Dear J.P.,
I am writing to tell you that I visited your city.

Outside Obafemi Awolowo Train Station, I straddled an okada and rode to The Baj Park, along Moniya Road, from where E picked me up. We then drove to Old Ife Road by car. I was struck by the age of the city, its modernist structures, its peculiar air.

As we drove within the city, heading to E’s place, I thought of my mother’s father, who would have been around your age. He did not live long enough to see us, his grandchildren, but his life shadowed my childhood. On many occasions, when I returned to my village for Christmas holidays, older women and men stopped when they saw me. “My son,” they’d say, “you are the offspring of J! Which of his children is your parent?”

I’d chat with them and details of the times they spent with my grandfather would spill from their mouths. What I knew about him I learned from those stories. The only image I have of him was from a photograph where he wore a suit, his upper body in profile, his afro parted on the side. When I first saw the picture, I lingered in front of the framed portrait and traced his face. He had eyes with floating pupils, a set jaw, and a long chin, like mine. Because that is the only image of him I have, my grandfather is always a young man in my mind.

I can say this of you, as well, because when I remember you, the image that comes to mind is one where you are mid-stride, with Achebe and Soyinka, on your way to see Babangida—the three of you are trying to avert the execution of Mamman Vatsa. That story is legendary to some of us. We know that visiting a military dictator to seek pardon for a coup plotter is no small feat. Soyinka, recounting the event in You Must Set Forth at Dawn, said the visit was your idea. Where did you get the courage? In those stories of my grandfather, his courage was often remembered with admiration. Did he get that bravery instilled in him when he was in Ibadan?

The Lagos-Kano rail, linked to Ibadan, opened in 1901 and transformed the city into a trading hub. It was on this railway that my grandfather worked. To augment his income, he made and repaired shoes at a shop he owned, working with apprentices. But when the drums of the Biafran War were beaten, Ojukwu called for Igbos to return east. My grandfather abandoned everything he had built, gathered his family, and fled.

When things seemed to have settled, after the war, some of his mates went back to the cities to whatever remained of their former lives. But my grandfather, to the dismay of his children, stayed back in the village. Then one day, in his early fifties, a growth formed in his throat. He was dead three days later.

In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong writes about the migratory pattern of monarchs, how they travel from south to north and back again, but because of how long this journey took, the butterflies that went in one direction did not live long enough to make it back in the other direction. “Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.”

Driving within the city, thinking of my grandfather, I thought of that passage. I am the future revisiting the past. But without the details of his time in Ibadan, I could not explore the specific things associated with his stay. Instead, I looked forward to things in your own history. I am one of the many readers charmed by your poem. I wanted to see the seven hills in your poem, to see how the city is flung and scattered. I wanted to count the hills with a finger and say, “Yes, here are the hills J.P. Clark mentioned.”

E proposed to show me some places, including points where one can see the entire cityscape. One of those points – Bower’s Tower – was the first on my itinerary.

On the day of our visit, we made a stop at Mapo Hall, which E said is a tourist attraction. By its gate, a banner for church services was on display, waving gently in the late afternoon breeze. We walked past it, into the compound, and then into the mouth of the hall. Seats filled the hall like teeth. Inside, we saw workers sweeping and removing decorative clothing from the podium. The stairs leading to the top section were locked. The space, it seemed, had been leased to a church. There was nothing else to do other than walk around the facility, admire the tall, strong pillars, and take photographs.

Outside Mapo Hall, we took an okada to Bower’s Tower. At its open gate, a man approached us, demanding a fee. We paid and he showed us the tower’s doorway, upon which was written, NO ENTRANCE. But we did enter, E and I, bowing under the sign to get in.

We climbed the narrow winding stairs. At the top, we met a rush of wind. Below, Ibadan, the largest city in West Africa, spread out before us, a field of buildings closely packed.

I watched for the seven hills but did not see one. I enjoyed the breeze breaking in waves on my skin, thrilled by the belonging and disconnection coming from watching the world from a great height. Afterwards, we went down to the okada man. He had waited for us. And we rode down the slope, into the gathering dusk.

The next point on my itinerary was Demas Nwoko’s New Culture Studio. The okada man did not know the exact place, but he stopped us at a spot he believed was close to the building. We decided to walk the rest of the distance on foot, using Google Maps as a guide. The map, however, kept leading us to a dead end, as if the building was a ghostly imposition on the landscape, a mirage never to be arrived at. We almost turned back. But we saw a teenager walk briskly towards us, and when we asked if he knew the place, a look of satisfaction creased his face. I wondered if he had provided this impromptu tour guide service in the past.

The boy walked in front of us, his gangly limbs matching his pace. We tried to keep up. In between a house and a store was a narrow lane, in front of which were small steps. We climbed the stairs after the boy and walked through the narrow lane, up an incline, and past a small tree that resembled trees I encountered, many years ago, in children’s Christian books. We arrived on flat land, and the boy pointed to a building. We thanked him.

The gate to the building was open. One side of the gate had NEW CULT; the other bore the remaining letters. We walked in. A bare-chested man planed wood to my right. Fillings fell to the floor like fire from a welder’s point. I approached him, greeted, and asked for directions to the entrance of the building. With his hands still on the wood he responded that the building was open only on days with events. On normal days, like today, the building stayed locked.

We walked around the yard. While E took photographs of the building with some walls perforated and holding plants, I walked to the edge of the compound and stopped before a slope, from where one could, with a misplaced step, experience a fatal fall.

From the edge, once again, the cityscape spread out before me, an engulfing expanse of occupied land. The sky had begun to darken. Buildings in the distance bore light points glinting like broken china in the sun. Beyond the buildings, the horizon was an auburn stain, and the sun fell behind a faint outline of low hills that seemed to be outside the cityscape. I doubted they were the hills to which you referred in your poem.

I eased away from the edge and joined E, who paced about, having tired of taking photographs. We walked out of the yard and took an okada to Mokola-Sango Road, from where we hailed a taxi and, after a series of stops and vehicle changes, arrived at Agodi Gate.

It was as I stood there, that night, waiting for a keke to Old Ife Road, that I had an epiphany. Around us, vehicles honked and throttled, their headlamps torching the dark. The smell of smoke squeezed the air, as did the smell of food. Traders were everywhere. Men sold grains of rice and beans heaped neatly in wheelbarrows. Women sat by the roadside, fish and fries splayed on trays before them. Each of these trays held a small cylindrical tin can, on which was affixed a thick thread encased in a metal pipe, its wick aflame. The last time I saw this lamp I was pre-pubescent. That was in Calabar, where I spent the early parts of my childhood. Over time, those lamps gave way to hurricane lamps, which, in turn, preceded battery-powered torches, and then rechargeable LED lanterns. So, standing at Agodi Gate and watching those tin-can lamps, I felt like I was caught in a time capsule and transported to a moment in my childhood, with my mother at Akim, walking back from night mass.

How does the city do this? How does it hold things firmly enough that the past and the present run smoothly together? Slowly, I began to understand the mood of this city.

For most Nigerian cities I’ve lived in, the past does not readily show. With mandates for inhabitants to give a facelift to their houses, buildings are renovated, repainted, and their roofs remade to fit a modern trend. Sometimes, to expand roads, buildings are demolished, denying the city its old face. For these cities, traces of the past can only be found in pockets, at the margins. But Ibadan cares little about looking new. The buildings are old and want you to know it. The modernist structures stand tall, reminding onlookers that, once, houses were built to fit Nigeria’s torrid weather—not these box-shaped buildings we now have, these buildings with warm walls and small windows that, in the dry season, demand the steady hum of an air conditioner for coolness.

On Ibadan roads, there are taxis, kekes, and okadas. In other cities I’ve been to, these modes of transportation do not coexist. Kekes are introduced to push motorcycles away from the city, and taxis are introduced to push away kekes from the city. The vehicles pushed away then operate outside the city centre. Roundabouts, considered archaic, have been removed from some cities. But not in Ibadan. The roundabouts still stand, statues with historical value posing on them.

This is what fascinated me the most about your city. How much it resists being changed. How much it insists on its own essence.

After we got home late that night, I was a bit tortured that I did not get to see the hills you mentioned. I stated my displeasure to E, wondering if I should have declared my intent earlier so our outing would have been moderated in a way that ensured I saw the hills. But I like to leave room for surprises, so I did not say anything prior because I banked on stumbling upon the hills. I wanted to be astonished. E laughed and said I wasn’t looking at the city correctly. The hills are one with the city; they are not separate bodies.

J.P., after some reading, my ignorance drove me to laughter. Mapo Hall stood on Mapo Hill, and it was at the base of that hill that the city began its life—as a camp for those who fled from wars. New Culture Studio stood on Mokola Hill, and Bower’s Towers stood on Oke Are, the tallest of all seven hills. Not only had I seen some of these hills, I had also climbed them. Pardon my ignorance. With the exception of Abuja, the places I have lived in are flat lands. But Abuja is less packed in a way that its hills and mountains are distinct entities easily identified on the landscape. In Ibadan, the hills are absorbed into the city’s fabric. They are one with the buildings, the roads, the activities, the people. I ascended those hills looking for the very thing I was standing upon.

There were other things to explore in the city, but I lacked the time. I had been travelling for over two months and needed to return home. So, I packed my bags the next day, with a promise to return soon.

At Mokola-Sango Road, I joined a bus that filled in no time, and we drove out of the park at 8:20 a.m. We went past the State Veterinary Hospital, and met a gridlock at Mokola Bridge. The driver turned around and moved towards Army Barracks Road. From there, we took a series of turns, connected to Abdulazeez Arisekola Alao Way, and began our journey out of Ibadan. E


Zenas Ubere was selected for LOATAD’s 2023 West African Writers Residency and the SBMEN & Goethe Institut Art Writing and Criticism Workshop. He is a 2024 editorial fellow at Tender Photo and the coordinator of Lolwe Academy.