In the first quarter of 2016, I made an off-handed decision to find some semblance of coordination in the otherwise chaotic over-the-place kind of life I have led for a long time. This decision could easily have been inspired by the sheer weariness from answering questions like “where are you based?” that often serve as openers to conversations. Not that it mattered much what image people had of me, but at some point, I began asking the same question to myself – “where are you based?”. It was not in a bid to find a fixed answer. As a matter of fact, just as nature abhors a vacuum, I abhor anything that attempts to permanently occupy a vacuum. I can invariably say that all my life, I have been hopping from one box to another in order to escape the very notion of finality. I am not wired to think of life in any way order than a perpetual journey of which all who are born will die on the road.
The question of where I am based aligns with a certain disquietude familiar to anyone who is at a crossroad, after journeying for so long with an ever-shifting compass. I am not weary of the journey, neither do I feel like an oasis in the desert (for there’s a sea of peoples, things, and ideas that continuously serve as revitalisers). However, it was important for me to pause for a while, to slow down my pace in a world where it seems a lot of people are running to a hoped-for finish line. I do not have a designated finish line. I will finish at the line that finishes me.
After six years of practically being on the road across African countries, those of Europe and a bit of North America, I decided to go on a self-imposed residency in Lagos, Nigeria. Randomly, I landed in a community almost at the heart of the city; but for all the world cares, it could easily be a nowhere. It is a community that like many of its kind harbour the 80 percent or more Lagosians who do not count amongst the opulent. Literally, Bariga/Somolu is your typical ghetto. Some would even say a place like Bariga is not represented in the map of Lagos. Now, this is significant in the sense that we know what roles cartography play in the world’s grand ordering and design, but also in the creation of “wasted humans” as Zygmunt Bauman put it. One way to ensure the effacement of a people is to make them “unreadable” in the world’s map.
I have been living in Bariga for about eight months now. As fate would have it, my apartment is located just at the border between Bariga and Somolu. Much of the community’s character is defined by this divide, which in turn is a function of an imposed cartography no different from that which exists between countries and ethnic groups in other parts of Africa. In Nigeria the creation of states and local government area (LGA) does not only mean arbitrary dissections and regrouping of ethnic groups according to the whims of the authorities, but also the politics of allocation of resources. Therefore the more states or LGAs there are in a region, the more the allocations for that region, and the more infightings about how best to share those allocations.
So when Bariga was created out of Somolu, it also brought a lot of tension on its heels with regards to how to share the allocated money. Those at the tail end of this allocation chain are the so-called “area boys”, touts of the streets. They are the disenfranchised disillusioned youths of the community who grew up as children littering the streets with little or no support system for their upbringing. We know them as touts who as young adults make their living from scavenging through rubbles and remnants of wealthy persons and politicians of their communities. This condition has led to the creation of factions fashioned after cult confraternities who over the years, have engaged in countless gang fightings and killings of each other, so much that the canal that serves as a physical divide between Bariga and Somolu also serves as a border between two street gangs popularly known as “Aiye” and “Eiye”. Although as at 2016, things have quieted down a little following attempts to reconcile the two factions, still the canal continues to serve as a physical demarcator.
Since my arrival, I have been photographing the community under a project I’ve called “Neighbour-Hood” – a title which encapsulates my willingness to extend my habitation there beyond the confines of my apartment and to allow the place pass through me as much as I shall pass through it. As such I began the process of “breaking in” through my photographic promenades. In the course of these months, I have met and shared personal stories with many of the inhabitants of Bariga and Somolu – young men and women as well as their elderly counterparts. I have come to appreciate the incentives that come with being immersed in a place one chooses to photograph.
In the history of documentary photography in Nigeria, one of the greatest challenges and by far the main reason why a place like Lagos or Nigeria as whole is underrepresented photographically is the almost impenetrable void of suspicion between the photographer and the average public. First, there is the well known superstition that accompanies the notion of “taking” someone’s photograph as synonymous with taking one’s soul. Thus people do not take lightly to poking that black inquisitive object in their direction. And one would think the severity of this perception would be mitigated by the proliferation of personal mobile phone cameras and selfies, but no, people still make a point in telling the difference between a phone’s camera and professional camera. Where one does not care about the fate of his or her photographic soul, the insecurities of being photographed largely stems from the lack of knowledge as to where and for what purpose the images made will be used.
These insecurities when not addressed as part of the photographic process, often leave gaps of knowledge between the photographer and the photographed which could easily erupt into violent responses. Photographers are often attacked (sometimes to the point of lynching) while attempting to photograph in certain neighbourhoods, suffering damages to their bodies and expensive gears. But where there is mutual understanding through exhaustive conversations and familiarisation between photographer and those photographed as a precursor to the actual making of the image, this will hardly happen. I have learnt this much from photographing in Bariga and Somolu, a place considered one of the most volatile and dangerous in Lagos. This has equally has informed the process of the Neighbour-Hood Project.
The project has since then evolved from a modest wish to photograph the poetry of living and thriving to one that aims to address this void between the photographer and the photographed. A project that would equally invite the protagonists to be part of its thought process, therefore its making by carrying the people along with gestures such as making complimentary prints for those photographed; inviting them to the studio apartment to converse around the resulting photographs and listening to their feedback; and most essentially leaving the actual image-making to the tail-end – a precipitate of successful encounters. Beyond the image-making stage, there is the exhibition: what would be the reaction of the people if they would eventually see a large scale public space exhibition in the same environment in which these images were made? To what extent would this “open up” the people and mitigate the aversion towards a person with a camera?
The experiences of everyday encounters while working on this project have done much to offer me a close up view of the lives of these so-called Area Boys and indeed everyone living in these communities. There is nothing in their lives that automatically qualifies them for abject poverty and disenfranchisement – not the children, the adults nor the elderly. They are simply the forgotten, the discarded. And they are not alone. There are many other communities with similar fate all over Lagos: Iwaya, Ajegunle, Makoko, etc. They are waiting for when Nigeria will remember them, when things will be better – living permanently temporary lives of longing for that moment when their lives would eventually begin. Today, it seems their parents have caught on to the interminability of this wait, and have taken upon themselves to initiate or patronise private primary schools. At every turn, there is a primary school, be it a patch in a building, makeshift wooden kiosk, a church that doubles as a school, an uncompleted house – every morning there is a barrage of colourful school uniforms. These are modest attempts by older generation to secure the future of younger ones and tearing them away from that vicious circle of ‘area boys’ manufacturing.
I must have painted far too grim a picture in my description of life in Bariga and Somolu. However this is only to induce the backdrop on which to expound on the resilience and sheer force of will by which people of this community take on everyday existence: from the market women in Alade Market who cooks for eight children and a husband with only less than half a dollar worth of ingredient, to Abiodun the electrician who attends to electrical issues of many houses on my street, Oladimeji a down-to-earth fellow with a high sense of diplomacy who serves as my assistant here, the carpenter, the cleaner woman, those brick layers, bread sellers, the petty traders on every corner one turns to, the gate keeper, the woman who steadfastly fries akara and yam every morning from which many, including myself get their breakfast. They work hard and diligently for very little pay. What they miss in substantial earnings for their daily toil, they strive to offset through their ingenuity at resourcefulness.
Moreover, Somolu boasts of the the largest concentration of Printing Press companies in Nigeria, with about 700 companies employing an estimate of 7000 workers (most of whom are from the community) – all sustained with little or no help from the Government. It is this attitude of unbridled determination, love for life, and willingness to look adversity straight in the eyes that serves as my own motivation to join force with a great number of these individuals in offering a counter perspective to a narrative that threatens to undermine precious outcomes in the stories of human struggles – the rose mistaken for dirt simply because its petals are covered in soot.