Tolulope Itegboje’s poignant and heartfelt documentary film, Awon Boyz opens with a definition of success but it is not the one you are used to.
According to Uchman, one of his subjects, success is finding what you are looking for at any given time.
What is he looking for, this thick set Igbo man with thick
lips? He wants the freedom to eke out a living, albeit a precarious one
hustling on the streets of Lagos.
Uchman is an area boy, a street hustler with a baby mama and
a daughter. “I am happy for the life I am living,” he says staring straight
into the camera. “I am living a very free life.”
But how happy and free can a life be when it is circumscribed
by poverty and lack and deprivation. How happy can life be in the ghetto?
This is one of the questions at the heart of this stirring
and visceral documentary film, written, produced and directed by Tolu Itegboje.
Executive produced by advertising maven, Steve Babaeko, it is the latest
offering from Zero Degrees.
The film which tracks the goings and comings of eight area
boys across three Lagos ghettoes provides us a handle for interrogating and understanding
who an area boy is, where they come from and what motivates them.
In what ugly smithy are these scarred and often toothless street
dwellers forged? Uchman, always voluble, has a thesis and it has to do with the
road not taken.
“I can tell you categorically that 70% of the people you find
on the streets of Lagos deviated from their original plans.”
But it is not always so. Ete beat his own path to the streets
without help. With his father dead, the family relocates to Ondo but the
provincial and sedate pace of Ondo is not to Ete’s taste and so he returns to Lagos
where by his own admission he steals from teachers, steals from classmates and
steals from neighbours.
His shenanigans lead him straight to the street where he now
calls home even though he has achieved some success – “I get children and I get
house. My house dey for Ifo and na N30,000 for one year.”
Volume came to Lagos from the north. After seeing his city of
Kano riven by violence, he comes to Lagos to chase his dreams as an artist. He
checks into his hotel and lives it up until one day he realizes he has run out
of money and unable to secure lodging in one of the rooms, he sleeps outside.
When he wakes up, he discovers that he has been cleaned out – no phone, no
money, no jewelry.
So, Volume joins them because he can’t beat them and in no
time becomes “the man who arranges bitches for niggas.”
Today, Volume, with his fresh skin and beautiful locks is an
area boy who makes a fairly decent living hawking female flesh and
Onigho believes that to call him an area boy is to insult
him. “It is an understatement to call me an area boy. If I dress now come
outside you go sabi who I be?” he asks.
He tells a story that captures the quick thinking and
resourcefulness needed to survive on the streets.
A man sees him and says he wants to buy a puppy (and for
those who do not know, Lagos is probably the only city in the world where you
can buy a dog on a street corner.) Onigho says, of course I can get you the
dog. The man returns the next day, asks for his account number and wires
N80,000 to Onigho.
“So, the man paid money to me but there was a problem, I did not have the puppy,” he says with a laugh, his eyes twinkling.
He goes in search of the particular breed, pays for it,
delivers to the man and makes a profit.
Watching Awon Boyz one gets the impression that the streets
are often tribe agnostic. No one really cares where you are from so long as you
can stake your claim on the street, which is why an igbo boy like Ugonna with
raspy Yoruba accent would appropriate Oshodi as his own telling us that you don’t
mess with Oshodi boys.
Tolulope Itegboje’s film grapples with a tough subject. Area
boys are a Lagos menace. They are seen as thugs and thieves and pick pockets
but in telling their story, he does not exploit their situation for cheap gain
and neither does he judge. His directorial approach is to observe and present
leaving the viewers to make their own value judgements.
His narrative style and the stories he chooses to present
help humanize these rough living, weed smoking, street hustlers by showing
their softer sides.
For almost all of them who have children, the birth of new life is an opportunity for righting wrongs .
When Yobo, who says he did “not come to Lagos to sell red oil
and yellow garri” talks about his woman, his face is transformed and he is a
young man like any other in the full grip of affection. He says the birth of
his baby was the “happiestest momentest day of my life” while for Uchman, the
announcement of his baby’s birth was a cue for a celebration and confirmation
of his street cred.
“I did not spend a dime. Na turn up. I got men!”
But the street is not just hustle and hard living. The street
as Ete confesses is a battle field and he must know.
Ete has a face that looks like a street map drawn by a mad
man and his body is no better. After telling a story of being beaten to an inch
of his life, Ete says with regret “I hate all the scars but street na battle
Agamma, a habitue of The New Afrika Shrine tells a story
about Lion and Deji and it is one of the saddest street stories you will ever
It is a Thursday and Femi Kuti has just finished his show. Lion
buys some suya and as he spreads it out to eat, Deji dips in and snags a piece
of cabbage. Lion is incensed. He punches Deji who falls and cracks his skull
open. Deji bleeds out and Lion tries to run. Area boys who have witnessed the
incident grab him. Lion ends up in jail and distraught at having killed his
friend starts pounding his head against the wall of his cell and eating his own