Authors: Leye Adenle
Florentine wasn’t her real name, neither was Florentina, but she answered to both. She was a second year mass communications student at Unilag. And even though her parents were not paying her tuition or her living expenses, they were still disappointed when she didn’t score high enough to study medicine, or engineering, or law.
In her first year in school she couldn’t afford to stay in the hostel, so she lived with an aunt, a distant relative who made her sleep on the floor in the sitting room, next to the driver and the house girl, who were on intimate terms. The aunt also paid her school fees and gave her a little extra to take a bus to school. In that first year Florentine lost twenty kilograms and failed half of her courses.
Then she met an old friend in school and moved in with her on campus and the aunt stopped sending money.
The tokunbo cars, expensive jewellery, and latest phones owned by students at Unilag makes it hard to believe there is poverty in Nigeria. Florentine’s friend, for instance, bought Brazilian hair from another student who regularly travels to Dubai to buy clothes, jewellery, and human hair to sell to her schoolmates. Florentine’s friend paid two hundred and fifty thousand naira for the hair, and a week later she had it taken out because other girls now had virgin Peruvian hair and she didn’t want to be unfashionable. She gave Florentine the discarded weave, and when Florentine had it fixed everyone said she looked more beautiful than the current Miss Unilag.
Not that Florentine objected to the way other girls made money, but she never went clubbing with them. They would go out on Friday, usually to one of the expat clubs on Victoria Island, and they would either come back the next morning or be away all weekend and only return to school early on Monday morning, sometimes dropped off by chauffeured luxury cars. Monday was when they settled debts, bought airtime for their phones, or sent money home to parents and siblings.
But Florentine was not brought up to sell her body. That’s what she told her friend, and that’s the reason the girls stopped inviting her to parties or to clubs.
Unlike them, Florentine had found friends who looked after her. One was her boyfriend, Nosa, a banker on the island. They would meet at a hotel near school where they would spend the whole weekend together. They couldn’t go to his house because of his wife.
Another friend, who was even more protective over her, was a much older man. A chief, in fact: Chief Ojo, a well-known businessman in Lagos. He was more generous than Nosa, and he took her to better hotels and even let her stay there alone for the weekend after spending Friday night with her. He was also married, but unlike Nosa he was old enough to be her father - so she could never think of him as a boyfriend, even though he introduced her to his friends as his little wife and he constantly asked if she was cheating on him.
With just these two steady friends, and occasional men she met through friends, Florentine was able to pay her school fees, eat three times a day, and soon enough buy her own Peruvian hair. Even her grades improved. And when there was no hope of passing a paper, she could afford to pay the lecturer to overlook
the fact that she hadn’t taken the exam.
It is easier on one’s ego to receive charity when you don’t need it. When Florentine’s income was sufficient enough and steady as well, she was able to go clubbing with the girls without a thought for the judging eyes that would follow her all the way there, whispering ‘prostitute.’
It was at a club that she met a boy. He was about her age but he was also a student at university so that made him a boy. While the other men there were older and richer, and bought champagne for their dates, he sat with a group of girls who paid for his drinks. He kept looking at her, and when she got up to go to the toilet he got up too. When she came out he was outside the door. He said, ‘Hey,’ and handed her a business card as if he was someone important. She wanted to tear the card and throw the pieces at his face, but he had started walking away and the girls he was with were looking at her with resentment, or perhaps it was envy.
Back in school she showed her friend the card and learned that she had hit the jackpot. She sent the boy a text but he did not respond. She called and he rejected the call. She sent three more messages over the week and had given up when he called her two weeks later and invited her to his house in Victoria Garden City.
He asked if she wanted to make money. She did. He told her about a place called the Harem. It was an exclusive club owned by his brother, Malik. If she wanted in she would have to have an HIV test first. He would pay for it. She couldn’t tell anybody about the club, and once she became a member she would have to stay there for weeks at a time and wouldn’t be able to contact anyone outside. While she considered it, he
added, ‘You will make one million naira in a month.’
She told the banker that she was pregnant, and as she expected, he gave her money for an abortion and was busy anytime she called. She told Chief Ojo that she was going to Ghana with a friend; they were going to buy gold to sell to their mates in school. He praised her entrepreneurial spirit and gave her money for her new business.
Three months later, on the day after the results of her second blood test came back, the boy picked her from school and took her to his house in VGC. There was another girl there who didn’t talk a lot and was constantly looking about: at a door opening, a door closing, the boy standing up.
At midnight a man came to the house with a policeman walking behind him. The boy introduced the man as Mr Malik, the owner of the Harem. Malik told the two girls that they would be blindfolded for the journey to the club. Florentine wanted to object; the other girl began to cry and beg to be allowed to leave. Malik told her it was too late.
The girls got into the back of Malik’s white Range Rover Sport which had blackened windows and he collected their phones. The policeman tied clothes around their faces. They drove for hours and when the car stopped and the blindfolds were taken off, they were in a large compound surrounded by a twelve-foot fence topped with barbed wire. Dense forest grew beyond the compound. The house was huge and unpainted, but otherwise complete and elegant; it had the double height columns that had become trendy in Lagos. About twenty cars were parked in front. Some had drivers waiting in them. A generator was rumbling in a corner by the gate, and as they walked up to the building, they could hear music coming from inside.
A woman opened the front door and greeted Malik with a hug. She was in pink lingerie. She had a glass of wine in one hand and a smouldering cigar in the other. Other girls in lingerie were strolling about or sitting on sofas with men, drinking and talking or cuddling and laughing. The men, about ten, wore masks like the ones people wear to fancy dress parties.
‘You cannot know who your client is,’ Malik said as he led Florentine and the other girl up the staircase. ‘They are regularly tested for HIV and other STDs, just as you were. You cannot ask them for money. You cannot ask them to use a condom. If a client shows you his face, you must look away. And you must tell me. If you think you recognise someone, you must keep it to yourself. If your client is a woman, you cannot refuse. You cannot speak to anyone about what happens here. At the end of the week, Sisi will pay you two hundred thousand.’
The girls were taken to different rooms and given lingerie to try on. Florentine got dressed and was going downstairs when Sisi, the lady they met at the door, stopped her on the stairs.
‘I have an important client coming today,’ Sisi said. ‘He always wants to be first to try the new girls.’ She took Florentine’s hand and led her back up the stairs. ‘Malik didn’t tell you something; sometimes a client will give you money. You can keep it so long as you didn’t ask for it, but you must tell me about it. This guy who I have for you, he is going to settle you big time. You can thank me later.’ She led Florentine into the room. ‘By the way, what is your name?’
‘That’s too local. From now on you are Florentine. OK? And don’t call me ma.’
As Florentine waited on the bed, changing her position
a dozen times, unable to make up her mind which pose was most seductive, or for that matter whether she should go for sexy, or for the good girl look, she contemplated her luck and smiled at how she would soon be richer than the banker and would no longer need the chief either.
Someone knocked and she said, ‘Come in.’ She had decided to sit up, stretch out her legs and lay them one on top of the other, with her arms spread over the headboard.
He stepped in, clutching a bottle of Moët in one hand and two champagne flutes in the other. He looked comical in a glistening mask with gold discs and green feathers at the edges, and a long white tunic, stretched in the middle by a protruding belly.
He raised the hand in which he held the glasses and lifted the mask off his face.
‘Rolake!’ he said. His mouth remained open and his eyes bulged.
Her legs retracted towards her body and she pulled a pillow to cover herself. ‘Oh shit! Chief!’ she gasped.
To start with, going alone to a pickup joint in Lagos wasn’t my idea. Well, that’s not entirely true. Nigeria was where Melissa – my half Nigerian, half Irish ex-girlfriend – was born and I wanted to have stories to tell her when I got back to London. I also wanted to get out of Eko Hotel to see this country I’d heard so much about.
Anyway, Magnanimous – that’s what he insisted his name was – the concierge at the hotel, said it was safe and that many other white people would be there. Looking back, he did say it with a grin. At the time, it looked like a smile: one of his perfunctory ones that he would switch on the instant he looked up and noticed you. But now I’m sure it was a grin; a knowing grin and a wink, which I almost missed when I turned to look at a slender African woman walking past us in the hotel lobby. She smelt like vanilla ice cream.
I’m not blaming him for what happened at Ronnie’s, only setting the record straight, which is to say that I was not out looking to pick up a girl.
I make this point upfront because every time I’ve told the story, I’ve been stopped at this moment by someone who thinks it’s hilarious that I was at the bar in the first place, then they totally miss the reason why I start telling the story from the bar, and I
stop telling it altogether. Their loss. At least you will hear my story.
I strolled out onto the streets of Lagos alone that night and I found ‘the big signboard with plenty lights’ where Magnanimous said I’d find it. In the end, it was a short walk from the hotel and not one Nigerian looked at me with as much as a passing curiosity, or for that matter the glare of someone about to rob a foreigner.
At Ronnie’s bar, shirt clinging to my body, I walked through the open gate with the swagger of a regular – a totally put-on show. I was still anxious, to tell the truth. ‘Whatever you do, never go out alone and especially not at night’ the Nigerian taxi driver who dropped me at Heathrow had said.
A large man standing in front of the entrance held out his hand and I shook an enormous, moist palm before he stepped aside and pointed to a sheet of A4 paper taped to the door: GIRLS FREE. MEN N1000. Inside, the room was packed, engulfed with smoke, and the music was loud.
It appeared to have been someone’s front room at one time. You could see where walls had been knocked down and plastered over. A solitary disco-light hung from the ceiling, looking out of place like a display fixture in a DIY store. Massive speakers were set on rusty metal chairs, next to giant fans oscillating like robots watching over the crowd. The air con was either broken or just not up to the task, and unlike Magnanimous had promised, mine was the only white face there.
It made me think of the first time I was in a room alone with black people: a church in Lambeth, a short drive from the family home in Chelsea, not long after my mum’s divorce. I was ten. She left me surrounded by strangers and went to the front to the pastor who spoke patois. He made her take off her shoes and stand in
an inflatable pool. Then he made her sit in it before placing his hand on her head and pushing her into the water, holding her down until she emerged again, water running off her, gasping to applause and hallelujahs and cymbals, and a spontaneous rift from the church pianist.
Nevertheless, I was in an actual Nigerian nightclub in a Nigerian city, surrounded by Africans and the endearing strangeness of their accents. I loved it. I loved that I would have this to tell Mel when I returned home. We hadn’t spoken in two months. I was giving her the space she asked for when I called on what would have been our anniversary and asked to take her to Rodizio Rico in Notting Hill where we’d had our first date. Maybe she thought I was making my comeback bid, but after our talk I’d accepted that we were over. I was even self-aware enough to know that the maturity with which I was handling the entire affair was just the period before the novocaine wears off after a visit to the dentist. Of course, it broke my heart that after eight years she didn’t want to be with me anymore, and I knew at some point I would probably get past the initial numbness, go on a bender, and end up on the floor in my flat, crying to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. For now at least, I was cool. And I was even mature enough to want to stay friends. Funny how she was the one who remembered the anniversaries – until she suggested we take a break. I’d sent a BBM from the airport telling her about the trip to Nigeria, after weeks of no contact. She read it but didn’t reply. I was about to fly to her country of birth, where her father still lived in his hometown Ibadan with his new wife and her half siblings who she hadn’t met, so it seemed okay to message her. Thinking of how I’d tell her about ‘this
girl I met at a club in Nigeria who reminded me of you,’ I pushed through the dance floor, squeezed past couples, danced for a few seconds with a girl who took my hand and began grinding her bum against my crotch, and eventually made it to the bar. As soon as I sat down, another girl with a cigarette sat next to me. She was wearing a pink tank top, a pair of blue jean shorts, black tights, and knee-length black leather boots that looked suspiciously shiny. She pouted her red glistening lips to exhale a long jet of smoke, then turned and asked if I wanted to buy her a drink.
I wanted to buy myself a drink, if only I could catch the barman’s attention, but he was too busy looking down the dress of a girl sitting at the bar, who in turn was nodding to whatever was playing through the earplugs of her phone while flicking her fingers over its screen. I’d given up on the scrawny fellow, as I wasn’t yet sure that I wanted to stay, when the girl who wanted the drink leaned over to shout into my ear again, her breasts pushing into my shoulder. I looked at the barman, waving at him lamely, then I shrugged helplessly. The woman turned round and raised herself over the bar by kneeling on the stool. Her arse in my face, she bent over and shouted the barman’s name: Waidi, or, Waydi, or, Wady. He hissed, shuffled over and, ignoring the girl who had called him, asked me, ‘Are you being served?’
He was the only one behind the bar. I asked for a double brandy – any brandy they had. Seeing the bottle he was reaching for, I shouted at the back of his head, ‘No, not Three Barrels. Hennessy. No ice.’ The girl said she wanted the same. Waidi waited for me to nod, then he glanced at the girl whose cleavage had fascinated him so much.
Without looking at me, he said, ‘That is three thousand five hundred for the two.’ This ticked off my new friend. ‘Did he ask you for the price?’ she said – loudly enough to attract attention. I was already fumbling in my pocket for the money. I’d done the maths: it was about fourteen quid and sounded about right – I’d been told that Lagos was expensive.
Waidi said something to her in a language I didn’t understand and it must have been rude. She began poking her finger in his face, looking around for support as she cursed, screaming, touching the tip of her tongue with the index finger of her right hand and pointing the wetted finger to the ceiling over her head. The barman just stood there grinning. At one point, it looked as if she was going to reach over and slap the smirk off his face.
I counted out the money. He took the notes and counted himself, and then he went about fixing the drinks. The girl in the pink tank top sat back down, her face gathered into a snarl. She said something like ‘wait for me’, then stood up and started off through the crowd. I didn’t like the look on her face when she turned back to look at him. He didn’t see it, but I’m sure if he had, he’d have been alarmed like me. I’d seen the look before: the look of a lad going off to find a bottle during a pub brawl.
Waidi brought the drinks and my change. I was already standing up. I downed the brandy in one go, immediately regretted it, and left him the dirty, crumpled notes he’d placed on the bar with my receipt. I only made it halfway to the exit.
Like fans invading a football field, a mass of people rushed in through the entrance. I stopped for a moment, not sure what was going on. People were being pushed to the ground by the newcomers who ran in screaming and shouting. I was almost knocked off my feet but I managed to sidestep the mayhem
and backtrack to the bar. From there I watched as even more people hurried in looking shell-shocked. Bodies quickly piled up on the floor and others were climbing on them. A profound chill came over me when I saw a head rolling over the backs of the fallen; then I realised someone had only lost their wig. The shouting got louder, and I became acutely aware of my situation:
I was a white boy in Africa for the first time, on assignment to cover a presidential election that was still weeks away, the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion. This was only my second day in Lagos and the first night I’d gone out alone – exactly what I’d been advised not to do.
The barman turned round from placing bottles on the top shelf. He scanned the commotion with the excitement of one reading IKEA instructions, and dismissed it all with a hiss that folded his upper left lip.
‘Prostitutes,’ he said. His face was sufficiently animated to show his disapproval, as if the place he worked in wasn’t a pickup joint for all sorts of working women, and maybe even men; as if his wages didn’t depend on their patronage. ‘The police are doing a raid and they think they’ll be safe in here,’ he added.
I looked around to find the bouncers for reassurance but they too were staring helplessly at the gatecrashers.
The large speakers kept blasting out R&B songs at near deafening decibels but no one was dancing. Scantily dressed girls and young men in colourful outfits gathered in groups, talking loudly and with urgency, and prodding the people who had rushed in for information.
Waidi took another stab at reassuring me: ‘Anytime the police raid them outside, they always run in here. The bouncers will
soon chase them away.’ He sounded confident.
It’s funny how the mind works. In those few seconds when the frightened people ran in, I’d already concluded that war had broken out in Nigeria and I was caught in the middle of it. Or something equally dreadful. Then, just when I decided to sit it out and trust the chap who looked genuinely amused at my fear, a shapely tall girl with blond hair down to her waist – not hers obviously – came to the bar and started telling him what had happened. I tried to listen but she spoke her broken English so fast, and with so many foreign words, that I was lost. She glanced at me and the fear on her face reignited mine.
When the blonde was done, Waidi fetched a large red handbag from under his counter and handed it to her. All across the bar, other girls were collecting different shapes and sizes of bags that they’d obviously deposited for safekeeping.
The blonde left and Waidi stood still, watching her go, hands on hips and eyes wide open with fear, or disbelief, or both. She had told him something that spooked him. I wanted to know what it was.
‘What happened?’ I asked. He didn’t answer. I reached over and shook his arm. ‘What happened?’ Just then the music died and my voice boomed over a hundred other frantic voices.
‘They just dumped a girl outside,’ he said. ‘They removed her breasts and dumped her body in the gutter. Just now.’