Here’s why you should visit this 20th century building in Onikan

By Sesede Simeon

“Old houses are full of memories and that’s they resist to collapse” — Mehmet Murat Ildan

“My name is Fola, and I will be taking you on a short tour of Onikan House…”

I let the introduction sink in as I began my tour of this restored building, which holds many beautiful memories and secrets of the souls who once lived in it.

Onikan House is a Brazilian-styled building located at 23 Military Street (King George V Road). Some weeks earlier, I had passed right In front of the building with the black gate without taking a second glance at it. I had walked right past it to the National Museum, a short walk away.

It is worth adding that Onikan ranked as the third coolest neighbourhood in the world to live in 2019, according to TimeOut magazine, a CNN publication.

Brief History

Sometime in 1939, Olumilade Akanni Holloway — a skilled draughtsman working at the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) — obtained a mortgage loan of £375 to build a house for his family. He drew the plan and hired Afro-Brazilian artisans to build it. The building was completed in 1940 and by 1950 the mortgage loan had been paid off.

Holloway was the grandson of Mammy Adeola, a returnee slave, who was captured in Oyo-Ile (present-day Oyo State, SW Nigeria) and was rescued along with other slaves and taken to Freetown where she got married to another freed slave of Nigerian origin. They subsequently returned to Lagos.

Onikan House is today a tourist hub some 80+ years after it was built as a private residence, charmingly restored by the management of Loving Lagos.

Timeline of Lagos

The guide led me into the first exhibition space on the ground floor, after his introduction at the reception.

This is called the Timeline of Lagos room, where we take you through major events that have happened in Lagos,” said Fola as he opened the door. The timeline of Lagos in this context to an extent also talks about major events that happened in Nigeria.

As we stepped into this room with its pristine walls, the faces of Henry Carr and Herbert Macaulay stare at us. The two men had a fierce hatred for each other till their deaths but in death, their pictures are mounted side-by-side. I am sure they never saw that coming.

The room takes you through the evolution of Lagos from it pre-Portuguese period right up until when the British arrived. It is a room where you will meet the faces behind some of the popular street names n Lagos: Ribadu Street (Ikoyi), Alfred Rewane (Ikoyi), Ajose Adeogun street (Victoria Island), Mobolaji Johnson (Ikeja) and more.

A Room for Lagos

“…there is nothing about Nigeria in this room. Everything here is about Lagos and one of the most celebrated cultures in Lagos is the Eyo festival,” Fola said as he led me into another room, this time on the first floor.

Hats and other memorabilia of the Adamu Orisha (aka Eyo Festival) can be seen in the room. Portraits of some of the previous obas of Lagos stare at us from the wall. The story of King Kosoko was the highlight of this room for me.

A family touring the Onikan House and posing for pictures with some Eyo paraphernalia

I had a laugh while reading a copy of the treaty that the British forced king Dosumu to sign aboard one of their ships. Obanikoro was spelt Obanigbo, Dosumu was spelt Dochemo.

Visitors are encouraged to take pictures with the Eyo costume. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do this as my tour was made in a bit of a hurry.

At some point, we stopped at a table bearing samples of old currencies used in this part of the world ages ago. Among the collection was a manila, a horse-

shaped metal used between the 15th and 20th century and especially during the slavery years. The guide pointed out an illustration of it on the N100 note; it is the first time I would notice that it was there.

The coming of the Portuguese

This room is where visitors are taken back to the beginning of the Portuguese voyage and exploration of Africa. The story of Prince Henry (Dom Henrique of Portugal) the navigator takes centre stage here.

From buying spices to shipping slaves from West Africa to Europe, 1444 A.D was the year the first large numbers of slaves were taken by Portuguese traders to other parts of Europe.

The Benin kingdom was the first to come in contact with the Portuguese in Nigeria, during the reign of Ewuare The Great, but no business deal occurred between both parties until the reign of King Ozolua.

A wall display in one of the rooms at Onikan House

A library in the attic

It is my favourite room on this tour (I love books). It is one of the creative libraries I have seen; you need to visit it to understand what I am saying: children’s books, history books and more are part of the collections in this library. It also serves as a function room for small crowd events (like readings).

It won’t be a bad idea to pop into this space now and then to exercise one’s brain. You can register as a member to have access to this beautiful room. The attic has over 300 book collections.

Grab a souvenir on your way out

You should not visit Onikan House without buying something in the store to always remember your visit (it is a place worth visiting more than once). Buying the Danfo-inspired T-shirt won’t be a bad idea, and the Ankara jewellery box will make an amazing gift for a loved one too. Onikan House was worth the visit. Rest assured that you will get value for every penny spent here. My visit served to remind me one more time that Lagos has a lot to offer where history and culture are concerned.

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