Lagos, Lagos

by Nnenna Onuoha
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Across the Atlantic, two coastal cities share the same name: over 600 years, the voices of voyagers who have journeyed between them testify to an unequal history of movement between Nigeria and Portugal, Africa and Europe.

I flew into Lisbon towards the end of winter 2018, shortly after midnight. There in the dark, on the wall of my new room, a yellowed map: recognizable in its form, though not from its content. The unmistakable curve of the West African coastline, littered with unfamiliar names: Das Palmas, Das Galinhas, Costa Fermazo, Costa Dos Bajos, Rio Dos Junges, Rio das Barbas…Portuguese names. And among these, my birthplace: Lagos.

Throughout that year studying in Portugal, different people from my banker to my landlord and professors at my university, would incessantly educate me about Portugal’s legacy with Africa. Did I know that it was the Portuguese who discovered Africa? Did I know that unlike the British or the French, the Portuguese were not hated colonizers, but loved as big brothers by the Africans? Less discussed was the fact that Lagos, Portugal had been the first point through which enslaved Africans entered Europe. This refusal to confront history extended into the city streets: unlike other European capitals, Lisbon had no monument grappling with Portugal’s involvement in the slave trade in the centuries to follow.

My graduation film Lagos, Lagos emerged as a kind of counter memorial, from my frustration as an African person constantly confronted with these revisionist colonial fantasies in Lisbon. The film weaves together mytho-historical accounts of various individuals who traveled between Lagos, Nigeria and Lagos Portugal over a 600-year period. In selecting accounts, I drew on both historical record as well as folkloric tradition: after all, just because they were printed in books didn’t make travelogues from 16th century explorers who claimed to have fought Atlantic sea-monsters any less fantastical than our own local lore of Mami Wata, a West African water spirit who preyed on the greedy European sailors and slavers in that era. It was therefore essential to have both voices and both mythologies (i.e., of continental “discoveries,” as well as seductive water spirits) next to each other in the film.

In order to trace the continuities of unequal movement between Europe and Africa, Nigeria and Portugal, it was also necessary to show past and present parallels: alongside the account of an enslaved person’s capture and voyage aboard a slave ship, I also adapted the account of one of my protagonists from a separate film, who had told me a story about how he had stowed away on a ship and ended up in Portugal. And it was important to juxtapose that against the experience of a colonial officer who had journeyed from Lagos to Lagos in the 60s, for fun and under completely different circumstances.

Given that all these stories, regardless of which century they happened in, took place on boats, across the ocean, it was evident to me that the film also needed to take place in water: for this reason, all the shots are either recorded underwater, through water or through dense fog. With the number of lives lost both in the Middle Passage and the harshness of present border regimes, the sea holds the memory of so much life and loss. The ocean and its marine life have been witness and sometimes even the tragic ending point to many of these journeys, making water the perfect medium through which to encounter them on film.


Nnenna Onuoha


Nnenna Onuoha

2018. Portugal

Published on June, 2023
Volume 7, Issue 5


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