By Adeola Aderounmu.
This year 2007 marks the 30th Anniversary of Festac Town as a residential area. Festac is still one of the largest residential estates south of Saharan Africa. When I started living in Festac Town in 1977 with the rest of my family, I was only 5 years old. Leaving number 26 Oni Street in Obele area of Surulere Mainland behind and arriving in Festac, in my eyes, was like finally reaching paradise.
My earliest memory of Festac was that my father left us behind in Surulere to prepare a wonderful place of abode for us. But I have no qualms that my infanthood was formed in Surulere. I remembered so vividly that song with which we entered Festac but maybe not in the correct words:
International year of the child, International year of the child, A year of joy, a year of faith, A year of education, Festac 77, Festac 77
The Festac Houses were thrown open the same year that Nigeria hosted the second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos from January 15 to February 12, 1977. The Festival of Arts and Culture (hence the name FESTAC) placed Nigeria on the spot on the world stage at that time and the FESTAC houses readily provided accommodation to visitors from all over the world.
That glorious event brought more fame to this ever wealthy nation. It was interesting to see that many buildings and houses were not even completed at the time that the Festival was taking place. A lot of blocks of flats towards the West end of 5th Avenue were uncompleted (we called them uncompleted houses in the beginning and as kids, we went jumping from the 1st and 2nd floors of these uncompleted buildings down onto the heap of sand below).
The situation was the same for many blocks of flats and duplex apartments on 7th Avenue and 23 Road. Many people on 1st and 3rd Avenues concluded that the Oyinbo men built their own houses and flats while they left the remaining for the Nigerian builders. In their eyes, those on us at the east end of 23 Road and others at the tail end of 7th Avenue are living in the inferior parts of Festac Town (it was an inexpensive joke anyway).
Festac Town houses were constructed to accommodate all classes of people in the Nigerian society-low, medium and high income earners. With as low as N1, N2 or N3 naira, depending on their income, people ballot for flats and houses and they got allocations on a mortgage basis. In Festac Town of the late 70s and early 80s, life was indeed very good.
Our existence was village-like (the addresses actually read Festac village at the onset) because at that time, there were a lot of friendly interactions that promoted community-type of existence. Our parents held regular meetings as new residents of a paradise village.
The population was so moderate you could tell the names of the visitors and friends that came to your house. My father could almost recite all the names and addresses of the people at each meeting. To this day, he still knows especially if those people are still living in Festac Town and they have not sold their flats or houses!
As children, we longed for the regular summer holidays when we played football. The playgrounds were many and they come in various shapes and sizes. I knew virtually all the football clubs and which communities they represented. Father Coaster was from 23 Road where I live, Net Bombers was from 401 Road and the Strikers came from the 7th Avenue. Festac Town eventually gave its fair share of players to the football world including footballers in the National team and other famous teams around the world: The Olisehs, The Ipayes, The Ekehs, Victor Agali, and Bimbo Fatokun just to mention a few. When we are not on holiday, we went to school near our homes. In the beginning the public schools (popular called Jakande schools) were named like this: school 1, school 2 up to school 12.
Eventually the schools took up definite names like Central Primary School, or 5th Avenue Primary School. There was a school on 7th Avenue close to where palm wine tappers carry out their noble jobs. That school till today is famously called Elemu primary school. The Palm tress are long gone anyway, having been replaced by houses! School time was fun especially the breaks when I went looking for butterflies and grasshoppers to catch. Sometimes we played in the sand with seeds of a special fruit called Agbalumo seeds-we called them stations.
Though Football always brought the entire people in Festac Town together, it was not the only thing that counted for us as kids in those days. We also took time out into the forest that surrounded Festac. There is a famous place along 4th Avenue called Canal. What looks like a small river flows through this area and there we went to learn how to swim-many of us could still not swim anyway.
Canal was forbidden for us but we went anyhow and many of us received beatings of our lives doing that. Our parents genuinely feared that we could drown. Sometimes, heavy rainfall resulted to water being collected in some shallow valleys on this 4th Avenue and that was safe for us to swim in or we simply caught frog-fishes (Opolo-fish) and took them home as temporary pets. Even real fishes died when we took them home. We didn’t understand then that we could have moved them from salt water to fresh water.
As I grew up, I love Festac. I love school and I enjoyed the warm company of my friends and other people. It was while growing up in Festac that I didn’t see anything wrong with little boys playing or mingling with girls of the same age group. Before I was 10 years old, I didn’t see anything wrong with my participation in games like suwe and ten-ten.? I went on to do suwe when I was well into my teens.
That ideal communal beginning in Festac Town helped us as children to make friends across ethnic alliances. It promoted team work and gave us proper childhood. For real, we all spoke a common language, that is Pidgin English and almost everyone spoke Yoruba. It was later that I learnt about tribes and that the other kids spoke other languages to their parents at home.
Those whose efforts gave birth to this kind of housing project deserved the best commendations. The contributions of some people should be appreciated, for example, people like Fortune Ebie-the first Manager of the Festac Houses, the then Head of State Yakubu Gowon and the thoughtful Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson-the governor who gave out the expanse of land on which these magnificent structures were constructed. They had a dream which came true in the early settlers of Festac Town.
Festac was growing, more people were moving in and life was still worth living. The supermarkets were splendid. The kiosks were minimal in number and strategically placed. The nearby Agboju night market was clean, full of regular things to buy and sell. Electricity was okay and the giant stationary generators were fully installed.
The government managed transportation system was perfect with the famous Lagos State Transport Corporation (LSTC) red buses taking workers to their jobs in the morning and bringing them safely into Festac in the evening. I remember bus number 000 goes to Oyingbo. One woman called Mama Ibeji of blessed memory in our block was working with LSTC. Oh! How she loved that conductor job, she felt dignified. It was worth it in that fine uniform and the courtesy accorded to her daily in the neighbourhood and on the bus.
It was when I got into the University of Lagos in 1990/91 (to receive my first education outside Festac Town) that I realized that Festac Town houses and their residents enjoyed high rating among other places and people in Lagos. However, at that time, I didn’t know how to rebuff the image of Festac that is stuck or painted in the cerebral of these raters who don’t live in Festac. From sometime after the mid 80s to this day, Festac continues to tumble and transform endlessly into an arena that resembles more of a jungle than a town. How did we get to this point?
(to be continued)-Read the part 2!