Me, Eyo, and the Gangs of Lagos, By Wale Bakare

I heard the commotion before I saw what was responsible. It was coming from the corridor outside our flat in the Airforce Quarters where we lived in Victoria Island at the time. I dragged my gaze away from the talking box in front of me where Tom & Jerry (or some other animated characters) had me engrossed in their black and white world and directed it to the door leading into the parlour where the noise was coming from. Suddenly, the door burst open and this ‘ghost’ floated in, chanting some incomprehensible gibberish. It carried a sword (or so I thought at the time) which it raised high above its head and was about to strike me dead. I screamed. Louder than any 8 year old had the natural ability to do. The ‘ghost’ stopped dead in its tracks. It dropped the ‘sword’ and flipped over part of its face. I saw my father. The ghost had gotten my father. I screamed even louder (if it was possible to do so). My father quickly got rid of the rest of the white robe and lifted me up, hugging me tightly, totally oblivious of my wet shorts. I smelt the familiar scent of his 555 cigarettes forcing aside the smell from my loss of bladder control and immediately stopped crying. It really was my father. That was the only time I saw an Eyo in the flesh, aside from one other time when I happened to be spending some of my school holidays at my Grandmother’s home in Isale-Eko. We were seated on the porch and I was wrapped in her arms. I felt safe because I knew that all the Five Houses of the Eyos put together could not mess with Mama Isale-Eko!

And that was my introduction to the Eyo masquerade. That experience left me traumatised and I have never gotten over my dread of the white-garbed interlocutors between the land of the living and the spirit world. I am no sissy, as those who knew me as we made our way through childhood, adolescence, youth, and now adulthood can attest to but show me an Eyo up close and you will see my back pretty sharpish. As young Lagosians, taking part in the infrequent Eyo festivals was the ambition of many of my friends. I would have loved to do so as well but I couldn’t even be persuaded to cross the Carter bridge on to Lagos Island to partake, even as a mere spectator. My friends, K.K, Deji, and Tunde would prepare meticulously. They would pay the token fee for the ‘Aga’ (hat), the Aropale (the white robe), and the Opambata (the wooden staff), which made up the total ensemble of the Eyo. They would also practice Aro (the chant). They belonged to different Groups but it was all fun. At least it used to be. However, like it has been in several other areas of our life as a people, the rot crept in. Allowed to grow unchecked, the cancer of criminality spread. The Eyo festival that was proudly ‘carried’ by my father, a soldier, and my friends, undergraduates and well brought up youth (K.K. for instance is now a PhD), as well as various other young men cutting across differing ages and social classes, was gradually taken over by ‘Area boys’ and motorpark touts who had no respect for the enormity of the Aga they put on their heads. As I said, it did not happen today. The rot started a while back and even during the early eighties, the Eyo festival had already started seeing turf rivalry get deadly and battles for superiority (which was already established by traditional hierarchy) settled through the use of ‘ake UTC’ (the small cleavers sold in the UTC store back then) instead of the dexterity of the performers.

The negative developments notwithstanding, the beautiful Adamu Orisa Festival, otherwise referred to as the Eyo masquerade remains an intrinsic thread in the tapestry of Lagos culture, having  been part and parcel of the people for hundreds of years and for several generations. Lagosians feel very strongly about it. What is there not to love about the real Eyo? Is it the beautiful gyrations of the dexterous dancers, the dazzling white of the Aropale, accentuated by the colourful Aga, or the rhythmic chant of the Aro that would not make the head of any true born ‘omo Eko’ expand with pride. The gaiety and ceremony that is the Eyo festival embodies the spirit of Eko and the ethos of Yorubaland. Which is why I got interested when the media became awash with criticism of the portrayal of the Eyo in particular and Isale Eko in general in the recently released Jade Osiberu production, Gangs of Lagos. I wondered how bad it could be and when my friend and fellow Lagosian, Olabisi, assured me I would not be pleased at the way my hometown is presented, I had to watch the movie.

And I was shocked. Not at the portrayal of the Eyo. Not at the representation of Lagos or Isale Eko. My consternation was at the uproar over the film. I went into it already expecting to be riled. What had they done to my Lagos, my Isale Eko, my Eyo? And instead, what I saw was one of the best produced Nigerian movies I had seen (albeit I have not seen an awful lot). I had to go check the category under which the film was listed to see if it was supposed to be a Documentary. It was listed under Movies. People, movies are fiction, not reality. That is why we go to watch them. They allow us suspend reality for 120 minutes and lose ourselves in the world of make-believe. This film was not an exposition on the Eyo festival, nor was it a sociological investigation of the lifestyle of Isale Eko people. This was a work of fiction, using known names of places and historical events as background. From the quantum of ire I had seen expressed in the media, I had expected the film to primarily center on the Eyo festival. I was amazed that the Eyo featured in only 2 scenes, 15 years apart. For a total of about 6 minutes. And it was nothing about the festival itself but criminals using the anonymity provided by the costume and the spontaneity of the festivities as cover to commit a crime. How could that be a summary of the Eyo? The truth is that what was portrayed in the film could very well happen today. It has not happened does not mean it cant. That is what film producers and creative people do: they show what could be before it is. 

And as for the anger I was supposed to feel about Isale Eko being portrayed as a slum or ghetto. Come off it. This fictional Isale Eko, as much as it shows a lot of Lagos Island does not represent Lagos. The Gangs of London is a TV series about criminal gangs set in London. It is not London. Neither is the Gangs of New York representative of New York. Peaky Blinders, one of the most violent TV series I have ever seen is set in Birmingham. Does that make it Birmingham? People need to look at movies for what they truly are: fictional creations from fertile, creative minds. They are to be viewed with a mindset of ‘suspension of disbelief’ (even though Nollywood sometimes expects you to watch its offerings with a suspension of sanity but that is another story). This means a deliberate decision on the part of the audience to believe what is not true to allow him or her enjoy the movie, book, or other fictional work. You don’t begin to compare every single nuance with reality. Which is why I think the whole hullabaloo over the Eyo and the portrayal of Isale Eko is pointless when there is so much more to be discussed in the film by those who wish to look at it beyond the mere entertainment value.

There were social issues dealt with in the movie that should be of greater concern to Lagosians. The politics of Lagos of the past 20 years is painted starkly, going just short of calling names. I am surprised that isn’t what is topping the discussions about the movie. The use of thugs for political ends, the way political godfathers destroy the lives of the youths while sending their own children to the best schools abroad, only for them to come back and continue to rule over the remnants lucky enough to still be alive. What about the trajectory a life could take when fate deals you a hand that is unexpected, like what happened to Oba when his adopted father and benefactor was brutally murdered. Was it his destiny to live a life of crime? Love and romance, hubris, karma, and so much more are stuffed into the 120 minutes and all people are talking about are the 6 minutes of the appearance of Eyo?

For me, it was pleasant to see Maleek Sanni of the Ikorodu Bois fame in a proper movie, showcasing his acting skills as Young Oba. He put up a commendable performance save for some of the common problems with children actors in Nigerian productions. A certain stiffness and lack of natural fluidity about their speech. He however did as good as any I’ve seen, especially considering he played such a major role. My favourite artiste was Bimbo Ademoye who played grown up Teni. This is the third time I am seeing her in a movie and she impresses every time. Adesuwa Etomi-Wellignton, despite her brave efforts, was miscast for the role she played. Maybe you would find someone that looks and sounds like her in Gangs of London or Gangs of New York, but definitely not in Gangs of Lagos. A Funke Akindele from 10 years ago would have killed the role. She deserves a 6/10 for effort though. The most likeable character was that of Panama or Ify (omo Igbo) played beautifully by Chike Osebuka. He had the audience rooting for him and I will leave it at that so as not to play the spoiler. And Pasuma should probably stick to singing Fuji. I’m not sure acting is his forte. Chioma Akpotha was quite good as Ify’s mother and her infusion of the igbo language into her lines was great. The undoubted star of the movie was Tobi Bakre who played Obalola. I see awards in his future. All in all, while I might have reservations about the scripting (I believe more research about the real language of the streets would have helped) and I am not a fan of films that mix Yoruba and English lines interchangeably, whatever misgivings I have are dispelled by the quality of production. Yeah, the fight scene are quite graphic and violent but that is all part of what makes a great production. We have moved a long way from when slow motion in Nigerian fight scenes were actually actually achieved by the actors moving as slowly as they could while holding their breaths. I score the Gangs of Lagos a 7/10.

Related Articles

Back to top button