Life in Ilasamaja

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Ikenna Ekwerike who toured some parts of Ilasamaja, a suburb of Lagos, reports that the residents deserve to be accorded some sense of belonging by government

Poverty, hunger and desperation for survival make a rude welcome to the innocent sojourner in Ilasamaja, a suburb of Lagos. Long bungalows crowned with dark-brown corrugated iron sheets that have seen the best and the worst of the sub-Saharan tropical weather tightly stand side by side in the manner teeth are arranged in the mouth. A lot of the storey buildings that sparsely dot the neighbourhood used to be the hallmarks of the wealthy; but now, they point to antiquity.

For a child coming from a place like Ikoyi and Lekki areas of Lagos, these obsolete houses will pass for ramshackle or at best ancient artefacts of some sort. A common noticeable feature of most houses in this neighbourhood is the tomb which stands conspicuously right in the porch as you step in.

Typically built with wide corridors that run right through the centre of the house as if dividing it into two equal halves, rooms are lined on each half with the doors on either line standing directly opposite each other. These are popularly known as ‘face-me-I-face-you’ houses. Women, boys and girls bearing heavy bowls of water delicately balanced on their heads, clutching tightly to it with both arms raised, march slowly across streets from various paid sources every morning and evening.

Ilasa or Ilasamaja is a community located in Isolo Local Government Area of Lagos State, South-west, Nigeria. According to the traditional head known as Baale of Ilasamaja town, His Highness, Alhaji Abdul-Fatai J.A. Abereijo, Ilasawas an ancient Awori Village, founded about 400 years ago by an Ifa priest who was also a farmer and hunter, named Kumowo. Like other Yoruba communities, Ilasa traces its roots to Ile-Ife, the acclaimed root of the entire Yoruba nation of Nigeria.

“Kumowo left Ile-Ife with his wife, Adasi and came to settle here in obedience to the oracle which told him to settle wherever he finds a large concentration of the agonmu tree, that is, the agbalumo (cherry) tree. He left with some deities, prominent among them are the egungun, ogun (god of iron), Ifa oracle and most importantly, beremi and esu” Abereijo narrated.

Ilasa derives its name from the agricultural expeditions of its founder, Kumowo. Ilasa literally means blooming okra leaf. “He planted large scale okra seeds. The land was fertile since the seeds blossomed with beautiful okra leaves. It is from this that we derived the name, Ilasa (okra leaf)” Abereijo revealed.

However, Ilasa came to be known as Ilasamaja (Ilasa-mi-aja) as people tried to describe the community based on another popular attribute of its founder, who as an Ifa priest, was noted for using a traditional staff adorned with pieces of metal gongs known as aja that tinkle feverishly, each time he struck it on the ground in the course of his divination activities.

“People would often say: ‘let us meet at the place of baba oniIlasa to n mi aja’, that is, at the place of the baba who cultivates beautiful okra and strikes the traditional staff with metal gongs,” Abereijo said.

Ilasa community still honours those deities that came with its founder. The Egungun festival which holds once in three years entertains as well as reveals the fellowship of the ancestors with their children. Ilasa is bounded on four sides by Isolo, Itire, Okota and Ojuwoye in Mushin.

Sadly, this lively neighbourhood reels under deadly blows from long years of monstrous socio-political, neglect, alienation and maltreatment. Theirs is a typical case of abandonment, anguish and hopelessness. Little wonder the alarming rate of poverty in Ilasamaja town. Thus, a landlord in the area, Alhaji Akiola Bello, who has lived in the town for the past 30 years, decried governments’ insensitivity to the plights of citizens in the community.

“I want to tell you categorically that we don’t have a local council chairman or councillors. They’re not working for us. Instead, they’re working for their pockets,” he lamented.

Bello is not the only one who feels that successive governments had cared less about the plight of people in Ilasa. The chairman, Aje community development association, CDA, Alhaji S.A. Olayinka, who has spent well over 60 years in the community and about 15 years as the chairman, Aje CDA accused government of bias.

He said: “the people in government now are just politicians. It is sad that many of them do not have the interest of the people at heart. There seems to be a lot of bias where some areas are favoured and others are left to their sorry fates.”

Despite this obvious neglect, residents of Ilasa are extremely hardworking and enterprising. They are taking their own fates in their own hands and utterly committed to fashioning a future for their progenies even out of nothing. In them, so to say, is the perfect incarnation of the saying: when the road gets tough, the tough gets going. Indeed, an average man or woman in this community is tough, unbreakable and determined to survive: yet poverty persists.

The streets are the economic hubs of Ilasa. A shop or two adorns the frontage of every house and on every available space including above drainage channels where kiosks, like floating ships, are ostentatiously positioned underneath filled stagnant gutters. Buyers leap across the gutters where the wooden pieces that serve as bridges are absent.

There is hardly a street without at least, one cooked food seller’s kiosk or two with menus ranging from amala, garri and soup; rice, beans and bread; spaghetti, noodles prepared with fried eggs and tea, among others.

This scenario betrays a business line that is booming. But operators say otherwise. “I am still in this food business just because I don’t know what else to do” says Mrs. Bola Ibiyinka, an operator of one of the food kiosks on Rashidi Street. “When I started this business about 15 years ago, I knew what I was making from it. But due to the harsh economy, families are looking inwards for cheaper ways of feeding themselves,” she noted.

Corroborating her points, another food vendor on Adijatu Street, Madam Bisola Oyeyemi revealed that she was no more doing the business to become rich as she was doing it with little or no profit at all. “Doing this business has opened my eyes to the high level of poverty in this our community. You can imagine a little child with N50 coming into the shop for lunch. In such a situation what do I do? I simply find a way to make him eat with his N50.”

Food vendors are not alone in this misery. Other categories of traders in the community also groan from the burden of poverty in the land. A provisions store operator on Morning Star base, Mrs. Okoyeigwe, popularly called ‘Iya-Igwe’ revealed how she initially felt greatly disappointed after opening her shop in Ilasa at realising that that singular decision of hers was about becoming her undoing in the business. She soon learned to adapt and adjust to the realities on ground.

“Business is somehow dull; it is not what I envisaged when I began. I had big dreams but I soon realised that things were not working according to my plans. There are some goods I stock here that I don’t sell unlike when I was at Isolo.

“Then I made a little research and discovered that the poverty rate in this community is very high. There are no many rich people here. If you go to other areas with rich people you make gains. But here, I try to satisfy my customers based on their demands and income. Everybody here goes for the cheapest product and once there is an increment, they withdraw,” she lamented.

Close observation shows that residents, especially children have resigned to fate: they no longer eat what their bodies need but just what they can afford at the time. As early as 10 in the morning while the writer was in a shop in the community he noticed a boy of about 12, lanky, the hairs on his head seem not to have seen a barber for the past two months, clad only with a pair of boxers without shirts, walk into the shop. He made demands for garri N20, sugar N20 and groundnut N10.Curiously, the shop operator asked why he chose to soak garri at such odd hour instead of some other things for breakfast. The reply that came from the innocent young man struck a bitter chord that should make Nigeria weep.

“Na garri boys de soak nowadays since no money for bread and sardine or bread and fried egg with tea,” he added, “I can’t go and eat ogbonno soup and eba that is in the house this early morning,” the young man promptly retorted.

In one of the shops on Baale Street, a tailoring shop to be precise, the writer counted four sewing machines. But of the four only two were being put to use and the other two were neatly covered as though for decoration. This raised a few questions. The shop owner, Mr. Emmanuel Akindele explained that all the machines in the shop were in perfect shape but had to pack the other two since no jobs were coming and as a result, lost two of his employees.

“The people bring clothes, but can’t afford the charge because of the environment. The harsh economy does not allow us get money from the business anymore as we should,” he cried out.

After more than 30 years, the Second Republic roads in Ilasa groan regrettably from the deep wounds wreaked on them by continuous reckless usage with no plans for facelifts in view. Paved with muggy muds in the rainy season, houses, shops and parked cars on Ilasa streets are freely, but compulsorily repainted with dusts in the dry season.

Open, murky, stagnant gutters, serving often as waste carriers ooze with pungent smells of rot, swarming with giant eerie rodents and mosquitoes of all species. The acrid gutter smells ride gaily on the backs of the cool gentle evening breeze to plague hapless residents chased out of the houses by the scorching heat of the night, blamed on the epileptic power situation which makes it impossible to use indoor cooling systems. The cool gentle breeze caresses the nose with the pure intention to renew life but unwittingly leaves death in its trail.

What seem to be left are ghosts and shadows of the tarred roads built by Alhaji Lateef Jakande, first civilian Executive Governor of Lagos State between 1979 and 1983. The deplorable state of roads in the community is another socio-economic punishment; a big one, too. “If you have a customer that is far, they find it difficult to come to Ilasa. They complain of the bad roads. The roads are bad; water everywhere. As governments change, things change for the worse. We’re begging for God’s intervention,” Akindele noted.

Reacting to the issue of decayed infrastructure in the community, Aje CDA chairman, Olayinka applauded the current state government which he said invites the leadership of the various CDAs in the state for meetings where they often have the opportunity to bring matters affecting their individual communities to the attention of government. He, however, expressed displeasure over the non-implementation of assurances and resolutions reached.

While neighbouring communities have long put behind them, the ugly era of estimated power billing system owing to the introduction of the prepaid metre, the practice is still very much endemic in Ilasa where unrealistic and unimaginably high power bills are handed out monthly for power that was never consumed. The people express worry.

“We don’t even see the light and the charges they bring are quite different from those of other areas. We don’t use prepaid metres but other places where they use prepaid metres they pay less,” Okoyeigwe said.

Other residents confirmed her claims. According to Olayinka, “they’re giving us crazy bills. We’re fighting for prepaid metres but they’re not giving us. We need prepaid metres urgently.” He, however, disclosed that the power situation in the area was above average.

In his own view, Bello insisted that the community deserved more in terms of power since it is the community that buys and replaces broken electric poles, buys new transformers and repairs those that break down.

Unarguably, Ilasa is a very peaceful town. But the worry is, given the observably high rate of poverty what is the assurance that this would not push up the rate of crime and social disorder in the community? Residents of the community say they feel secure but identify isolated cases and concerns about insecurity.

Olayinka lauded the police in the community. “Anytime there’s a breach of security and I call the Ilasa Police Station they always respond promptly. But the problem is that they don’t cover all the areas at night,” he said.

Similarly, Bello contended that Ilasa had no miscreants but added that the ones who disturb the community come from outside and use Ilasa as hideouts. He, therefore, called on relevant authorities to do something, urgently, about the police post at Ilasa Market which was built halfway and abandoned and has since become a den for miscreants. It is not just the abandoned police post; some individuals have equally converted some of the market stalls into houses and now live in them since the market has been lying fallow years after its construction.

On the contrary, Akindele and Okoyeigwe have ugly tales about security in the community. “How would you expect adequate security with all the hardships? Few weeks ago, bad boys broke the glasses of my car and made away with my car stereo and battery. I know of one young man in this neighbourhood who has been thrown into perpetual mourning because these boys stole his car battery almost as soon as he replaces it,” she narrated.

“Almost every day bad boys break in and burgle shops and enter from house to house harassing people. I do see the police patrol in the day but not at nights,” Akindele alleged.

Police swift response to distress calls in Ilasa community is a glimmer of hope that Nigeria might one day get it right if individuals and stakeholders work by the rules of engagements. It was heart-warming when the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of Ilasa, Titilayo Oluwasanmi, promptly returned the calls of this reporter when she missed them over the security situation in the community even when the duo had had no previous encounters to find out who it was called and for what purpose.

Consequently, the Baale scores the police high and attributes appreciable efforts that have been made so far to rid the community of miscreants to the proactive leadership of the new DPO. “Relatively, crime rate is low in Ilasa except for some delinquents, you know, these area boys. Interestingly, the quick response of the police to distress calls is such that I, personally, am proud of. I say kudos to the new female DPO; before now, nobody dares go to that market area due to criminal activities and the rate of cultism was too high but now, the woman and her men have helped a lot,” Abereijo stated.

While calling on government to urgently intervene in the road situation of the community as well as build recreational centres for youths in the area, the Baale equally implored the government to rebuild the community’s vandalised town hall which was on lease to government prior to the unfortunate incidences that led to its damage. He equally underscored the need for government and other stakeholders to empower Ilasa youths to keep them away from crimes.

Undoubtedly, Ilasamaja contributes immensely to the economy of Lagos and Nigeria at large and its residents deserve to be accorded some sense of belonging. Among other things, the community plays good host to the Ilasamaja Industrial Scheme which has plastic production companies, food and beverage processing companies, industrial equipment, services and business activities companies, as well as pharmaceutical companies.

Elders in Ilasa community argue, strongly, that one of the ways the Lagos State Government could give them a better sense of belonging and attract development quicker to it is by elevating its traditional stool from Part 2 Baale to that of Oba status.

It is against this backdrop that such essential and common amenities as roads, potable water, constant and cheap power, a general hospital, post office and banks may not be too much to ask from a responsible and responsive government like the one ably led by his Excellency, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode. The community appreciates the efforts of the private investors who have cited fuel stations in it and encourages others to come along.