Abeokuta, the former capital city of one of the few internationally recognised pre-colonial states in Africa – the Egba Government – and current capital of Ogun State, is less than an hours drive away from Lagos, yet visited by few travellers.
When entering Abeokuta, the first thing one notices are the seemingly century-old low-rise buildings, and the narrow streets. The numerous, huge rocks in the city are also strewn with old, small houses, creating a very picturesque setting.
The look and feel of Abeokuta reflect the fact that this was an important place, where a lot of development took place a century ago. Time, however has since stood still. For some reason, the place felt very reminescent of the legendary battlesite town of Adwa, in Ethiopia, where I was 7 years earlier.
The main attraction of Abeokuta, is the sacred Olumo rock – an important place of worship in they local culture. Despite being a key site, finding the way there was a challenge to the point that we eventually had to hire an ‘okada’ (motorcycle taxi), to drive in front through the narrow, labyrinthine streets.
The foot of the Olumo rock is adorned with a quite welcoming visitor’s centre, and a parking lot that actually has some space. One part of centre is a mini-museum of local traditional handicrafts, followed by a small arts gallery featuring paintings and wall reliefs (made from empty soda cans!) by local artists. On the way out, I couldn’t help buying a beautifully finished “goje” – a local music instrument, offered to me at a “special price”.
Climbing the Olumo rock offers some modest exercise, some spectacular views, and some cultural and historical lessons about Abeokuta.
Being a sacred place, the Olumo rock is home to numerous caves and shrines, and the many statues and carvings on the way towards the top, bear witness of the cultural importance of this geological feature.
Halfway to the top, the road passes by a shrine permanently inhabited by priestesses, the oldest one of them claiming to be 127 years. The way the buildings are constructed withing the rock, makes the whole shrine area look almost Hobbit-like.
The way to the top continues through a narrow pass, then some more climbing, before finally, a beautiful view of Abeokuta – the place under the rock – unfolds.
The panoramic view of Abeokuta reveals a distinctively red city of low-rise, old buildings from the colonial and pre-colonial eras. A red brick church standing out in the middle of down-town, fits perfectly in with the colour theme.
Leaving Abeokuta, heading back towards Lagos, one also notices the modern side of the city. Ogun state is known as one of the better-governed states in Nigeria, with development-focused authorities. A major road project under construction seems poised to ease traffic considerably once finished. Also, existing infrastructure seems rather well-maintained – a rare occurence in Nigeria.