Broken People Broken Communities.
Yesterday for that is how recent it was (but for those who need to know when exactly yesterday was, it was Sunday 7th February 2010) I was part of a team on a rescue mission into one of the most desperate slum dwellings in Lagos. An area known as Ijora. For those not familiar with Lagos, Ijora is an area stuck somewhere between Surulere and Apapa. At some point it must have been designated as an industrial hub because it has many warehouses, industries and even a container terminal. Today though all of these features of Ijora remind you of the aftermath of war, or some kind of degradation that not only wounds the body but wounds the soul too. The inhabitants seemed like a forgotten people caught in the middle of a major crisscrossing point in the city of Lagos but yet somehow forgotten in the midst of the dilapidation of both the environment and the people. To your left and right were abandoned buildings, which at some point must have been offices; industries etc, but now were derelict, dusty and unimaginably filthy. Beyond this façade of decrepitude on the side of a rail line which miraculously still worked, for as I wondered whether in the midst of this painful eyesore a train would grind along the rail line, indeed one did come lumbering along at such snail’s pace you could have clambered aboard if you so wished. After the passing of this miracle train, we could see on either side of the rail line rows of buildings made out of wood and in some instances cement. A cursory look at these buildings wouldn’t give you a clue as to their real purpose. Some even had names like in “In God We Trust Bar.” As we weaved our way along the improvised walkway separating the shanty dwellings from the rail line we even came across one of our past rehabilitees making his way on a motor bike. Anyway we soon decided to venture into one of these bars. To the untrained eye what you would imagine you were entering was a drinking bar. Perhaps, not your ideal location to cool of with a drink, but a bar nonetheless! However, what struck me first was the number of young men and women drinking beer, smoking and swaying rhythmically to loud music at 10am on a Sunday morning. It wasn’t so much that it was a Sunday morning but that some people started that early in the day to drink! Forgive my incredulity!
At the back of this bar we noticed long rows of what in Nigerian parlance is called “face me I face you.” Each room was no larger than a small cubicle large enough for a small narrow bed and a few household items on the side of the bed with a TV hanging above the bed. Interestingly every room had a TV! I found this rather strange in this extremely poor environment. It was soon very clear to us that we were in a brothel. As if that wasn’t bad enough I soon noticed that beneath the wood flooring was swampy land overflowing with all manner of waste. Human waste, plastic bags, plastic bottles and putrefying filth in all its ugliness. What was worse was the nauseating smell that constantly oozed from beneath the wooden floorboards. One could only imagine the condition of life in this hellhole in the rainy season when in all likelihood the ubiquitous floods that befall most Lagos neighbourhoods would arrive in June/July. I was amazed at the fact that this entire den of iniquitous living was built above a swamp not a hard soil anywhere in sight. The metaphor wasn’t lost on me. By the side of the doors to each cubicle, the prostitutes cooked their meals on little kerosene stoves, walking up and down in scanty clothing looking dishevelled and wasted from the barrage of abuse they had subjected themselves to ranging from the sex with an unending stream of men, to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. These were broken people in every sense of the word. At the back of the row of rooms were a group of men sitting around drinking and smoking marijuana. And so we got to work, breaking up to speak to many as would listen about the love of Christ and our preparedness to help them with financial resources and even a half house as a means of escape from the hellhole. In all we visited 3 of such hellholes and 2 drug dens. As we moved from place to place I was struck by the number of children playing innocently in the vicinity probably offspring of many of the prostitutes with no knowledge of their Fathers. You could also see the older girls going through puberty but having that hardened knowing look that dares you because they too have had numerous sexual encounters with older exploitative men. Looking at them you could se the loss of childhood, not for them a childhood of innocence, adventure and discovery but sexual slavery at such a vulnerable age. Woven around the sex and drugs was a structured business of drug dealing, alcohol sales and cable television. This was a thriving trade in iniquity, human misery and poverty. Those in control could easily be spotted by their sense of aloofness and relative wellbeing in this decrepit environment. There’s was a cold hard mien of the realities of “business is business.”
After a while we left with some of those who wanted to leave with us back to our base at the National Stadium with the hope of possibly a new beginning. I had to write down my experience in that hellhole as soon as I could before I lost the detailed recollection of what I encountered. Even so I fear that writing over 24 hours later some of the detail of the rawness of what I encountered may have been lost. Nevertheless, yesterday was a first hand experience of a hidden world of poverty, prostitution, child prostitution, drug abuse and crime within the city of Lagos. An experience I had to recount because doing otherwise would be acquiescing no matter how passively to the malaise of the Nigerian middle class, much hand wringing but nothing else besides. These broken people and their broken communities may never make the news headline because problems like this are not the stuff of news headlines, worse still when our common fixation at the moment is with the slow death of our offshore President’s superintendence over the affairs of our dear nation.
In the midst of the hopelessness we encountered, at times I was almost overcome with a sense of powerlessness to bring any meaningful change to the lives of the people we encountered. The problems seemed so overwhelming that you wondered whether anything you did was really worth it. I recall the words of a colleague as we walked along saying “now I understand when it is reported that the poor in Nigeria live on less than a $1 a day”. As I ruminated on what lasting change I could bring I realised it was almost time for my town hall meeting of residents of Victoria Garden City aptly tagged “Paradise by the Lagoon.” That town hall meeting will form the basis of another notable recollection from yesterday.
Monday, February 8th 2010.
Victoria Garden City, Lagos