I was sure I had got it all wrong when I got to the Opebi/Allen roundabout a day after Christmas that year.
I asked the few people I saw around the corner; no one seemed to have heard of Monkey Village, not even the security guards standing guard at the banks by the roundabout.
I was on my way to a charity event tagged ‘Homeless Christmas’ and organised by Mr. Oluwatosin Longe, who had decided to celebrate Christmas with the people of Monkey Village, a slum community situated at the end of Agbaoku Street, off Opebi/Allen road, Lagos State.
The time was about 2pm when I gave up trying to play GPS and called Mr. Longe to come pick me up since I was afraid of never being able to locate the enclave on my own.
He arrived promptly accompanied by a man who introduced himself as Cali, the community chairman who was needed to help us navigate since there are no direct roads into the community.
As we made our way past buildings decorated for Christmas, Cali pointed out landmarks to us:
“This belongs to General so and so.”
“The owner of XYZ hospital lives here.”
“Minister this, you know him? That is his house.”
I was a little relieved as he pointed out the houses because I assumed it wouldn’t be much of a slum then, if so many influential people lived around.
But the road soon became un-motorable a little ahead and so we got down from the car and started walking down a hilly slope. I could hear music as we got closer indicating that the party was already in full swing. I nodded my head to the beat as we walked already looking forward to having a good time.
My first sight of Monkey Village left me shocked. A few of the older members of the community were dancing, some were sitting around, others drinking and smoking weed. The women and children were jostling for gifts: soap, cooking oil, noodles, salt and tomato paste packaged by the organiser of the event.
The lady distributing the gifts looked distressed, “The gifts will not be enough,” she lamented when I went to speak with her.
Her name, I later found out, is Ms. Boluwatife Akinola and she was a part of the organising team for the event. They had been unable to raise as much funds as they had envisaged and now had to make do. The kids had been given Caprisonne juice and told food was on the way.
Monkey Village is made up of people from different parts of Nigeria. They are northerners, south easterners, middle belters, south westerners and south southerners, all of them made alike by their common deprivation.
I was more interested in the children and I asked Cali about them. “We have about 140 children under the age of 11,” he told me. While some of the children are enrolled in nearby public schools most of the kids are out of school.
I sat and interacted with some of the kids, while volunteers kept the others busy with a dance competition. They corroborated what Cali had said.
Some attended Opebi Grammar School, while two sisters I spoke to said they weren’t in school. “My mummy says we will start school next year,” one of them said.
“That’s what she said last year,” the other countered.
When the food, which had been prepared by one of the volunteers, Ms. Tolulope Akinsola, finally arrived, there was a scramble at first, but miraculously, it went round and there were leftovers. Everyone had food and drinks while nursing mothers and pregnant women were given mosquito nets: the atmosphere was lit and everyone was relaxed and happy.
I was at the Makoko slum a few months ago and while the condition of living really got to me, at no point was I worried for my safety.
But I was worried at Monkey Village. A lot of the adults were smoking weed in the open and by adults, I mean men and women. Maybe it was a little hasty of me to have jumped to conclusions but I knew I wouldn’t want to be caught there all by myself.
I sat there and watched the kids dance after a meal of rice, chicken and soft drinks but I couldn’t shake off the feeling of not doing enough.
‘Homeless Christmas’ is no doubt a great initiative but is giving out food and gifts once a year enough? Would the little children make it out of here and make something of themselves? I wondered as watched a girl, perhaps not more than 13, who already had a baby who seemed to have its mouth stuck permanently to her breast.
One step at a time; I thought to myself.
It was almost 7pm when the DJ packed up his gear and we set out to leave. The cold harmattan breeze was descending gradually, and I wondered how they managed to keep warm since most of the houses are built with planks. But looking at them dancing and running around I knew that the cold weather was the farthest thing on their minds.