Lagos as the epicentre of Nigerian commerce, its spirit, and home to its diverse cultures is not a surprising discovery. The city is as multi-layered and fascinating as they come, a home to all manner of inventions and insanities. Bariga, one of the more notorious parts of Lagos is an example. It is a collection of many things. A suburb in one of the popular districts on Lagos mainland, it is home to a series of terrible road networks and large piles of waste that rot under the heat. A quick Google search for the area draws up reports of gang violence, poverty and troubling stories of murders. Bariga also contains streets diminished by terrible road structure, unplanned housing layout, and waste passively discarded and left to grow into huge smelly balls.
On a Sunday afternoon in November, I found my way to Bariga to meet the FOD gang, a group of young street dancers, through the ceaseless championing of international dance artist Qudus Onikeku who shares videos of their performances on his Facebook page and wrote an impressive missive on his blog about them.
With little knowledge about this area of Lagos, I depended on Chidera, a member of the team in his early teens, to lead me via a bike man to a large house named number 9 where we held an interview. The architecture of the house is particular to Western Nigeria, unlike the messy cluster and ‘face me I face you’ that define many areas of low-income communities on the mainland. This house has space. Shoes are removed outside before walking into the large living room. The wall is an arresting shade of red but has areas with paint splotches of many colours like a ‘Pollock at practice’ piece. There are local drums arranged along the walls. Drums are everywhere, outside, in the corridor and in corners of the living room. I sit cross-legged on the floor when I entered the living room. At first, the boys leaned against the walls but later joined me cross-legged on the floor.
The FOD gang is an informal collective, a spin-off from the Footprints of David Art Academy. The five boys – Chidera, Sangokunle, Oluwafemi, Peter, and Segun – have known each other for years and performed together as dance theatre members. They have been theatre geeks for years and each expresses a multitalented array of singing dancing and drumming.
In recent weeks, Chidera and the four other boys have put together a series of radical street performances in Bariga. One of such performances was part of the birthday celebration organized for Segun Adefila, a popular dramatist and thespian fondly called ‘Bariga Boy’. To honour him, the new stars of Bariga performed an extraordinary piece. It was a remarkable feat of creative expression, resource management, and youthful energy. It involved drums and dancing, dance face off, and acrobatic performance on muddy bad roads. Their performances are usually more rigorous.
Another remarkable performance by the group was their graduating project from the art academy, which was how they came to a wider public knowledge. It was a conceptual dance piece on their community; the bad roads, the abandoned projects and a recent flooding situation in Bariga.
The Footprints of David Art Academy is a home to Lagos’ young creative talent, many of whom live below average means. Only a few people outside certain social and cultural circles are aware of this troupe who train in a large living room they have nicknamed school in Bariga, Lagos. When they speak of theatre, it is with a purity reflected only in those fully dedicated to their craft. And in the middle of it all is a bold unflinching creative expression. They do not lack for inspiration or encouragement as they are mentored by luminaries like Tunde Kelani and Qudus Onikeku.
Rehearsals happen in the living room space, where they practice with guidance from their teacher, Ms Damilola. Each boy possessing multi skills like dancing, singing, acting and/or drumming, their aspirations run large. They want to go global to show people that theatre is important and enriching. Their mannerisms, the anecdotes, the ways their eyes twinkle and their lips match the excitement from their voices during the interview emphasize this passion for theatre. In distinct ways, they express their experience in performing arts and the impact it needs to have on the public’s consciousness. They use tools provided by their environment. Where they encounter hindrances like poor electricity, bad roads, and government ill treatment, they also see avenues to enhance their expression and lift spirits. When I asked if they would rather make people laugh or cry, the answer was a resounding laughter.
When asked about their ambitions, they state very little beyond transforming themselves on the inside to make an audience feel something. Theatre is life, the boys remarked on more than one occasion. With the same discipline and passion, they pursue their other interests across mathematics, graphic design, and cinematography.
Our encounter came to an end when the boys stood and in military fashion gathered drums and performed a fifteen-minute impromptu jingle for the house members. I was the only one with awe written on my face, the others are already familiar with the energy, talent, and sounds.
On my way out of Bariga, one of my slippers snapped. My big toe stuck out, grazed the floor and I felt the skin under peel away. Chidera my escort gave me his slippers while he wore mine till we reached a shoe repairer. It costs ten naira (N10.00) to fix the slippers. My toe took a few days to heal and the drops of blood when I injured it was nothing serious. It occurred to me how brave these boys must be skirting around motorbikes and ‘kekes’ to dance in the mud, create gems amidst hindrances and perform art in a unique language. This itself is an act of magic.
If art is about social change and there will be a future for dance and revolutionary theatre in Nigeria, there are no better ambassadors than the FOD gang.