Unmasking Colonial Lagos through Kelechi Anabaronye’s Lens
Kelechi Anabaronye is a cultural editor, who over the last few years, has documented colonial buildings in Nigeria. His interest was kindled years ago, during his time at the prestigious King’s College in Lagos, when he kept trying to touch and feel all parts of the buildings. In 2009, he began researching daily at a newly opened cyber café in his neighbourhood. From Nigeria and Africa, to politics and colonialism, Kelechi devoured all he could find on the style of Afro-Brazilian architecture, as well as the history of many places, especially the Caribbean. He is today, better known as @OCWonder, after his Instagram feed. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses colonial structures and the various challenges he has encountered in his research.
Your Instagram page has gained traction over time. Why did you choose the name @oc.wonder?
OC Wonder is my maternal grandfather’s nickname. I deduced this from the fact he fought for the British in Burma and Germany, from the stories he has told and from this song he sings, “German folly, folly, folly, German folla, may I no more”. When he returned from these wars, he was sort of the talk of his vicinity as probably the only one to have enlisted in fighting for the British. I suppose that was during the Second World War.
You began researching colonial buildings in Lagos in 2009. How did your interest in old buildings begin, and do some of them hold personal histories for you?
In 2009, a cybercafé opened at my street junction; I used this platform to research on Nigerian and African politics, especially in relation to the diaspora. I first loved politics and that is why I’m presently studying political science. But as time went by, I became dissatisfied with it, especially with the events that led to the 2015 general elections. I used to write via my Instagram page. On one hand, I am happy and grateful to God that in late 2015/early 2016, I was led to focus more on these buildings after I got stuck in a writer’s block. I think it was all part of God’s plan. On the other hand, I had already started taking photos of these buildings in 2014, but lost most of them if not all. It’s because during my school years I had friends who lived around Campus, Bamgbose, Igbosere, Tokunboh, Tapa, Glover amongst other areas with many colonial buildings. As such our school administrative block was partly burnt bricks and wood. Of course, I was skeptical about its origin and how it could stand for ages. During break hours, I would tread past prohibited areas of the block to try to feel the “realness” of the building. I was awestruck and can say this is one of the experiences that inspired my passion for them. Personal histories? I would only say that about the school where I studied for six years, and which became a new love, somewhat unconsciously nurtured and fully blooming after leaving in 2013.
As part of your research, you worked with Shaun Kalu Lochi on a documentary UNMASKED: Colonial Lagos with Kelechi Anabaronye. While shooting, what cultural influences did you imbibe?
My good friend and supporter Shaun Kalu Lochi shot the documentary in 2016. Oh yes, I think I added a bit of a 90s look, with the white bishop collar shirt, which most lads wore under blazers of different colours and patterns. Of course, I adorned an oversized blazer to give credit to the 90s, which used to be a huge part of my inspiration, drawn from photos of my parents in the 90s and early 2000s.
What was the overall experience like and what challenges did you face in bringing the project to completion?
The documentary was fun because I was doing it with someone I recently met, who is a fan of my work and saw something in what I was doing at the time. I’m not at ease when a camera is in my face but I tried to get comfortable with it that day. We did not face many challenges, but had to finish on time, as the building is a government property—the former secretariat that houses Lord Lugard’s office.
In your opinion, how do the old buildings differ from the architecture in other places you have visited?
Colonial architecture is spread across Nigeria. I think this is always my major focus, either Afro Brazilian or British (maybe Victorian), depending on the owner of the building, who is a deciding factor in the style employed. However, the colonial architecture in other cities may surpass that in Lagos. Especially in a place like Abeokuta, which should be a UNESCO world heritage site. The doorways there are more regal and exquisite. But in relation to the architectural styles that evolved, I would not say the modern can match up with the ancient. These buildings took years if not decades to complete but these days, we have structures that must be completed in a month. They are not properly constructed, and may be deemed unfit to live in after only a year. In contrast, the colonial structures have been here more than 50 years, the oldest is said to be 172.
What can you also say about the people that live in the surrounding environment today, and the impact these buildings have on them?
I’ve had conversations with people that live in these buildings and can say that a few know about the history of the buildings, but less are concerned about their preservation and constant maintenance. I don’t think that cities like Abeokuta and Ibadan are keen on doing away with them, unlike Lagos where that is a norm. The locals are not disturbed with the presence of these structures. Many of the people presently living in some of these buildings were born or grew up in them. For example, I met an elderly man in his 50s. He was born in a colonial building on Herbert Macaulay Way. It was constructed in 1932 and not much alteration has been done. He is still living in it. The conversation proves that he will preserve the building for as long as possible. Some tell their children or grandchildren stories of how they grew up in them, the people that visited occasionally— maybe their father was friends with a minister or the regional premier? This is part of the history these people hold dearly. One may also consider that the money used in constructing a building was a gift from the premier of the region or a British or French man who owned a nearby farm or industry and was friends with the family.
Apart from the obvious aesthetic value of your work, do you also employ them in raising public awareness of the socio-cultural significance of these buildings and the need to preserve them?
As I became aware of their styles, how much and how long it took for their construction, I also grew more aware that they were frequently being demolished in Lagos. Look at the Olaiya House example, after 161 years in Lagos and after 60 years as a national monument. What country does that to their history? Yet we flock to Kenya and Senegal that boast of many of these colonial structures and won’t even pay a kobo to visit ours, or help restore and maintain them as potential tourism sites that meet UNESCO’s world heritage criteria. I am doing this to preserve our history and heritage. We have so much to tell the world via these buildings. We cannot keep quiet and tell our children of military coups and all those boring things that have led to the government removing history from the national curriculum, imagine! My photographs are backed with tales of these buildings and of course, people always marvel at what they do not know or have never been told. Then they realise that we need to do something not to wipe away our history with our very own hands and regret it later.
What are some of your most memorable structures and why?
Olaiya House, which has a primavera structure atop it, reminiscent of the ‘angelic figure’ adorning the apex of the Vatican buildings. It also boasts of a wrought iron balustrade that cannot be seen in any other part of Victorian Lagos. Then, the Lumpkin House, in which the doorway is one of the most elegant and regal, I have come across. Its windows are no different from those in Salvador, Bahia. I would also say the Old Secretariat because of its twin towers, high ceilings, doorway and titanic like staircase, which meets one at the lobby/reception. There’s also the Old Government House that looks like a Caribbean government house, previously employed as a fort (as some were then later used as government houses).
You have successfully shed more light on the histories of Lagos and Abeokuta, what are your plans for the future?
I would love to get aid in funding any restoration project because we need to restore these buildings. They are fast fading away before our eyes and it is a sad situation. Even the federal minister does not care. All talk and no work; words but no action as even the agency under his ministry charged to restore them, last listed a property in 1982. Furthermore, its last law was enacted in 1979. What government agency runs on a law since 1979 especially when the fine for altering or demolishing a listed property is still 500 to 1,000 naira? This country is a big joke. I would love to set up a ‘gofundme’ after I may have accessed necessary information about a building, including its ownership, to be able to restore it and fund its development into a house museum as seen in so many countries, even South Africa on our continent. I would also love to be gifted a colonial structure in Lagos, Calabar or Abeokuta. Besides these, I am happy to just explore other cities which boast of these structures, to show the world that our history and built heritage are beautiful. And of course, I would love to take schoolchildren on tours to enlighten them more so that they are not blinded by tales of military coups and unnecessary ethnic rivalries.
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