Badagry’s slave-trade era masquerader that ‘saved 11 children’ ••
The shrine at the Vlekete Slave Market. Inset: Paintings on the wall depicting the sacrifice of slaves
In this second part of his story on the slave wells of Badagry, which survived through the last 170 years, KUNLE FALAYI goes back to the ancient town in search of more relics of that era
On every street in Badagry, Lagos, one of Africa’s most prominent slave ports in the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th to the 19th centuries, signs of the era peek behind the curtain of modernisation, waiting to be pulled down by the hand of time.
While visitors have to rely mostly on verbal tales of that era as told by descendants of returnee slaves and slave merchants, discerning eyes cannot miss the physical evidence of the period – the intricate Brazilian architecture that dot many parts of Badagry.
On other streets, residents readily point to monuments that still exist. It may be a grave, or a well or even a spot with nothing on it, which once held a relic of the slave trade era.
Beside the palace of the Akran of Badagry is a compound where families wake up every day to see the grave of Huntokonu or George Freermingo, whom researcher and local historian, Chief Theophilus Avoseh, referred to as the first European slave dealer to step in Badagry.
To those living in the compound, the grave of Huntokonu is just what it is – a grave. But to historians, it is an important element in the history of Badagry and slave trade in the African west coast.
Over the grave, a shelter held up by six concrete posters (said to have been constructed in the last century) is starting to fall apart.
The Paje masquerader
A marble plaque on Huntokonu’s grave gives an idea of the two-pronged relationship he had with the Badagry people –slave trader and friend.
The Egun words on the plaque says:
“Yovo Huntokonu Honton.
Gunnu leton we ye di dofi.
Here rests Huntokonu,
Friend of the Eguns.”
According to historian and curator, Osho Anago, Yovo means “whiteman” in the Egun tongue while Huntokonu is loosely interpreted as “the sailor who laughs.” Honton on the other hand, is interpreted as “friend”.
Chief Avoseh gives an insight into the curious relationship that existed between this slave trader and the Egun people he had contact with in Badagry in the 18th Century.
“The relationship between Huntokonu and the town was more than that of an ordinary trading European and his customers. He showed them much sympathy, directed them how best to administer justice and supplied protection against invasion,” he said.
On the day our correspondent visited Huntokonu’s grave, a young woman, one of the residents of the compound, washed her clothes by the side of the small mausoleum. Her wet clothes went on to the laundry line tied to the pillars of the slave trader’s grave.
In the compound, Huntokonu’s grave is a ready platform for people to dry their laundry, a testament to how much many residents of Badagry cared about his place in their history, Saturday PUNCH was told.
But while the grave of Huntokonu stands on the line between historical importance and atrocity of the past, the chief masquerader in Badagry, popularly called Paje, remains a strong link to the slave trade era, which the people continue to celebrate annually.
For the people of this ancient town, only few things connect them more strongly to the time of slave trade than this masquerader which oral history suggests “saved children from witches” at a time when able-bodied men were being sold off to every corner of the earth.
The Baale of Yoyoweh, Badagry New Town, Chief Ajibola Abbas, said the masquerader is not a religious relic as many people might think, but history kept alive.
The Baale is one of the grandchildren of Seriki Williams Abbas, whose slave compound, popularly called Brazilian Barracoon, is one of the vestiges of the slave trade era designated a national monument.
According to Abbas, while his grandfather, a returnee slave, held forth as one of the most prominent slave traders in the West African coast, his children were dying mysteriously.
In fact, the late Abbas did not just lose a few of his children, he lost a shocking 144 of them to mysterious illnesses.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that Seriki Abbas had 128 wives.
“You must understand that in that era, prominent people like my grandfather were given wives by people as “gifts”. When it got to the point where 144 of his children died, he consulted an oracle and he was instructed to adopt a masquerader from Offa (in today’s Kwara State). He was told that his children were being killed by witches.
“After he brought the masquerader from Offa, he was told that as people trooped out to see the masquerader on its outings, witches in the town would be dying in droves and his children would stop dying.
“History tells us that whenever the masquerader came out, the community kept count of the number of witches that had died and he was named Paje (killer of witches) for this reason. My grandfather’s children did not die anymore after this and eventually, eleven of them survived him, the last child being my father.”
The masquerader adds to its mysterious nature by coming out of the forest on the first day of its outing in the year.
However, today, even though Paje, a gargantuan shrouded being that dances around Badagry once every year, is no longer the “killer of witches” as it was in the past, it has become one of the last threads of Badagry’s past.
“When it comes out, we are recreating the slave trade era. The masquerader no longer has anything to do with children dying but it is purely a cultural festival. We believe this is a link to the past that should be elevated beyond the family,” Baale Abbas, told Saturday PUNCH.
A city sitting on tourism gold
slave trade era like the Paje masquerader, including the items on display in the Brazilian Barracoon, are kept alive by the families.
In the first part of this report, Saturday PUNCH noted that the latter has been designated a national monument along with many other historical sites in Badagry.
Unfortunately, while many of these suffer decay despite the existence of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which is tasked with overseeing national monuments, residents of Badagry believe much important relics can be unearthed if scientist-led excavations are carried out in the town’s historical sites.
Baale Abbas said, “If we don’t celebrate our history, nobody would know them. There are so many artefacts still in the Seriki Abbas compound for instance, that we have not even unearthed.
“If the grounds of the Barracoon are excavated, there is no doubt that there would be a large amount of currency of those days hidden there. Many other items that can prove important to our history are still lodged in the earth.”
One of such historical locations with similar prospects is the Vlekete Slave Market.
Established in 1502, the market is said to be one of the most significant business points between African middlemen and the European slave merchants in the West African coasts.
Until few years ago, an ancient well of the slavery era stood in the spot. But today, the compound houses a modern building in the same spot. The well is long gone.
But in the same compound, a building which used to be a shrine where rituals were performed on slaves stands still. Intricate paintings of human sacrifice on the wall tell a gory story of what might have taken place within the hallowed walls of the shrine.
According to historian and curator, Anago, when the 515-year-old compound was “modernised,” the initiators of the project failed to take tourism into consideration.
He told a story to illustrate this.
Anago said, “I once brought a foreign tourist here and she wanted to see the ancient slave market. She had read about this place in advance. When she saw the building that had been constructed on the spot, she asked me, ‘Is that it?’ She was shocked that what she could see was a modern building.
“Tourists don’t travel here from their country to see modern buildings. They come here because they hope to see history in its preserved state.
“There is nothing wrong in putting a modern building in a historical site such as this. But then it should not be to the detriment of relics such as that important well. It is literally destroying history in the name of saving it.”
Experts say tourism is supposed to be Badagry’s gold.
Given the proper incentive and rejuvenation, historian Dr. Adekunmi Alo said millions of dollars can come in from Badagry alone.
But with the problem of funding, lack of preservation of relics and regeneration of historical sites such as the ones identified here, Nigeria loses billions of naira in potential tourism earnings.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s World Tourism Barometer, Nigeria does not even feature in the top 10 tourism earners in Africa, despite the country’s historical significance and abundant natural resources.
The UNWTO’s 2015 ratings put South Africa at the top with $8.2bn followed by Morocco with $6bn. Zimbabwe comes at the ninth position with an $886m while Ghana comes 10th with an $819m earning.
However, the result of the under-developed tourism potential of Nigeria continues to put the country below its counterparts.
According to the 2017 Nigerian hospitality report put together by Jumia Travel, the tourism industry contributed N1.7bn ($5.4m) to the GDP in 2016. The reports said 97 per cent of that amount was generated through domestic trips.
Many African countries recognise the huge revenue and employment prospect of tourism, which is why a few have well-laid out plans for the continuous development of the sector.
Tourism generates 12 per cent of Tanzania’s total employment while contributing 17 per cent to the country’s GDP ($2bn in 2014), according to the country’s tourism report.
nstance, there is a strategic tourism plan aimed at achieving “sustainable growth and transformation of the sector through a variety of targeted interventions, and to develop and grow domestic tourism” over a five-year period from 2015 to 2020. This plan itself is annually reviewed.
The Executive Secretary, Hospitality and Tourism Management Association of Nigeria, Mr. Lanre Awoseyin, explained that Nigeria’s tourism problem stems from the fact that those in the positions to make policies in the industry are not professional.
“Tourism is a critical area that you just don’t put anybody to manage. NTDC is managed by politicians with no experience whatsoever and these are the people who take decisions for the industry. If you want to appoint people to a position in tourism, these agencies need experts who can read the masterplan and apply it to the industry.”
Awoseyin explained that it was unfortunate that the country’s earnings from tourism are actually from hospitality businesses rather than core tourism.
He attributed this to the fact that the attractions in the country like those at Badagry are underdeveloped while the existing ones have been left to ruin.
Awoseyin, who once managed Yankari Games Reserve, Bauchi State, one of Nigeria’s great tourist attractions before insurgency made the northeast of the country a no-go area for tourists, decried its degeneration along with many other attractions in the country.
Like other experts, he believes lack of funding and untrained staff are the major problems.
He said, “We need to bring these attractions to international standard and promote them internationally.
“People talk about the Calabar Carnival of Cross River State as a tourism attraction for instance but it is a seasonal event, which means the hotels in that area go empty 11 months out of a year. We are simply robbing ourselves of a lot of revenue if this country fails to develop tourism.”