Out of a Nigerian Slum, a Poet Is Born

Poet and Activist Aj Dagga Tolar i i

Poet, musician and activist Aj Dagga Tolar sits in his tiny shack in Ajegunle, a slum in Lagos, Nigeria. His poetry and music address the inequalities faced by the residents of the slum. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Poet and Activist Aj Dagga Tolar

Poet, musician and activist Aj Dagga Tolar sits in his tiny shack in Ajegunle, a slum in Lagos, Nigeria. His poetry and music address the inequalities faced by the residents of the slum.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

Read an excerpt of Aj Dagga Tolar's poem, "This Country is Not a Poem."

Residents of the Ajegunle Slum in Lagos, Nigeria i i

Ajegunle is called "The Jungle" because it's extremely difficult to survive there, Dagga Tolar says. He says he escapes the slum life through his creativity. Meghan C. Sullivan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Meghan C. Sullivan, NPR
Residents of the Ajegunle Slum in Lagos, Nigeria

Ajegunle is called "The Jungle" because it's extremely difficult to survive there, Dagga Tolar says. He says he escapes the slum life through his creativity.

Meghan C. Sullivan, NPR
Aj Dagga Tolar Looks over His Work i i

Dagga Tolar looks at a collection of his poetry inside his shack in Ajegunle. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Aj Dagga Tolar Looks over His Work

Dagga Tolar looks at a collection of his poetry inside his shack in Ajegunle.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
A Street in Ajegunle, a Slum in Lagos, Nigeria i i

A dirt road in Ajegunle. The slum is home to about 5 million people, including Dagga Tolar. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
A Street in Ajegunle, a Slum in Lagos, Nigeria

A dirt road in Ajegunle. The slum is home to about 5 million people, including Dagga Tolar.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

Ajegunle, a sprawling slum of about 5 million residents on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria's noisy and chaotic commercial capital, has a notorious reputation. Its ominous nickname is "The Jungle." Yet it represents a microcosm of Africa's most populous nation, juggling Nigeria's diverse religions and ethnic and regional groups.

It also has some unexpected gems, including Aj Dagga Tolar, a Rastafarian poet and reggae musician who was born in Ajegunle, also called "The Jungle."

The slum greets visitors with a medley of odors — the smell of heaps of garbage and gutters, open sewage channels running between the tightly packed structures — and a symphony of sounds. Traditional juju music blares from a tinny loudspeaker, precariously perched in one of the tiny shops, while on the other side of the narrow, dusty dirt street, the voice of a muezzin floats out of a mosque. Also audible are the generators, ubiquitous in Nigeria, where endemic corruption has eaten into the nation's infrastructure and resulted in frequent power outages.

"It's one of the most popular slums, not just on the African continent, but the entire part of the world. It is in this part of the country that you meet the poor of the poorest, and we try to survive day in and day out," Dagga Tolar says.

It would be hard to miss Dagga Tolar in a crowd. Approaching 40, the poet, singer and activist is lanky, with distinctive, giant dreadlocks crowning his head, eyes eager and searching and a big, welcoming, gap-toothed smile. He has the look of a survivor.

He lives in a tiny shack with brightly painted blue walls. On the floor is a bare mattress. Everywhere you look, the room is crammed with CDs and books — from classics to poetry to political essays on poverty and survival. On one side is a poster of the late American rapper, Tupac Shakur.

Dagga Tolar says he feels fortunate to have a roof over his head — and it's one that he readily shares.

"If you had come here early in the morning, you would meet with about four or five persons who stay around, who of course don't have another alternative," he says.

"Ajegunle is called 'The Jungle' because it's extremely difficult to survive in this neighborhood. And people survive day to day on nothing, on practically nothing," he says. "Ajegunle has become a metaphor for the entirety of the Nigerian nation. Ajegunle is no longer special; it's a portrayal of what the whole country is: one big jungle city. And it portrays the picture of the ... angriest sections of the working population residing in this part of the country."

The people of Ajegunle are angry about poverty — no electricity, no water, no prospects, no future and, for many, no hope. And this is in Nigeria, the giant of West Africa, the continent's top petroleum exporter and a major crude-oil supplier to the United States. But in Nigeria, corruption is rife, and the rich are very rich, while the poor are very poor.

Dagga Tolar writes poetry and sings about such inequalities.

"Killing, you are killing our dreams, in every way and every day," he sings. He continues in spoken word: "And every time we find a way, they come around against us, because they don't want to pay, for the suffering and fighting every day that the people have to face in every way. And when we stand, the fire burn we body, for we can no longer hear the sound of melody. We are one people."

Dagga Tolar says he tries to escape the tough reality of slum life in Nigeria by being creative.

"My poetry and music is the highest expression of beauty," he says.

Excerpt: 'This Country is Not a Poem'

This Country is Not a Poem
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

This country is a poem
Is only for the heart to lie
To make Art no die
This country, no be place
For human faces
To live to love this country
Na just like space
For all of us to dey die
My heart no go greee mek Art dey lie
This country is not a poem

The way they make poetry
To make this country
Sound good to the ear
But here who cares
The death of a dirty lie on the lips
Before the words dried out to die
This country

Who cares
For the poetry of our existence
The way they care for poetry
Leaving us every moment with metaphors
To feel not at all the failing of poetry

This country
Dare you to ask
"Have you seen dead bodies before?"
Answer with another ask
"Are there not dead bodies everywhere?"

Stuff enough to make more poems
Who cares to hear
Lagos is a poem, not a place
Ajegunle is a poem, not a place
Cannot sit to hear this poem

SUNG in Yoruba:
Kile ni wa gbo
Kile ni wa wo
Ara mo ri ri
Kilo oju ori leko ri
Kile ni wa gbo
Kile ni wa wo
...

For a people mugged down in mud
Every breath a struggle to keep
The breath like that of animals
Humans lost all life...like Hannibal
Desecrate the place unfit for Villa and Zapata
Hang the statue in the square
This is the sad end of Saddam's story
Still alive savouring life on

Like Bush the liar unable to Blair
The people not to see their land
Their oil still flowing into wrong pockets
Guns boomed, they die to be able to kill
My heart is pained say no be dem
But the innocent young ones of mothers
Like our own mothers
Cut down to weep dry tears
For lost sons

This is the common end of hope
Stringed on the guns of another
From across the borderline
Who also like them heed only onto profit
From our dying
If then we free to fight
This country into a poem
Art first must be rid of lies
For only then can hearts crave to die
For the people
For a new poem
For a new country
Not this stiff old song of profit
Making this country is not a poem

This country is a poem
Is only for the heart to lie
To make Art no die
This country, no be place
For human faces
To live to love This country
Na just like space
For all of us to dey die
My heart no go greee make Art dey lie
This country is not a poem

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