- Story of a scavenger who lived at Ojota Dumpsite for 10 years, discovered by BBC reporters and now wastes recycler
For 36-year-old Eric Obuh a.k.a Vocal Slender, who hails from Agbor in Delta State, the world, indeed, is not a bed of roses.
The divorce by his parents prescribed untold hardship for him and his siblings, but providence was later to take care of him.
Today, he is a big-time recycler, musician just as he is into huge charity works.
Through determination and willingness as he scavenged and lived at the Ojota Dumpsite for 10 years, Eric kept his mind on turning his life around one day.
And, indeed, luck smiled on him one day when God used some BBC reporters to locate him.
That encounter later led to his winning the African Google Competition worth $25,000 (N4 million in 2012) from the dumpsite, which made him promise to give back to the society through his NGO called Love Ghetto Foundation.
He told his captivating story to Sunday Sun. Hear him:
It was not my wish to live at the dumpsite, but that was where life challenges pressed me to, but I made the best use of the site. Working as a scavenger while living at the Ojota Dumpsite for 10 years is the reason I am into recycling today. Now, I know what we did at the site then was a chain of production. We picked wastes, buyers buy from us, sell to other buyers, who also sell to agents, these agents sell to the Chinese and Indian companies for recycling. The various plastic bottles that are thrown away carelessly are used to make hair extensions, foam and other forms of plastic moulds. Aluminium and steels are dissolved into liquids to make pots and other things. It is alarming that Nigerians do not have recycling companies as much as expected which is another way of creating jobs. At 13, my parents separated and remarried to other spouses who didn’t like to live with children from previous spouses. My siblings and I were left on our own and life became nasty, brutish and short according to Thomas Hobbes an English scholar. My thoughts and memories lingered around criminality because of the fear of the unknown. But I would wave such thoughts aside telling myself that any hidden thing is not worth doing. I remember how my dad would provide for us and go through our books each day when the going was good. All that came to an end when the new wife berthed in the house. My father later lost his job and lost the little gratuity that was paid to him to dupes. It got so bad that he could not renew our rent at Ajegunle in (Ojo) Ajoromi Local Government Area. Feeding was also difficult and the onus was survival of the fittest for all.
Our quest for survival
My elder brother and I saw a fallow land behind our compound and picked a seed of pumpkin (Ugu); the seed germinated, developed and became our biblical mustard seed. In no time, we started selling heads of Ugu leaves within our environs and the over populated Boundary Market in Ajegunle. Light came back to the family and daily meals returned and we had course to smile again. Seeing the progress we made then, the owners of the land drove us away out of jealousy and our dreams were shattered. It did not stop us from dreaming big. Another opportunity came when other boys in the neighbourhood started mini-poultry with numerous healthy chicks, but we did not have money, so we bought a fowl that was almost dead; our fowl survived and brought forth over 80 others; but we lost them all to our neighbours when we were finally driven away from the house where we attached ourselves because we were not real tenants and did not have anywhere to take them to.
Going back to our village in Delta State and return back to Lagos
With no home in Lagos, the next option was our village in Delta State. We arrived at a near farmstead without light and spent seven months there and were all out of school at this point in our lives. It was not easy in the village; we boldly came back to Lagos without any accommodation in mind. Our first port of call was a Church at Ajegunle since there was no accommodation. My brother and I were driven away after sometime. I still remember how my brother and I relocated and slept at Wilmer Bus-stop for the first six months while our biological parents slept on beds and in homes. My interpretation was that my father was in a situation where he could not help himself anymore. In all these, school was a thing of the past coupled with the fact that we lost all our books to flood years ago. At the bus-stop where we slept, my brother took to dancing, while I took to singing. My brother’s friend from the dancing group allowed us to keep our clothes in their apartment while we all slept in a nursery school in the neighbourhood. During mild disagreements, our friends rained abuses like ‘you people are born throw way, ‘If anything happen to una, no case.’ I was taken aback and was stretched in ravaging anger. I refused to swallow such hard bitter pills at just 15 years old then.
I will not fail to tell you that God sent a Good Samaritan who fed us at least twice a day.
Life as a scavenger
While still leaving on the streets with my brother, my friend introduced me to scavenging of metals, irons, slippers, nylon and plastics for recycling. We scavenged from Ajegunle to Okokomaiko, Orile, Obalende and Lekki, though not in one day, but all these were done on foot. Now, scavenging started for me as a hobby while my brother was a bus conductor. We were able to pull our resources together and rented a room apartment. I insisted we must get our own room following the insult we received from our friends. All of us began to live together as suffering siblings. I went to the village and brought my little sister who couldn’t come back with us then. Most tenants died in that building except our room. We became afraid and scattered again as siblings. A friend of mine introduced me to a huge dumpsite at Ojota in 1999. The dumpsite was where the real business was for scavengers, it is either you start from there or close the day at the dumpsite.
How do you make money from scavenging?
No, I did not make money because over a thousand people would be struggling for just a piece of an item. At times, in a whole day, one could make N1,000 or thereabout.
Could there be a way to stop scavenging?
Yes, if recycling organizations would take their work seriously, employ the scavengers and be sure of their safety, no scavenger would live at the dumpsite again.
Dumpsite is a story on its own. I lived there, slept there, worked there and visited Ajegunle studios once a week. I built a place where I lived. All sorts of people, including university graduates, able-bodied men and women, mad people and domestic animals, all live together at the dumpsite. God guided my feet and I personally chose to be a different tenant at the dumpsite. I read books that changed my life at the dumpsite. Since I do not go to Ajegunle every day for my music, sometimes when there is no work, I would buy candles to read books. It was on the dump site that I read great books like ‘The Biafran Revolution’ written by Alexander Amadi-Igbo, ‘Because I am involved’ written by Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu,‘My Command’ by former President Olusegun Obasanjo,‘The Five Majors, Why we Struck’ by Wole Ademuyega. Other books that I read on the dumpsite include, ‘Rebel against Rebel’, by Njoku and books that told the history of the First and Second World Wars, including great encyclopedias. There are a lot of Christian novels and literatures at the dumpsite, especially ‘Open Heavens (a publication of the Redeemed Christian Church written by Pastor E.A Adeboye.) But the books that really turned me around were philosophical and classical books. I read great Greek philosophers like Pythagoras, Dominions, Plato, Socrates and Aristotles. Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ was a few of the books that I laid my hands on and it really changed my views about life. I also read so much about the great Albert Einstein who said that ‘imagination is better than education’. That statement made me think and I said to myself that if imagination that is a free gift from God is better than education, then why can’t I use it. ‘Things Fall Apart’ written by Chinua Achebe, The Gods are not to blame written by Wole Soyinka was at the dumpsite. I have not forgotten all the Shakespearian books that I encountered at the site. It was also at the dump that I read the Bible, Koran, Occult books, Ancient Rosicrucian known as Amorc. It was at the dumpsite I named myself ‘Vocal Slender’ an acronym for (Voice of One Crying for African Freedom, Slender because I was very skinny then). The numbers of talents that are being wasted at the dumpsite are quite alarming. Real ICT wizards are at the dumpsite. The same scavengers gather phones, televisions, radios and many condemned household property; they fix them for personal use or sell them. Even now that I have left the dump, I cannot remember how many books I have read so far because my education ended abruptly, but I know that knowledge is power. While the dump is a world on its own, everything in life is about the mindset. I had my dreams intact. If one was not careful on the dump, the fellow would become a victim of the dump.
For someone who lives on the dumpsite, going into crime was the easiest thing to do. With Plato’s great works on imagination, instead of embracing delinquency at that age I began to dream big, how I would travel all over the world and become a great man. I streamlined my association with fellow Ajegunle scavengers because of my talent as an artiste while still residing at the dump.
My challenges at the dumpsite
The first challenge I experienced at the dumpsite was being confronted with the fear of the unknown.
Dumpsite is a jungle where I saw with my eyes and listened with my ears. One might be backing a truck that is coming with speed to dump the refuse; all you would hear is ah! The truck has rolled and crushed one person and it ends there. People have lived on the dump and became mad. People on the dumpsite were faced with the challenge of self-defeat and their only source of survival would be drugs and Indian hemp. If I was not strong-willed, I could not have lived and survived there because we lived in a negative world which dominates the thought. At times, police would just come and open fire from every nook and cranny at the dump, labelling everybody armed robber. Odua People Congress (OPC) could also come and raid the dumpsite. When all these happened then, I never witnessed any; it was a true testimony that God was with me while living at the dumpsite. When I come back, other residents would tell me what happened because it’s either I am in a studio or in Ajegunle. I do not know how God created me; I was not easily influenced by the lifestyle in dumpsite, I never smoked Indian hemp or joined my mates to go for women of easy virtues. With my experience on the dumpsite, I advise parents to support and train their children. Family challenges brought most people to the dumpsite.
Urge to go into music
The urge to do music was there for me, but there was no support or sponsor. Music was reigning big with the likes of Daddy Showkey making waves in Ajegunle then. The first day I made a little money and went to a studio in Ajegunle I saw Tuface, Plantation Boys, Arzardous and Poplyn, all working on their different albums, I felt in love with the environment and wished to be there one day. I know, I have the talent already, but money was the only challenge. I told myself, since I am alone in this dream, I would
go back to the dumpsite at Ojota and work for just one year and my music would be a big hit in town, but it took me 10 solid years to achieve that.
My breakthrough at the dumpsite
One day as I was entertaining my friends with music at the dump; some were beating drums for me and dancing, among the crowd were some few white men who fell in love with what I was doing and after the entertainment, the white guys followed me and told me that they would like to work on my records at a studio station in Egbeda. I opted for a film shoot while entertaining and not while scavenging. They pleaded with me to shoot while scavenging and singing. I succumbed because God has a purpose for my life. It was later I got to know that the ‘white guys’ came from British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) London to do a documentary at the dumpsite. Nigerian reporters saw scavengers at the dumpsite while BBC reporters saw talents that could be moulded. They were with me for four months doing documentary on me and when they left I also forgot about them. After some months, BBC called me that some people were interested in my story, I was a little bit skeptical before a promoter flew in from London and my Owpa became a hit in London and it sold for over N600,000, which they gave to me while on the dumpsite. Another promoter also came and took me to Basket Mouth and a jingle was promoted, he took me to London and I performed at a beauty pageant at Estuary Hall with a capacity of over 30,000 seated audience. I began to wonder who I was for BBC to fish me out of the dirty murky waters of a dumpsite. God used BBC, one of the biggest world media to announce me. After the documentary, I did some other interviews with other foreign media. I also won the Google African Connect Competition and Google rewarded me with a handsome sum of $25,000 (N4 million) then. When it was announced, over 3,000 people applied for the competition, it was zeroed to 100, to 40 and I was finally chosen among the last five standing. Life’s transformation has started for Vocal Slender. What a boy!
I am like a prodigal son who left his father’s house, but later came back. I have studied the lives of musicians and discovered that no musician sings for long. That is why I fell back on scrap and recycling; I am an ambassador of a recycling company and preach the message of recycling. Instead of throwing away sachet water, plastic bottled drinks, give it to us for recycling.
I have forgiven my parents who abandoned us
Life has taken a tremendous turn around, my father has died, and my stepmother who wept for her sins when life turned around positively for me has also died. I attended her funeral here in Lagos, but did not travel to the village for her burial. I have also forgiven my biological mother who turned her back on her four children; but I do not have motherly feelings and love for her. My sister is married with children; I am also married and blessed likewise my brother. We are all fine now.