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