A few weeks ago I visited the new Mike Adenuga Centre that houses the Alliance Francaise Lagos and the French Cultural Centre on the bend of Alfred Rewane Road, Ikoyi. As I stepped inside the newly commissioned facility, it brought back beautiful memories of the time I spent learning the French language 16 years ago.
I had enrolled to commence language classes in 2003 at the former Alliance Francaise facility on the same road following the long industrial action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that begun in late 2002 to press home demands for the reinstatement of sacked lecturers of the University of Ilorin.
The Obafemi Awolowo University branch of ASUU had joined the strike early, which meant that we spent almost one year at home. While I spent the first month on campus taking French classes under the tutelage of a pair of students at the Foreign Languages Department, by the time I got to Lagos I was more interested in getting a holiday job.
That all changed when my dad’s friend came visiting. Dr Valentine (a staff at the National Museum in Jos whom I liked to call Uncle Val) spoke very good French. He had studied in France and was a translator for major conferences and events all over the continent. Uncle Val encouraged my dad to enrol me for classes at the Alliance Francaise in order to improve my skills. Dad agreed and I went to find out the cost. He paid for three months and I began classes in January 2003.
Learning French opened up my world. I came to have a broader perspective than my narrow Anglo view. I picked up on the language quickly and was always eager to converse with classmates after class. I stayed back in the multimedia library to consume classic French films and literature.
One of the most daunting things I did was to pick up Victor Hugo’s famous oeuvre, Les Miserables and attempt to read it in French after my fourth month of studying the language. I had first come across the story of Jean Valjean in a powerful 1998 English language film performance by Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as Inspector Javert on DStv. It had whetted my appetite and I was eager to read the original text for greater context.
I enjoyed the cultural performances at the Cultural Centre and met many famous journalists, dancers, musicians and photographers. One of the foreign journalists I met was John Owoo, a Ghanaian cultural writer who later became a friend when I moved to work as a journalist at Ovation Magazine in Ghana three years later. He would assist me to secure a scholarship to continue my language classes at the Alliance Francaise in Accra.
The French language has also opened up opportunities for work. During trips to cover the Togolese presidential elections in 2010 as well as work trips to Senegal, I was able to move about easily without hiring a local translator. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a French journalist interviewed me for the paper Le Monde. He was happy to note in his report that this Nigerian journalist could speak his language.
So when I entered the new Mike Adenuga Centre, all those memories came flooding back. The well-designed structure made me envy the new students that would be taking lessons in the facility.
Beautifully sculpted with a light roof over the gallery, I explored an exhibition of photographs of sexual violence against women who posed in the same places where they had suffered the assault. The exhibition reminded me of the ones I first encountered by the Depth of Field collective almost two decades ago.
The impact of the French Cultural Centre on the arts in Nigeria will continue to grow as the Mike Adenuga Centre takes shape over the coming years. Like its predecessor, it will once again become the Mecca of the Nigerian cultural community.
Its impact will not be only because of its big learning rooms or the 350-seater conference hall, its impact will be based on the number of lives it will change. The Mike Adenuga Centre will be a place for young Nigerians to find their voices and make meaningful connections. It will be a place for learning about a world that exists beyond here.
In a time when young Nigerians are looking for a meaning to life in a dreary society, it will serve as a place to explore different horizons. Like the old Alliance Francaise did for me, I hope the young generation will make amazing memories at the new Mike Adenuga Centre. It will be one of the billionaire businessman’s greatest legacies.