Rapper 'Vocal Slender' thinks the Lagos government can make a difference in Olusosun rubbish dump

Welcome to Lagos was a 2010 BBC documentary that introduced Vocal Slender to the world. Vocal — real name Eric Obuh — was a rapper by night, and a scavenger at the Olusosun rubbish dump by day. (Read the London Guardian's review of the documentary here.)

On the strength of his new-found fame he travelled to the UK twice that year. Local and foreign journalists from across the world — South Korea, Canada, Holland, Germany — trooped to the dump in search of him. And, as he recently told me in Lagos, not many American diplomats come to Lagos without having seen "Welcome to Lagos." Not surprisingly, the Lagos State Government was not pleased — the documentary showed a side of the city no government would be proud of — and complained to the BBC. (VS thinks it's the title that provoked the ire of the government. "If they had titled it 'Resilient Spirit of Lagosians,' everyone would have welcomed it," he says.)

He lived in the dump for ten years, years that left an indelible mark on his life – in the most unexpected of ways. The dump "was where I found all the books of life to read – great books, philosophical books," he says. "Now I have to buy books, and go to the library to read. In the dump I didn't buy books."

If the dump was his classroom for a decade, providing tutoring in philosophy, spirituality, literature, and Nigerian history, his 'graduation' was anything but pleasant. After the documentary was released, the government-appointed dump site manager, displeased by the media attention on a part of the city the government isn't proud of, asked him to leave. "She shouted at me as if I was a child," he recalls. Either he left, or the entire dump community would face ejection. Many of the dump residents didn't like the sound of that; there were threats of lynching, directed at VS.

He left. It's been three years now. ("I've been back there twice, for interviews.") He now lives in Ajegunle, a suburb of Lagos, where he runs the 'Ghetto Love Project', mentoring homeless kids, and raising funds for skills acquisition projects for adults. ("When I was growing up, nobody showed me love; I feel, let me try to make these kids happy, let them smile.")

I ask if the dump still exists as he knew it. Nothing has changed, he tells me. It seems the government itself is doing nothing to improve the lot of the dumpsters. If he had a chance to advice the government, regarding the dump, what would he say?

"If the Lagos State Government is really sincere, they should see the dump as an investment," he says. "Scrap business is big business." He likens the dump to a "company" with a staff strength of more than 5,000. Some of them are university graduates. It's also an ethnically diverse assemblage; buyers come from as far as the neighbouring countries of Chad, Niger, Mali. There is no doubt that the dump, unsavoury as it might seem, is a safety net for multitudes who would otherwise have tipped over the edge. "Most of those boys, if not for that dump, would've been criminals," VS says.

How much do they make daily? "It's luck," he says. Sometimes it's only about N700 ($4). The more energetic dumpsters can make twice that. And those who toil at it all day until night can make up to N2,000 ($12).

The "buyers" — who serve as middlemen between the individual scavengers and the commercial buyers — make more. VS sees a role for government in that value chain. So that, apart from providing training to help the dump residents become more efficient scavengers, the government should be playing the role of a regulator-middleman, paying decent sums for all the scrap aluminium, copper, plastic, and iron metal (listening to VS, I get the sense that the deals, as currently structured, are not in favour of the smallest players) and taking responsibility for selling to the big buyers.

There is, of course, basic infrastructure sorely lacking in the dump — the thousands of scavengers exist without access to adequate housing, clean water, and schools. And he thinks this doesn't have to be a charitable cause. The government can oversee a fund to which residents contribute daily, which will provide the rent for government-issued apartments, as well as function as an investment/pension scheme.

When he was evicted, VS remembers telling the site manager: "To comot dump mean say to comot world?" ("Leaving this dump is not the end of the world, is it?")

Now, away from the dump — where, throughout his twenties, he earned a living — he's determined to keep that question a rhetorical one.

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