Awon Boyz: The Pandemic We Don’t See
The steadily increasing unemployment rate in Nigeria is an epidemic many fail to realise. Awon Boyz, the eye-opening exposé by Tolulope Itegboje, follows the stories of street boys from three hoods, documenting their early lives, ambitions and hopes, and making the case that their lifestyle is a result of the country's poverty pandemic. But will this be enough to change society's perception of them as Public Enemy number one?
Lagos is the undisputed economic capital of Nigeria; some might even say of Sub-Saharan Africa. While the state is geographically placed in the South-West of the country, due to its reputation as a commercial centre, it is uncharacteristically inhabited by a plethora of individuals who were either first-generation migrants or have somehow found their way to the bustling metropolis in search of better opportunities and greener pastures. Anyone from internally displaced individuals to fresh graduates makes the storied trek every year; data provided by a Facebook study has placed the city as the global leader in coordinated migrations in the world at 18.6% in two years. This implies that the smallest city by landmass in the country is also the most populated at a whopping 20 million individuals at the last – rather dubious – count (the country is notorious for not possessing accurate statistical data). Put simply, this means that there is a gigantic void between the available resources and opportunities versus the individuals inhabiting the city (as well as new migrants). Unemployment and homeless numbers have skyrocketed to alarming proportions as a result.
This provides the backdrop for the Tolulope Itegboje directed and produced documentary, Awon Boyz, recently acquired by Netflix two years after its creation. The stylized title is an amalgamation of the city’s native tongue (Yoruba), and the English word for young men, directly translating to, “Those Boys”. Not often does a title provide the perfect representation of how many of these individuals are perceived in society today. Those boys. The ones on every street corner in the historic city; the ones that haphazardly coordinate public transport; the ones who the country conveniently branded as hoodlums.
Sonder is a term used to describe the realization that each random passerby lives a life as vivid and complex as yours. It’s a word and a definition many Lagosians would do well to learn and apply. More often than not, the derision extended towards these individuals originates off an idea, one created by the ruthless class system thrust upon the citizens of the country by the ruling class. These men are not the gangsters and troublemakers your parents would have you believe, many of them are simply people who went down on their luck, hoping for a turn that never came. Sure, some of them may have less than societally acceptable appearances but you probably would too, subjected to the conditions they have been. The characters from the documentary all represent a different section of this small concrete and sand jungle. Some of the toughest neighbourhoods and local government areas in the city are where they call home.
An interesting cross-section of individuals make up the characters that carry this story forward. Hailing from a variety of tribes, there are Eastern and Northern people who moved here in search of opportunity while the rest are original Lagos natives (whatever that means) who either hail from poor polygamous families or no family at all. Family is a big part of being Nigerian, so big in fact that many parents in the 70s and 80s insisted on an Abrahamic version of polygamy. While the North gets most of the stick for this, it is clear that it is a predominantly African issue. Many of the characters cite their polygamous family history as their gateway to the street life. Why be a burden, unprovided for by your parents when there is an alternative that costs nothing? However, as Volume (a character from the documentary) will have you know, “the streets do not cost nothing,” and the price to pay for life there comes at a costly premium – one that many of these individuals pay every day just to get to the next 24 hours.
Hailing from Kano, the textile giant of the country, Volume moved to Lagos – like many of us did – in search of new opportunities. A visual artist with no connections or prospects but a ton of ambition, he quickly learned that whether or not you sign up at a tax office, the city has a way of making everyone pay. Robbed of his funds, phone and jewellery early on, he had no assets to leverage and was forced to adapt to a new reality: life in the shanties of Monkey Village.
It is unlikely that the term hustling is more loosely used anywhere else in the world than in Lagos. One of the characters the documentary follows is Onigho, who chronicles his brief entry into the world of dog-selling, one that he stumbled upon accidentally when a client paid him upfront for a puppy he did not own. His recount of the event does not portray him as a villain, if someone pays you for a service you do not ordinarily render and you go out of your way to provide that service you are not a criminal, you simply hustled.
Ironically, very few of these individuals seem discontented. Of course, if you offered any of them a cot and a hot meal at no cost, they would probably take it and thank you, but they seem to be as happy as anyone could possibly be with no sustainable income. According to street sage, Uchman, happiness and success are not concepts achieved simply because one possesses more stuff; they can only come from within.
A government-backed task force is notorious for picking up these street hustlers and hawkers for no apparent reason. There are laws against the deployment of wares for sale on the streets and in traffic, yet it is difficult to understand how else many of these people are supposed to survive. The premium on rent and capital excludes a huge swath of individuals from partaking in business as permitted by the state. According to Yobo, the sum of 100,000 naira could get him going and off the streets in about a year. However, acquiring 100,000 naira might be the most difficult task in the country’s current climes.
The documentary highlights many facets of Nigerian culture such as the process by which artisans develop their skill sets before they are deemed good enough to operate on their own, the spirit of entrepreneurship that wafts over the city of Lagos unabated and the unappreciated power of community. Many of these men consider securing a home and family as worthy trophies for the time spent out here hustling. Ete, who chose his name from the title of the traditional ruler of Calabar, gives thanks to God in a decrepit train yard around Oshodi for being able to do both. Many people would walk by him and imagine he has nothing to live for if you let appearances lead you, yet he has more to look forward to than most. This mirrors the situation of many of these individuals and their counterparts. Procreating within reason, unlike their parents, they are all optimistic for the future of their progeny. The most heartfelt part of the documentary comes around the 25-minute mark when they all share the intimate details of their familial situations. Yobo does not appear overtly romantic, yet Shakespeare would shake in his boots if he could read the excerpts from his story about how he came to be married.
Appearances do mean something and according to Onigho, area boys know this better than anyone does. Profiling is not a tool exclusively used by the state and its authorities – something anyone who has ever been catcalled in a bad neighbourhood knows. According to Onigho, one perceived as an area boy possesses the ability to repossess any items from people they perceive as “aspirational class”. For some, however, being an area boy is a survival mechanism. Popularized as “taxing” on the streets, these acts can vary in degrees of violence with extreme cases involving weaponry, while sometimes, according to Agamma, you could just get the wind knocked out of you and your pockets picked.
Tolulope Itegboje is a seasoned director and producer in the Nigerian film scene; his earliest foray into film came in 2009 for the project Eko for Show, his story of Lagos through the eyes of the rap group, the Caliphate. His work as a producer informed the decision behind his creation of the film. Working on street production sets, he encountered a lot of area boys living as carefree as possible and unhindered by Nigerian social constructs. Most of the time, these productions are only allowed to proceed after “dues” have been paid. According to Tolu, the aggressive exterior you are met with can be easily disarmed by a humane respectful approach. “Their resourcefulness and nuance begins to rise to the surface once you look at them as actual people,” he explains.
The goal of the documentary was straightforward: what is the best way to humanize these “area boys” and present them as more than just props but as actual people? And it is the most important part of the doc. This was his motivation to spotlight the issue and, in many ways, he was the perfect person to create this body of work – his work in these areas of Lagos had prepared him for years. However, the production company responsible for the documentary, Zero Degrees, required a proof of concept after being pitched. As a production company better known for commercials and commissioned jobs, this doc did not fall into the category of their bread and butter. Originally envisioned as a full feature story spanning a few months and multiple episodes, the need for a proof of concept is what would eventually become Awon Boyz. With barely any budget, it helped to brand the production as a corporate social responsibility project. The next part was convincing the stars of the documentary to do it with no promise of monetary compensation. Tolu’s pitch was simple: “I had to get them to believe that any money I gave them today would be nothing tomorrow. If we make something real and let people see them as they truly were, maybe it could improve community relations in the future. And they let me.” For three days each month for two months (and about a year to edit the footage), Tolulope worked with these men, met their families and, for however brief the period was, made them realise they were seen as more than just environmental props.
Regarding what he felt were the missed opportunities with the documentary, he regrets the lack of inclusion. “When we did a few screenings, one of the things that stuck out to the female members of the audience was a lack of representation for women. Area girls do, in fact, exist and I wish we could have included a few,” Tolu reflects. While the sentiment is understandable, it does not take too much away from the overall message communicated.
Lagos is the Nigeria’s economic centre, hence a lot of the conditions in the city can be used as a barometer for the state of the country itself. The documentary highlights the disparity of wealth in the country. The recently released video by YouTube account, Island Town, of the libel campaign against the homeless and destitute in the affluent suburb of Ikoyi very clearly exhibits the ire and hatred the rich wield against the rest of us. Titled “Ikoyi is under siege”, the video does not take into account the extensive relocation internally displaced people in the country have undergone in the last couple of years since the Boko Haram scourge has endured. As aforementioned, the unemployment situation has exacerbated the poverty rate to a point, many fear, we can never return from. Instead of pooling their wealth and resources to find solutions, they would rather make a short film attacking people who could never fight back.
The socio-economic gaps in our society are on display for all to see, yet many choose to ignore and maintain the comfort of their bubbles. Netflix is a platform that many of the people featured in the documentary would consider a luxurious form of entertainment. The aspirational class that can afford and will see this documentary on the said platform, however, can no longer escape the shared reality of the people they consider beneath them.
Featured Image Credits: Logor Oluwamuyiwa