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Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

“Ajegunle has become a metaphor for the entirety of the Nigerian nation,” says the angry Dagga Tolar. “It is in this part of the country that you meet the poor of the poorest, and we try to survive day in and day out.”

The celebration of “Lagos at Fifty” showcases the big politicians and top business captains. Beyond the bright lights and big city profile of Lagos, there is the lingering image of Ajegunle, the slum that produces Nigeria’s stars of music, comedy and the beautiful game of football.

The road to Ajegunle is rough. On this hot Lagos noonday the rickety, overcrowded kombi bus takes almost an eternity to get to Boundary Bus-Stop, the bustling gateway into the Lagos suburbia. Another ride, this time on the ubiquitous tricycle, alias “Keke”, takes one into all the nooks and crannies of the shanty town that evidently lives up to its nickname: “Jungle City”. At the very busy Orodu Street, an odd spectacle arrests all attention. A drunken tall man was staggering in the very centre of the road and all the buses, cabs, tricycles, motorcycles aka “okada” were mightily dodging him! A closer inspection of the drunk reveals a wounding truth: the fellow is from my hometown, a man I know only too well! Welcome to Ajegunle where everything is possible…

Away from the drunk and his wobble, in an open ground amid the jumble of churches and mosques and brothels, a group of bare-bodied teenagers are engaged in a pulsating game of football. The goalposts are formed with stones, and there is a heated argument over whether to allow as a goal a shot that flew past the stone. The arguing players ruled the “goal” as “over-stone”, whatever that means. The argument nearly results in fisticuffs until an elderly man watching from a corner walks into the group to settle the matter. The game continues. A pint-sized boy of about 12 gets a pass, dribbles nearly all the players of the opposing team and scores. “Okocha! Okocha!” the motley crowd intone, saluting the skill of the lad who had taken after the former Super Eagles skipper Austin Jay-Jay Okocha.

Ross Kemp in Aj

The dream of nearly every child you meet in Ajegunle is to be a star: in football and sundry sports, in music, comedy and show business.

According to Daddy Showkey, the musician who is arguably the greatest export out of Ajegunle, “In Ajegunle, you choose what you want to be yourself. A gunman, or you want to be a footballer, a musician, or anything you want.”

Daddy Showkey’s original name was John Odafe Asiemo. A very poor kid indeed, Daddy Showkey had a rough childhood in what he calls “the roughest neighbourhood, the strongest neighbourhood, the toughest neighbourhood in the world. That is Ajegunle.” His father died when he was only nine. His hapless mother had to face up to the daunting task of bringing up the five children of the marriage, all boys. Daddy Showkey became a street hustler, selling stolen goods and was once shot for his efforts. The idea that he came from Ajegunle denied him legitimate jobs as all the boys from the neighbourhood were looked at with suspicion.

He even suffered the indignity of being accused of stealing a dog when he applied to a security company to work as a guard. He was taken to the police station, and when he was told that he had stolen a German Shepherd he taught they were accusing him of stealing a white man!

He was a street entertainer par excellence, performing all over Ajegunle as an acrobat, a boxer, an actor, as a comic, dancer and then singer. It was against this background of street entertainment that he got the nickname “Show Kid”. He would modify the name to Showkey, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Channelling all his energy into music, he became the dancer of the group, “Sexy Pretty Boys”, he formed with other Ajegunle boys in 1990. They were able to release an album entitled “Biggy Belle”. The band soon broke up and Daddy Showkey was left in the lurch. He eked out a living as the clerk amongst motor-park touts, and the manner he barked out orders with a funny tone amused his colleagues who advised him to sing with the voice. Without much ado Daddy Showkey sang his first hit: “Congratulation! Jubilation! Celebration! In our nation!” The song ended with the prophetic words: “Welcome Daddy Showkey, welcome!”

Daddy Showkey is the acknowledged master of the Ajegunle street sound known as “Galala”. Influenced by roots reggae, galala fuses Jamaican, African-American and highlife into pulsating dance music. The music is mostly delivered in pidgin English of the Warri, Delta State blend. Incidentally, most of the Ajegunle stars hail from the Niger Delta axis of Warri and sundry interlocking towns.

The Ajegunle-Warri connection is the Nigerian spirit writ large especially in the booming comedy business. Ali Baba, who is generally acclaimed as the godfather of comedians in Nigeria, is an “original Warri boy” as he unabashedly admits. Struggling comedians from Ajegunle and sundry slums such as Orile, Amukoko, and Badiya have been mentored by Ali Baba. Obus Bezalee Brodo formed the music-and-comedy group known as DC Envoys, a group that wowed crowds from Ajegunle to Warri. The legacy of Warri and Ajegunle is extended by the likes of Rymzo and Gzay.

Just as musicians and comedians from Ajegunle dominate the scene, star footballers are daily being minted from the slum. Celebrated national team players such as central defender Taribo West and striker Samson Siasia were born and bred in Ajegunle.

Taribo West started life as a local roughneck in Ajegunle, being a member of the shanty gangs. He narrowly missed death before his skills in the beautiful game of football attracted the attention of soccer scouts. He distinguished himself in the Nigerian football league, playing for the elite cubs, notably Sharks of Port Harcourt, Rangers International of Enugu and Julius Berger of Lagos. He later took his talents abroad, first to the French top division side Auxerre and later to the two Italian giants Inter Milan and AC Milan. He was a Trojan in the central defence of Nigeria for many years, capping his achievements in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold-winning soccer team and the 1998 World Cup in France. He has since retired and become a pastor.

Samson Siasia stepped out of Ajegunle to be a schoolboy international soccer player, barely completing his secondary school examinations to star in the 1983 Under-21 world tourney in Mexico. He was a pivotal player in the Super Eagles for many years, helping the team to qualify for its first ever World Cup in the United States in 1994 where he scored a spectacular goal against Argentina, complete with Diego Maradona. Since quitting active playing, he has turned into a successful coach, winning the African Under-21 competition and leading the team to the silver medal in the World tourney in Holland in 2005. He has also coached the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

Even as Ajegunle justly celebrates its established stars, many wannabes keep coming up fast to dominate the world stage. The young Simon Okwori from Benue State and Nimikini Mackintosh were masters of Ajegunle street soccer. Okwori was one of the twelve children of a retired soldier living in a one-room home in Ajegunle. Mackintosh’s parents having moved back to their native Bayelsa State, left the boy behind to fend for himself by sleeping with friends. The two young footballers found a measure of fulfilment in the “Search and Groom” street soccer initiative of FIFA.

At the turn of the century, the field of Ajegunle music got a boost through the Dixon Twins, Anthony and Andrew of the Mamuzee singing group. Their father officially had 10 wives and nine concubines, with their mother ranking as ninth in the official wives’ list! They are proud of their album “Born to Reign”, and readily admit that “Life in Ajegunle is a do-or-die affair.” They shot into the limelight with the 1999 single “Bobo” and consolidated their presence on the scene with the gospel track “Abi you no know say Jesus na God?”

Ajegunle boasts of its resident philosopher in the poet, musician and activist Aj Dagga Tolar. By way of explanation, the “Aj” before Dagga Tolar stands for Ajegunle! Dagga Tolar is tall, wears dreadlocks and is gap-toothed. His tiny shack of a room is crammed full with books and CDs. He accommodates several artiste types of Ajegunle in his digs. A big poster of Tupac Shakur, the murdered American rapper, dominates the blue wall. He writes committed poetry and was once elected the chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos Branch. He led the body to protest the then proposed privatization of the National Theatre which was broadcast on Lagos Television (LTV).

“Ajegunle has become a metaphor for the entirety of the Nigerian nation,” says the angry Dagga Tolar. “It is in this part of the country that you

Baba Fryo

meet the poor of the poorest, and we try to survive day in and day out.”

 

His poetry boldly says: “This Country is not a Poem.”  His poetry as well as his singing is primed on protest against a “system that supplies no light, no water, no infrastructure f or the teeming masses” he loves so much.

As Ajegunle musicians such as Baba Fryo of the “Denge Potz” fame and Papa English play up the numbers, the multi-ethnic ghetto of Ajegunle thrives and throbs, lending a way of life like no other for her five million or so inhabitants who make “Lagos at Fifty” a lofty celebration of life.

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