music festival in Lagos, on October 16, 2016.
Felabration is an annual Lagos music festival conceived in 1998 by Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti in celebration of her father, musician Fela Kuti © Pius Utomi Ekepei/Getty Images

If you want to find excessive options in books, there are secret bookshops in Marina and CMS where you can bend-down-select them. They remain unnamed but if you shine your eye well, you will find them. For the same in music, Bogobiri hosts magic portals every Thursday night for poetry and music. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been there in some time, but last I checked, you may be shocked to tears by the kind of talent you find there. Nneka has performed there before. The Cavemen. Keziah Jones. Nsikak, who’s a wizard of a guitarist. Bez. New stars, old heads, you name it. If it’s too late to return home on the night you go and you have the money for it, ask for a room upstairs.

How do you feel about theatre? That’s another thing you cannot leave here without seeing — because if anything will show you the way a city sounds and moves, it’s a stage. You like plays, abi? If so, choose between my left hand and my right. Which one? 
If you chose left, we will go to Terra Kulture to eat ofada rice and drink palm wine, then see if there’s a showing of Bolanle Austen Peters’ Fela and The Kalakuta Queens. It was sold out almost everyday when it first came out. Smash hit! If you’re lucky, we’ll see it today. If you chose the right hand, we will appear at the Muson Center to watch Hear Word by Ifeoma Fafunwa. Another beast of a story. I watched from the back the first time it was done. Laughter and tears, my friend. Laughter and tears.

Somebody should take you to National Theatre and National Museum; Art Twenty One, Rele Gallery, Red Door, Nike Art Gallery and CCA for art; Nok by Alara for architecture, food and those Instagram pictures. It won’t be me, but somebody should definitely take you. Expect nothing. Notice everything. 

If it’s art you’re here for, you will find it there.

Lagos National ArtsTheatre
Lagos National Arts Theatre is perfect for lovers of art ©HorploadWorks Photography/500px

In the meantime, this is University of Suya on Allen Avenue — my favourite suya joint on the mainland (when on the island, it’s definitely Polo Club). I like this place for its name, I like the confidence of saying: we make professional grilled meat. But anyway, time is running now and I have to go, but see, you’re getting too serious. Where you come from, they don’t dance or what?

Sha, whether you like it or not, our last stop is that club I was telling you about. That will be the best place to leave you, because even if you did not understand where you were before, you will surely understand then.

Oh, before I forget, my name is Tatafo. 
Sorry? 
What does it mean? 
Hahahahaha. You’ll have to ask around.

You might also like:
Searching for clarity at a Nigerian art museum
Lagos is a star of Nollywood films
The 10 best things do in and around Lagos

Lagos is on our 2022 Best in Travel list. For more stories from some of the world’s most exciting destinations click here.

Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.

Buy Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2022

Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2022 ranks the world’s must-visit countries, cities and regions to provide a year's worth of travel inspiration.

Buy Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2022

Explore related stories