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The Greener Pastures in Our Backyard

Didi Museum
Bolaji explaining to guests at the opening of Greener Pastures at Didi Museum in Victoria Island, Lagos.

September 26, (THEWILL) – If you ask any sufficiently discontented Nigerian youth where he hopes to find better opportunities in life, the proverbial greener pastures, so to speak, his own country will certainly not be top on the list. It is most likely to be somewhere in Europe, America or Asia where, in his reckoning, there are limitless opportunities to make it.

And yet, as one recent exhibition suggests, the greener pastures young men and women seek overseas are right here in their backyards. It is hard to believe. But once you have done the rounds of the dozens of paintings, documentary photographs and films on display at Didi Museum, Victoria Island, between mid-September and today, you tend to agree with the exhibitor, Bolaji Alonge, that there is, indeed, something to be mined from the abundance of water in a littoral state like Lagos.

As a photographer, Alonge has been pointing and clicking his long-lensed cameras for years – people and places, in Nigeria and beyond, at whatever might catch his fancy – birds in flight, an acrobatic display by a tyke, the carrier (Arugba) in Osun/ Osogbo festival, Lekki Link Bridge, the Niger and Brooklyn bridges in Nigeria and the U.S., respectively.

But what has riveted his attention mostly is the despoliation of the mass of water in parts of Lagos state by predatory weeds commonly called hyacinth.

Lagosians of a certain generation still remember when the Marina was overrun by the water weeds years ago. It was unnerving and unsightly: boats couldn’t ply the waterways as they used to; fishermen and women had to turn to other sources of sustenance because they couldn’t fish anymore. The lagoon has since been rid of the troublesome weeds. Now, the lush green carpet grass of the sea spreading for miles and miles around has found a more thriving location in Epe communities. It is disturbing to the photographer, which is the subject of his exhibition at Didi Museum.

“Greener Pastures,” Alonge said at the opening on September sixteen is “a collective desire to contribute to a better future for these communities.”

Besides, the title is double-edged. It is not only about containing the troublesome weeds but also providing job opportunities for thousands of youth bee-lining it out of the country, which explains Alonge and his team dubbing the exhibition “Greener Pastures.”

“People are frantically looking for ways to leave the country,” he said. “But in my view we can make Nigeria that place where we can be comfortable and happy. That will take working together and facing the challenges head-on. Art is not just showcasing pretty images but also showing our reality, pushing people to think and act.

“We hope that this project will contribute to a broader awareness, building stronger networks of concerned citizens and, of course, push our government to do more.”

The photographer cum artist cum actor and his friends started the project sometime in 2018, a result of “the pilot study on Lagos Coastal Health that documented the health issues of people along the Lagos lagoon coastline. This is how I first started visiting these hidden villages where it seems that time has stood still. I took hundreds of shots – of the incredibly deep green environment, the aquatic splendor that abounds and, of course, the people living in these seemingly peaceful but also distressed places.”

If you’ve ever been to places like Makoko and Epe, prime focus of “Greener Pastures,” you can’t but agree with Alonge concerning the deprivation in those communities. His photographs and films couldn’t be more telling of life in those places. For instance, there is barely potable water to drink, darkly recalling Coleridge’s suffering seamen in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Water, water everywhere but not a little drop to drink.”

Worst of all, some of the children are out of school, deprived of the very thing – education – that should stand them in good stead compared to their counterparts in Lagos metropolis, as if they are cut off from civilization, a point Alonge pointedly noted.

“This part of Lagos has never been seen before like this – it holds great potential for domestic tourism, agriculture and fishing, creating better lives in these parts of Lagos can also reduce pressure on urban slums. We have to fix public education for these children, improve their livelihoods and deal with the wider environmental issues such as water hyacinth and other heavily polluting elements like plastic. Creating passageways for fishing boats is also a priority – to improve mobility and trade.”

More than anything else is Alonge’s desire for “the younger generations to get connected with art and the environment.”

On that note, the artist and his partners made sure “Greener Pastures” was not only an adult affair. Just yesterday, they had kids perform a dance drama and a workshop on art and the environment that was rounded off with a drawing competition.

As any museum crawler or gallery stalker can tell you, exhibitions around here follow a predictable pattern: there is no more talk about the event itself post-exhibition. “Greener Pastures” was anything but that.

As you are browsing THEWILL right now either in a swank neighbourhood in Surulere or Ikoyi, a middle-of-the-range pad in Ikeja or Festac Town, dozens of men and women, experts on environmental matters and concerned professionals are having a public debate on the exhibition’s theme.

Some of those who attended the opening have indicated their interest in participating in the public discourse. There is, for instance, Damilola Emmanuel, MD of Lagos State Waterways Authority, music producer, Kayode Samuel, TV star Carol King and Theo Lawson of Freedom Park. The list also include Lucy Pearson, Country Director of the British Council, Yemisi Ransome-Kuti of Lagos Island Connect, Michel Deelen, Dutch Consul General, Lagos, Genco Sanli, representative of the Belgian government, Katherine Felgenhauer, Director AHK, Nadine Seigert, Director Goethe Institute.

Commenting on the gravity of the situation of the riverine communities in Epe, Alonge has said: “The beauty of the art works is in sharp contrast with the stark reality of these villagers, invisible as a result of predatory seaweed and lack of political will. The challenges faced by people in these riverine communities are universal, while being compounded by external factors.

“We have to fix public education for these children, improve their livelihoods and deal with the wider environmental causes by water hyacinth and other heavily polluting elements like plastic.”

There is a step in that direction already. Proceeds from the exhibition, Alonge promised, will be donated to children in those communities for educational purposes and other essential needs.