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Out of a Nigerian Slum, a Poet Is Born

Poet, musician and activist Aj Dagga Tolar sits in his tiny shack in Ajegunle, a slum in Lagos, Nigeria. His poetry and music address the inequalities faced by the residents of the slum.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Poet, musician and activist Aj Dagga Tolar sits in his tiny shack in Ajegunle, a slum in Lagos, Nigeria. His poetry and music address the inequalities faced by the residents of the slum.
Ajegunle is called "The Jungle" because it's extremely difficult to survive there, Dagga Tolar says. He says he escapes the slum life through his creativity.
Meghan C. Sullivan, NPR /
Ajegunle is called "The Jungle" because it's extremely difficult to survive there, Dagga Tolar says. He says he escapes the slum life through his creativity.
Dagga Tolar looks at a collection of his poetry inside his shack in Ajegunle.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR /
Dagga Tolar looks at a collection of his poetry inside his shack in Ajegunle.
A dirt road in Ajegunle. The slum is home to about 5 million people, including Dagga Tolar.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR /
A dirt road in Ajegunle. The slum is home to about 5 million people, including Dagga Tolar.

Ajegunle, a sprawling slum of about 5 million residents on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria's noisy and chaotic commercial capital, has a notorious reputation. Its ominous nickname is "The Jungle." Yet it represents a microcosm of Africa's most populous nation, juggling Nigeria's diverse religions and ethnic and regional groups.

It also has some unexpected gems, including Aj Dagga Tolar, a Rastafarian poet and reggae musician who was born in Ajegunle, also called "The Jungle."

The slum greets visitors with a medley of odors — the smell of heaps of garbage and gutters, open sewage channels running between the tightly packed structures — and a symphony of sounds. Traditional juju music blares from a tinny loudspeaker, precariously perched in one of the tiny shops, while on the other side of the narrow, dusty dirt street, the voice of a muezzin floats out of a mosque. Also audible are the generators, ubiquitous in Nigeria, where endemic corruption has eaten into the nation's infrastructure and resulted in frequent power outages.

"It's one of the most popular slums, not just on the African continent, but the entire part of the world. It is in this part of the country that you meet the poor of the poorest, and we try to survive day in and day out," Dagga Tolar says.

It would be hard to miss Dagga Tolar in a crowd. Approaching 40, the poet, singer and activist is lanky, with distinctive, giant dreadlocks crowning his head, eyes eager and searching and a big, welcoming, gap-toothed smile. He has the look of a survivor.

He lives in a tiny shack with brightly painted blue walls. On the floor is a bare mattress. Everywhere you look, the room is crammed with CDs and books — from classics to poetry to political essays on poverty and survival. On one side is a poster of the late American rapper, Tupac Shakur.

Dagga Tolar says he feels fortunate to have a roof over his head — and it's one that he readily shares.

"If you had come here early in the morning, you would meet with about four or five persons who stay around, who of course don't have another alternative," he says.

"Ajegunle is called 'The Jungle' because it's extremely difficult to survive in this neighborhood. And people survive day to day on nothing, on practically nothing," he says. "Ajegunle has become a metaphor for the entirety of the Nigerian nation. Ajegunle is no longer special; it's a portrayal of what the whole country is: one big jungle city. And it portrays the picture of the ... angriest sections of the working population residing in this part of the country."

The people of Ajegunle are angry about poverty — no electricity, no water, no prospects, no future and, for many, no hope. And this is in Nigeria, the giant of West Africa, the continent's top petroleum exporter and a major crude-oil supplier to the United States. But in Nigeria, corruption is rife, and the rich are very rich, while the poor are very poor.

Dagga Tolar writes poetry and sings about such inequalities.

"Killing, you are killing our dreams, in every way and every day," he sings. He continues in spoken word: "And every time we find a way, they come around against us, because they don't want to pay, for the suffering and fighting every day that the people have to face in every way. And when we stand, the fire burn we body, for we can no longer hear the sound of melody. We are one people."

Dagga Tolar says he tries to escape the tough reality of slum life in Nigeria by being creative.

"My poetry and music is the highest expression of beauty," he says

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.