By Albert Uba
Oke-Afa slum could succinctly be described as an abnormal world where sane human beings cohabit with animals and relish in dirt, yet they are frequently exploited by government agencies as they go about their business of picking and selling scrap items, ALBERT UBA reports
It started as a refuse disposal site. The Hausa Dan Bowlers, otherwise known as the commercial refuse cart pushers and scavengers, located the place and commenced the dumping of refuse there to fill it up. Then the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) came on board and classified it as a dumpsite. As time progressed and various businesses sprang up, the Igbo came in their droves to buy scrap metals, damaged plastic chairs and containers, bottles, iron sheets, bolts and nuts, among other items from the scavengers. And after many decades, the Oke-Afa dumpsite has transformed from being a robbers’ den to a self-sufficient settlement housing the dregs of the society and breeding millionaires. For many dwellers in the pitiable community, it is a tale of wastes to wealth while others see their abode there as an attempt at reversing ill fate and economic woes to fortunes.
Located in Isolo Local Council Development Area of Lagos State, along Jakande Estate-Mushin road, the site was unpopular until the January 27, 2001, Ikeja military cantonment bomb blasts that resulted in the death of over 100 Lagosians in Oke-Afa canal.
Over the years, it has housed and still houses all manners of characters. It is a settlement of tongues and tribes, an admixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Though once a den of robbers, “the site is now one of the safest places yet dirtiest to be in a cosmopolitan Lagos,” a resident, Mukaila Sanni, said.
It compares to Ijora-Badia, Ilaje in Bariga, Amukoko, Orile, Makoko and parts of Ajegunle in terms of dirtiness, lack of basic amenities such as health and educational facilities, pipe borne water, electricity and so forth. But two mosques and a church are located there to attend to the spiritual needs of the inhabitants. Notwithstanding the squalor status of the place, government agencies and traditional institutions in the state generate more than enough revenue daily from there.
Some members of the community, who spoke with The Guardian, expressed regret living there, saying they don’t see the place as ideal for raising children.
However, life in the slum is not total absurdity. It bubbles both day and night, with clubbing as part of the nightlife of residents. There is a medium sized football pitch and a nearby multi-purpose sports hall housing the games room, a gym and snooker table. There is also a table tennis board, cards and local Ayo game centre. Also spotted in the community are a gambling spot (a.k.a Baba Ijebu), Indian hemp joints and places where all forms of intoxicants are sold. Bukas (local restaurants) and mobile food vendors are more than enough to supply the food needs of the thousands of residents. GSM sales, repair shop and recharge card vendors are on hand to serve the telecommunications needs of the residents. Apart from the heaps of scrap metals and plastics, which serve as the major trading points, a flourishing cattle and ram market supported by the state government-run abattoir was also spotted there. Overlooking the shore of the canal is a thriving plantain market amid the stench emitting from the dunghill.
The Dan Bowlers are young energetic boys whose trade is to scavenge for scrap metals, disused plastic products, bottles, household utensils, furniture and other discarded items on the streets of Lagos. The scrap metals could be bought from roadside mechanics or picked up as they crisscross the city in search of the disused items. They are recruited by some top shots and paid daily according the quantity and quality of the items they are able to rake in. When they arrive after the day’s job, the scraps are sorted accordingly – plastics, metals, bottles, woods, furniture, copper wires, fence wire, abandoned radio, rugs, foam, CD Players and unsold newspapers. When enough scrap items are gathered, external buyers are invited by the ogas (bosses) who recruited the Dan Bowlers to buy up the goods.
The Guardian learnt that any item not sold is used internally. For instance, there is an electronic workshop in the slum that repairs discarded radio and television sets, after which they are used by the Dan Bowlers or sold to people within the settlement. Pieces of rug, chairs, beds and other household goods are mainly for internal use.
A typical room measuring 6ft by 4ft in the slum is built with old roofing sheets, cartons and nylon sheets. Construction is by local labour. A shovel is used to dig the ground in a square form, four strong wooden poles are mounted in the holes and the roofing sheets or nylon sheets are wrapped round the four wooden poles to create an enclosure. The roof is a combination of the zinc and cartons to absorb heat. Inside the shanties, used tyres are placed on the ground and then covered with planks to serve as bed. Relatively rich ones in the community enjoy the comfort of worn out mattresses and also furnish their rooms with old plastic chairs, furniture, radio and television sets. Some even own power-generating sets.
Water vendors supply water to the community. As to their health, “it is in the hands of God,” said Mallam Salusi, who has lived in the community for 35 years. According to Salusi, who deals in metal scraps and also runs two of the three commercial toilets and bathroom facilities in the community, “we have not experienced any breakdown in health here, we suffer from malaria and typhoid though. Since I came here about 35 years ago, I have not heard of cholera or any other serious sickness. There are health challenges here I must confess, but somehow, God is on our side.”
Findings showed that people who use the private toilets and bathroom facilities pay N100 each time. However, patronage mainly comes from women who can’t afford to take their bath in the full glare of neighbours, who are mostly males.
“Until Salisu and a few others took up the initiative to build private bathrooms and toilets, we bathed in the open and defecated in nylon bags and threw them into the canal or anywhere possible. At a time, the whole place was littered with human and animal wastes,” a resident who didn’t want to give his name said.
In the case of an emergency health challenge, residents of the community have the telephone numbers of two local nurses who are invited to come and treat the patient(s).
“We have the telephone numbers of two nurses who come here to treat anyone what falls sick. We call them anytime and they come and treat us,” Salusi added.
However, the major health hazards are domestic injuries sustained in the process of sorting metal scraps. “Iron can fall on your hand or leg; zinc can cut your legs and hands; bottle can injure you and your boys can step on sharp objects. So, we have a major problem of cut in the course of our work. Most of us have ATS injection, so if somebody is injured, we quickly give the person the injection,” said Salusi’s aide, Usman.
Marriages are also consummated in the slum and babies are delivered. Iyabo, a mother of three, sees nothing wrong in that.
“Last week, we held a naming ceremony here. One woman delivered a baby girl and they named her Abosede. We have no other place to go. Children are born here; they grow up here, go to school and continue from here to become big men. Do you think we like to live in this kind of place? Nobody likes to live in a dirty place. I pray it doesn’t happen to anybody, even my enemies,” she said.
In one of the days The Guardian visited the slum in the course of gathering information for this report, babies were seen creeping on dirty ground. Kids of school age were also playing football during school hours even as others either roamed about or ran errands for hustlers inside the slum. At the other end, young able-bodied men were playing snooker while others engaged in bet games.
Sorted items ready for sale
Perhaps because of their condition of living, the residents have deep resentment for the government. “Oga don’t come here and tell us about government. It’s bad government that made us to be here. Leave us alone. How can we fall sick in this place that we have lived all our lives. Why are all the health related NGOs concentrating their efforts in the cities and towns and avoiding slums where their services are mostly needed. Let them come here and see the sufferings of the people,” said Madam Iyabo, who relocated to the slum from Ijedodo area of the state.
According to her, she bought the space where she built her shanty, which serves as her living room and a beer parlour from the Omo Onile (land speculators). Although she refused to disclose how much she paid for the space, she said that she spent about N50,000 to construct the shanty, adding that she erected it twice as area boys destroyed the first one she constructed owing to her failure to meet up with their demands.
Madam Iyabo said she worked at a construction site as a labourer and also served as a dishwasher in a popular buka to raise funds for the construction of the shanty.
Lamenting the circumstances that forced her to relocate to the slum, she said: “I do not wish my enemy the problems that brought me here.” Fighting tears, she narrated how a combination of financial and economic hardship coupled with marital and family problems dealt her several devastating blows that shattered her life.
“I don’t have a helper. I’m alone in this world. I am talking to you because I believe that government will read what you will write and come to my help. I don’t know of any other person, but me, I need government’s help. I had a plan for my life, but God made it to be like this. If I have small money now, I will leave this place, invest the money, make profits and pay the money back. I’m not a lazy person. I can work but I am struggling. I don’t have a husband; I don’t have a boyfriend or man friend; I don’t have a job. To sell ogogoro, na work?” she asked in Pidgin English.
When told that the slum had produced millionaires and that more millionaires could still come out of the place, she smiled and replied: “Only rich people invest in Dan Bowlers to go and pick metal scraps, which they in turn sell to companies. How many Dan Bowlers have money to walk about and pick scraps? Na somebody dey sponsor them.”
Despite the poor presence of government facilities in the area, the residents complained of exploitation by government agencies. Salisu told The Guardian that multiple taxation and illegal payments to government agencies were sources of concern to them.
“Every week, we pay N40,000 to Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI), an agency of the state government in charge of sanitation. We also pay money to sanitary inspectors (Medial Sanitation Team). The local council collects tax from us and we pay N200 levy daily per wheelbarrow that enters or leaves this market. When you add the market fines, levies and sundry charges by the landowners, the market administrators and others, you can imagine how much is realised from this slum,” he said.
Shortly after speaking with Salisu, a police patrol van drove into the slum. The van was marked RRS 036. The police operatives had on their black vests the inscription ‘Area D Anti-Robbery.’
On another occasion, it was OPS MESA that was seen at the place. One of the soldiers came down to meet Salisu and asked: “Anything for us? Oga no dey?” unknown to him that Salisu is the ‘big man’ he was looking for. The soldier walked away to meet his colleagues who were already with the Iya Oloja.
“They come here every week like that to collect money. It’s only journalists that don’t come here to collect money,” Salisu said.
The rate of arrest of scavengers by KAI operatives despite the weekly collection of N40,000 from them is also a source of worry to residents.
“Scavengers are not refuse collectors or cart pushers. We send out the Dan Bowlers to go about collecting, picking and buying scrap metals, plastics, chairs, bottles, disused household utensils such as stoves, radios, television sets, CD players, tables, among other items. They buy disused car batteries, engine blocks and other vehicle parts from mechanics. They don’t collect refuse. But KAI officers would tag them illegal refuse operators and arrest them,” Salisu alleged.
He claimed that for each arrest, they pay between N10,000 and N15,000 to get the suspect off the hook of the agency. “If the person they arrest is still with them in their office, the fine is N10,000 but if you allow them to charge your boy to court, the fine is N50,000 and if he is thrown into a correctional centre, the process of bailing him is tougher. So, I ask: why do we pay them N40, 000 every week when they still arrest our boys anyhow?”
ThankGod Jerry, another dealer in metal scraps at the place, who said life in the slum was not easy, also faulted what he described as illegal levies collected by government agencies on his business. He said rather than exploit them for scavenging, government should create factories and other employment opportunities for the teeming unemployed youths.
“I am not happy to be here. I came here because I could not afford to pay my house rent and live a normal decent life. Life is tough and hard out there, such that I had to come here to scavenge. We are here struggling to survive so as not to become armed robbers and criminals and the government is there extracting from our pittance that is barely enough for us to survive.
They should pity us.”
He appealed to the government to upgrade the slum by providing the basic amenities to better the lot of residents.
“We need water, electricity and improved health and sanitation. Now that the state government has approved the site as a market and no more a dumpsite, they should come and construct modern stalls and shops for us,” he added.
Another resident of the slum, who identified himself as Igwe, seemed to be very much at home in the slum.
“I am better than most people in government offices. If I dress and come out you cannot recognise me. I can date any girl but I cannot bring them here. I will take her out. I eat and drink whatever I like. There is money here my brother but it is not easy,” he said. (Guardian)