- Interview by
- Dika Ofoma
A Nigerian’s worst nightmare is an encounter with area boys, who are also known as agbero. They are loosely organized gangs of street teenagers and adult males operating in the Southern Nigerian cities of Aba, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, Benin, Ibadan, and Lagos, where their notoriety is more renowned. They extort money from passers-by, traders, motorists and passengers, pick pockets, peddle drugs, and during elections become racketeering tools for fraudulent politicians in exchange for financial compensation. But what else do we know about area boys?
The term “area boy” was originally used to refer to anyone who identified with the street, locality or the area where he resides. These young men (and sometimes women) grouped themselves into a form of sociocultural organization who carried out duties to their communities that included acting as de facto security personnels and organizers of local parties and festivals.
That was in the 70s and early years of the 80s. The later years of the 80s came with repressive military leadership that not only disregarded education but instituted policies that brought about economic hardships that thrust many families into poverty. Parents could no longer send their children to school. Youth unemployment became rampant. Another consequence was that some of these young men who were in service to their communities morphed into terrorizing hoodlums. Today, they are maligned and stigmatized for their criminality.
Tolulope Itegboje’s poignant and heartfelt film Awon Boyz, currently showing on Netflix, is a documentary concerned with the other side of the Lagos street boys. Without endorsing their nefarious activities, he presents them with an opportunity to share their stories. And what they offer is a balanced narrative about their lives, which allows us an understanding of who they are and why they are. I spoke with Itegboje about the film, the inspiration behind it, creating it, and the need to humanize the street boys of Lagos.
Area boys especially those in Lagos are known to be a single thing—notorious. And not without reason; almost every Nigerian has either a theft or an extortion experience with them. Why did you think it important to humanize them by telling their stories?
That’s a pretty good question. You’re right when you say area boys are only known for their notoriety, especially as tools for violence. While aspects of this are true, it is still a single-sided narrative. And so the reason why it was important to humanize them was to challenge this and acknowledge their humanity in sharing their full story. Because disregarding that they are humans as we are means treating them as less than. Because if we act as though they have no sense of shared values, a shared experience with us, it now becomes a case of us against them. Or them against us. And to be honest, we are kind of the same. We have similar hopes and dreams. I don’t think anybody wakes up and decides they want to be an area boy. A lot of us in privileged positions need to realize that but for fate and circumstances, we could be in a similar situation.
True. I was struck by how willing they were to share the minutest detail about their lives. I also appreciate that there wasn’t a voice-over narrating their lives and telling us who they were. Whatever conclusion we arrive at about area boys was gleaned from hearing them share their stories. Was it a conscious decision?
Yeah. Absolutely. And you know, this project is special for me because it is one of the few times as a filmmaker I went in with one intention and I was able to achieve exactly that intention. I think I should give a background to making this documentary. So I worked as an advertising agency producer for six years. My job entailed producing TV commercials and obviously, in the course of the work we had to interact with area boys. I had this music video shoot in Ajah once, and we hired the police and security and didn’t expect area boys to show up but they did. And to our surprise, the police officers didn’t do anything. In fact, they were the ones who asked us to pay the area boys off. And so from then, every shoot I’ve done that involves an exterior scene, there is a part of me that is prepared to sort out area boys. So in the course of seeing them and interacting with them, I just realized that I had to make something about them. Initially, I wanted to make a musical short film about area boys and present them as these cool guys who don’t answer to anyone. But then it evolved because I realized that would be incomplete without some story and I didn’t know the story so I started researching area boys and how they ended up and the one thing that struck me was what you mentioned about there just being a single narrative about them.
The more research I did, I also realized that there was no real example of a case where area boys had been allowed to tell their stories. The media’s reportage was concerned with that one narrative. At some point when making the film, I thought of including interviews with everyday people sharing their experiences with area boys. In which case, an area boy shares his story, then you cut to someone talking about how area boys robbed them. In a sense, it almost feels like you are passing judgement. And so we decided on just letting the area boys share their stories. And this doesn’t mean that in humanizing them we were endorsing everything they do. It was also important that in telling this story we needed them to confront and take responsibility for the violence they cause. That is why there is a whole segment where we are having a conversation with these guys about violence and if they recognize how destructive it is sometimes.
Yeah. I think it’s well thought out. You didn’t pass judgment in telling their stories, and neither did they try to absolve themselves of their misdeeds. I think I liked that they owned up to it and merely were interested in telling us how they became who they are.
I think that was something that struck us: how incredibly self-aware these guys are.
I think something we learn from Awon Boyz is that these street boys are different, their individual stories differ; what unites them is the social deprivation they’ve all experienced. I’m curious to know whose story you found the most fascinating and why?
It’s a little tough for me, to be honest, to say that anyone, in particular, stands out. I found all of them equally fascinating. If you dig through there are insights and lessons into all their stories.
All right. For me, it was Volume who had come to Lagos to pursue his music dreams, loses all his valuables in one night, and had to become a street pimp to survive. His crushed dream almost brought me to tears. I was reminded of how uncertain life is.
That’s interesting. I like how he sees the street as pivotal to his story, but still has the awareness to say that he doesn’t want it for his kids.
What was the writing/creative process like?
Interesting. I spent about a year researching the topic, which in hindsight was an insane amount of time. But it did produce some interesting insights into how I approached the conversations with the guys. We shot the interviews, which ended up being long, and then transcribed those interviews. I worked closely with a wonderful script editor named Omotayo Adeola to craft a script/edit guide for the editors. But I find that the story as we have it now didn’t come together until the editing started. We essentially began this harrowing process of moving stuff around—taking stuff out, adding new stuff for greater emotional context, shooting new footage to contextualize what the guys were saying; exploring the relationship between particular visual and narrative pieces to tell the best story possible. That whole process essentially took about a year to complete and if I had hair, I would have been pulling it out every second of the way till we got to the end when it all came together beautifully.
So I’m wondering, have the cast of Awon Boyz seen the documentary yet? What did they think of it?
They have seen it twice. They saw it at a screening at iREP Film Festival, which is held in Lagos every year. I think it was important to us that they saw it at that screening as well. Although, it was a bit of a leap of faith because it was the first time that anybody outside of the internal core team was going to see the documentary and so we didn’t know how anybody would react to it. But it was amazing because we had people in the audience that were crying. The response was overwhelming. Just seeing all those people connect to their stories and be so welcoming and embracing of them in this setting was a lot for them to see. Even my parents were at that screening. Following that, my dad had this group of businessmen in his church invite them over to see the documentary again. It was really special for them because it achieved our purpose for the documentary when we spoke to them the first time. We wanted people to see them in a different light. For them, that was sort of a mission fulfilled and a dream come true.
We now have a balanced story about area boys. We have come to see them as multidimensional, not just as a menace to society. Yes, they extort money from motorists but they are also loving fathers and wonderful friends. There’s an element of social activism in ensuring and telling this complete story. But I’m wondering if your activism extends beyond this. Do you have plans to further the conversation around area boys and in helping to alleviate their situation? Do you feel a sense of responsibility?
Yeah. We do feel a sense of responsibility. I thought I was only going to spend a year working on this film but here we are three years after we shot, and I’m still talking about it. I’m in constant conversations with the guys about ways to support them beyond monetary help, which, of course, is an aspect that we cannot ignore as you rightly pointed out. So, one of the things that we did was to set aside a portion of the revenues from the film and give it to each of the guys. We are also putting them in touch with people who have reached out to say they want to help. And the guys know that they can call me to support them in whatever way I can personally.
But like I said, the conversation goes beyond that. I believe we all have a responsibility to these guys. We all have a role to play. It is not enough to say it’s the government’s responsibility. The government can’t do it alone. Private organizations have a role to play, individuals have a role to play, nonprofit organizations have a role to play. When #EndSars happened, we were the ones who felt the heat from the criminal elements in the aftermath. And so we have to take it seriously. And I believe that the single most important thing I could have done as a filmmaker was to use my voice and skills to call attention to this and create room to have the conversation about why it is important to understand these guys, so we can better interact and co-exist with them. Beyond money, it is that and asking how do we create equal opportunities for them. How do we stop their continued marginalization and disenfranchisement? How do we move them from the fringes of society and reintegrate them?