Jankara Market, Lagos, Nigeria

In 1973 I served as a diplomat in the American Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, for a year, then took a private job for an American company there and stayed another two years. Soon after my arrival, friends invited me to visit the old market in the heart of Lagos, Jankara.

The culture-shock of arriving in Lagos and visiting Jankara Market was an experience my friends, and later I, too, loved to pass on to newcomers. Culture shock began immediately. Coming into Lagos from the airport, the impression was of chaos. Heat, a riot of smells, an immense region of ramshackle structures. Fronting the road, single-story and two-story concrete buildings, but mostly concrete-block shacks, roofed with rusty corrugated metal, the same stretching into the distance on both sides. Billboards with colorful pictures of glamorous black women and worldly black men drinking Fanta Orange or Johnny Walker Black stood with their posts deep in garbage. On the road, a dense mixture of cars and people. Busses, covered trucks with benches, really, and mini-vans stuffed with people, the people with large bundles or baskets full of chickens. At the back of each conveyance, its fare collector, standing on the rear bumper, hung from the overhead and seemed to flap as the bus wove through the crowds, totally vulnerable. Taxis, small Datsuns and Toyotas, darted here and there, their horns bleating, the drivers seeming to wear the taxis, arms hanging out the driver’s window almost to the ground. The occasional official car, a dark green Mercedes, pushed through the crowd, its red-hatted soldier driver glowering and leaning on his horn, the important personage lounging oblivious in the back seat.

The business section of Lagos was a bit more civilized. Eventually the embassy car, a gray Chevrolet, sent to pick up the arriving passenger, would leave the crowded outskirts behind, and cross onto Lagos Island and down Kingsway, through business and government, four- and five-story concrete and glass buildings, the commercial ones with shops on ground level, and on through streets very green with trees and palms, across another bridge onto Ikoyi Island, the old residential area established by the British during colonial times. Here the atmosphere was quiet. The side streets were lined with modest two-story houses, shaded by acacia, mango, and papaya trees and palms. There was little traffic. Women, always with a baby on their backs, and sometimes carrying a tray on their heads, walked the streets. Old men from the north, Hausa tribesmen, in white caps and dirty white long dress sat inside the gates of the low walls in front of the houses, chewing betel nut. They were the day-watches, meant to provide security, and at night they were the night-watches. They were not very effective, but they made it awkward for burglars to saw or cut the bars that protected every opening in every house.

Jankara Market was in the heart of Lagos proper, in the center of a complex of old streets and the large concrete-lined drainage ditches that, in the rainy season, prevented major flooding of the flat city and in all seasons served, ineffectually, to flush refuse and sewage out to the sea or the lagoon on the landward side. It was a primitive place, but in 1973 it was not dangerous. Foreign white visitors were infrequent and were more objects of curiosity, especially to the kids, than of opportunity. Visitors were infrequent for several reasons: the market was not well known, it was filthy and crowded and tricky to get to, it smelled awful, it seemed dangerous, and it was not meant for foreigners. But it was fascinating for its genuineness.

Physically, the market was situated along one of the larger drainage ditches, and it consisted of three wide-roofed sheds on three sides of an unroofed courtyard, with the open side to the rear. In the bright tropical Nigerian sun, the market’s interior seemed dark. The partitions erected by the market people cut out much of the light. Entering from the street, passing between the erratically parked cars and carts, stepping with care over and through the muddy side of the road, felt as if one were entering a maze.

Inside, wares were organized (perhaps too strong a word) by type. One of the largest was cloth, colorful cotton cloth imported from Europe. Visitors who wanted locally made indigo tie-dyed fabric could find it, but only with difficulty. With the cloth were other imports—cheap red and yellow plastic and rubber boots and buckets, umbrellas and rain hats, aluminum pots and utensils. These seemed to spoil the purely primitive atmosphere for me, and I passed quickly through.

In one section of the market were stalls with baskets of traditional trader beads, cylindrical glass beads with layers and layers of colors, that were used as currency long ago. A large market-woman sat behind, talking noisily to neighbors but sullenly willing to interrupt the conversation to start a negotiation. Market women always seemed sullen, even in their talk between themselves; it seemed to be a part of the Yoruba tribal nature. A smile and a joke could often warm a Yoruba man, but nothing worked on these women.

Fish market women were the worst. Having had to bargain hard with the fishermen to buy the fish, they bargained angrily and aggressively with customers to sell it. In the heat it was important to unload it early. Any question about the freshness of a fish was deeply insulting and met with proof positive that it was almost still flopping: “look at the gills, still pink,” “look at the eyes, still clear” “smell this fish, very fresh!”

In one deep region of the market were strange things, things hard to explain, rats dried on skewers, paws, bits of furred skins, animal skulls. I assumed they were juju, but I never asked. The women who guarded and sold these things seemed even less approachable than the rest.

Meat was the province of men. Cattle were not slaughtered in the market but were brought by truck into the center courtyard and cut up there. The smell of the freshly butchered meat extended widely from the courtyard (but was overwhelmed in the fish section). It was not a bad smell, but it was distinctive and unconsciously alarming. The meat and organs were displayed and sold on tables under the roofed shed on one side of the courtyard.

One day, as I approached a narrow opening into the courtyard, I had to step aside for a boy of about ten. He was wearing only a pair of shorts, and on his head, upside down, he was carrying the head of a bull, its tongue hanging in front of his face, the top of its head on the top of his, ears hanging down right and left, his hands gripping the ends of the horns as if they were handlebars. He was making a delivery, I guessed, and he smiled as he passed me.

On my way out of the market that day, I passed a stall in which the market woman was sitting on a square stool made of pieces of the center stalks of palm branches. I had seen such stools before. This was an old one, polished to a rich brown finish by time and by the woman’s seat. I told her I liked it, and when she understood that I meant the stool, she demonstrated that it was solidly made. “No wekeh-wekeh,” she said, as she wiggled her large bottom on it, to show me it didn’t squeak. I asked how much she would sell it to me for. “Five naira,” she said, about ten dollars. “Oh, madam,” I said, “that is too much—three much!” “How much you want to pay?” she asked. “I will pay one naira,” I said. She was astonished. “For good stool with no wekeh-wekeh? No good.” I said “OK, two naira,” and to my surprise she said “Bring money!” I gave her the money, and she got up and handed me the stool. I walked away with it, very pleased to have paid three dollars for a handsome piece of furniture, and my pleasure was not at all diminished by the small boy who ran after me laughing and pointing at me and telling everyone I had paid “two-two naira” for a mere market stool.

Perhaps the pleasure of that win-win is the reason I remember Jankara Market so vividly.