Wednesday, 4th October 2023

Slum communities that art built

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Arts and Culture Editor
19 July 2019   |   3:45 am
The lagoon stretches out to meet a smear of the sky in the distance and canoes gather along its disappearing edge. The front is lined with garbage. There are an open sewer and a small boy sprints to kill a rat. It runs inside the garbage by the corner.

Kids involved in the SlumArt project with their coordinator, Adenle and volunteers

The lagoon stretches out to meet a smear of the sky in the distance and canoes gather along its disappearing edge.

The front is lined with garbage. There are an open sewer and a small boy sprints to kill a rat. It runs inside the garbage by the corner. The boy goes back to where he and his mates are playing football, as a harsh, nauseating smell oozes out.

The smell of heaps of dirt, gutters and open sewage channels running between the tightly packed structures bid every visitor welcome to the lagoon front — The stench of the heat hums symphonic sounds.

In a report by The World Poverty Clock released in 2018, Nigeria was said to have overtaken India as the country with the most extreme poor people in the world. There are 86.9 million Nigerians now living in extreme poverty, representing nearly 50 percent of its estimated 180 million population. The population of those living in slums in Nigeria was reported at 50.2 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank.

Makoko, a coastline settlement in Lagos, often referred to as Venice’s less attractive counterpart is a mass of crumbling overcrowded shanties. It is a labyrinth of clichés in misery and inadequate housing. The settlement is a bustling scene of ramshackle houses and dysfunctional system: No running water or electricity.

Under constant threats of diseases, Makoko and its twin settlement, Iwaya, have made headlines across the world for their unconducive living conditions, and yet their inhabitants have exhibited a shocking resilience and determination to survive.

Bariga-brought up (King Sunny Ade and Segun Adefila)

From arts and crafts to the theatre, music to photography, a number of impressive initiatives across are now used to empower marginalised Makoko-Iwaya communities. Training workshops and exhibitions, as well as performative art and several projects, are giving the poor a voice.

Iwaya, in fact, was known to be a hoodlum-ridden community, as groups of young people, who came from challenged homes, as well as those who dropped out of school and vocational training, terrorised everybody.

But all is quiet this afternoon in this slum. It is a quietude that envelops everybody. It doesn’t come much as a surprise: There are now jobs for the boys. Rather than go about with Jacknives, shotguns and other dangerous weapons, many of them are involved in art-related activities.

Aderemi Adegbite is one of the people who have changed the narrative for slum kids. He would have been part of the lot but his chance encounter with the culture activist, communicator and former Editor of The Guardian on Sunday, Jahman Anikulapo, changed everything.

To his credit, he has produced and coordinated several arts and literary events, which include Poetry Potter, Lagos Poetry Festival and WordSlam.

In 2015, he started his community art initiative as an alternative engagement for young people to see and choose a positive means of life. With his Communal Re-Imagination, which was conceived and proposed for the ‘Next Generation’ project of Prince Claus Fund, Iwaya/Makoko community was turned into a large open theatre created to further engage the minds and hands of young people.

Aderemi Adegbite

Adegbite started Iwaya Community Art Festival (ICAF Lagos), in 2016, as a yearly community-based international art festival. The project had the signature of Vernacular Art-space Laboratory: An initiative geared at transforming the living condition, artistic and cultural expressions.

The arduous odyssey of Adegbite to demonstrate that a solution to sustainable urban development could come from within has yielded positive results. He challenged the notion of art in the ‘white cube’ through the extensive use of public spaces, alternative and abandoned facilities in Iwaya/Makoko community to make contemporary art accessible to those who cannot afford gallery and museum visits or are constantly excluded from contemporary art discourse.

As part of the community’s art festival, in 2017, his team started an artist-in-residence programme. In two years of existence, the festival hosted 13 international artists from Africa, Europe, South America and Middle East and two indigenous artists.

The international artists, for one month, lived and carried out research in collaboration with youths in the community. In 2018, one of the African artists was funded by Art Moves Africa (AMA) travel grant.

“I created this project to show young people that there are other means of making life meaningful,” he says.

Street culture and benefit mentality that dominate the community have almost dragged down Adegbite, but he is undaunted.

“Since August 2018 to date, the Workstation of Communal Re-Imagination has been attacked four times. The first two vandalisations were done on October 24 and 25, 2018, two days consecutively,” Adegbite reveals.

When he reported the incident to three of the bales in the community, they all claimed to understand Adegbite’s motivation; he still must make payment for them to fully endorse the project. “I made them realise that the funding received from the Prince Claus Fund has been used to build the space just, so it could be useful for the project and as well as the community. But they were adamant.”

According to him, “I explained to them in detail all about the project phases and payment procedures by the funding organisation – Prince Claus Fund. Their major concern at that time was about raising funds to build a proper space for the school project and the property that could be used. This was because there is no community-owned property in Iwaya community.”

He continues, “the king told me that all I must do to have a lasting solution to the attacks, was to make sure I raise the money those Baales (sectional community leaders) demanded from me at the previous meetings.”

This afternoon, a group of kids whose average age is 17, is ensconced in a derelict building on Bale Alayiabiagba Street, Boundary Bus stop, Ajegunle. The ramshackle house comes alive with a dose of galala music — The ghetto rhythm that Daddy Showkey popularised.

The patterned sound beat for Ajegunle was built on the benchmark set by Showkey who made groundbreaking records in his prime, in the process brought the popular dance known as Galala — A performance genre that has been succeeded by Konto, Swo, and Alanta.

As one of them sings, about four others go through, flawlessly, a complicated routine of the dance. The small audience in the building applauds the performance by the group.

The people of Ajegunle are angry about poverty — no electricity, no water, no prospects, no future for many and no hope. The only way to escape the slum, ghetto life is through creativity. Their protest art addresses the inequalities faced by residents. Unlike other slums with a quiet and slower pace, life in Ajegunle is noisy and fast-paced.

This ghetto community, popularly known as Jungle City, a name, which has metamorphosed to AJ City or simply AJ, has produced celebrities such as, Showkey, Basketmouth, Don Jazzy, KC Presh, Frank Idoho (Who wants to be a millionaire?), Oritse Femi, Solid Star, Saidi Osupa, Charles Okafor, J-Pizzle, Marvelous Benji, OPJ, Africa China, Stereo Man and Baba Fryo.

In the early days, locals and foreigners view AJ, especially, Boundary area, as no trespassing zones where violence, poverty, and squealing rats are the only things to be found.

But there’s much more to that place now — urban treasures, which usually get little to no attention.

For Ajegunle-brought up (ABU), one venue stands out in many of their journey to success — Ragga Dub Chapel (RDC).

Established by the late John Nabena, fondly known as Jonny Nabs, in the early 1990s, RDC was the ‘factory’, where new stars were produced. It was the hottest music and dance spot in Ajegunle. The one-story building was where many of Ajegunle’s music stars had their skills honed.

Mostly performing songs blended in ragga – a fusion of reggae and indigenous sounds largely peculiar to the ethnic groups that dominated AJ City, these artistes usually thrilled the large gatherings, which usually besieged the front section of the building on Kirikiri Road between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. every weekend. In fact, the place flourished so much that at a time, Jamaican superstars, Shabba Ranks, and Bennieman, visited the chapel.

From music, Ajegunle has transformed to the home of ‘Spoken Word’, with Dagga Tolar, the lead crusader of AJ House of Poetry. At the last World Poetry Day on March 21, 2019, AJ House had a strong presence in the event dubbed, An Evening of Life and Ideas with Wole Soyinka.

Bariga, another notorious area in Lagos, known for cult clashes and gang conflicts, is now a treasure land for all sorts of talents and creative expressions. King Sunny Ade, ID Kabasa, Lord of Ajasa, Salawa Abeni, Olamide Baddo, Lil Kesh, Koffi, and 9ice are some of the talents made in Bariga. Recently, the place has proved to be fertile in theatrical productions.

Residents of the neighbourhood see theatre as a means to get the children, teens, and youths off the street. They are continually engaged, via schools, creative and cultural activities, as a way of discovering and developing talents to sustain live theatre.

“It has helped many families to send their children to school and a major factor in transforming the lives of the less privileged. Many practitioners have been equipped with different skills and, today, they contribute to the socio-economic growth of the community.

“So many have attended international events abroad. They have brought happiness and hopes to their families and have equally placed Bariga high in the creative arts industry in Nigeria,” says Fabunmi Koffivi, president of Bariga Artiste Forum.

The community is home to so many theatre organisations, ranging from the popular Crown Troupe of Africa to Footprints of David and others. And has always hosted the Bariga Arts Festival, yearly street culture, and art festival. This year’s feast themed Bariga Is Beautiful, was held in April.

The talent boom in Bariga, no doubts, owes much to Segun Adefila and his like, whose creativity and creative processes, aesthetic candour and community engagement sold a dream to youths of Bariga.

Adefila, creative director of the theatre interventionist group, Crown Troupe defined a new performance streak in the environment. The multiple award-winning documentary films, Bariga Boy, by Femi Odugbemi, became the first cinematic attempt to capture both the man and Bariga on a big screen.

Adegbite ensured that the most unimagined spaces in the area were used for theatrical performances. Since 1999, his troupe’s signatory pieces have impacted on the Bariga Artscape.

As part of efforts to make Bariga theatrically active, Adefila initiated the Theatre Carnival, formerly known as Bariga Open Air Theatre (B.O.A.T) Festival, a performance-based carnival that celebrates the belief in performing arts as a viable tool for social engineering and empowerment.

Every December, the Footprints of David (FoD) — an arts academy established on December 30, 2005 with the aim of putting smiles on people’s faces via the promotion and preservation of the rich culture of Nigeria — often holds a festival.

“We use theatre as a positive tool to rebuild, reshape and retrain many disadvantaged children in Bariga. FoD has saved over 400 street children, housed some, returned some to school and trained all into great thespians and creative giants. All of them are now better children for their handicapped parents and community at large,” says Awobajo.

According to him, “theatre has served as an escape route from the prevailing social vices such as acts of brigandage and thuggery in the area. With their involvement now in theatre, the kids have found a new love, a new home, and a new dream.”

With more than 20 children as members, FoD has executed lots of outstanding art projects independently as well as worked with many Nigerian icons in the entertainment industry. Last year, it unveiled the Seaside Cottage Theatre.

The academy was born with four children — three boys and one girl, ranging from age six to 16. It started as a community project and over the years, members of the group have been involved in film productions like: De Street by Blue Star Entertainment, Maami and Alo Iya Agba by Mainframe production.

Recently, FoD, in partnership with Canon, one of the world’s leading photography companies, created an opportunity for every interested youth in the community to acquire photography skills.

Since the takeoff of the project in February, the programme has trained over 120 budding photographers with a target to train over 400 this year.

Starting up was a big challenge to him. Awobajo did not know how to turn unknown ‘street children’ into stage giants, how to interpret the value of what the children had started on their own, how to educate both literate and illiterate parents on the importance of performance art, the stress of teaching the street children moral values against what they have learned and the ethics of life through stage, the energy required to teach these children the rudiments of dance, drama, music, poetry and others.

There was also a challenge on how to provide feeding, accommodation, and education to some of the children that were homeless.

But he was not deterred.

“It’s an opportunity for potential and budding artists to grow their skills. This is also a chance to improve our market worth through the diversification of art in a struggling economy like ours,” says Awobajo.

The Director, Slum Art Foundation and four-time Guinness World Record holder, Adetunwase Adenle, is equally doing a similar thing in Ijora-Badia. This year, children in the high-density settlement in Lagos joined their counterparts from around the world to campaign against the scourge of modern slavery.

They sent a strong message on the need to curtail modern slavery by unveiling watercolor portraits of 196 world leaders, which creates the logo of Cable News Network (CNN) when grouped together in a show.

Adenle says, “the project is driven by a global scourge, which has become prevalent in present-day societies where children are being saddled with the responsibility of supporting their homes from a young age rather than living their lives and experiencing the joys of childhood with their peers.”

Ushafa has a different story from Iwaya/ Makoko, Bariga or Ajegunle. When excavators first came to this Gbagyi village, it was a tiny settlement ringed by interlocking hills. The indigenous inhabitants were known for their crafts, especially mat weaving, tie, and dye and pot-making.

The small settlement, which is about 45 kilometers from the Federal Capital Territory, came to the limelight when America’s former President, Bill Clinton, paid a historic visit to the place in what tourism experts said, was ‘Heritage Tourism’.

The pottery centre, which was established in 1991, as a relic of the Better Life for Rural Women Project of Nigeria’s former First Lady, the late Maryam Babangida, has been a lifeline to many residents. It is both an exhibition space and art school, and it’s financially self-sustaining. Here’s what makes the centre significant:

For Gbagyi people, pottery is a natural calling. From a young age, the ladies learn how to make clay, using the traditional method of coiling. They make pots for use as water jars, cooking pots, bowls, and flasks from coils of clay, beaten from the inside with a flat wooden paddle.

Aside from Ushafa, which has seen the living condition of its most vulnerable (women and children) improve as a result of creative tourism, many other slums have become transformed by arts.

Samaru, a semi-urban village with a mixed population drawn from all parts of Nigeria, is one of such. Though close to the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, it lacks the desired social amenities.

To engage Samaru’s poor and discuss issues of water, sanitation, maternal health, and farmer education, ABU Collective started a new arts initiative called Samaru Theatre Project. It is a form of theatre for conscientisation.

The group, which comprised Michael Etherton and Brian Crow, and theatre artists such as Salihu Bappa, Steve Oga Abah and Tunde Lakoju, was determined to avail the peasants’ and workers’ theatre skills in their struggle against oppression.

The ABU Collective believed that drama was not meant only for the elite in the university but also for the generality of the people, whether literate or illiterate. They also wanted to disabuse the minds of students, who held the notion that illiterates were incapable of appreciating drama.

This initiative enables Samaru residents to use art to share with the world the daily difficulties they face to survive.

The collective, using the techniques of Theatre for Development (TfD), established a relationship with the society and designed productions, which came under the name Wassan Manoma (play for farmers).

Today, TfD has changed the community the same way as Laedza Batanani experience in Botswana and Zambia’s Chikwakwa did.

Many have argued that slums should not merely be regarded as places of poverty but also recognised as having a certain dynamism, vibrancy, social togetherness, resourcefulness and creativity.

They note that creative tourism has a potential role in reshaping township tourism in a responsible manner, as it provides a number of avenues for catalysing economic opportunities to locals; upgrading physical township spaces and offering alternatives to voyeuristic forms of slum tourism.