09 Sep Forever Summer – Eko ile
Summer brings the color yellow into our mind. Sweltering heat, clothes drenched with sweat, longer days, shorter nights, cold drinks all of these are our summer experiences. But for me, the color yellow is strongly associated with Lagos in Nigeria.
Lagos is Nigeria’s largest city buzzing with people and energy. The traffic, the unending city buzz, the yellow city buses, the beach resorts, boutiques, nightlife, the yellow taxis all of it has hypnotic energy that somehow in my mind vibrates with the color yellow. It is said that Lagos has made many poor men rich and has also made many rich men poor.
I have had my fair share of experience in the very famous huge yellow buses in Lagos called the Molue. The bus conductor yelling on top of his lungs “Enter with your change ooo” as the rush is immense and there is literally no space to stand or sit and in case you did not know, Molue does not exactly stop anywhere. Yes, you basically jump out of the moving bus at your destination and keep running for a bit to prevent falling on your face. Oh, Lagos you are wrapped up in yellow and you buzz with never-ending energy and life. You feel like forever summer.
Lagos is a sassy badass and she can eat you whole if you are not alert at every point. She has many names like Eko, Lasgidi, Gidi, Eko Wenjele, etc. Her grace in all this madness is a reason why we say Eko Bajeti meaning it is Impossible for Lagos state to ever lose her grace. Some say Eko Onibaje that translates to Lagos will never have an ill-fate. She is spicy and she burns you but you still cannot get enough of her.
Lagos Island is connected to the mainland by the longest bridge in Africa, The Third Mainland Bridge. While I was on the bridge I noticed the black water above which the bridge stood loud and proud (The Lagos Lagoon). I saw a small settlement near the waters and insisted I wanted to visit them. Many were hesitant to help me with my task as it was a community in the slum and of course Lagos slums have a bad reputation, known as habitat for Agbero or Area boys (Hoodlums). Agbero are loosely organized gangs of street children and teenagers, composed mostly of males, who roam the streets and slums of Lagos, They extort money from passers-by, public transporters and traders, sell illegal drugs, act as informal security guards, and perform other “odd jobs” in return for compensation and if denied they could be very violent.
I was restless to visit the community no matter what and finally managed to convince my crew and loaded up food and study supplies for the kids. We managed to get a military escort and boarded our ferry from Makoko which known is a place for hoodlums (Agbero).
As we were approaching the slum, I wore my Agbada. Agbada is the traditional attire of Yoruba men. It has a large, free-flowing outer robe called agbada, an undervest called awotele, a pair of long trousers called sokoto, and a hat called fìla that is made out of Aso oke a handloom fabric. Agbada is a status symbol and has its origins in the 12th and 13th centuries. The coral beads indicate status and complete the attire.
As soon as our ferry reached the slum, we were surrounded by men who looked like hooligans speaking in Egun language. There were 7 of them seem to be around the ages of 18 to 23. They all wore worn out and dirty t-shirts. Some had on tattered denim trousers and some wore dirty shorts. Bloodshot eyes staring at us while being dazed by weed and alcohol created an air of eeriness. They had unruly and shabby hair and it was obvious from their unkempt appearance that shower was a luxury they hardly indulged in.
They held some locally brewed alcohol in their hands and kept smoking some kind of grass wrapped in paper-like material which I suspected to be the weed. The military escort we had with us confronted them and shielded us from them. They paid no respect to the military uniform as they believed it was their territory and they ruled the place. It took a while to make them understand that we have come to the place with good intentions. We explained that we came with donations of food and study materials for the kids and would like an audience with the Baale (The community leader).
Their presence initially made my skin crawl but speaking with them made me have compassion for them. I realized they are just young guys looking out for their community. I truly felt an appreciation for their courage as they were ensuring their people are in safe hands while the National Security forces barely acknowledged their very existence. They had no one looking out for them so they took the responsibility of their safety along with their community’s safety in their own hands. They are just humans like you and me and they were given a less fortunate situation and these youths are reacting to life in a way they thought was right. I would not label them or judge them for looking like the way they do because of the tough life they live. They agreed to take us to their Baale and I smiled and gazed at the black water body surrounding us and stretching wide and long with filth.
Why is the water black you may ask and all I can say is the people here use this water body for all their water needs and it is filled with the most revolting waste from human bodies. And this might make you uncomfortable but I need to tell you that all of them bathe in the same water. Yes, they urinate, defecate and bathe in the same water.
I stepped into the slum with wariness. There was warmth in the air but the scent was too sharp. It felt slightly cloying. The young guys lead us towards their Baale and were friendly to us. Baale was a fun-loving and radiant man who was glad for all the food and books we gifted his people. He asked me what gift did I bring for him and at first, I thought he was being playful but the obviousness in his tone indicated he meant business. I appeased him with cash and he gave me permission to click pictures and capture videos of his community.
What do you expect when you go to a slum? Sad crying kids and helpless women and sorrow right?
So to say we were pleasantly surprised to see the healthy independent kids and hardworking women is an understatement. They live in shacks erected on the water by bamboo and planks. The shacks had more people than it could accommodate and the thatched roofs looked worse for wear. Some of the dwellings and the only school in the area had aluminum roofing which definitely looked like it had seen better days.
They all had canoes most made out of planks and a few made out of old plastic water tanks and drums. I saw both women and kids easily canoeing and going about their day. Many had determination in their eyes. How? They have nothing not even their basic human need for clean water has been met still, they seemed serene. I still cannot wrap my head around that strange truth that the poverty-ridden slum had more smiling faces than city dwellers.
I gave the kids all the food and they seemed so grateful and happy that I felt my soul smiling. One of them clung to me and looked at me with eager eyes. He wore a full-sleeved pale green shirt with dark green stripes and grey trousers. The shirt seemed a little tight and very old like he outgrew it but it refused to leave him. I was curious to know if the kids were taught English so I asked him, “What is your name?” He answered, “My name is Raymond Dauda.”
My curiosity got the better of me and I kept peppering him with questions about his age, school, parents, etc. in English and much to my delight he answered me with confidence. He told me he was 12 and was in Grade 3. He said he was the second kid in his family and his parents had 4 children. He had a good command on the English language and spoke with maturity and so much confidence that he made me feel like he could be a successful businessman or even a President tomorrow. His eyes sparkled with curiosity and hope and in some way, he inspired me.
He made me laugh when he said it is the grease from the human waste in the water that makes his skin shiny when he bathes. He turned nasty into grace in a matter of seconds and laughed at their curse and reminded me of this quote,
“Roses can grow in slums just as weeds can grow around mansions.”
— Richard Paul Evans
All kids I spoke with knew how to speak confidently and hold a conversation for longer periods like adults. That moment I stopped looking at them with the grey glasses of my prejudice and saw hope and happiness. Despite the unhealthy conditions, they all lived in each and every kid there had a radiant smile on their faces and shiny black pearl-like skin.
There was a school in the community and we donated workbooks and stationeries there. Some of the young boys clung to me with happiness and the elders performed a prayer for the gifts they were given in most ceremonious way, with a sparkling green bottle of Eagle Schnapps dry gin in his right hand the elder poured some onto the ground as offering to contact the gods and then continue to bless me in copious notes. Despite all the unfairness in their lives, they have found a way to be grateful and calm and trust the flow of life.
I gave them what I could and they reciprocated with warm hospitality that felt like happy summer. Now I realize the scent of the place as a mixture of human waste mixed with overripe hope that is clinging on to everyone and eventually mixing with my own breath. I stared at the kids canoeing without a care in the world, their heads held high, bare feet that have not seen many footwear and constant chatter in the atmosphere. I was aware of the sweat on my skin but, it felt like I was glistening in that warmth.
Is there an undercurrent of melancholy? Maybe there is. But there is gratitude, hope, and happiness that spark an appetite for life in us. It feels like forever summer. So yellow, so bright with longer days and stronger sunshine this is forever summer.
While writing this article I realized I was judging a book by its cover and that is unfair. I came across this quote and felt it was befitting to end this post.
“I was born in a slum, but the slum wasn’t born in me.”
― Jesse Jackson