I met Scoppy for the first time after Secondary school, when I came to take care of my grandmother in Lagos Island. I was still a sporting freshman in Lagos life and was always bewildered at how things functioned in the highly disordered Island life. Scoppy (a tweak of the area boy name Scorpion) is one person that embodied the perfect description of a local guy that lives in the area, and carried out any act possible as survival tactic. He could be a gateman on one hand, and a manned gate (thug) on the other. He could be a petrol station attendant as well as an oil entrepreneur selling petrol in jerry cans. Interestingly, he could also function as a local government tax collector, while also working as a bus conductor. In his varying roles in Island society, it is his night life that gives me the wonder about how such guys survive in Lagos Island. Scoppy wanted nothing out of life, but to sleep, make money, eat, drink, smoke, and womanize. Whatever could afford him these ‘luxuries’, he would fully engage. He once landed in some sweet deal that got him a foreign currency. I was happy for him, even though I had no idea where he got his big break from. I was courteously hoping he would change is mind and change his life. But no! Scoppy went to Federal Palace Hotel and blew away his riches in less than a month and was back on the streets buying rice and stew from Mama Bunmi.
His story is perhaps a speck of dust in the innumerable company of hustlers and bustlers in Lagos struggling to make ends meet for varying reasons. If we never heard about these stories, then the 3Part BBC2 Docudrama – “Welcome to Lagos” has indeed given us much ado about something. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised about any of those stories and if any emotion was squeezed outta me, then it was empathy from a sense of deep resonation. If one doesn’t live in Lagos, then ignorance is excused. But if you live in Eko and you travel the Third Mainland Bridge, you oh man art inexcusable above all things. Have you never asked yourself what on earth people are doing living in houses built on water stilts? I guess you are one of those Lagosians who have seen so much that you are unperturbed by anything out of the ordinary. It is only in Lagos that you find a cat with horns and everyone will simply look, smile, and walk on. Lagosians don’t ask questions because it seems we have been given the intoxicating tonic of social numbness. Even when we ask questions, it is to serve as an aside to a busy day before we delve back into the rumble and tumble of Lagos living.
I have read many railing reviews of the docudrama, including the apparent ire of the Nigerian government for the negative portrayal of the mega city. There may be some validity to their claims, especially given the amount of work the Lagos State government has put into renewing the city. However I have a different take on the matter and I dare to note it here. When reading the myriad of commentaries I ask myself these questions – If BBC did not come all the way with their equipment, armed with a plan of their intentions, and a careful and gradual capture of the lives of these Lagosians we now discuss, who would have heard their stories? Who has given a voice to the many struggling peoples in the slums and byways of the city? How could many be delivered from utter ignorance of the reality of the society they live in? You see, I tell you the truth, if BBC didn’t tell his story; would anyone be creating a now Popular Facebook Group for Eric Obuh alias Vocal Slender? How would we have known that someone as intelligent as Esther is battling the fear of angry waves and an adulterous husband, yet trying to make ends meet? Would we have known that Chubbey’s house floats on the Lagoon, with 18 kids and a strong family orientation? Many of us who dream of building or owning our share of Island or Lekki properties would never have had known that men like Kissme and Daniel perform underwater acrobatics, after a shot of akpeteshi (unrefined alcohol) just to provide the sand with which we secure our domiciliary comforts. Excuse me folks, should these ones have their voices mute for this long? Don’t they deserve their stories to be told?
The reality is that Lagos is not all about the glitter and the garments. The trouble is that the fast rising middle class has sort of created a totally different narrative for what Lagos represents. We can be easily fooled by the dubious culture coalescing around these new Eko citizens, who are so hungry to feed their imported desires and lust for a life of glee. The music, the fashion, the food, the stores, the magazines, all cater to the needs of these guys and babes, and it is what then becomes of the imageries that herald the Lagos we all now imagine. Somehow we know the disorder and thug life exist, we see the wanton poverty littering the streets and are aware of the seeming brutishness. But Lagos creates a perfectly blended and colourful picture of irrelevance. Have you ever looked at a photograph where so many people are squeezed into the shot that you are discouraged from trying to identify anyone? Once you step into the photo-stage of Lagos, you become irrelevant; except of course you live in Lekki, Victoria Island, Ikoyi, and the likes – And don’t be deceived for that relevance is only illusionary; or is it delusionary?
I have been privileged to ‘Johnny Walker’ through most parts of Lagos State, including the ones not on the map. One common feature I find is that it is densely populated everywhere and there seems to be commotion within the mass of bodies seemingly moving nowhere. Once you cross a major intercity road, you will certainly land in a sea of people and it will feel like they look funny and speak a different language. I also find that most people, who live in a place called Iju for instance, remain there and rarely have anything to do with Lagos Island. Some actually live in one part and have no contacts with other areas of Lagos for years, and remain totally oblivious to the socials of other parts. This is why in Lagos, most people have what I refer to here as Tunnel Mentality. They only understand issues based on where they reside or work from. This Tunnel Mentality is what makes a person drive past an area he has never been to, sees how people live and operate, and just never gives a hoot. So I am not surprised at all when people claim that they never knew people like Eric Obuh, Chubbey, or Kissme existed in their own Lagos. Duh!!!! They do and they far outnumber you. How relieving it is to finally hear their stories being artfully told. Now we know that it is not only the men in ties and suit carrying a brief case as a result of a University Education, or sitting in front of a slave-screens, or carrying a time burning smartphone that have ambitions and goals to pursue.
In the third quarter of 2009, I had a discussion with two friends of whom I hold the highest regard and refer to them as extensions of me. Our intention was to go and engage some of the families living on the streets of Bariga and Ebute Metta by living with them for about 3 weeks and electronically documenting their day to day life. We wanted to know how they lived, loved, and hoped. It was not just enough to sympathize with the poor and try to cook up an NGO to fight their cause; we wanted to know what their heartaches are, and what their inner desires were. We needed to know their core competence should the case that we be equipped to empower them, we wouldn’t be misguided. The end point was that we would run a series of 10 minute videos on Social Media platforms to engage and enlighten a larger audience on the nature of challenges the poor living among us face. I remember one of us saying that “Reggie, these people need their voices heard everywhere”. What we then couldn’t do, BBC did with a superior flex. I was widely excited when I heard of the debut of the series, although my excitement was tempered by disappointment. I thought to myself what Television Station in Lagos or Nigeria has thought it needful to run such observational documentaries? Aren’t there multiplicities of social issues that warrant such media attention so as to educate the public on the complexity of our national life? This I agree should then serve as a wakeup call to our media houses to invest in something with more social value.
The other day I was watching the acclaimed Director of AVATAR, James Cameron speak on his passion for creating documentaries. He noted that the unscripted nature of producing a documentary was more exhilarating to him and had more fulfilment, seeing that worthwhile information was being deposited in many homes. Despite his blockbuster, chart shattering movies, there remained an implicit calm about this man. He didn’t appear moved by the wealth being stashed into his bank account. Rather you could smell passion about him, and the strong aura of a desire to create something out of sheer imagination and to contribute back to his society. With the growing successes and sophistication of Nollywood, ain’t it time that some producer or director go beyond giving us fairy tales stories and relaying concrete reality into our living rooms? You see, the truth of development in any society is that the government is only responsible for a part of the process. A lot of social power lies with those who hold the keys of the audio-visual forte. They can use it for selfish purposes and leave the people wallowing in ignorance, or they can choose to purposefully transmit vital power-points for social change.
In a city that has organically grown over the years with no planning, I can bet you that there are hundreds of stories to be heard on how people have survived in such chaos. It is claimed that on the average, about 60, 000 people come into Lagos every month and I doubt if the expansion of public infrastructure is commensurate to the influx of precious souls. At the current rate of movement, don’t be surprised if the small community on the Lagoon evolves into a Local Government Area (without the official tag), or the Kuramo beach shacks becomes an uncontrollable conurbation. I also bet you, if things are not brought under firm control, the newly developed areas of today will become the slums and ghettos of tomorrow. By that time, our government will be fighting BBC or CNN again for coming to capture the glaring realities and contradictions found in Africa’s largest country.
People have to survive and would usually do anything it takes to stay afloat a potentially drowning society. Resilience is the key attribute here. My encounters with Scoppy leave me in a vicarious position of deep concern. It is not just the government that sometimes doesn’t get it. The people who complain every day and curse and abuse those in power seem also no to get it. You can already tell the quality of leadership people will exhibit by how much concern they show towards the community they live in. If people are oblivious of their environment, do you really think they would care about the country if given the leadership mantle? I guess I am pointing to a larger issue of individual nonchalance and apathy. What “Welcome to Lagos” has given to us is an opportunity to aggregate our passion where it exist, and ignite one where it doesn’t to fight for the cause of the lowly. Like the Efiks would say: “odung itie ifuo ikopke utebe ifuo” – meaning “he who lives amidst faeces will not perceive its odour”. Rather, it would take someone else to tell him that he stinks. So be not surprised that someone else is telling us how much we stink. Instead of trying to powder our faces and still battle with bad breath, let us become more aware of the challenges we face as a nation and rise to change the stories from what it is to what we want it to be. If we don’t tell our story, someone else will tell it for us and then to us. Peace!!!