Author: Alan

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 2, Over the blue hills

We set off for Osogbo. A short distance down the expressway we pull up at a pre-arranged rendezvous point (gas station) to meet the printer (a cousin) who has with him the funeral invitations with matching envelopes. Cheerfully brushing off the pressure he has been under to deliver to a deadline, he has no idea yet how late the copy for the Order of Service booklet will be! Of course I can say that in hindsight, but my own experience tells me that these things never run to schedule, but the man, or woman, at the end of the chain always has to deliver!

Our driver was Michael Oladiti, known as “Ditti”. A tall, quiet man who also works for Bosun as a mechanic, he lives along our route in sprawling Ibadan, and is keen to get us to Osogbo and return home before dark. The drive to Osogbo took around three hours, much shorter thankfully, than the last time we travelled this way (which took an incredible 12 hours, partly because the road wasn’t finished!) and was uneventful due to the unhurried yet professional manner in which Ditti drove. The now familiar southern Nigerian scenery of thick green bush, orange sienna soil, roadside truck repairs, hawkers and machines (often with two, three or even four riders on board, sometimes whole families with babies) passed by the window for mile after mile. Trucks often have hand painted signs on the tailgate or sides and cabs, some artistically rendered like murals. Some have polite warnings about overtaking or spiritual messages..…”God is great” is common. As we made our way, we listened to the laid-back music of Evangelist Ebenezer Obey, whose songs of philosophy and faith are accompanied by light guitar and percussion. I liked it so much I ended up buying the cd’s from Ditti.

road_trip
Ditti drives us to Osogbo from Lagos. The two trucks in front are painted by the same artist. The nearest has an eagle and snake motif, and both are heavily laden with vegetables

At Ibadan, I looked beyond the endless sprawl of rusty tin roofs punctuated by churches and mosques, with black kites wheeling above, to the blue hills beyond. I was reminded that just there, a few miles over those hills in the Omo Forest Reserve, a population of chimpanzees apparently still survives and, it is rumoured, even some forest elephant. Doesn’t seem possible amongst all this noisy, choking activity, and one of these days I would maybe find out for myself. It’s a comforting thought that we share the world with all sorts of wonders. All conjoured up in the mind of my younger self with just one word – ‘tropical’. For this I have to thank the Brooke Bond tea cards my sister and I collected as children in the 1960’s. One album was Tropical Birds, illustrated by the great Charles Tunnecliffe. As a small boy, looking at those images of exotica fuelled my imagination and now of course, I have seen some of the very same birds that are illustrated in that booklet at first hand, both in Venezuela and in Africa. I’m pretty sure that early experience has carried through to today, which is probably why I find all this so exciting. Perhaps I should make it a mission to see all 50 birds in real life…but that’s another adventure.

Arriving

There is something special about arriving in to the company of people you have missed, and sure enough we received a very warm welcome. Timely, too, allowing Ditti to return to Ibadan that afternoon before dark. Many hands made light work of packaging the invites we had brought from Lagos into their envelopes and in turn sorting them into bundles for out-of-town destinations.

Baba Lawoyin had a long and distinguished career working for the Baptist Church in education, and travelled widely, living in the North in both Jos and in Kaduna. Consequently many people from across the country knew him, and his extended family comprised both Christians and Muslims. I would get to meet a great many of them in the coming weeks. 

The string-tied bundles would be distributed by the Suzuki mini-bus public transport system, and after measuring us up for the outfits we will be wearing for the wake-keeping and funeral in a couple of weeks’ time, taylor Waheedi and his colleague took the bundles to the bus station. Everyone mucks in and helps out around here.

As dusk approached, heavy clouds were lit up by yellow and orange lightning, flashing left to right across the sky, momentarily silhouetting the palms and masquerade trees. I’ve never seen lightning that was not white so another first for me, and I felt curiously at home.

lightning
Orange lightning under heavy clouds as the day draws to an end

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 1, Lagos to Osogbo

I am travelling once again to Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria, with Toyin. We are attending the funeral of her father, Gabriel Oladosu Lawoyin, who passed peacefully away in March of this year, with some members of his family at his bedside. He would have been an incredible 112 years of age in May. The three week trip was quite the experience, recalled here in this series of posts.

Lagos to Osogbo

I can never resist looking down at the scenery below on daytime flights, and here we are over the small fields and woods of France, crossing to the island of Palma, then on across Algeria almost due South. Flying over Algeria seemed to take at least half of the six hour flight time. What’s it like down there amongst the sun baked rocks, my boyish imagination asks.

Lagos, 5pm. The thickly humid and warm air of West Africa hits me, a cocktail of diesel and kerosene, and something else uniquely African which still defies description. Nigerians returning home will know what I mean, it’s immediately exciting. We disembark and begin the long stroll, eyes on you at all times. Men and women sit or stand around casually, some buried in their smartphones with only their lanyard badges identifying them as staff of some sort. There is an air of nonchalance, with many more staff than would seem necessary for efficiency. There was a little impasse for a minute or two when I was asked by the pair of female immigration officers to present a yellow fever certificate, which I didn’t have. I’m sure they would have settled for dash, but we explained the reason for our trip was to attend a funeral, which drew their sympathy. The uniformed officer standing behind them had the shiniest black shoes I’ve ever seen, and in relief I told him so. He immediately broke into a broad grin “Do you like them?” Smiles all round, and we are on our way.

After the usual scrum to have your luggage numbers checked by another phalanx of uniformed men and women (I can imagine the confusion that would occur if they didn’t match) you look to see who is waiting for you, so you can make a b-line for them and brush aside the hands reaching for your luggage and leave the chaos behind you!

In our case Bosun was there to greet us. I already knew his younger brother Yomi, and Bosun is jovial and witty in a similar way. Both instantly likeable, they can be difficult to tell apart, apparently something to do with the spectacles and shape of the head –  their words, not mine. Both men have a dry sense of humour and are quick to see the comedy in any given situation. There are two other brothers I’ve yet to meet, and all four have excelled in their respective careers; academia, aviation, oil and medicine.

We lined up outside the terminal waiting for our driver to come around. More uniformed women made the process of passenger pick-up as smooth as it could be, and eventually we were loaded and on our way, through the Lagos traffic and southbound onto the Third Mainland Bridge, past the waterside communities of Makoko below us and on to Lekki peninsula. Turning off on the 7th expressway roundabout where Chevron have their large and very secure looking compound, we approach the first of several checkpoints in the impressive Northern Foreshore gated community. If they don’t know you, you don’t pass without checks, which may have to be an actual phone call to the house you’re visiting – very reassuring for residents and visitors alike. But it could feel like a prison if you’re not used to such high security. No-one complains. The benefits are obvious.

On arriving at the air conditioned cool of their splendid newly built and spacious house, Bosun’s wife Funmi offers us chilled bottled water, and we’re delighted to hear some chicken and jollof rice is nearly ready to serve! Funmi works for a German firm, and is fluent in the language, and also speaks a little French. She has an easy laugh and a big smile, and long extensions and braided hair and blue jeans is her trademark look.

Before the very welcome supper, there is time to stroll down to the water’s edge to admire the view across the lagoon. Bosun explains that land reclamation and housebuilding is ongoing, which will eventually alter the view, but for now it is peaceful and still. Across the lagoon, at the far end of the Third Mainland Bridge causeway, an illuminated and animated billboard flashes its message brightly in the blue-grey darkening atmosphere. It looks like a rogue pixel on a cinema screen, and is kilometres away, but when we travel back to the airport at the end of our trip, we see that it is gigantic. The sun turns the sky a coral red near the horizon, and right on cue, a fisherman punts across the water. He stares at me and doesn’t respond to my wave. I have no camera, but Bosun has his smartphone, so we manage to capture a pretty good image of this timeless scene.

lagos_lagoon
A fisherman paddles past as I stand on the grey sandy shore

Back at the house, I see a collection of health supplements and ingredients on the kitchen table; organic cider vinegar, turmeric, coconut oil, black cumin oil etc. Something we have in common is researching the best nature can provide in enhancing your diet to stay healthy in a toxic world. For me, as a cancer survivor, it’s an important part of my daily routine. Turns out we use a lot of the same stuff, ‘you are what you eat’ has never been more true.

Bosun also has a huge collection of books on purpose built shelving both upstairs and down. Even on the stairs. It’s really a library. A quick glance at a few spines tells me most all of them are about how to do things; aquaponics, organic farming, fixing landrovers, financial management. Some are political, some historical. All are valued. I purposefully don’t ask the obvious – if he’s read them all – as we share some malt whisky. It’s been a long day.

Before we leave for Osogbo the following morning, there is time for a little birding. A group of ladies stroll purposefully by in their trainers, exercising ‘round the block’ almost power walking, and greetings are exchanged. At the water’s edge, the sun is already hot, and the shallow clear water laps quietly up onto the grey sand. Dozens of hermit crabs stroll this way and that in the shallows, and one or two small mudskipper fish hop about out of the water. A short distance out, some poles are standing upright out of the water. Two pied kingfishers occupy one each, while a third flies by and hovers briefly, looks down but does not dive. Off to my left the green reeds are easily over ten feet tall, and beyond them on the power lines sit a pair of little bee-eaters, their sharp black bills and yellow, black bordered throats just visible against the light. By the house on an empty plot, lush with grass and pools of water, a black heron hunts by shielding the water with its wings. I first saw this on a David Attenborough documentary years ago, and now here we are, exotic birds with unique behaviour strutting around amongst the plastic in new Lagos suburbia. Sharing the square space was a pair of white-faced whistling ducks and a noisy spur-winged plover. One of the things I like most about travelling here, is that my own notion of the exotic can often turn out to be commonplace, and wildlife is altogether tamer than at home. Makes the world smaller.

view to the lagoon

Durbar Prince

Durbar Prince
Durbar Prince: pen and ink over lightly smudged oil paint on paper

Durbar Festival, Kano, Nigeria 2016

This young man looks very cool in his finery and shades. Not held for some years due to recent troubles, we were lucky enough
to be VIP guests at last years’ Durbar. Grandstand view and mingling with the riders in the paddock after their parade, it was a very hot but very exciting afternoon!

Auntie Sade

Continuing with the series of portraits of folks met while on trips to Nigeria. Seems to be a thing developing here. This is Auntie Sade, who I met for the first time in 2014. Sade is the reliable housekeeper and amazing family cook. I’ve often seen her preparing meals with industrial quantities of tomato and pepper (chili) with freshly prepared chicken – feet, beak and all. Now in her mid seventies, she prepares food in the traditional way, and so wraps her
moi-moi in Uma leaves (Thaumatococcus daniellii also known as Yoruba soft cane) rather than foil or plastic bags.

Agbara kekere

This painting is of the second girl selling Wara in Osogbo. Tiny in stature, and carrying her very young baby around with her (underneath her shawl for this picture). I was interested in her expression, hard working and really tough with a relaxed, confident air. I used the Yoruba words for petite and strong in the background, applying them in no-nonsense Gotham Black to the container wall behind her. On the canvas her complexion is more subtle, but here the image processor in my camera exaggerated differences between tints and hues. Something to do with white paint in the mix possibly.

agbara_kekere
Wara seller 2, “Agbara kekere”, acrylic on canvas 600 x 900mm 23.5 x 35.5 inches

Wara seller

On trips to Osogbo, we always buy Wara from the same ladies. It is a type of milk curd sold fresh and is delicious cooked either boiled or fried with lemon, and quite healthy, it turns out. Click here for more info and recipes. The ladies are familiar to us and come over to our car if they see us around town, as we will usually buy from them. This time around I asked for photos with a view to using them later. The girls were happy to pose with and without their bowls balanced on their heads. For this first painting I’ve used the light to describe the girl’s features, complete with tribal scars, as she poses in the shade. I covered the canvas in dark washes using a very limited palette and painted thinly throughout, doing just enough to describe what I was interested in and no more.

War_seller_acrylic
Wara seller, acrylic on canvas. 16 x 20 inches June 2017

Roller wire

Keeping the West African theme going, here is a Broad-billed roller that conveniently perched
on a wire opposite the garden wall just long enough for a quick scribble in my sketchbook.
There is a three year gap between that observation and this painting. I kept the rendering lose and simple,
giving the flat blue sky some interest with vertical brush strokes, and showing off the subtle mauve and
maroon colours of the plumage. A fairly common site along roadsides in Nigeria, this species has the
brightest yellow bill that stands out against any background.

Broad-billed roller acrylic
Broad-billed roller, acrylic on canvas 16×20 inches, 2017

Monkeys in the Grove

MonaMonkey
This painting is of a Mona monkey, part of a troupe that visit the Osun Grove regularly, where they are tame enough to accept bananas fed by staff and locals. Painted using acrylics, plenty of colour and the use of energetic brush strokes evoke the vibrance of Osogbo, the serenity of the forest and my excitement at being there.

Previously I have experimented with the faces of these monkeys with a view to producing some designs for t-shirts or whatever. Something that’s on the back burner, which is piled high…

 

Recycling parts of a failed watercolour painting into collage

Sketches from three years ago used as reference for this paper collage. Agamas, though absolutely
everywhere in Nigeria, never let you get close, and these two females looked down on me with
confidence, verging on smugness, knowing they could dash away at lightning speed.

agamas
Agamas on top of the wall. Drawn from life in the garden, Osogbo, Nigeria
agamas watercolour
Taking the sketches a bit further with some colour.
“Has he seen us? Yeah I think he’s seen us…”

I’ve recycled pieces of what was a ‘failed’ watercolour painting (we’ve all got them…), in this case
a landscape of a wheat field and evening sky, to hint at the texture and colour of the lizards atop
the garden wall in Osogbo. I omitted the actual wall, as I wanted to concentrate the viewer’s
attention on the lizards under the huge banana leaf. It may have been interesting to include
some shards of glass for a spot of urban realism, but I decided against it. For the impression
of bright sunlight bouncing off of every surface, it seemed ‘less is more’ was the way to go.

Agamas, collage 2017
Agamas, paper collage, 530 x 350mm approx. 2017 Placing the minimum of elements still seemed to take nearly all day until I was happy with it.

 

Sunbird on the porch

I’m producing some small African bird paintings seen on recent trips
to Nigeria. Choosing as a subject the Variable Sunbird that came into
the yard at the house in Abuja, visiting the flowers (sometimes quite
noisily for such a small bird). As a starting point, I looked back through
my sketchbook notes and used some photos of the porch wall, heavily
textured and stained with algae.

sketchbook_spread

flowersDSC_0024
I was keen to use the texture on the wall in the image

To try and keep it fresh and lively and not overwork things, I decided to
mock up a version in paper collage. This way I could work out the pose,
and placing of elements, but also my limited stock of coloured paper
forces me to simplify. Male variable sunbirds have iridescent plumage
that reflects brilliant metallic turquoise and green turning to purple,
but can appear plain black or even dull olive in certain light. I was after
nailing this early on, so when getting around to a painted version
using the collage as the main reference, I won’t get distracted with
unnecessary detail and ‘realism’. Hopefully I may even end up with
something I had in my mind’s eye to begin with…just for a change!

sunbird_work_in_progress
Trying out the basic shapes. I hadn’t decided very much at this early stage, although keeping it simple was important
sunbird on the porch
The texture of the wall was achieved by tearing off a layer of paper stuck over another. The effect is pretty random but works just fine.

The two-tone leaves, and diagonal cuts in the clay pot recall
some African textile style, and the whole composition ended
up being about colours and shapes, and quite poster-like.
I’m quite happy with it just now, but never one hundred
percent certain anything is finished, maybe that’s a good
thing though?