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Remembering Olaleye, the slum that produced Odiye, Okoku, other sport stars

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Deputy Editor
02 August 2021   |   2:18 am
June in Olaleye Village was usually flooded. It was usually a month of cloudy skies and heavy tropical downpours, with kids playing football in the rain. The deafening thunderclaps and lightning never disturbed the kids.

Godwin Odiye

• The secret pains of former residents
• How the community produced three Super Eagles players in five years, national, African champion in table tennis
• Abass Akande ‘Obesere’ got his groove in Olaleye

June in Olaleye Village was usually flooded. It was usually a month of cloudy skies and heavy tropical downpours, with kids playing football in the rain. The deafening thunderclaps and lightning never disturbed the kids.

One raining morning, August 14, 2008, raging bulldozers, guided by a troop of well-armed and combat ready men, patiently tore down the structures in the community. From Church Street to Igbehin Adun and Adeleye, Igbajo to Aliu, Sadiku to Buraimoh streets, Shomade Lane to Railway Line, every house was brought down.

Twelve years after the village became rubble, a new community has sprung in its place, with memories of the old fading to history.

Fidelis Lemchi Owoamanam had attended his Alma Mata, Jibril Martin Memorial Grammar School’s get together at Iponri when he decided to see what had become of Olaleye on December 12, 2020.

Everywhere was deserted. Except for a few people, who still had their property around the rail crossing that led to Abule Nla Road, the place looked strange.

He paused for a moment. He was surprised everywhere had changed. Olaleye Community Hall was now the gate of a new community.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he mumbled, biting down on his bottom lip. Owoamanam was walking around what had become his lost heritage, when he saw this young girl dishing food to her customers. She had temporarily become the cook for everybody taking refuge at the rail line. He knew her way back in Olaleye.

A group of young boys — Four of them — encircled this young girl who was the village belle in old Olaleye. The boys steeled themselves with swigs of local gin. One of them was the most popular. He was called Presido — His loose-fitting shirt gaping open to reveal his chest. The left leg of his trousers was rolled up to the knee and his right shirt was also rolled up to the elbow.

“Give your boys something,” one of them told Owoamanam. Olaleye was where he had his formative years. He lived there between 1975 and 1995.

“My 20 years memory of Olaleye had faded like tiny echoes,” Owoamanam, a University of Lagos-trained sociologist and former Managing Director at the defunct National Mirror Newspapers, told The Guardian.

For 20 years, he and seven other family members shared a small, dingy room. “Once it rained, we’d crouch round a small space, seeking shelter, as the mirthless sky cracked its whip,” Owoamanam recalled.

As he turned his back to walk away, the difference that life could make just came flooding. Owoamanam’s mind went back 11 years. He had received a distress call from his aunty, Mrs. Ogoke that Olaleye had been destroyed.

Owoamanam threw a glance at them and out of surprise brought out money from his pocket and gave them some. When he came from his village Ezike, Isiala Mbano, Imo State, in 1975, Olaleye was a complete rural area. It was called Abule Baba Egun. There was no storey building, and zinc houses dotted everywhere. Children played around naked and bucket latrine was the standard. The neighbourhood was smelly and disgusting. Public urination wasn’t frowned upon there. It was quite common to see both men and women defecating in the open or wherever they found convenient by the canal.

SITUATED in Lagos Mainland Council, Olaleye Village was a creation of circumstance and it soon became a haven for low and no income earners.

The slum was located off Western Avenue, a major artery that links the mainland at Ebute Metta to the island. It was located very close to Nigeria Breweries PLC. headquarters in Iganmu. The community was also closely linked to two major bridges that connected Island and Mainland Lagos — Carter and Eko Bridges.

In 1988, the Lagos State government reported 20,000 people while a study on the community published in 2006, 22 years later, by a private planning consultant reported 20,090 people. However, taking into consideration the population, land area and population density of the respective local government area, there were estimated 46,814 people in the community, based on the annual growth rate of 3.2 per cent.

Olaleye-Iponri was about 0.35316 km2 with a density of 132,558 persons/km2. The two were gradually merged over the years for administrative and political purposes. They were founded about 191 and 143 years ago (Olaleye Village around 1830, Iponri around 1878). The whole land area was initially owned by the Oloto Chieftaincy Family, which gave it as grants to a few settlers who farmed and fished on it.

The settlements’ initial growth began with the construction of the various phases of the railway line, particularly the extension to Apapa around 1940s and 1950s. This brought the first wave of migrants, who served as construction workers, laborers and staff of the railways and the petty traders came from different part of the city to trade.

As at the time of demolition, the majority of the residents, 84 per cent, in the community were renters while only 12 per cent were land owners.

There was no clear baseline information on what existed in the community before the first level of regeneration in 1984. However, a clear indicator of the status of the community before regeneration was that it was one of the 42 slums identified in Lagos in 1983.

The classification of the community as slum in 1983 and the description of the same as shanties by the Lagos State government in 1988 translates to a community with gross lack of basic infrastructure such as health, water, sanitation, energy and transport. Supporting community facilities such as a community centre, public space and green areas were completely absent while there was severe housing shortage both in quality and quantity. The severity of physical deterioration in the community remained one of the publicly declared justifications for government intervention in the community in the pre-regeneration era.

Before the second phase of regeneration which spans from 2000 to 2008 (8 years), the community witnessed the construction of about two kilometres of road, a modern market built, two refuse houses and one kilometre of water mains. However, housing, public space, sanitation, energy and health facilities remained farfetched in the community. Looking back to the last 10-15 years, the community members ranked the following as most significant change in the community (refer to table 1.26 below).

The slum, like Otumara Village, which is by the foot of Eko Bridge by Costain bustop, also called Ilaje, was filthy and stinking. And all of this filth exacerbated public health crisis. The waste was not flushed away; instead it fell into a pail or container underneath. It remained there until ‘night soil men’, agbepo, as they were called, collected it.

Access to clean water and adequate sanitation was equally a challenge. Due to this challenge, inhabitants were threatened with the spread of diseases such as, diarrhoea and cholera.

In the early days, residents often hid in the cloak of the night to watch night soil men use rudimentary long-handled dippers or buckets to scoop waste into a waiting cart, filled to the brims with raw human waste.

The early settlers, mostly railway workers, were, in fact, looking for makeshift places to rest after the day’s work, especially since most of them couldn’t secure accommodation in Railway Compound.

Many, like Owoamanam, idealised Olaleye Village. The Guardian investigations revealed that the persistent housing shortages in the Lagos metropolitan area, in the mid-80s, necessitated a radical departure from the time worn strategy of total slum clearance and resettlement of displaced persons.

With its haphazard layout and insalubrious environment, Olaleye, like other slums within the Lagos metropolitan area, was part of the implementation of the second phase of the master plan for urban renewal.

The Guardian gathered that a strategy of total urban renewal for the Olaleye-Iponri area would almost certainly have resulted in the evacuation of present residents who could not be expected to afford the price of newly laid out plots or decent housing of the kind public authorities and private developers would choose to build.

Christian Siwobi, a former resident, said, “this eventually made way for development in the community, which was already becoming congested.”

The community’s landscape, especially its nightlife, changed and the area, which was known as the place where people ended their night on mats outside, was replaced with remodeled buildings. Zinc and wooden houses were replaced and a couple of storey buildings sprang up in Aliyu, Buraimoh and Church streets.

Remigius Onyemaechi Eyeh, popularly called ‘Professor’, a University of Calabar-trained political scientist and now a pastor in one of the Pentecostal churches in Apapa Road, Lagos Mainland Council, said, “Olaleye’s population began to explode in the 1970s when many low-income earners and those repatriated from Ghana began to settle there. Also, there were those who moved in from Iponri after it was demolished to give way for Eko Bridge.”

Eyeh said, “those who couldn’t afford to live in the city’s luxury high-rises or even the many rundown housing developments wound up in Olaleye.”

Paul Okoku, ex-Super Eagles player, told The Guardian, “I had the best experience and a childhood fun growing up in Olaleye. It provided me with the platform to succeed in all of my endeavours. Of course, this was true of my adolescent life to my adulthood.”

According to Rachael Ebru Yamala, an ex-Super Falcon player, who was in the female national team to 1991 Women World Cup, “in Olaleye Village, we loved one another, cared for one another and looked out for one another. We shared things in common and we celebrated as one family. During Christmas and New Year periods, you would hear music playing in almost every street, as people danced, merried and laughed together.”

Recalling her days in the community, she said, “growing up there was enjoyable. I remember playing around the neighbourhood with my friends, who all happened to be boys.”

The ex-international said, “there was one thing I cherished: The bond we all shared. Though the people were not rich, physically, they were, in their hearts.”

According to Yamala, “our parents never bothered to look for us because they believed we were safe out there. We played football, card games (Whot), Ludo and told stories while sitting on mats at night.”

Wale Alade, a mental health nurse at Springsfield University Hospital, Southwest, London, said, “the compound we lived in was made of face-to-face rooms leading to an expanse of space called the backyard. In the backyard, all the tenants had their own customary spot in a communal kitchen. In the wide expanse of space sat a well that supplied water to tenants all year round. The well was always under lock and key, a system designed to prevent outside neighbours coming in to poach water meant only for tenant’s use. To the right of the well were spaces used by tenants for their laundry and where cooking utensils were washed.”

Alade said, “At weekends, there were often jostle for spaces to put out washed laundry on communal lines. Those who woke up early were often the lucky ones. These jostles for space, more often than not, led to open quarrel and animosity. However, by evening, everyone would have left the backyard for the front yard.”

He added, “at the front of the house, people would sit on wooden chairs; while many others would be loitering about. The friendly, more convivial family-like atmosphere relaxed people, a carnival like feeling then spread around. From the older people to young ones, and even little children, interactions were on a level never experienced anywhere.”

According to him, “everyone mingled like they are from the same family. During the evening meetings, values were taught, stories shared and experiences narrated in an open, honest and frank manner. Children learnt from the older people, and the older people passed valuable, life changing stories to the younger ones.”

The mental health nurse said he had no recollection whether anybody was denied anything because of where he or she came from. “We lived and interacted with one another on the same level, practically like brothers and sisters. That was the Olaleye Village I grew up in, the one that would later shape my character and outlook on life.”

Christopher Nwabuzor, who played professional football in Morocco, also reflected on the bond and the values the people lived by saying, “Olaleye Village was a place where the community raised a child.”

He added, “you will also have a sense of family with no biological relation. There is always a regular gathering together not only in times of celebrations and despair, but in support of one another… Just simply knowing that someone was there for you in moments of need, whether it be to lend a helping hand or just simply reminding you of how much greatness you have inside of you.”

A former resident, Ayodele Ayeni, said, “if I had to live my life again, I would choose Abule, but will change some things. We were about 13, comprising my father, his two wives and 10 children, living in one room. How we managed to survive is still a mystery to me.”

Ayeni, a table tennis player in his days, said, it was “a place where another father asked you to bring your report card and have you disciplined without you crying to your parents. The environment really made me what I am today. I’m very comfortable with any human being whether you’re good or bad. I know how to deal with people I come across.”

Nwabuzor, who was in Casablanca, Morocco, when Olaleye was demolished, said, “It was like a part of me left. I don’t wish to ever have that feeling ever again.”

Siwobi told The Guardian, “We knew then, like other demolished slums, the place would be turned into private estates and properties.”

LIKE Ajegunle, Olaleye was famed for producing great sportsmen. In the entire Lagos Mainland, it was reputed to have produced more sportsmen.

In a spate of five years, Olaleye churned out three famous stars for the Super Eagles: Godwin Odiye, Paul Okoku and Christopher Anigala. In 1991, Super Falcons had Rachael Yamala as a pioneer member.

Odiye was a local icon. Even while on Yusuff Street, he was quiet and unassuming, somewhat an introvert, straight talking individual. The only place you found his passion was on the field.

Odiye made several appearances for the senior national football team, including FIFA World Cup qualifying matches, and played at the 1976 and 1980 African Cup of Nations finals. He is well known for scoring an own goal in a 1978 FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Tunisia.

The US-based Okoku, popularly called Lucky, who lived on Railway Line, was in the Flying Eagles team — the first Nigerian team to participate in any FIFA World Cup in Mexico, 1983. He was also in the Super Eagles team to the African Cup of Nations in Cote d’Ivoire, where Nigeria placed second behind the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun.

About the same time as Okoku was Anigala, the Super Eagles left winger, who came in as a replacement for Humphrey Edobor after the late Commander Anthony Ikhazobor-led Nigeria Football Association (NFA) banned six players of the Green Eagles for reporting late to camp. Anigala died in 2000 from undisclosed ailment after his visit home.

FOR every Godwin Odiye that made the national team in football, there were many others, who didn’t make the Eagles team but were equally talented. Martin Onwuhai of the New Nigerian Bank, Benin City, was in Nigeria Football Association selected team that played against the visiting Flamengo Football Club of Brazil in 1980; Eugene Odiye was a rock of Gibraltar in the then Nigerian Airways team, the Skypower. Eugene played alongside Edward Ansar in the club. The late Matthew Akeiti played for First Bank Football Club. He played alongside Fatai Amoo, popularly known as ‘Arsenal’ and Pinner Abode, while Nwabuzor ended his professional career at the Sporting Club Chabab de Mohammedia (SCCM) of Morocco.

Fredrick Yamala was an undisputed academical with the Yaba College of Technology. He went on to become the sports director of Yabatech. The late Monday Irabor played professional football with ACB.

Besides football, the community also produced national, Africa and commonwealth champion in table tennis, Sunday Eboh. Eboh was a stunning and well-known sportster in the village. His exploits in table tennis drove many into the game. “Everybody used to go to Isale-Abule where a young guy named Taju owned and operated a pay-to-play table tennis outfit just outside his home. Many young boys honed their table tennis skills playing against one another and often engaged in betting rackets,” said Alade.

There was Bridget Yamala, who represented Nigeria in handball at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. In athletics, there was Ngozi Ohaechesi, who was a national champion in 1,500 and 3,000 metres between 1984 and 1988.

Edith Okere was the national champion of Nigerian Railways Games in the 80s for many years. You’ll wonder whether the slum had an established grassroots system, which encouraged sports development.

Yamala said, “there was no special field where athletes were groomed. The people of Olaleye loved to take part in sporting activities. We had this passion for sport, be it football, table tennis, sprint, basketball, we were always there and did well in those sport games. The people were passionate about everything and were driven to succeed in whatever they did.”

Yamala told The Guardian, “Olaleye Village was a place where stars were born and made at tender age, all we did was just play football on the street, and at a certain age, some tried to get clubs to join and kick start their careers from there.”

Alade added, “Sports and sporting events were like glue that held the fabric of the community together.” He said, “as far as I could tell, there was no particular sports centre at Olaleye Village. The open spaces available between buildings, big enough for a five-a-side were used. Football events held at regular intervals and it was common to see the display of raw and natural skills. I believe many notable sportsmen and women who grew out of Olaleye Village used these outlets as training venues where their skills and abilities blossom. Later on, they participated in semi-professional competitions in Fagbayimu and Fashina in Brickfield, Rowe Park Sports Centre at Yaba, Railway Compound (AP field), Love Garden Surulere and Campos Square in Lagos Island.”

ASIDE from sports, the community also had a compliment of artists like the late Enebeli Elebuwa, the Ishie Brothers, Steve James, the dance expert and former President of Dance Guild of Nigeria, Salome Eketunde of the Super Story fame, Iyabo Alake, Fatimo Ajoke Cinderella, Abass Akande, popularly known as Obesere, was always shuttling between Otumara and Olaleye for his weekend jumps.

The Nigeria Media Merit Award winning journalist, Tony Okuyeme, also remembered the few years he spent in the community, he saw talent blossomed in those years. “I remember I did a lot of theatrical productions and was a regular feature in Tales By Moonlight, One Big Family and Winds of Destiny.”

Like when a fisherman dies at sea and the death remaining unexplained, with the body never found and life soon forgotten by the public, Olaleye’s demolition has practically become as skid mark on the ocean.

“My silent regret is that there is no place I can take my kids to as where I grew up,” said Owoamanam.