Why am I so concerned about the preservation and integrity of a pile of concrete – an example of a form of mild brutalist architecture, I’m told, by those who know more about these things than I do – hulking over a large expanse of expensive, potentially commercial property on Lagos Island?
This pile of concrete is a sadly underutilised parade ground with a seating capacity of about 55,000 people. It is surrounded on two sides by concrete tiered audience stands, on the third by VIP seating looking down to an elevated flag pole, and on the fourth by an imposing stone wall. Construction began in 1972 and was completed in time for several of the performances of Festac ’77 to be held there. Fronted by a seething bus terminus, entrance to the innards of the TBS is through a writhing mass of bronze gates under archways presided over by enormous rampant horses and haughty eagles. Recently these stunning gates have mostly been demolished. Their beauty and the artistry that must have been required to wrought bronze and steel into those shapes is unappreciated and their remnants have now been disposed of like so much unwanted rubbish. And that is the reason for my concern.
Prior to its present incarnation the space was known as the Race Course and it had been established on land first compulsorily acquired by the colonial authorities in 1879 for this purpose from families living in the area. It was as the name suggests, to be a racing track for horses, an expanse of trampled sandy grass and shady trees. Memories of the Race Course live on in black and white photos of impossibly glamorous Lagosians lounging, racing, flirting, losing and winning bets. All the excitement that you would expect at such a venue, that brought together people of all demographics and abilities, was on vivid display. Whether they were at the Race Course just to observe others, to enjoy the sport, to show off their ownership of horses, to ride those horses or to cheer on the winning jockeys, to hopefully gather their winnings or slink off to mourn their losses, all facets of Lagos society were present and ready. My father spoke of going to watch his uncle’s horse race. He never said how the horse performed but did tell me the horse was called “Banuso” – lesson enough! My own memory of the horses is a fleeting moment of crowds and low white fences – I must have been very young.
However, I do have a proper real memory of the Race Course. It was the tenth anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence – 1st October 1970. There were fireworks at the Race Course to celebrate and we all went as a family. It was evening, dark even, and I was excited to be out so late. We clambered up on to the wooden seating especially constructed around the perimeters for the event. There must have been speeches but I only recall the spotlit disciplined marching displays and the thrill of motorcycle acrobatics. The real spectacle though was the brilliance of the coloured loud flashes exploding into and lighting up the night sky.
Fast forward to 1977 and Festac was here! The Second Pan-African Festival of Arts and Culture was another form of explosion to be experienced in that place. Performance across all genres of dance and music, exhibitions of ancient traditions and modern sculptures - it was a whirlwind of the arts. And bonus! School was off for a month. We lived near the Tafawa Balewa Square as the Race Course was now to be called – a new name for a modern new space, plus a catchy new nickname “the TBS”. We saw so many performances there - all types of dance and music - I can only assume my parents got a block booking of tickets. That’s when I first climbed those concrete steps and shuffled along the long concrete benches awed by the size of the edifice. And so I developed a love of live music listening to Stevie Wonder, Mighty Sparrow, Miriam Makeba, Miatta Fahnbulleh and watching the performance of so many others whose names I have forgotten over time but whose work has contributed to a lifetime appreciation of the arts.
Many, many years later and I was appointed to serve on the Lagos State Committee for the Lagos Carnival. This time, on several consecutive Easter Mondays, I was privileged to be looking up at the TBS stands as I along with thousands of wildly colourfully dressed performers danced into the arena waving up at the large and loudly appreciative crowds. Realising just how massive the space is as I hurried from one group of my young charges to another encouraging them to jump higher, dance faster, smile wider, to further delight the applauding spectators.
These are my own personal memories of TBS. I’m sure many people have similar or other variants. Why am I telling these stories? Because physical spaces become more than mere bricks and mortar when they are imbued with human emotion in the form of memory. That’s when they take on personalities of their own and represent more than the physical materials from which they are constructed.
And so, on to the real reason why the TBS as huge as it is, is larger than we may realise. On October 1st 1960 when it was still known as the Race Course it was selected as the venue for the Handover Ceremony when Nigeria gained Independence from Britain and the Nigerian flag was hoisted for the very first time. This culmination of long years of activism, protests, strikes and protracted negotiations so representative of the hopes and dreams of so many Nigerians makes that space hallowed ground.
Do we remind ourselves of this? Do we tell our young people the stories that led to that day, that it is not only a busy bus-stop with people selling bus tickets and cold drinks and recharge cards and who knows what else? Can we take visitors inside to show them the magnificence of a construction that in 1977 along with the National Theatre, National Stadium and Lagos City Hall hosted the best performers and artists from Africa and the entire Black Diaspora of a generation? More importantly do we look at the symbol that the TBS is and strive daily towards the ideals of October 1st 1960? And that, this is why the TBS is deserving of respect, of memorialisation, of celebration even. Because, if we don’t do these things and we let that space disappear into the ever grasping maws of commerce, we may think we don’t particularly care, but I’m not sure if we will be able to forgive ourselves.