Nearly halfway through the second, world Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, Lagos citizens have taken refuge in gallows humor to survive what has become a further ordeal in their already harassed lives.
Pride of playing host to FESTAC - as the festival is called for short - has given way to a certain sullen resentment because of manifest problems in its organization.
Slashing ticket prices in half - from a $16 top to a new student rate of 18 cents - has done little to entice Nigerians to attend FESTAC events at the national stadium and in the brand new national theater.
Television cameras sweep back and forth across a sea of empty seats at the main theater hall built to hold 5,000 spectators. But even the television's extensive coverage is reserved only for the rich who can afford sets.
"We've spent hundreds of millions dollars on FESTAC," a Nigerian journalist lamented, "but we're being penny wise and pound foolish. Those empty seats should have been given away to school children."
The festival's splendid isolation is dictated by the ruling military regime's strict security measures, which are in turn motivated by a real fears of terrorist attack.
Armed troops and police are stationed in and around the various festival sites, at the special village housing thousands of performers, and on board hundreds of FESTAC vehicles.
But the armed camp mood only serves to underline earlier criticism voiced by many leading Nigerian artists, performers and intellectuals. They boycotted FESTAC's planning to protest the military regime's inflexible dictates, which they insisted would prevent ordinary citizens from participating in the events.
The government-controlled press has felt no compunction about criticizing FESTAC. A steady steam of articles has reported price gouging at the new theater's bars - the problem was solved by ending all service - the theft of FESTAC vehicles and firing 300 FESTAC drivers described by police as hired in a "hush hush" manner and "not only rude, but of shady character."
But the most telling criticism appeared in a cartoon in the Daily Times, the leading newspaper. It turned on the controversial use by special traffic troops of braided horsewhips on recalcitrant motorists.
The cartoon showed two men lost in the otherwise empty giant theater.
One man asked the other "Hey man, what's keeping the others away the gate fee or the whip?"
In all fairness, other contributing factors here are believed to be Nigerians' personal cash flow problems normal after the Christmas shopping sprees and the payment of quarterly school fees.
The 200-member Ameican delegation to FESTAC has been perhaps the biggest single disappointment at FESTAC. For a variety of reasons - including the American staff's poor planning and various postponements in FESTAC itself - the superstars and even the minor stars gave the festival the pass. The unimpressive American showing was obvious in everything from music to the intellectuals' colloquium on black civilization and education.
At one amaterusih American ballet performance at the National Theater the few paying guests walked out in droves long before the evening was over.
Saving American honor were the crowd-pleasing performances of the Harlem Childrens Theater, and the National Black Theater, which made up in verve and enthusiasm for what they may have lacked in professional polish.
The childrens' group's black variations on Mother Goose stories proved a hit. And the black theather's musical - "Soul Journey into truth" - delighted Nigerians unused to the troupe's audience-participation numbers.
But such crowd-pleasing performances were exceptional.
An American black poet vented her bitterness by saying: "Every other country sent their very best performers except us. How do your think some of us feel having American black intellectuals represented by Ron Karenga," a San Diego-based exponent of radical black nationalism.
But if the Africans had every right to be disappointed in the Americans, the Americans themselves have sopped up a lot of concentrated Africana. Living at FESTAC village, cheek to jowl with performers from a variety of African countries has tended a kind of "homecoming" sentimentality, especially among the young. It's perhaps to be expected in light of the success of Alex Haley's "Roots."
But black Americans who have been to Africa before - and remember the disillusionment of American blacks who sought roots in Africa in the late '50s and early '60s - take a more jaundiced view. For them Thomas Wolfe summed it up in the '30s when he wrote "You Can't Go Home Again."
An American recalled the recent travail of a black American radical who moved to Nigeria with wife and five children and decided to return to the land. After a year of subsistence farming and survivng on cassava, a west African staple - the wife's family in the United States sent return air tickets for her and the children, but not for the husband. He was reported still up country scratching out a bare living on the farm.
Various French - speaking African countries have thrown caution - and bras - to the winds in defying FESTAC'S prudish ban on topless dancing.Even in these blase days of skin magazines and total frontal nudity, the African public found itself-wildly cheering the bare-breasted dancers from the Ivory Coast.
If only because it was free, the great crowd-pleasing event of FESTAC has turned out to be the three-day canoe retatta on Lagos Creek. As many as 4,500 Nigerians on 200 gaudily - festooned giant canoes from eight of the country's 19 states swept by the reviewing stand in what might be called the world's biggest paddle past.
Dancers and musicians on board the boats whooped it up and were answered by other dancers and musicians on shore. A contingent from rivers state - where Nigeria's oil comes from - sported carved sharks and crabs and fish on top of their headdresses. At one point a colleague tool pity on the dancers whose heads were entirely shrouded in brightly colored cloth and produced a wooden fan he brandished to help cool them off.
The biggest applause was reserved for a rattan screen that mysteriously skittered in front of the crowd with speed and dexterity without visible means of locomotion.
It was just the kind of show to make even the most put-upon Nigerian forget the heat, humidity, power breakdowns, resurgent traffic jams (despite a theoretically Draconian edict limiting driving to every other day) and the beer shortage that has a large bottle of supposedly 42-cent price controlled beer going for $1.60 or better.