Touching story of a Lagos scavenger
By HENRY OKONKWO
“It’s not a crime to clean the gutter,” the one-time Lagos-based scavenger says, “but ensure you don’t continue to remain in the gutter.” His grass-to-grace story resembles that of the star international footballer, Odion Ighalo, the veteran footballer, Taribo West, or the ace musician and Galala dance exponent, Daddy Showkey.
These are stars that were born and raised in the slum of Ajegunle, Lagos. They, however, rose above the stigma of being ‘nobody’ to becoming Very Important Persons (VIPs). Today, their stories have turned out to be something of an inspiring tonic to millions of youths struggling in several ghettos sprawled all over Lagos and even beyond.
Like Ighalo who played on empty stomach at the notorious Maracana Stadium before hugging the limelight or Daddy Showkey who was a street boxer, Mr. Eric Obuh a.k.a Vocal Slender, spent most of his growing-up years as a street urchin mingling with thugs.
But today, the once dirty forager trying to eke out a living in the mire of refuse dumps has morphed into not only a popular musician and thriving entrepreneur-dealer in cars but also a powerful motivational speaker. His story is another testament that dreams do come true when and where you least expect it.
How he got his name ‘Vocal Slender’
Residents living around Prince Fadina Street, Ajegunle, Lagos, are all too familiar with Eric Obuh. He’s a well-respected youth leader in the community. But be warned. They don’t know him by that name. In fact, you could get lost if you walked into the community asking for Eric Obuh. First, you would get queer stare from members of the community who would, after scratching their hairs, tell you that they don’t know the person you are talking about or that the fellow you refer to by such a name does not live in their neighbourhood. But mention Vocal Slender and watch a three-year-old child excitedly point you to a cream-coloured bungalow, the place of his abode.
Standing tall at 6 ft 2”, blessed with a hulky frame, chubby cheeks and calm mien, Eric Obuh’s look belies his alias ‘Vocal Slender’. “Slender was what they called me back then on the streets because I was very lanky. I didn’t call myself that”, he said with a shrug. “I added ‘Vocal’ to show that I’m out to voice out against the oppression and neglect for the poor and the vulnerable.”
From plenty to penury
Vocal Slender together with his four siblings’ did not start their childhood from penury. They were born in a middle class home till things went awry for their father. “I was not born in a poor home,” he explained. “My father was an accountant until he was duped, and then lost his job. That was when things started to go bad for us. But before he lost his job, he had separated from my mother. So with no mother to take care of us, and no money to feed us, my father was forced to share out my siblings to some of our relations and friends. He took my three-month-old brother to my aunty at Ibadan, while one of my younger sisters was sent to the village. My father remarried, moved in with his new wife and took my younger sisters along with him. My elder brother and I were left to fend for ourselves. I was six years old then, and things were so tough for us. My brother and I couldn’t even afford toothpaste to brush our mouth with before setting out to school. Relatives that stayed in our house when things were rosy all left, abandoning us to our fate.”
Broke, hungry and abandoned, the future looked bleak for Vocal Slender. But providence took care of things. “I was living in a swampy area at Ora Street close to New Road,” he recalled. “I distracted myself by inserting vegetable stems into the marshy ground. To my surprise, when I came back few days later, I noticed that some of the sticks have started blooming into nice looking plants. I was amazed, so I started tending them and nature blessed me because the plants were propagating by themselves all over the swamp. So I became more serious with it, cultivated ridges, dug a well and planted okra, maize and assorted vegetables. I harvested the crops and people were eager to buy from us at the market because our crops were much bigger and fresher. So we made little money, and life became sweet again.”
But during the rainy season, Vocal Slender did not sell vegetables because the swamps become flooded because of the increase in the water level. This prompted them to develop another means of survival. Here again, fortune smiled on them. “We switched over to poultry, and built a scrappy cage with wood and planks we picked from the street. We then bought a hen and a cock, and in no time the hen laid 15 eggs and hatched 13. And from that 13, we had 11 hens and two cocks. The 11 hens kept laying eggs till we had countless birds everywhere.”
In the crucible of suffering
Impressed with the resilience of the two brothers, the entire neighbourhood nicknamed them ‘farmer boys’. But sadly, ‘good things’, as they say, ‘don’t last long’. “We got evicted from our house when the rent expired. My brother and I didn’t know our rent was to be paid, so when the notice came, we couldn’t save enough money to pay for it. We got thrown out, and our father took us to go live in church premises at Oyekere Street in Ajegunle. However, living there didn’t help our condition. They weren’t feeding us, so we continued to hunt for food. I started selling water but later started scavenging at Asapo.”
For Obuh, then a 10-year-old boy, scavenging was indeed a brutish means of survival and on March 3, 1993 he nearly paid dearly for it with his life when he almost got killed while sleeping under a shed, after a tedious day. A reckless driver drove against traffic, and, in the process, rammed into the spot where Vocal Slender was sleeping. “I was almost crushed, but I found myself inside the gutters,” he recalled. “I sustained ghastly cuts on my legs and was bleeding profusely. Kind-hearted passersby that knew my sad story helped to carry me to the church and took care of me. One month after, I was still on crutches. At that point, the church got tired of keeping us and threw us out of their premises. We had no place to go so we went and started sleeping at Wilmer Bus-stop.”
Getting kicked out into streets with his injuries opened Vocal Slender’s eyes to how wicked the world is. “I realized that indeed there’s so much wickedness in the world. I wondered at how a church could throw out a wounded little boy like me. I also wondered why my stepmother and father didn’t want to have mercy and take us in.”
The tough gets going
But when the going gets tough the tough keeps going. At this point in time, their friends had mercy and took them in to come live with them at Goriola Street. Goriola is more than the name of a street lane in Ajegunle; it is a notorious habitat of ragamuffins and ruffians. Over there, break-ins, fighting, drugs and muggings were the order of the day, and young Vocal Slender got enough daily doses of the vices.
“At Goriola, we faced a lot of insults, beating and fighting because we had nobody to protect us,” he said as he shook his head. “We kept sleeping from house to house. When I got back on my feet, I went back to scavenging. Life as a scavenger was tough because of the abuses and stigma. We were called names like Kongis, bottle-pickers and Father Christmas. I scavenged up to Badagry into Cotonou. I entered a bus to Agbara and then trek to those areas. Also at Badore around Ajah axis, I encountered snakes and crocodiles severally. Life as a scavenger doesn’t give one much choices about the future, because when you get tired of it, the next likely option would be to fall back into crime.”
Encounters that changed his life
But the fear of becoming a criminal spurred Vocal Slender to go into music. Writing songs was an avenue for him to vent his frustrations. Rather than going into crime, he preferred hanging out with his criminal friends. It was in this process that, in 2001, at the age of 18, one of his gangster friends told him something that changed his life for good. “I was in a night club with my friends when one of them called Awe took me aside and spoke to me. He asked me why I keep following them; that they are all criminals. He looked me in the eyes and advised me to stopping coming to them because I could get killed. He said I’m not a thug and I don’t belong in their group, and that I should rather focus my mind on pursuing my music career. I had goose pimples listening to Awe tell me that. But barely one month after he told me that, he was shot and killed in a shoot-out with the police.”
Those words and his friend’s death made Slender to brace up for life. First, he stopped moving with his hoodlum friends. But in order to survive, he hit the streets again and started scavenging till he had another sad experience. “I started scavenging till I ran into my sister at Satellite Town. We were shocked at seeing each other. She called me by name, stood motionless looking at me as tears streamed down her cheeks. I was angry at myself, so I just walked away from her.”
But that encounter made him quit scavenging. He discussed with his brother, and together they rented their own apartment and brought their sisters together again. But shortly afterward, he went back to scavenging at Ojota, after becoming broke.
Ojota dumpsite or Olusesun landfill is the scavengers’ haven. It is a 100-acre dump that lay on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway entry into Ojota bus stop and nearby Oregun. It is said to be the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world. Ojota dump receives up to 10,000 tons of rubbish each day. With all that garbage Vocal Slender was back in business.
“I made about N350 on my first transaction at the dumpsite and I was very happy. Ojota dumpsite is like another world on its own. We were about 5000 persons living on the dumpsite. We had more people from the northern part of Nigeria, but we loved and protected one another. Many of us at the site feasted on expired edibles like gala (sausage, snack), bread and oranges thrown out by food companies and local fruit sellers. Whenever I call their attention to the fact that the food is spoilt, they would laugh at me and said, ‘e don spoil but e never rotten’. I settled at the dump, built a house for myself and started saving money to record my song.”
From slum to stardom
With no mentor or guardian to show him the way, Slender found succour in the reading of various books thrown away at the refuse dumpsite. “All kinds of books and documents were always thrown at the dumpsite, and I read as much as I could,” he recalled. “I read more than 100 different great books. I read books on the Nigeria-Biafra War, encyclopaedias, religious books like Bibles, Koran and deeply spiritual books from AMORC and Eckankar. Reading them really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I learnt the power of imagination after reading, The Flute of God, by Paul Twitchell. It changed my thoughts about life and helped me forgive my father. I developed positive mindset towards my future.”
As he was yet to release his album, he sang for the fellow scavengers at the site until his songs became everyone’s favourite. “In 2010, I gathered all that I’ve saved and decided to hit the studio. But few days to my record date, I was rehearsing and singing at the dumpsite when some white people walked up to me to say they are from the BBC. We scavengers are used to seeing white men come to take pictures at the Ojota dumpsite. So it was no big deal when they came to me. They asked me questions and they seemed impressed with the answers that I gave. They then said they would love to come observe me doing my recording session. And I gladly accepted.
“After the recording, they offered me money asking for permission to do a documentary on me. I initially declined because I didn’t want my family or my friends to see me in the news and now realize that I live at a dumpsite. But when they told me the programme would be aired in UK I agreed because I was sure no one close to me resides in the UK. However, I refused to collect their money. Rather, I gave them a copy of my CD to go promote in the UK. I was still at the dumpsite when I heard that that documentary ‘Welcome to Lagos’ has been nominated for several awards. And before you know it, I was all over local and international media, winning awards and going for music tours in the UK.”
The lessons learnt
Vocal Slender’s life story comes as a living testament to the famous saying of Zig Zigler: ‘Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation’. Looking back, he said: “I imagine if I hadn’t booked for that studio session, the BBC crew could have felt I wasn’t serious. This is why I want to charge the youths that there is dignity in labour. It is not a crime to clean gutters, but ensure you don’t continue to remain in the gutter. You can in that gutter still aspire to be great. If a man wants to change his world, he will need to change his thinking and when you change your thinking, you change everything about you”.