Known as the giant of Africa, poverty is rife in Nigeria and the disparity between the rich and poor is startling. There is simply no middle class-By LuRae Iwenofu
Lagos is one of the 36 states that dwell in the huge nation that is Nigeria, yet there are horrifying stories of poverty and suffering that will have even the most hard-hearted of us weep for the suffering experienced in this city. Once the capital of Nigeria, Lagos was once the most vibrant up-and-coming cosmopolitan city in Nigeria. Now it has been overtaken in that stake by Abuja and Portharcourt, two cities where the poor would have no leg to stand on. In many respects Lagos is still doing well, however, the monthly max exodus of 10,000 people from the countryside to Lagos in search of a better future has brought with it problems often associated with overpopulation.
As of last count, there are now 16 million residents in Lagos, all of whom come from different walks of life, cultures, religion, among others. This discrepancy is starkly evident in Ajegunle, a ghetto town, which has shanties and mud dwellings as residential homes. Homes are erected precariously close to the roads. With the constant traffic, you have to wonder: how can anyone live like this? The stench of overflowing gutters, blocked drains, busted sewers with families cohabiting in communal living quarters, averaging 4-6 families sharing the same restrooms and kitchens- and that is with mum and dad and 2.5 kids. Street vendors with their pitiful offerings stand or sit on the roadside with an air of desperation, waiting for that customer that will up their takings for the day. Yet looking at Ajegunle's inhabitants, one can see their steely determination, the camaraderie, optimism, and the glint of hope that shines in the eyes of these survivors.
In the light of day, Ajegunle bursts with activity, hurried and frenzied movements of lone soldiers, and at night, the sounds of local artists singing emits from local radio stations emit from the homes of those who are fortunate to have a radio. Television, which is taken as a given in every household in the developed world, is a luxury that the residents could ill afford. Children loiter in the streets, unheeding of oncoming traffic, nor paying heed to the time of day. Enforcing early bedtime routines seems almost impossible in this small community. The constant sound of traffic is an irritant that residents have gotten used to as they do not have a choice. This goes a long way in explaining the constant hum of life in Ajegunle
A recent BBC 2 documentary, Welcome to Lagos, which aired mid April this year, exposes to a great extent the hardships, strengths, and survival skills that the less fortunate residents of this cosmopolitan city have taken on. The narrator, David Harewood, took an in-depth look at the lives of those living in the ghettos. His narrative was indeed very sympathetic.
In Olusosun landfill site, the phrase "survival of the fittest" is very apt. Eighteen years ago, Olusosun landfill site was just a huge pit in the ground. This is the dump site where all the household rubbish collected around the streets and homes in Lagos are dumped. About 3,000 tonnes of rubbish is deposited at the site and this is a 24-hour operation. Everything that can be re-used again is expertly sorted by hand and sold for profit. Five thousand people work there as scavengers for their livelihood. They pick empty plastic cans, used electrical wires, busted microwaves, radios, televisions, etc. To make a meager profit, you must work extremely hard for sustenance. This was so in the case of a young man named Eric Obuh aka "Vocal Slender", aged 28. He took up scavenging as a means to an end, in pursuit of making his dream come through as a recording artist. His ultimate dream is to make money, a lot of money. For weeks he would work at the dumpsite and whenever he had enough saved, he would scrub up and head to the recording studio to lay down tracks on his debut album. He would normally spend about
N4,000 (Naira) for this. From the little that is left over, he would get his promotional shots professionally taken which would cost him N2,000 a pop.
Eric Obuh aka 'Vocal Slender'
Slender, also an Ajegunle resident, admits feeling ashamed about the way he earns his daily bread. Such is his sense of shame that he has never admitted to his friends on the outside what he does for a living. The reason behind this does not need rationalising. Society, both in the developed and third world countries, tends to see such menial jobs as demeaning, and people have a natural predisposition to turn their noses up at these jobs. Slender should be incredibly proud of himself; the young man has a vision which he is valiantly working towards. Would the scorners rather he become an armed robber or a kidnapper as is now rife in Nigeria?
During the rainy season, the smell that emits from the dump is horrendous, yet the government finds it acceptable that this is a humane way to live. The heat at the dumpsite is also a problem as small pockets of gas that build up in the deep layers of debris has the potential to erupt into little fires, which is disastrous to the scavenging trade during the harmattan (dry) season. What is indeed very harrowing is the fact that some of the scavengers have to live on the dumpsite. The dumpsite is definitely a breeding ground for rodents and all manners of diseases and illnesses, but still those who live there feel that they have no choice. Makeshift structures and tents are erected; barbering salons are there, the site is dotted with, showers are made from zinc and, yes, cardboard can be found lying around.
The delivery of rubbish to the site is constant. Only the brave dare to forage at night for scraps to sell when new deliveries come in. Survival of the fittest syndrome kicks in when they work to get the best pick of the crop. Surprising though, heed is paid to safety, by layering their clothing, which they still wear in the humid and scorching heat. However, one could still very easily get nicked by a sharp object, and if not treated properly, dangerous bacteria build up, giving room for gangrene to set in. At nighttime, the brave are also laying themselves open to little critters that scurry about in the dirt; the diseases that they can transmit from a bite or scratch bears no thinking about.
On a positive note, entrepreneurial skills come to fore here, as those who are canny seize opportunities in the midst of despair and set up businesses outside of scavenging. Such is the story of Auntie Anne who was once a scavenger. With the little savings that she had made out of selling scavenged materials, she opened up a little eatery, ironically named Promise Land Cafe. What is promising about the dumpsite is a wonder. But in her mindset this has been the best that life has had to offer
For Joseph Orji, from the South Eastern part of the country, the dumpsite has turned into an established and lucrative business for him. Having worked on the site for twelve years, he has the advantage of having firm and established contacts with the representatives who work for the manufacturing companies that purchase the copper and lead that he forages for reprocessing. He likens his job to that of a stock market trader, as his profits are affected by the rise or fall of the dollar. The only exception being that he doesn't wear a suit and tie. He must have made a good living from it because it is his sole source of income and what he uses to look after his wife Elizabeth, whom he met at the site, and their two children. He and his family live in a more habitable area, just a ten-minute walk from the dumpsite. Who says romance cannot blossom over a mound of rubbish? He and his family live in a more habitable area just ten minutes walk away from the dump site
Joseph's sorrow at his mother's abandonment as a young baby was palpable in the documentary. He spoke about being tossed around like a used piece of clothing from relative to relative, working as house help. No thought was given to his mental and emotional state; he wasn't given stability, love, or nurturing. Such is the reality of those living in poverty in Nigeria, even when they still have both parents living. Due to economic hardship, children are placed in well-to-do households as servants. A grown man shedding pitiful tears would many a heart shred. Little wonder that he holds dear the two beautiful babies, Precious and Patience, whom he and his wife brought into the world. The party that he laboured so hard throw on his daughter's first birthday may as well have had millions of naira spent on it.
Though the feeling of community and camaraderie exists amongst the scavengers, it is not surprising to know that violence and death go hand in hand in this environment. People make up their own laws, and those who go contrary to these laws- such as thieves-are dealt the extreme punishment of death. This comes in the form of beatings, which would then lead to being burnt to death, with car tyres around the neck. Such is the stark reality of their lives.
The scavengers are hardworking, ingenious, resourceful, energetic, and most important, extremely optimistic. In so saying, there lingers a sense of resignation for those who have made scavenging their only livelihood. But the alternative, which is a life of crime or prostitution, is not the best option. In this little community, now a city within a mega city, the unity of Nigerians is manifested.
On the other side of Lagos, at Oluwainshola cattle market and slaughter farm, another spectrum of the food chain lies. Here, herdsmen from all over western Africa, Togo, Cameroun, Sudan, Chad, get a piece of the action. On the farm, over five hundred cows and cattle are traded in the course of a business day.
As a main trader in the market, fluency in many languages will put you in good stead. What is compelling in the face of such hardship is the positivity of the tradesmen. In the slaughter farm, everything sells-the only part of the animal that is thrown away is the charred hair that is scraped off the skin of the animal after it is burnt. Nothing is wasted. The hooves of the cows are sold to shoe makers, the horns sold on for making plastic TV sets, the contents of the intestines are sold to agricultural farms to be used as fertilizer. Even animal blood is collected and cooked to make food for farmed chickens. Everyone in Oluwainshola cattle market and slaughter farm finds an ingenuous way to make money. The people are entrepreneurial, resourceful ,and they have made Lagos their "city of opportunity".
In Magodo, a chaotic approach to urban planning and habitation takes a different turn. Magodo is a ghetto slum built on water-inconceivable but true. It is Lagos's version of Little Venice. Twenty years ago, Magodo was just a little fishing village, but today it now houses about a 100,000 people-and the number continues to grow. The people of Magodo are incredibly resilient, and they have managed to build and adapt to city life in a manner that those in developed countries will find impossible.
To build new homes, the inhabitants of Magodo actually pay to have rubbish dumped on their doorsteps. Once an area has been marked for development, rubbish is piled high in the swamp. This is then left for about six months and then sawdust bought from milling factories in Ebute Metta (West Africa's largest timber yard-another area in Lagos), is heaped onto the rubbish. The residents say the sawdust eradicates the stench from the dump. More rubbish is added and the process is repeated until an island is created. The last stage of this land reclamation process is the sand that is poured onto the site to solidify the ground so that the stilts, which they will use to build new homes, are erected on firm foundations.
One of the longest living residents of Magodo is Chube, a gentleman of 65, who moved there in his early twenties. He is a father to 18 children, three daughters in university and others at various stages of education. He also has five grandchildren, all of whom live with him and his wives. He has become an expert in finding the unlikeliest avenues to make money to feed his family. He owns a fishery which he farms in the lagoon that they live in. From this investment, he is able to make a 100% profit, and he is also a landlord for homes that he erects on reclaimed land.
The residents of Magodo make their livelihood from their immediate surrounding. Every morning, as dawn creeps over this landscape, 500 residents are getting ready for another day spent working in the water, hauling sand from the depths of the lagoon. This is then sold on to block building industries and contractors. Daniel and Krisby, two workers who are old hands at this trade, have made quick work of this task and are able to fill a 14-foot boat filled with sand in two hours. They need to make dexterous work of this because once the sun gets high, the work becomes more tiresome. Submerging yourself in water for long seconds at a time-and hauling at least 20 kilos of sand in a bucket-will leave even fitness fanatics faint-hearted. But this is what the 500 or so workers do every single day. They wear their shriveled hands and skin as badges of honour. At the end of a long working day, they set sail and go to the shores where they offload their fetch for profit. Even the sails of their boats are made from cost-effective material: used rice sacks that are sewn up.
In Ebute-Metta, another area in this bustling city, the timber business thrives. What is very surprising about this area of business is that it is predominantly run by females. The husbands set up the businesses and their wives run the show. With a bit of sense and a decent chainsaw, one can easily start his own business. On the downside, there is a high mortality rate in the milling factories from electrocution from faulty wiring/equipment, which could be prevented from donning adequate protection gear.
A touching story that DivaScribe thinks worthy of mention is that of two young lads, Sunday and Oritse, who claim to be 15 and 17. Having left their homes in the rural areas, they went to Ebute-Metta in search of work and landed in Funmi's Mill. Even though both boys claim to be older, an experienced eye can tell that they can't be more than 11 and 13 years respectively. Their cheeky sunny smiles, optimism, and gratitide in having a job that sustains them and their families back home are endearing. However, you cannot help but feel that these little ones should be under the wings of their parents, and not hustling for a living in this city. This owuld not be accpeted in the West; in the UK for instance, the government actually pays for children to go to school. This sounds sacrilegious and wasteful when one compares this to the lives of the disadvantaged children in Africa. Evidence of Sunday's and Oritse's true age comes to the fore when they were forced to take some downtime due to a death in the Mill, and they delighted in making and flying kites-only as children would. In developed countries, employers would not give this little boys work as they are underage. What makes their story worse is that they have to work with unsafe machinery, long hours starting at 06:00am and ending 12:00am. This was the case when the mills had to be closed for three days due to the death Baba Toyin, a father of seven and husband to two wives, who died from electrocution. The mill had to ensure that they had enough materials ready for sale after the hiatus.
The dumpsite is definitely a breeding ground for rodents and all manners of diseases and illnesses.
The younger of the two boys talks of his desire and dream to see his family whom he hasn't seen for two and a half years. How old must he have been when he left home? Fortunately, their jobs in Funmi Timber Mill were made permanent. Their self-discipline, focus, and tenacity are rare in the young, and these will surely lead them to greater things in the future.
In Ogun state, just a few kilometers away from Lagos, another young man, Moses, uses his entrepreneurial skills to better his future. Currently studying Marine Engineering at Ogun State University, which he funds himself, Moses has to work. He does this by going into the forest and sawing down Awun trees, which he transports by sea on a three-day arduous journey to Ebute-Metta to sell. Haggling over his sale prices with unscrupulous traders is a skill that he has perfected.
In summary, the ghetto towns of Lagos are filled with survivors. These are people that life and circumstances have dealt the hardest cards. You either come to it or you are born inside it. Surviving in itself is an achievement, but excelling and pulling yourself out of the ghetto deserves an accolade. Lessons can be learnt by many from the examples that these people set: their strength in the face of adversity, their belief in family as was shown by Chube, who insists on having family dinners together, and last but not least, their ability to reach out and help the less fortunate. Mill workers and operators association demonstrated this when they contributed towards the funeral of one of theirs-a truly exemplary act in a land filled with hardship. Spare a prayer for this people and count your blessings. ds
Update: Just before going to press, DivaScribe attended a showcase at the indigo02 on the 31st of May 2010 in London where Eric Obuh aka Vocal Slender gave a thrilling performance. This is one brother whose dreams are surely coming true.