It was a beautiful Saturday morning in Kalakuta. The inhabitants were already awake to the putrid smell of smoke from every corner of refuse dumps that surrounded the whole place mixed with nauseating stench from stagnant gutters of faeces that forced its way into the rooms. But then most of them have already lost their sense of smell. The children were already out in the streets clad in their dirty ragged shirt and short, and the food sellers were already selling. Children with bowl, young men and ladies, surrounded the different food sellers buying boiled beans with stew and bread, fried plantain, rice and stew, amala and ewudu, and other varieties of local dishes. Everyone knew who cooked the best cuisine. They all knew Mama Calabar’s rice and stew with roundabout smoked catfish was the best around. People came from other streets, some as far as a kilometer, passing the multitude of food sellers on the streets to join the queue to get Mama Calabar’s food. She was also known for bringing beautiful young ladies from time to time who sell for her on the street and at night in her bar. Her rivals whisper here and there that she used charm to sell. They claimed that she took her cooking pot to the village where a witch doctor had performed some kind of rituals on them and some said she buried a life goat at the location where she sells her food. Even though Mama Calabar had heard such talks many times, it did not seem to bother her. Dirty dwarf well-fed goats joined the crowd, walking about heading towards one of the hill of refuse dumps, with dirty dogs, ducks and chickens, walking around.
The smell was so strong today. Not that anyone cared. To some it brought the sad memory of the familiar cripple beggar who had died a week ago with his body decomposing on one of the refuse dumps in the other street. Dogs were seen at night eating his meat. No one came to claim the body and even the government people did not come to take it away. Children were used to such sights, sometimes when they were playing football and the ball was played near the body, one of them would take his shirt and cover his nose tightly and run to pick up the ball by the side of the corpse.
It was said that the crippled man came from somewhere in the north many years ago but nobody knew how. He had lived there for more than a decade. No one could be specific where he came from. Over the years he became popular in Kalakuta because of his song. He sang song in his native language, a foreign tongue no one knew about. No one bothered to know what he sang about. He was a poor beggar and his song made no sense. He lived under the bridge with the vagabonds. He had no belonging, only a blanket he carried around. He was usually found cuddled inside the blanket when the weather was cold or when it was raining, and when the weather was hot he was found lying on it. And no one knew his name. One morning they found him dead. No one knew how the body was dumped on the refuse dump far from under the bridge. But that was a week ago.
The first thing I remember about my childhood neigbourhood was the smell. I could never get used it. Then the noise that started from morning, dusk till dawn. Kalakuta was a city of its own inside the city of Lagos, highly populated, with men and women who had lost their ways in life forced to live in dirt and filth, breeding children who would have no direction in this complicated world.
Life was not easy for those of us born with calabash spoon. Calabash spoon wear out too soon and you are forced to eat with your own hands at a tender age. But in the law of survival there are surprises. A weak animal born in the jungle with predatory beasts everywhere manage to survive somehow when many fall. Childhood was a very complicated time and at ten I watched that blind man decomposing on the refuse dump and it wasn’t a pleasant thing. Every street looked the same with potholes of stagnant water everywhere that made it difficult for vehicles to pass. During the rainy season the stench was usually stronger, because the rainwater washed out all the rottenness from under the ground to the surface. The houses were built with ceiling boards and carton papers were used as ceiling. Whole families of father, mother and five to six children live in a tiny single room together like rats in a hole. And the worst of it all was sharing a shallow latrine with the multitude of people around. The bathrooms were shared too and it was always crowded in the mornings with people quarrelling and telling those inside to hurry up. Gutters flowed in front of every house, where human and beast urinate, anytime of the day. It was more convenient than entering the latrine. And it was a normal sight when you see human shit here and there rolling down the gutter or stuck somewhere in it. Kalakuta has no shame. It could not afford shame. Kalakuta has no secret like a fowl without hair.
Mothers become prostitutes and sleep around with men in the same room they shared with their husbands and the children, when jobless fathers were in bars drinking their miseries away from morning, dusk till dawn. Most of the youths were illiterates that indulged in drugs and in the end most ended up becoming armed robbers, or dead on the streets of overdose. The police patrol certain places and dare not go to certain places. Most youth end up dead before their prime and some went mad and walked the streets. Most of the mental cases were as a result of drug abuse and frustration. Kalakuta tells you its story of poverty, miseries and derelictions without flinching. Kalakuta was the grave of dreams. No sane person would dare go there at night except that person was familiar with the area.
Most mornings you find children playing football on the streets or hawking bread, groundnut or some petty things, instead of being in school. Some of them had never owned an exercise book or even held a pencil. Many children had grown up here to men playing football and had gone as far to conquer the world. Fortunate Kalakuta sons and daughters had excelled in sports, entertainments and sometimes as drug peddlers to the western worlds. So many times Kalakuta inhabitants had watched one of theirs in an international soccer match score a magnificent goal that made the whole soccer world stood up awed. So many times Kalakuta sons had scored in the national team in a tensed soaked crucial match and made the nation stood to its feet in respect. And they give hope to those in the ghetto that they too could do the same.
The musician had made Kalakuta famous in their songs. There was a time when at the mention of Kalakuta everyone looked around suspiciously holding to their worldly possessions tightly. Today all that has changed for the better. Now people give you the thumb in respect at the mention of Kalakuta. But then many of the successful people leave the place. They had lived there because they had no option. And the dream was always to leave. But then very few would be able to. Few of the celebrities lived there with their parent but when they become bigger they left. It is too grieving to enjoy so much when all around you is poverty and misery. Some had Kalakuta too much inside them and it destroyed them.
I was raised in Kalakuta but my grandmother did everything to get my mind out of there. And the only way was education. I spent all my time at school at a tender age and was never allowed to play with the children in the neighbourhood. I chose not to myself because there was too much violence on the street. But once in while I joined in the football games and many times I had to fight my way out of trouble with the bullies who were everywhere. At a tender age I learnt one rule on the street. Problem solves problem. If someone gives you problems give him problem and he would live you alone.
They were gangs everywhere and rival gangs always clash and it was bloody. Many young men had died in such clashes. Then the police terrorized the place all the time and had killed so many innocent people when the troublemakers and criminals were their friends.
Churches and mosques were all around. They were everywhere and were the only good structures on the ground, clean and beautiful buildings, some with flowers. Catholic, Anglican, Protestants and the white garment churches, different mosques with different sects, mostly tribal mosques, and they were the witch doctors who practiced in their houses, and all the other religious group members patronized them. They were also clairvoyant prophets who claimed to have answers to all kinds of problems. They had all managed to become so wealthy amidst such penury. Jehovah witness preached from door to door sharing beautiful Awake magazines and other beautiful colourful pamphlets, others preached round with microphones on the streets, and in the evenings the noise was deafening.
Nightlife in Kalakuta was something else. Life dramas were everywhere. You could see a drunk falling into gutter or a prostitute harassing someone for sleeping with her and not paying for the services. The noise from blaring loudspeakers of jazz, highlife, and afro-rhythms that hit the night from every corner could be exciting. People would dance all over till early hours of the morning forgetting their problems. Night had a way of casting it thick shadows over our problems. And even those who were not part of the nightlife fall asleep because of the tedious day’s jobs and forget their sorrows before dawn.
So many times you hear outrageous stories in the bars and nightclubs about the people in power and you thought they were just beer-talks only to see them in the magazines or daily newspapers days later. You hear about the houses our politicians build in overseas with looted money, even amounts they steal and took to foreign accounts in the United Kingdom or Switzerland. And you would be shocked at the authenticities of such gossips. Responsible people sneak into Kalakuta at night to taste the life and don’t be surprise when a nonentity drunk tells you a General in the army was his friend, or a prostitute telling you a famous banker or contractor had slept with her.
No one saw or cared about that dead body decomposing on the hill refuse dump. Men must have lost their senses of feeling and of smelling but not of sight. That Saturday morning a young woman no one knew or had ever seen in a craggy blue jean and heavy booth, plaiting her hair Bob Marley style had drove a pickup truck and parked by the refuse dump with a nice wooden coffin at the back. The young men watching football had stopped as they watched her brought down the beautiful coffin. She stood arm akimbo looking at the dead man, probably wondering how to start. She was alone. The goats and little pigs had run away from the refuse dump and headed for another. The boys playing football had moved closer. She wore hand gloves and brought out a shovel from the back of the car. Two policemen later joined her looking angry. They wondered why that woman would disturb their peace that morning because of some useless corpse. Seeing dead bodies around was a normal thing in this city.
The woman brought out a large white cotton wrapper and laid it beside the body. She had covered her nose with a white cloth because of the smell. Then she asked the two policemen standing to help her with the other shovel at the back of the truck and come give her a hand with the body but the policemen protested that their duty was to come and watch and not to interfere. The argument between them brought many sympathizers. The policemen were chased away and volunteers helped packed the decomposing body into the sheet and wrapped it, then they put it into the coffin. But another argument started there that the beggar was a Moslem and must not be buried in a coffin. The crowd was divided. An angry woman who was a politician came to the rescue and shouted at the crowd that they should be quiet. “This body has been lying here for a week! Did any Moslem or Christian come to take it to the morgue?”
“No!” the crowd cheered.
That was it. No one dares disagree with Mama Omidiran. She controlled the ‘Area boys’ and all the other thugs in the neighbourhood and outside. Some opportunistic photographers were taking photographs. The policemen went to reinforce then came back but they didn’t interfere. It was too dicey to arise the anger of the people. Women and children stood watching far way and some were crying, not for the beggar but for that show of compassion showed by a total stranger. The story of that wonderful woman was told over and over again. She refused to appear on television or grant interview to the press. Since that day no dead body was ever seen lying on the street of Kalakuta again left to rot . She had opened the people’s nose to smell.
Kalakuta destroyed my mother. She had me when she was too young and she had let the burden of life over took her and destroy her. The young man who impregnated her left her to herself and the neigbours had a nice time gossiping about her. One day she took an overdose of sleeping pills and she never woke up.
Grandma took care of me. She knew I did not belong to that world from the beginning. She said I was so cute when I was young but she could not go back to the village where she had left many years ago to raise me there. So she waited in Kalakuta hoping and dreaming like many others that something would happen and she would get me out of there. She did her best and made sure I went to school. I fell in love with books. I read everything I could lay my hands on. I fell in love with poetry and as I grew up I wrote so many of them. That was the only way to get away from the misery that surrounded me and was trying to engulf me. It did engulfed me when grandma fell ill and died and I was left alone to take care of myself, but then I was sixteen years old and just completed my secondary school examination. I had to grow up to be a man. The truth was I had never been a child. Children do not survive Kalakuta. In fact children are more mature than adults who have allowed disappointment and bitterness destroyed their hope.
After grandma passed away everything changed. It was time to move away from Kalakuta. I had always wanted to move but it never happened until two year later when I was eighteen. I left the house grandma had stayed for many years, the only house that I always knew, to live with a friend in another area of Kalakuta far away. It was not home without grandma. I hated the place and I would have left anyway even if grandma were alive.
I worked at a salon as a barber. It was not much but it was enough. I raised enough money to buy my university entrance examination form. Barbing was not that demanding, so I had enough time to study in the salon. Sometimes I slept inside the shop. It was as comfortable as my new place. My friend Alaba was very understanding and his dream was to raise enough money for a trip across the Sahara desert to Morocco then across the sea to Europe. Some of his friends had left and even though only few survived the hardship and many perished along the way, Alaba had made up his mind to die in the midst of dream instead of stay in Kalakuta barbing hair.
He had dropped out of school many years ago. He was my senior in boarding school when I was in secondary school and my roommate. When his father retired from the army and went back to their village to settle down, Alaba had stayed in Lagos. The village was more impoverished than Kalakuta and his father and mother died three years after leaving Lagos. The father died on the street of Abuja while waiting for his pension like many other pensioners who were abandoned by the country they had served all their lives. Alaba had made up his mind to leave that country and never come back.
When he left Nigeria for the trip to his dream, we all wished him luck. But it was two years since I moved in to stay with him. And I had gotten admission to study English Literature in the University. It was time to leave Kalakuta forever. When Alaba left he left his younger brother Vincent in the salon because I told him I was moving to school. He promised to send me money when he gets to Europe. Many years have passed now but no one had heard of him or heard from him. Did he make it? I always wondered. If not where did he stop? Is he still alive?
I kept in contact with Vincent who still manages the salon. Seven years had passed since Alaba left the country. Seven years since I left Kalakuta to the university far away from Lagos. Seven long years that looked like yesterday gone too soon. As I sat inside my car in front of the house, which used to be where I had lived with grandma, memories came flooding in. I never thought I would see Kalakuta again but something had pushed me there. I had visited Lagos many times on conferences when the bank I worked for send me to that city but I stayed in the hotels. But whenever I closed my eyes in those comfortable beds in those clean cozy rooms, my mind always went back to the filth that was Kalakuta. And that crippled beggar always comes to my mind. I wonder how many people still remember him. I wonder what he sang about. I wonder whom that woman was who came to take the decomposing body of the crippled man away for burial.
Kalakuta still remain the way it was when I was a kid. Nothing much has changed since then. Many people still dream of leaving some day. Those who dream forcefully enough would eventually leave and many would live there till their end.