In This Nigerian Market, Young Women Find a Place of Their Own

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Four women pose in a market stall. They wear graphic T-shirts and jeans and three of them look at the camera while the fourth looks at the ground. Behind them are garments hanging from the ceiling and folded in stacks along the walls. All photos in this story are black and white.

Where We Are is a series about young people coming of age and the spaces where they create community.

At the bustling Yaba Market in Lagos, Nigeria, there is something for everyone.

Chatter rises from the traders, whose stalls sprawl over miles of cracked gray concrete and packed earth. They might be selling baskets of fresh fruit, wheelbarrows stuffed with phone cases, piles of sequined fabrics or racks of second-hand clothes.

If you’re lucky, you might find a vintage jacket you’ve been searching for, or a pair of long-lasting Levi’s jeans. But you’re never going to be as lucky as Dencity: the coolest of the cool kids of Lagos. These skaters, often clad in a uniform of baggy pants and crop tops, head to the market to go thrifting each week. They’re armed with fashion knowledge only the young, fun and determined can possess and seek out the best streetwear they can find.

Founded by 26-year-old Blessing Ewona in 2020 in response to the dearth of spaces for young queer people and female skaters in Nigeria, Dencity skate, dream and thrift together. From their trips to the market to regular skate meet-ups at the dilapidated National Stadium or Tarkwa Bay beach, they have traced their own map of the city.

An aerial view of a busy street filled with cars and pedestrians. Buildings line the street on the left, and there is a railroad track to the right. A T-shaped streetlight rises from the median.

A young woman leans against a metal bannister, looking directly into the camera. Her hair is in braids and half up. She wears a chunky cross necklace, metal rings, a sporty collared shirt with a middle zipper and a chain hanging from the loops of her light jeans.

“I always wanted a community where I could just be myself,” said Blessing. “Not where I have to skate all the time. An escape.”

“I tried to look for one,” she said, referring to a group in which she felt at home, “and then I said, let me just build my own. Not just for me, but for other people like me that also want a community like this but don’t know how to go about it.”

Four smiling people lounge on a bed covered in polka dot sheets. On the left is a man wearing sunglasses, a black durag and a striped polo shirt. On the right is a woman in a baseball cap and a graphic T-shirt. A man in sunglasses and a dark shirt and a woman with short braids and a black top are behind them.

Two young women walk through a market, with their backs to the camera. One wears black pants, a loose button-down shirt and a white baseball cap. The other wears light jeans and a dark T-shirt. To their left, a man and women sit in front of a row of headless mannequins, sharing a set of white headphones. Bags and racks of clothes are to their right.

Most of the clothes that are thrifted at Yaba Market are sourced from abroad. They arrive in bales that the traders pick from and add to their own stalls, which are designed to entice people to come and buy — wares stacked in color-coded orders or charming patterns, walkways winding through the piles. Finding a bargain is like scouring a beach for buried treasure. And the Dencity skaters know how to look.

“They have their own eyes for what they want to wear, because everybody thrifts in this market, but they still find ways to make it cool,” said Stephen Tayo, the photographer for this story. “They are very in their own bubble of style. If you can influence from a space that is available to everybody, then you’re special.”

There’s a thrill to that hunt, Blessing explained. “You have to explore the market to get what you really want,” she said. “And sometimes, what we buy doesn’t always make sense. We have to figure out how to style it. We’re like, ‘It’s going to make sense one day.’”

Two women with long braided hair stand in an asphalt lot, in front of a busy road lined with umbrellas and buildings and full of cars and pedestrians. The woman on the left wears light jeans and a light T-shirt. The one on the right wears dark jeans, a dark shirt with white stripes on the shoulders and a light bandana on her head.

Four young women standing in a brightly lit hallway. The woman in the middle plays with the braids of the one in front of her, who wears a white shirt with a cartoon on it and the brand name wafflesncream.

Stephanie Onyemachi, second from left, a 21-year-old member of Dencity, discovered the market through Blessing. (“Everyone’s always asking me where I get my stuff. I take everyone there,” said Blessing, far left.)

For a good haul, Stephanie usually budgets 10,000 naira, or about $22 — a small fraction of her salary. “With that I can get three bottoms and about five tops,” she said.

A woman in a market stall holding up a dark Adidas shirt with three white stripes on each side and a pair of dark track pants.

“Unlike shopping in boutiques and malls, in the market there’s no gender restrictions or conforms. If I go to, like, let’s say, H&M or Mr. Price, there’s the male section, the kids section, the females section,” said Stephanie.

A woman wearing a baseball cap, a baggy button-down shirt and a sling bag across her shoulder leans against a tall stack of folded jeans in a market stall. More stacks of denim line the stall to her right and behind her. She stands in front of a group of more young women.

“But in the market, you don’t have any of that. Anybody can just come and shop and find what fits them.”

A group of young women looking through tall stacks of books in an outdoor market. The woman in the center, wearing Crocs, black pants, a baggy button-down shirt and a baseball hat, holds a fitness guide.

Like most of the members of Dencity, Stephanie, who grew up outside of Lagos, discovered the group on social media.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was stuck indoors with her family and felt trapped. But as Nigeria started to open back up, she moved to the capital and found out about the crew. It felt like a new world had been opened up to her. She bonded with them immediately and threw herself into the work of making it successful.

What began with Blessing posting photos and videos of her own skating escapades has grown in just two years to more than 90 young people from all over Nigeria, ranging in age from their late teens to mid-20s, who are part of the collective’s WhatsApp group and take part in in-person events, including thrifting expeditions to the market.

Stacks of folded denim pants in various shades piled on top of each other.

Four people standing in an outdoor stadium, two of them with skateboards on the ground. On the left, a young woman in a tank top has her arms on her waist.

“When I first started Dencity, if I wasn’t there, people didn’t go out to skate,” said Blessing. “Now, they’re so comfortable they skate any day. Sometimes I’m just sitting at home going through Instagram stories then I’m like, ‘Ah! There they are.’”

A young woman lies on her back on a skateboard. She wears a white T-shirt and has short braids with white beads on the ends, which touch the floor.

“It gives me so much joy. Because I really wanted for girls to be able to go out and just be themselves.”

Several young people skateboard through a concrete stadium. Two young men and a young woman are in the center. The woman, who is in the middle, wears jeans, a baseball cap and a tank top that says Waf. One man wears a black T-shirt and baseball cap, and the other wears a striped polo shirt and a black durag.

On her first day out with Dencity, “I finally felt like it was OK to be a female skater,” said Stephanie. “I had been constantly told, ‘Oh, this is a thing for guys.’ I finally felt like I was around my people. I finally felt normal.”

A young woman with braids in jeans and a white T-shirt crouches on a skateboard while filming with a video camera. In front of her is a cement block and a person standing and holding a skateboard in front of a graffitied wall.

Dencity is helping to herald in a new era of cultural celebration that pushes up against the traditional, colonial and conservative values of Nigeria.

The majority of the people who skate with the group identify as queer — a rarity in a society that is often openly hostile to the L.G.B.T.Q. community. A Pew Research Center study in 2020 found that only 7 percent of people in Nigeria believe that homosexuality should be accepted, and the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, passed in 2014, bans not just legal recognition of these relationships but also any outward displays of affection between partners of the same gender or meetings of official L.G.B.T.Q. organizations.

But despite the marginalization that they face, the members of Dencity, and groups like it, have been able to carve out a space of freedom and safety for themselves.

The back of a van driving through a street lined with pedestrians. “The Magnificent” is painted on the rear window, surrounded by two illustrations of a moon and star. Yoruba phrases, small black horses and the word “Toyota” are also painted on the back of the vehicle, which has a Lagos license plate.

A woman with short dreds wearing a patterned button-down shirt, oversized dark jeans and a watch leans against the metal bannister of an outdoor staircase.

“When you’re in a marginalized group — and you’re in a country that does make sure you’re marginalized — when you hear there is a safe space for you, naturally, people are going to come through. It has naturally just attracted queer people,” said Stephanie.

A group of young women, many wearing bikini tops and shorts and standing on skateboards. In the center, a woman in a loose white button-down shirt, partly unbuttoned, and dark jeans prepares to ride off on her skateboard.

“Safe spaces for queer Nigerians were almost non-existent 10 years ago, and even now there are only a few.”

The name “Dencity” is a play on Blessing’s middle name, Eden, and the crew’s goal is for their events to feel like a type of paradise for all who attend.

A woman in a striped tank top wearing graphic eyeliner and a hair wrap paints small dots on the face of another woman, who is wearing an Adidas shirt and sunglasses on her head.

Through the clothes they source, the stickers they use to decorate their skateboards, even the rainbow snacks they brought on a queer-inclusive beach outing, Dencity’s members have carved out a space where they can be their full, authentic selves and feel “most welcome, most comfortable, doing our thing,” Stephanie said.

As interest in skating across Nigeria has been growing — there are now a number of pro skaters in the country, including Henry Okwubuasi, signed by Wafflesncream, Nigeria’s first skateboarding company — there is hope that a new generation of skaters will have access to more resources and be better equipped to represent the country on the world stage, including at the Olympic Games, which added skateboarding in 2021.

Dencity is committed to being a part of that future. “The skating community has become a space for all. They are their own government. That’s what I got from them,” said Stephen, the photographer. “Because when you make provision for yourself, and for people that look like you, then that’s a country on its own.”

A group of fourteen young people pose for a photo in a parking lot. Several of them hold or stand on skateboards. Some wear T-shirts while others wear tank tops, and some are making silly faces and hand gestures.

“That’s a government, by the people, for the people.”

Stephen Tayo is a multidisciplinary artist based in Lagos, Nigeria. Influenced by his undergraduate studies in philosophy and an interest in contemporary anthropology, fashion and social justice, he offers social commentary on wealth, class, race, gender and identity through his work.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a journalist, book editor and author. She is based in London.

Where We Are is a series about young people coming of age and the spaces where they create community, produced by Alice Fang, Jennifer Harlan and Eve Lyons.

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