By Moses Kadiri
MOSES KADIRI writes that Badagry Diaspora Festival celebrated two weeks ago is one of the rare limelight moments for the historic slave port city despite promises by the Lagos State government to transform it into a tourist destination of choice. Given its physical distance from the Lagos metropolis, Badagry seldom makes the headlines. But when it comes to history and prospects, this town that straddles the Nigeria – Benin Republic border certainly scores big. As a former slave port, which played host to slaves and some returnee slaves during the era of the once obnoxious trade, it is a town that teems with history. With rich and enduring history, relics and icons as well as diverse memories, over the years, not much has been done to tap the rich prospect and transform it into a rich tourist enclave of choice despite the promises and beautiful plans highlighted by successive governments.
It was therefore a refreshing experience to visit this neglected town two weeks ago to observe the Badagry Diaspora Festival, which was put together by some of the indigenes of the town in conjunction with other partners. Refreshing and revealing in a sense as being the good thing to have happened to the town and its people in recent time. It was instructive that the celebration of the festival held during the global celebration of the International Day for the Remembrance of Slave Trade and its Abolition, which was declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1988. It was thus a fitting opportunity to draw attention to the town and earn for it and its people the much deserved global attention and patronage on such a glorious and auspicious moment. This point might have been missed by the government but not for a few of individuals who saw the need to continue to play up the existence of their community and the prospect it holds for all by throwing their hats into the ring to organise the nearly one-week event, witnessed by a number of people from the Diaspora and within the state among others.
The founder of African Renaissance Foundation (AREFO), Babatunde Olaide–Mesewaku who was one of the brains behind the event, described the festival as a platform to draw global attention to the importance of the town in Africans’ history as well as attract blacks in the Diaspora to their African ancestry. ‘‘It is to draw Diaspora Africans back to their roots, the festival targeted those dislodged from their ancestral homes to the Diaspora, as Badagry played a decisive role in their dislocation. ‘‘The festival was designed to create a global platform for the gradual reintegration of the Diaspora and to celebrate the history of the African Diaspora, especially those that contributed to the emancipation of blacks from slavery and to promote the tangible and intangible heritage of Africa and Badagry, as melting points.’’
To underscore these points, a series of events were organized during the festival and these included a colloquium in honour of Toussaint Louverture whose genius and resilience transformed an entire society of slaves into the independent state of Haiti and a blend of cultural and entertainment feasts of colours. There were persistent drumbeats, trenchant sound of trumpet rented the atmosphere as children, the youth and elderly displayed their dancing prowess during the festival which also witnessed drama presentations, boat regatta, boat racing, swimming and fishing competitions. The competitions drew participation from the various segments of the town’s indigenes and cultural troupes, which saw the festival as one of the best means to make a strong cultural statement. The entire eight quarters in Badagry fully participated in the festival with each quarter dressed differently.
Some wore comic attire during the carnival procession which was led by the town’s monarch and his royal court across the town, offering blessings and pouring libations in the various shrines and ancestral points in the town as part of the atonement and purgation ceremony. The grand finale which was held at Badagry Grammar School was another cultural extravaganza with splendid displays by the people. The most compelling display of the day was perhaps that by the Ofe spirit. Other spectacular performances were from Zangbeto masquerade, Sato drummers, Vothun, Page. The Festival was spiced with raffle draws by the sponsor of the event, MTN, with various gift items won by the people. The international symposium organized by AREFO held at the Administrative Staff College, Topo, a town in Badagry, was also an interesting session.
The lecture titled, Toussaint Louverture: Catalyst of the Global Struggle for the Liberation of the Black People, attracted scholars and dignitaries comprising a delegation from Haiti, among others. “Anytime a festival is in place it improves the local economy of the people. Apart from that there were empower-ment programmes for people to set-up their own businesses from the sponsor MTN. These are things that are beneficial to the community, the impact is much on the community, and these are what festival bring,” Olaide-Mesewaku said. “We used the festival to integrate with people in the Diaspora because of the important role Badagry played during the trans-Atlantic slave trade especially to development and abolition of slave trade, the tragic history of the past is now bringing joy to the people, reunion with the Diaspora that is the importance, and it is also to showcase Africa’s rich cultural heritage to the outside world. You can see the glamour, spectacle, magical display.”
A tourist haven begs for attention
No matter how one sees it, Badagry remains home to some of Nigeria’s most coveted tangible and intangible heritage, historical sites, landscapes, artifacts and relics of human slavery. Its long Atlantic coastal area provided the gateway for shipping slaves to Europe during the slave era. The “point of no return”, located far into the ocean, is a sad reminder of this history. Taking time off the colourful event, one strayed into the heart of the town and its other arteries in exploration of some of its iconic and enduring attraction. One of such is the first storey building in Nigeria located along the Marine road. Despite having seen better years, it is still an attraction to behold with its colonial features still in sight and various efforts made over the years to preserve it evident for people to see. Besides housing the colonial missionaries then, it was the abode of Bishop Ajayi Crowder who was a noted missionary.
Despite its poor and beggarly state, it still attracts a number of visitors. Mrs. Omolade Kunle came from Lagos with her children and friends on this day to savour what the first storey building in Nigeria looks like. According to her: “The children have been hearing about the first storey building in Nigeria and since they are on holiday l thought it will be nice for them to come and see for themselves. The children are really excited to be here and you can see that on their faces.” Apart from the historic relics that this building houses, other places to glimpse a number of the town’s slave relics and artifacts are the Badagry Heritage Museum, Abass Seriki Faremi’s Brazilian Baracoon, and Mobee Royal Family Slave Museum, which is directly opposite the slave port. All of these house vivid images of the dark era of humanity and play on your emotion that if you are not strong enough you wouldn’t know when your emotion overcomes you as you succumb to the adrenalin as tears drip down while beholding some of the images or listening to the guttural voices of the tour guides as they retold the tales behind some of the images and relics.
The Slave Barracoon used to be a prison where slaves were kept before they were sold and then taken to the slave ships and shipped to Europe. The museum, an old architectural building, which has seen many years of renewal, has embossed on it this inscription: “Brazilian Baracoon slave cell 1840.” It houses some of the relics and antiques given to the people by the slave masters in exchange for their human cargoes and other items. These included umbrella, ceramic plates, jugs, cannons of war, slave ship replica; slave’s drinking pot, slave shackles used to lock the legs of the slaves from escaping; slave chain, and art work of slaves working in sugar cane plantation, among others. Visitors’ emotions are further tested at the site of the famous Vlekete Slave Market, a spot where slaves were put on exhibition for sale to the highest bidders then.
The tour guide craftily plays on your emotion as he paints a vivid image of the typical scene witnessed during the era. This market site is today witnessing a construction of new building, which the authority say is not to distract from the importance of the site but to further enhance it but however, this has also attracted dissenting voices who seem not to trust the motive of the government in this new venture. Part of the attraction here is also Brazilian architecture reflected in many houses while some still bear their old clay features which ought to be preserved and maintained for the benefit and delight of tourists. There is also the spot where Christianity was first preached in Nigeria under the Agia Tree by Rev. Bernard Freeman of Methodist. This spot has over the years been preserved and remains perhaps one of the most visited sites in the town. The European grave, where most of the missionaries and colonialists were buried also came into view.
The picture of neglect and lack of development is really obvious for anyone visiting the town to see. For instance, many of the houses, which pre-date the slave era, have become dilapidated with some of them having their roof blown off while some of the sections are fallen apart and begging for urgent attention. The town also lacks portable drinking water while the roads are also bad. The road leading to Mobee Royal Family Slave Museum adjacent to the old slave port, is in a very deplorable state and it is this same road that connects visitors to the first storey building. A portion of the road has been taken over by weeds making it impassable and not motorable as well. “Who would believe that development started here?” Furthermore, he said: “If proper attention is given to Badagry it would have been the most valuable city in the country, but that is not happening, only a few foreigners who know the history come here.
l will not blame our people for not valuing what they have, it is often like that,” Felix Ninofu, a visibly disappointed visitor noted. Olaide-Mesewaku is also not happy about the poor state of his town particularly its tourism prospect. Seeking to draw attention to the state, ex-governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu introduced the Black Heritage Festival with Badagry as the host of the first two editions of the festival which were well celebrated. For some years the festival fell out of the spotlight until few years ago when it was revived. But unfortunately, the core celebration has been taken out of Badagry and ever since the celebration of the Black Heritage Festival only features Badagry as a foot note and not the soul of the festival. This perhaps also explains the fact that the festival has been anything but successful and not fully focused on The Diaspora. Former Lagos governor, Babatunde Fashola during his tenure also outlined a beautiful programme for transforming the town into a tourist enclave. Among some of the plans were turning it into an energy city, film city and many more. But beyond the rhetoric nothing serious was done to bring these to fruition. Perhaps the only tourism project in site now is the Marina project, a multi-faceted complex that is to house different leisure, entertainment and tourist facilities. However, it is not yet clear the direction of the new government as no pronouncement has been made yet of its tourism vision. “We are not happy with the way things are going in Badagry; this is the cradle of Western civilization in Nigeria,” he said. “Western education started here in Nigeria, Christianity started here in Nigeria, and the first Christmas celebration started in Badagry.
There are so many things, but here are we like someone that has forgotten its source, when one forgets it source such person is lost. That is part of the problem with Nigeria, communities that attention is supposed to be given to make them relevant and models are abandoned. It is not good at all. “Not only Badagry, but other communities that attention is supposed to be given are left to rot in the country as nothing is been done. If the people in power can realised these, Nigeria will go places. Since the time of democracy, Badagry has not enjoyed anything, Badagry person have not been made neither a minister nor commissioner, but people in other communities in the state are being appointed, the 5five divisions in Lagos state are duly appointed to fill government positions, only one is left out, and that is Badagry.” However, Peter Mesewaku, who works in the tourism sector in Badagry, sees it differently. for him, the government is aware of the tourism prospect of Badagry and is doing something about it. But he laments what he calls the lack of tourism awareness and knowledge among the people of Badagry.
“There are the Badagry tourism development projects that the last government of Lagos State started, once they are completed they will further enhance the tourism potential in Badagry. The projects involve construction of information centre, building of new Badagry slave market museum, construction of chalets at Gburefu, and upgrade of the slave route. I want to believe that once the projects are completed it will further enhance the tourism potential Badagry is noted for,” he said. “The awareness of tourism in Badagry is very low, the local government that is supposed to be the custodian of tourism resources is not paying much attention, they don’t have the capacity, you do not give what you do not have. We need to sensitise them; tourism is the biggest employer of labour all over the world, each time tourist visit the benefits spread, site manager, transporters, fruit seller, ice cream seller, even horse riders make money through tourism, how many people can the government employ? But tourism can create that employment, but the capacity is not there yet,” lamented Mesewaku.