Friday, 8 June 2012
ABUJA: DREDGING THE SOUL OF AN ARTIFICIAL CITY
As I opened the sealed envelope from the courier company, the employment letter from the donor agency stared at me. I was to quit my job at the Orthopaedic Hospital in Igbobi to pursue a career in the development sector and I struggled to overcome the inner tussle of emotions that welled-up within me. Lagos had become a second home for me and the thought of relocating to Abuja stirred a potpourri of emotions. My heart tugged at me over this new development; how do I leave the wonderful friends I have made in Lagos? Will there be a vibrant artistic and literary community in Abuja that can meet my cultural and artistic needs?
Notwithstanding, I took the plunge to leave Lagos for Abuja as I yielded to the adventurous side of me, and in March 2005, I bid Lagos farewell after resigning from my job as a physiotherapist!
For the first few weeks in Abuja, I struggled to adapt into the seemingly bland lifestyle of the residents. Abuja residents seem to have too much leisure time after work but seem to lack creative ideas on how to mop-up the loose time. After closing early from work, guys gathered at the different gardens (aka glorified beer parlors) spread across the city to smoke, drink beer and pepper soup or eat grilled fish and nkwobi. Those who live in the outskirts and satellite towns- which are not bereft of beer parlors- hurry back home early to beat the traffic and relax after work.
Then Abuja streets were vacant most weekends as many residents made weekend trips to Lagos or other neighbouring towns; for Abuja then was like an unattractive maiden loathed by hot-like-fire bachelors. She had no weekend attractions, and no bustling and vibrant night life to break the boredom on the streets. The usual comments by most Abuja residents who’d relocated from Lagos or the expatriates were, “Abuja has no soul”, “what a soul-less city we live in!”
For sure I was restless but hopeful that some closet arts enthusiast and aficionados like me who would someday come out of our huts to collectively create and craft a soul that would fill up the hill-circumscribed space called Abuja metropolis. My first break or you call it luck came through a Dutch colleague with European Union who hinted me about a weekly Book Club hosted by wives of diplomats and expatriates in Abuja. I was too shocked when I realized I was the only guy among the women at my first meeting which held inside the “US village’’ in Maitama. I never went back again for obvious reasons. Sure it was a good initiative but didn’t cover the interests of a wider group of residents who needed an outlet for their literary and artistic interests.
Unknown to me, some people of like minds had found creative ways to break the monotonous life in Abuja and chose to gather together at weekends to drink from the literary pot brewed by artistic minds. A writer friend, Ike Anya had told before I left Lagos to join Abuja Literary Society (ALS) and it took me a while to locate them. Then ALS held monthly book readings and poetry recitations at the British Council and Signature Gallery. ALS provided the platform for the young and emerging writers to hone and sharpen their writing and poetry performance skills through the critique sessions, open-mike sessions and quarterly performance poetry slams supported by Transcorp Hilton Hotel.
With the closure of Numetro Stores in Abuja, a new multimillion dollar edifice Silverbird Entertainment Centre, Abuja was constructed to provide world class entertainment for the residents now have a juicy variety of entertainment options at their doorstep; class cinema halls were both Hollywood and Nollywood films compete for space; night clubs, fast-food joints and exotic shops for all kinds of stuff; books, music Cds and dvds, designer clothes, electronics and sports equipment.
In addition Abuja Literary Society now holds a monthly book jam inside Silverbird’s bookstore, whereby seasoned Nigerian authors are hosted in an interactive session with readers. Other equally active literary groups in Abuja include Abuja Writers Forum, Guild of Artists and Poets, and Association of Nigeria Authors which have collaborated with ALS to host popular Nigerian authors such as Chimamanda Adichie, Sefi Atta, Chika Unigwe, Lola Shoneyin, Adobi Nwaubani, Toni Kan, Helon Habila, Unomah Azuah, Uwem Akpan, Abidemi Sanusi, Eghosa Imaseun, Onyeka Nwelue among others.
The last weekends of each month in Abuja are usually packed full with literary arts events. For instance, Abuja Infusion ( a fusion of poetry, music and literature) holds every last Thursday of the month at a lounge; JB’s Grill located within Maitama Amusement Park, and hosted by the poet and author, Lola Shoneyin. Abuja Book Jam (hosted by ALS) holds every last Friday of the month at Silverbird entertainment centre, while Abuja Writers Forum holds a monthly Guest Author event every last Saturday of the month.
There are two different active play reading groups; one holds at the Korean Cultural Centre, while for the second play reading group, the members take turns to host the sessions at their respective homes. The French Cultural centre also hosts a couple of events like stage plays, and films on some weekends. The Abuja Film Club holds every Sunday evening, with members coming together to enjoy private screening of classic films, and critically analyzing at the end of the screening.
Abuja is not all about books, plays and films. For instance, members of the Abuja Field Society do scheduled trips to sites of tourists’ attraction within Abuja and neighbouring states. Some expeditions include visits to Bwari Pottery, Ushafa Caves, Fulani Market, Waterfalls, Arugungu Fishing Festival, Kano Durbar, among others.
There’s an Abuja Hash group whose members do hiking along some trails across Abuja twice a month and usually on Saturdays. The hash group is one of the most exciting social get-togethers for those who enjoy outdoor fun. There are live bands that play every night at different locations like hotels and bars. On weekends, a lot of men play soccer at different locations such as Jabi Lake, at the Astroturf in Maitama Amusement Park and other soccer pitches across the city.
With time, Nduka Obaigbena set up ThisDay Dome in the heart of the city centre where several comedy and music concerts have been held so far, in addition to the regular concerts that are held at the Congress Hall of the Hilton, the Ladi Kwali Hall of Sheraton, and the Africa Hall of the International Conference Centre.
The real crowd puller is the yearly ‘all-night’, Jam Mega Fest hosted by the Abuja branch of the House on the Rock at the Eagles’ Square, which attracts over a million crowd, who come to watch top-rated international and local gospel artists perform live in Abuja. Abuja City Carnival which holds the last week of November draws cultural troupes from the 36 states of Nigeria. Each state troupe designs a float that depicts the unique culture of their people and the carnival involves display of cultural dances by each state team along the streets of Abuja, boat regatta at the Jabi ‘artificial’ lake, horse racing durbar, music concert etc.
Couples and families in Abuja have countless and well-mowed and maintained gardens and parks located in every section of the city to relax in, and the most prominent and biggest are the Millennium Park which overlooks Transcorp Hilton Hotel. There are a couple of amusement parks for kids and adults and ‘Wonderland Amusement Park’ which is a mini Disneyland that attracts a huge traffic most weekends and festive periods.
Abuja’s night life is the most exciting time for most visitors from other states and cities in Nigeria due to the relative peace and security within the city. Numerous night clubs dot the Abuja’s neon-lit streets at night, with bars, cafes and coffee shops, shawarma joints, and most hotels have live bands that entertain clients most evenings and especially at weekends. With police patrol vans strolling around to provide security and taxicabs moving about easily, Abuja residents and visitors can move from one club to the other in relative peace.
And should anyone say again that Abuja has no soul that inhabits the magnificent edifices and offices sucked into its belly, many a resident would be sure to defend this city that we have all come to love, despite the annoyingly high cost of house rents, worsened by the display of stupendous wealth by politicians and their associates. At the Abuja residents who pay through their noses for decent housing are often consoled that at least it offers us what every other city in Nigeria hardly can provide in abundance; good roads, well-laid out streets, beautiful lawns and parks, and a dose of salubrious air!