In Nigeria, Valentine’s Day Is Taken Firmly To Heart

FEB 15, 2015


Roses are red, violets are blue–and dozens of them, arrayed in pretty bouquets, are rushed out of the little flower shop on Kofo Abayomi Street in Lagos, Nigeria. Some customers carry out their honey’s floral present themselves. Lazier lovers opt for delivery, and a little white van idles in the street, its interior abloom. A policeman eventually arrives to direct traffic. “Go, go!” he shouts. “Go now!” The van peels away.

Lagos, the largest city in Africa’s most populous country, has fallen for Valentine’s Day with the passion of youthful romance. Its strong feeling for the occasion separates it from other places with a solid conservative core; India, for one, has heaped hate on the holiday for at least the past decade. Lagosian adoration of Valentine’s is emblematic of the entire nation’s desire to Westernize and modernize–sentimental trinkets of romance and all–even at a time when a wide swath of the country is under attack by the (strongly) anti-West insurgents Boko Haram.

Unlike in America, where V-Day is largely left to personal preference–to celebrate or to ignore completely–there is no escaping Lagos’ steamy embrace of the holiday. The first thing someone says in the morning? “Happy Valentine’s,” coos the hotel restaurant’s hostess as she guides me to a breakfast table. Lagosians wish a Happy Valentine’s the way Americans proclaim Merry Christmas or Happy New Year. Over and over again, to everyone.

“Happy Valentine’s,” the soldier says.

I’ve been past the flower shop on Kofo Abayomi and visited Mega Plaza shopping mall, a block or so from my hotel. It’s hot, a real-feel temperature of 100 plus. The streets have no sidewalks, and the ubiquitous road-side vendors make it a tighter squeeze for the pedestrians picking their way through traffic. Garbage fills the street, too. Barbed wire hangs from dirty concrete walls.

And now returning to my hotel, I pass the soldiers stationed at its gate. “Happy Valentine’s,” says the solider, a little man in his early 20s wearing a black uniform. I manage a faint smile, still unaccustomed to Lagos’ enthusiasm for the expression. “Do you have a valentine for tonight?” he asks, following me up the hotel’s driveway. Turns out, Cupid in Lagos wields not a bow but a machine gun.

None of it, I learn, should’ve come as a surprise. Valentine’s famously worsens the perma-snarl of Lagosian traffic, explains Akintunde Akinleye, a local photographer working with me. If the holiday falls during the week, roads stay impassable until 1 a.m. This year the presidential election imperiled the festivities. “When they wanted to have the election on Valentine’s Day,” says Akinleye, “everyone was like, Why then? Why that day?” The election was forecast to bring unease throughout the country. As it happens, lovers lucked out; the vote was postponed until next month. “People were happy,” Akinleye says.

Courtship’s costs vary throughout the city. At the local Sheraton, the $250 Valentine’s deal include a room, two meals and sauna access. The Federal Palace resort offers suites at $299 a night, roughly a third off of the usual price. My hotel, the Intercontinental , has a slew of specials. Its Soul Lounge bar advertises a single red rose and a bottle of Moët & Chandon (rosé, of course) for $100; it also provides a photo booth for capturing the enchanted evening, forever. The hotel Chinese restaurant, Soho, prices its four-course meal at $75 per couple; the Italian place, Milano, is a bit more, $100 a pair. Downstairs, in the lobby restaurant, dinner costs roughly $50. The entertainment there: a young man, in crisp white shirt and black waistcoat, playing a saxophone.

I can hear him as I walk out of the elevator. He serenades a packed restaurant. Couples crowd all three restaurants. Milano appears the least full.

“Just one,” I say, entering the restaurant.

The young woman coming toward me frowns. “You don’t have a reservation?” No. “But where is your valentine?” she asks. She disappears to see if there’s a place for me, somewhere. “I found one,” she says. Indeed, she has–at a table squashed between sets of sweethearts. I politely decline, fearing any apparent lonesomeness will only prompt more V-Day wishes from strangers. Dinner, that night, is room service.

On the following morning, as I’m leaving the hotel, I spot the same hostess who commenced my experience with Lagosian Valentine’s. The lobby restaurant still has roses on every table; little bits of petals have been crushed onto the floor. I express my surprise to her about the holiday’s prevalence and perseverance in Nigeria. She giggles. “But who,” she asks, “doesn’t like love?”

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