As you enter the on-ramp to Third Mainland Bridge (the second longest road bridge in Africa) from Oworonshoki and begin the 7.3-mile journey south over Lagos Lagoon toward Lagos Island, look to the right and you’ll see houses built on stilts, beyond which lies a checkerboard of rusted tin roofs dotted with plumes of smoke from burning trash. These are the communities of Somolu and Bariga, two of Lagos’s largest slums.
“Slum” may sound pejorative, but it’s a term The United Nations Human Settlements Program defines as housing that fails to protect against extreme climate conditions, lacks sufficient living space (where three or more people share a room), or easy access to safe water, adequate sanitation, and security of tenure that prevents forced evictions. Somolu and Bariga check most, if not all, of these boxes.
It’s also a dangerous place.
Today, the canal that separates Somolu and Bariga is also the demarcation between two street gangs whose weapon of choice is the machete. The Lagos State Governor’s office says the activities of the Eiye and Aiye “cults,” as they are referred to in the Nigerian popular press, “have turned the areas into a citadel of urban chaos.”
But Bariga and Somolu are pulsing, busy, complex communities. As writer Emeka Okereke maintains in his essay “On Permanently Temporary Lives,” the people who live in Bariga and Somolu “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.”
It’s important to focus on the individuals who live there—as it’s those people who offer a counter-narrative to the stereotype. Beware, Okereke warns, “the rose mistaken for dirt simply because its petals are covered in soot.”
The tight alleys and walkways of Bariga are teeming with life, work, and art: Sitting on a plastic stool at the entrance to a tiny hut, a young girl—cheeks inflated—blows up a red balloon. Elsewhere, a woman weaves smoked mackerel (known here as Titus fish) onto sticks to sell at market; a man shucks oysters in the shadow of Third Mainland Bridge and teaches his young son to hold a knife and carefully pop open the shells; children play in piles of plastic water bottles; girls clean tables in a bar built high on stilts above the streets; a young man in vibrant red dashiki unlocks the padlock to his wooden drumming workshop, ready to teach his next class.
The small workshop belongs to Adewale Ayodeji. After secondary school in Ibadan, he moved to Lagos at the age of 17 and began selling pepper in a market—until one day his friend asked him to accompany him to see a play at the National Arts Theater. So began a love of theater that led to him joining Crown Troupe of Africa, a performance art group based in Bariga. He moved to the community permanently in 2000.
“It was tough,” he says. “I was one of eight boys sleeping in one room. You have your own corner where you keep your things. Bariga is one of the poorest places in Lagos and it’s hard to live there sometimes, especially when rain falls. During the rainy season the floor of the room is an inch deep in water. Every street has its own strongman, so you can’t just go wherever you want.”
Ayodeji says Crown Troupe taught him how to tell stories, create drama, and how to infuse music and humor into drama. He also learned how to play the drums.
A few years back he had saved enough money to pay for a visa and plane ticket to London. “I was going to stay forever,” he says. But a friend dissuaded him, and instead Ayodeji spent the money on wood and building materials to construct his art studio in Bariga. He stayed, and he began teaching children from the community to play drums, eventually forming his own troupe—Kings and Queens Art Academy. His studio is a well-ordered structure with a dirt floor just off an open square where kids play ball between a few parked cars. The studio is packed with beautiful drums as well as scores of bright yellow plastic petrol jugs that the children use as practice drums when they are first learning.
Today they perform in schools, hotels, at weddings and events, and have traveled all over the country. Ayodeji also repairs drums, writes music, and performs in plays. “Today I can feed my children, my wife, and pay my rent. And I do that from this little theater that we’ve created,” he says. “And the kids who are part of Kings and Queens have so much joy on their faces. The best time of their lives is when they’re going to perform.”
Since meeting him in Lagos, Adewale Ayodeji has now been a good friend of Stranger’s Guide. We keep in touch and he has been kind enough to share videos of him and his students at Kings and Queens Arts Academy. Check out these clips from Bariga of Ayodeji and his students in dance class, playing drums, doing flips and more.
Crown Troupe, the group that taught Ayodeji everything he knows, is also based in Bariga. It’s headed up by a man called Segun Adefila, who founded the company with a group of friends in 1996.
Adefila, a handsome, well-built man with shoulder-length dreadlocks, which cause kids in his neighborhood to yell out “musician, musician” when he drives past, first encountered the arts growing up in Omu-Aran in Kwara State, northern Nigeria. While he spent the early part of his childhood in Bariga, when he turned seven he went to live with his grandparents for a few years in the north before returning to Lagos. “It was in Kwara State that I encountered traditional masquerade arts and participated in these festivals,” he says.
Masquerades are a dance or social gathering where participants wear masks. In Nigeria they take place during festivals rooted in tribal culture and spirituality and the costumes often represent ancestors. A masquerade can take place for a variety of reasons, including celebrating the harvest or lamenting the death of a king.
Adefila got his informal training in theater with Black Image Theatre Company, and in 2002 he studied for a BA in Creative Arts at the University of Lagos. Crown Troupe, though, was already up and running, and the same year Adefila began his studies at university, the troupe was invited to perform at an international youth theater festival in Manchester, England.
Back in Bariga, Adefila says the reception wasn’t so hot. “At first we were seen like a bunch of lazy, unserious youths engaged in mere frivolity. But it curbed our excesses and kept us out of trouble … the arts kept us busy and focused.”
Because the dramas Adefila writes are often infused with social commentary, addressing the poverty of the slums, Crown Troupe has been described as guerrilla theater.
Adefila, though, says its original purpose was “to be happy… We just loved music, dance, acting, poetry, and we were happy to entertain and be entertained.”
But, he says growing up in a disadvantaged community threw the options that were available to him into sharp relief. “Fight my way out with my innate talents, stay helpless or resort to violence,” he says. “What we try to do in Crown Troupe is create a platform that reveals to young people how to discover their talents and channel their creative energies positively. Negativity needs some creativity too.”
Alex Hannaford is a senior editor at Stranger’s Guide. He has worked as a journalist since 1997 and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines in the UK and abroad. He is the writer and director of The Last 40 Miles, an award-winning animated short film about the death penalty. He also hosted Dead Man Talking, a crime podcast for Audioboom, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, etc. which won silver at the 2019 British Podcast Awards. Alex is a Fellow of The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University.