The last time I remember being connected to bodies of all kinds in a crowd, I was a university student looking forward to graduation. Five years later, I became part of a mass of bodies gathering momentum of its own, unbeknownst to the guard at the gate hell-bent on identifying all the contents in the bag of a woman with already disheveled hair. The guard let in the next three people before he realised what was about to happen and reached for the gate. It was too late; I and a host of others flowed in with the crashing wave. I looked back to find the gate now secure behind me and O.C, whom I had made an acquaintance of on the ride here, nowhere to be found.
Two hours ago, I was sleeping blissfully at my apartment, vaguely aware of all the activities that were expected to increase the already damning traffic conditions in Lagos. I had no plans and no business after all, I said to myself after seeing the umpteenth broadcast message on Whatsapp. My eyes skimmed but did not register the much talked about The Experience gospel concert until I saw the program flyer on Twitter. International names like Kirk Franklin, Don Moen and Donnie Mcclurkin leapt out of the page alongside names like Chioma Jesus, Timi Dakolo, and Nathaniel Bassey. One hour later, I was dressed up and out the door on my way to the historical Tafawa Balogun Square where Nigeria gained her independence, and where the event was now expected to hold. I swam into the pavilion a few minutes to seven p.m. with the realisation that there would be no Nigerian time at this event. I walked across rows and rows of people, even past a former colleague who attempted to squeeze me in somewhere but got reprimanded by surrounding attendees. I eventually decided to walk towards a better view until I found a standing spot at the edge of an aisle, one I thought wasn’t as policed as the others by the green minions trying to keep the wide aisle clear of anybody who wasn’t seated.
“Where will people pass?” one shouts to the young man standing behind me. “If someone hits you now, you will start insulting the person.” I look back but only long enough to find the speaker standing comfortably on the same aisle she was complaining about, not that she was wrong for wanting a clear pathway. It was when turning back that I noticed bags seated beside a lady in front. “Can I sit until the person gets back?” I ask. There was no point asking if anyone was seated there or not. She shakes her head in the negative. There are two bags and I ask the man on the other end of the second. He says no. Madam aisle taps me and asks me to move to avoid embarrassment. Her tone is that of one talking to young teenage sweaty adults. I don’t respond and, after asking more reasonably a second time, she walks away eventually.
Meanwhile activities have fully kicked off on stage. The cacophony of whistles and vuvuzelas could disorient anyone not accustomed to the loudness of Nigerians. There were cheers when the group on stage did the Gwara Gwara and the popular praise songs sent the crowd into foot stomping sessions and bloodcurdling screams. The pavilion, along with the whole square, was pulsating. And I, now seated between people who had to give up one of the empty seats they were saving for whoever still hadn’t found their way in one hour into the event, played the game of kicking empty plastic bottles away from our territories into other people’s.
Tim Godfrey is ministering, someone writes on Twitter where streaming links and radio frequencies are also shared. At the live event, someone is waving her shoes in the air along to the refrain Wetin I go give to you?/Na Praise. When who I assume a pastor comes up to lead the prayer session with “Do you believe God can change Nigeria?” It was all I could do to stop myself from rolling my eyes. I had counted 3 people who had outrightly expressed their displeasure at the lady beside me who I now realise has bags on both sides of her, while the aisle filled up with more people looking for seats. She had beckoned to me after the second argument had ensued between the man on the other end and a newcomer, and without any words, I wasted no time in filling up the space.
Fevered prayers for the country continue and end after a short while, followed by a brief moment of calm with Vicki Yohe on stage. “It’s like she’s just talking to herself,” someone says behind me. Her accent is hard to make out and from what I can see, she probably has a hard time matching the energy she was witnessing. Eben, a crowd favourite, serenades the audience with not just music but also the glitz from his clothing — an excellent choice for a mammoth crowd. A chair was up in the air now and as he rendered more lines from ‘Victory’, the crowd, and more chairs, went into a frenzy. I secretly wondered at the capacity of the pavilion which I was sure had been exceeded. When musical artiste Banky W and comedian Alibaba mount the stage, the reaction is not unlike the previous received by the men of God, leading me to a hypothesis I had made sometime ago: while watching a live musical concert recording of an American pop artist I had grown up on and felt immensely attached to, I wondered and came to later conclude that most times, the feeling at gospel concerts is not that of encountering a supernatural presence, but of sentimentality.
Sentiments make emotions run even higher, it didn’t matter to what as there was no difference between a man of god, a man of pop, and as so often happens in the same breath, a man of politics. Sentiments don’t change anything externally especially because they are designed to be held between individuals and the object of their sentiments. It certainly didn’t stop the shouts of “Sit down!” directed at the young woman who kept shouting back that she couldn’t sit on someone’s head. The aisle by now had people seated with barely enough space to meander past, the green minions having adapted to the reality of the situation like most of the country’s citizens. Sentiments also hid the irony of holding seats for people who took two hours to get into an event dedicated to a God of kindness and tolerance.
The choir of the House on the Rock, the organisers of the event, was rendering a version of a traditionally Catholic song on stage now. It became the sound track of the moment as everyone around including myself began to get involved in trying to prevent a fight from happening between someone who wanted to sit, and someone who, I concluded, was secretly against body contact, and odour. Points for the security man who came in to handle the issue by talking with a calm voice to the lady, points taken for threatening to slap the mouthy young lad seated beside her who appeared the most offended.
I would have extended my stay thirty minutes longer without the drama. The digital display on my watch only read nine forty-five, but these people looked like they needed to be here so badly. In a weird way, it was my way of paying it forward; I probably wouldn't have gotten a seat if the lady hadn't been so adamant about saving seats. The best seat at the end of it all was on an air-conditioned BRT headed home.