TRAVEL: The republic of Fela – and his underpants

Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Museum in NigeriaPHOTOs: charl blignaut
Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Museum in NigeriaPHOTOs: charl blignaut

It’s much more than a house – the Kalakuta Republic Museum is now also a hotel with a roof garden where patrons smoke the holy weed in relative peace.

The last house that Nigerian musical legend, political activist and enemy of the state Fela Anikulapo Kuti lived in in Lagos is in pristine shape from the outside.

We approach it along Gbemisola Street in the relatively upmarket suburb of Ikeja, down the road from restaurants and businesses that mysteriously transform into strip joints at night, with bright signs brought out on to the streets to advertise the good life inside.

A different kind of good life is celebrated on the rooftop of the Kalakuta, where patrons relax, listen to Afrobeat, cluck loudly as they discuss the farce of the Nigerian elections and the tyranny of the state, and smoke grass.

Three pairs of Kuti’s underpants

Like his nightclub, the New Africa Shrine, a nearby shed that is home to the annual Felabration music festival, the smell of dagga is part of the fabric and the city seems to have finally accepted that the good Fela smokers can be left in peace here.

On the floor below the roof, the motley but poignant museum has created a five-room hotel, which opened at the end of last year. Prices range from R435 to R870 per room per night, and each room displays samples of Fela memorabilia.

Below that, Kuti’s own bedroom has been preserved behind glass – a hippie affair of cloths and paintings, and a fridge where he stored his beloved ice creams and sweet drinks.

Next to it, a wall is covered in the trademark slip-on shoes he had handmade, but – says the guide – failed to patent and now scores have copied them.

Next to these on wire hangers are three pairs of Kuti’s underpants – which he famously lounged about in – including a pair featuring the cartoon character Barney. This reporter was proud to take a selfie with them.

PERSONAL Fela Kuti’s famous shoes and underpants (author’s selfie) on display at his last home, which is now the Kalakuta Museum.

Photographs line the walls and the manifesto of Kuti’s pro-poor political party Movement of the People has its own room. There are countless portraits and even a gift shop.

At the entrance, there is a display of Kuti’s vivid, politically charged album covers that you can really only see by the light of your cellphone. The guide, though, is able to sing all of his songs in a really decent voice.

NOT LIKELY A new bronze sculpture of Fela Kuti outside the museum, which captures his spirit if not his likeness. Picture: Charl Blignaut

Outside, there’s a grand new statue of Kuti, which barely resembles him, and his remains rest beneath a tombstone. There are mosaics and murals with his quotes all over the museum.

They read: “If a man wants to enslave you forever, he will never tell you the truth about your forefathers”; “Who no know, go know”; and “The secret of life is to have no fear”.

Nothing much has really changed in the corruption-punctuated political landscape of this populous, petroleum-rich and often militarised state – the one Kuti referred to as a zombie army.

Leaving the Kalakuta and passing the walls covered in posters of politicians smiling crocodile smiles, a visit to Fela’s republic seems more relevant than ever. 

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