Sunday, January 22, 2012

Segun: A former street kid turns mentor

Segun: Street kid turns mentor

Performing artiste SEGUN OLA ran from home at age 8, and suffered seriously for years; today, he wants to spare other kids the trauma he went through.

Segun. PHOTO: MAURICE ARCHIBONG. All rights reserved.

Stevie Wonder is virtually a house-hold name world-wide, but how many people, even Americans, know that this US star musician was actually born Stevland Hardaway Judkins? This Motown Records discovery, who has been churning out hit after hit since the 1960s; would later replace Judkins with Morris before finally ending up as Stevie Wonder.

Another American music icon, James Etta, who died recently, and whose classic hit, At last, was performed by Beyonce during the Inaugural Ball for President Barack Obama; was born Jamesetta Hawkins.

And, did you know that John Legend, whose string of chart-busters includes Ordinary people and If you’re out there, the latter adopted by Mr. Obama’s campaign organization; was baptised John Roger Stephens?

Some names, it seems, just don’t gel with the entertainment world. So, countless artistes have had to jettison their original epithets possibly because it would sound ill-fitting in the realm of show-business. In the razzle-dazzle world of show-biz, practitioners are at home with words like razzmatazz and paparazzi; but, when it comes to personal sobriquets they seem at odds with anything evocative of concatenation.

For example, if a prospective star was baptized Hippopotamus; such a one would have to shorten that name to something like Hip, to get any label to sign him/her on. An entertainer needs a name fans will easily remember and the experience of a Nigerian-born entertainer, Olabisi Aramide Segun, is similar.

Though born Olabisi Aramide Segun, he was once re-Christened Mark Stevens. Somehow, Mark Stevens would not stick and Olabisi Aramide Segun went back to his original name. But, only for a while because; today, he is simply known as Segun.

Akin to the several names he has had to bear in one incarnation, Segun is also a man of many parts. He is an acrobat, actor, artiste, a comedian, magician and workshop organiser. Entertainment has contributed phenomenally to Segun’s metamorphosis.

For one, who fled home at the tender age of eight, Segun has truly come a long way. He has enjoyed the privilege of travelling to Europe several times and currently owns a car. Never mind that the automobile is an antique Citroen, which probably rolled off the assembly line decades before Segun was born.

As a tear-away kid, Segun slept rough and discovered, first-hand, that life could be tough and his experience growing up must be responsible for his current devotion to spare other kids the trauma he went through. Segun said the creative arts have made a lot possible for him and he feels duty-bound to share his good fortune with other kids.

Why Segun fled home
To really understand Segun’s determination to save other kids from the nightmarish experience he suffered, it was necessary to unearth why he fled home in the first place. The age at which he did so, and how? And, when he opened up, it was a heart-rending narrative.

At eight years old, many kids are literally unweaned; and, even at 30, some offspring are still scared of the prospects of leaving their parents’ home to go fend for themselves. Yet, Segun abandoned home as an eight-year old. It would seem that Segun’s “home” was so turbulent and harsh that he felt anywhere else had to be better. And, before he was eight he made his first attempt to escape. That dream was aborted, when he was found and dragged home.

But, before long, he would embark on another flight from home. Again, he was caught and returned to his father’s house. Since Segun’s heart was not where his father called home, it came as no surprise that the boy tried and tried again, until he finally succeeded in fleeing from “home” at the age of eight.

As to where he planned to live upon leaving his father’s house, Segun apparently hadn’t the faintest idea. It would seem that he believed the most important priority was to leave home first. As regards where to lay his head upon fleeing from “home”, Segun felt that, somehow, he would cross that bridge when he got there.

He could not exactly recall all the details of how he travelled for at least four hours from Osogbo in Osun State, where his father lived, to Lagos. But, he remembers vividly that his first home after fleeing from his father’s residence, was under a fly-over in Lagos. That spot is Ojuelegba Bridge. This bridge stands over the notorious Ojuelegba Roundabout that afrobeat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti sang about in Konfushun.

Ojuelegba! Ojuelegba!! Ojuelegba!!! Moto dey come from east, moto dey come from west, moto dey come from north, moto dey come from south; and policeman no dey for centre, wetin u go get ooo? Na konfushun be that o/ Konfushun na wetin o? Konfushun na wa! Konfushun na wetin o? Na Kpafuka be dat! Wetin be kpafuka o o o? Kpafuka na quench!

That is how Fela described the Surulere-based Ojuelegba Roundabout linking Yaba to Lawanson in Lagos. Yet, this is where Segun made home as an eight-year old. He would soon let us in on how he struggled to keep body and soul together but, before that; let’s hear from the horse’s mouth why he left home in the first place.

‘How I ran from home’
“We had family problem, and I had to leave. My older sister, Olufunke (Funke), and I lived with our paternal family: My father, his other wife and their children. My paternal grandmother, who hailed Oyo Alaafin, was not happy that her son was married to my mother, a native of Illa.

“So, my mother was forced to leave because her mother-in-law had brought another wife from her hometown for my father. Eventually, there were about eight children in the house. At some point, before I was eight years old, I could no longer stand the problems in the house.

“I ran away the first time and was caught and brought back home. I ran away again several times and somehow would be found and returned to my father’s house. Finally, I eventually made good my escape and found my way to Lagos. Initially, I didn’t know where exactly I was; but, the molue bus I was riding in developed a fault and we all had to disembark. I later learnt that the area was called Ojuelegba. That is how I made home under Ojuelegba Bridge for about two weeks.

“After interacting with other kids, I discovered where most of them used to sleep and I joined them there. To make a living, I used to go to Tejuosho Market to help people ferry their loads to the car and would buy food with whatever I was given. When night fell, I came back to Ojuelegba Bridge to sleep”.

Living as a street-kid
Ever wondered what street kids go through? Given that street-life often features drug-addiction, prostitution, stealing and mugging, few people would believe there is the proverbial other side to life in the street.

Interestingly, it was in the wilderness called street-life that Segun found compassion and encountered an experience that invoked a resolve in him never to betray anyone’s trust.

Hear him: “On one occasion, a lady (Aunty Bukky) gave me N20 to go buy omelette, bread and tea for her. Those days, N20 was a large sum of money. With N20, you could travel to Ibadan from Lagos and back. I was touched that she could entrust so much money to me. I was indeed moved to the point that I decided that I was never going to betray such trust. I eventually brought her her meal and change intact. Somehow, I think my sincerity touched Aunty Bukky, who began to trust me too”.

While many of the younger boys toiled all-day working as mules, helping to ferry traders’/shoppers’ cargoes to raise money to eat, some of the older boys refused to work.

“Some of the other boys were pick-pockets, many worked as bus conductors; others were real ‘bad boys’ (he would not expatiate). But, throughout my stay in Lagos, I made conscious effort to avoid stealing”, Segun remarked.

Although they were all young, some of the street kids Segun once lived with under a Lagos Bridge were stronger than others. And, even in their generally unfortunate world, some took advantage of the weak ones in their midst. Many spent the day-time sleeping after smoking weed till their brains were full. For food, these older and stronger boys preyed on the younger victims: each of whom had to part with some money for a place to rest their wearied head after toilling all day.

Segun again: “We didn’t sleep for free, some of the older boys used to collect money from us. Sometimes I had to pay N2, N5 and so on, for a place to rest my tired body”.

With regard to empathy, this is how Segun recalled his experiences to us during a chat in Cotonou: “Since there was no parent or anyone to rely on to feed me and I had to eat to stay alive, I was always ready to do anything legitimate to raise money. So, on one occasion, some of the older boys found me suffering at Tejuosho Market. I had attempted to carry a load that was many times my weight and came crashing! Sympathetic passersby helped me back on my feet again.

“Later that night, some of these older boys came together at Ojuelegba and decided that I was too young to be suffering so. The concerned boys then raised funds and had me transported to join my mother at Ibadan. I chose Ibadan because I didn’t want to go back to Osogbo, where my father lived. But, when the bus got to Ibadan, I didn’t go to stay with my mom as earlier planned. Instead, I continued living in the street. Later, I found my way back to Lagos. In Lagos and Ibadan, I also made some money through helping out as people prepared for parties. I helped in conveying loads, arranging seats, even fanning people, while they danced”.

In another account of compassion, which Segun found in the street and how he came into the entertainment world; he recalled: “There was a day, when some of the older guys tried to extort too much money from me. But, one comedian called Seyi took pity on me because he couldn’t stand that attempt to rob a little boy of his hard-earned money. So, he rose to my defense. A quarrel broke out and he felt it might not be safe for me to sleep at Ojuelegba henceforth. That is how Seyi took me to where he used to sleep.

“While there, Seyi asked me, if I liked the arts. I said, ‘yes’; and, he threw some comic words at me, which he wanted me to repeat. I did, successfully, and discovered I was actually in love with this act. It was as if I had been doing it all before. It was so easy for me to practise and rehearse. That, in short, is how I became a comedian and worked with Seyi for four months, before we parted. Seyi and I parted ways around 1990 and I went solo”.

It is said that one turn in life could make all the difference. For Segun, that critical pivotal turn came when he met Seyi. During our latest encounter, a sigh escaped Segun’s lips, when asked where he thought he would be today; had Seyi not come along.

“It is difficult to say, but I know that most successful people enjoyed a break at some point in life. Street kids have something to offer, too; but, they need someone to provide an opportunity. We need to engage them, give them hope and lure them from crime. With proper encouragement, every street kid can turn a new leaf and become useful to the society”; said Segun.

On how he subsequently thrived as a solo entertainer, Segun had this to say: “Somehow, my tender age contributed to my success as a comedian. I believe people were fascinated to find that such a little boy could make them laugh. I used to take my act to markets, where I played and made people laugh. And many people happily gave me money.

“Through my comedy, I came to interact with many musicians. I even met King Sunny Ade at a show and he gave me money. Between 1991 and 2000, while shuttling between Nigeria and Benin Republic I acted in four films. And, one day, about six famous Yoruba actors visited a food vendor, a popular Togolese food seller in Cotonou.

“One of the Yoruba actors was Abija. The others included Arakan guru, Sokoti and Luku-luku. I performed for their entertainment and they were so impressed that they asked me to come and live with them. And, in the process of mixing with other musicians, I also learnt to play some instruments”, Segun added.

Somewhat comfortable, he yearned to see his mother
For a child that was robbed of mom’s cuddling and deprived of parental care, Segun still nursed a soft spot for his mother. That he set out to see his mom and bought presents for her, even while he was still struggling to make ends meet, obviates this.

“I had started making money from some acts and I had become somewhat established as an entertainer. Since I was now a bit comfortable, I decided to go look for my mother. So, I went to shop for presents for my mom”, he told us.

After an emotional reunion with his mother, Segun also decided to visit the lady (Aunty Bukky) that once entrusted all of N20 to him to go buy omelette, bread and tea for her.

Segun again: “I told her that on my next return to Lagos, I would love to stay with her. And, Aunty Bukky and her mom said, ‘No problem’. When I returned from Ibadan after another visit to my mother, I started living with them. I slept on the passage-way, where they lived, and for the first time since I came to Lagos, I had access to a proper bathroom and lavatory. During my subsequent visits to Lagos, I lived with them on and off for many years”.

How Cotonou came into my life
As an itinerant artiste, Segun played inside markets, nightclubs, restaurants and even at mechanic workshops. In the process, he met all kinds of people at all kinds of places.

He tells us more: “At some point, I ran into some artistes, who spoke a language that to me sounded peculiar. It was while staying with Aunty Bukky and her mom that I ran into these artistes. I was so fascinated by this language that I asked someone: ‘What language was this’? The person told me it was French. I went over to the French speakers and told the people that I would love to follow them to wherever they came from. Incidentally, they were also Nigerians and it turned out that they came from Cotonou, Benin Republic.

“The name of the first group of French-speaking artistes that I met was Pajovis. But after their break-up, some band members went on to form Dynamic Force. I was a member of Dynamic Force, which was led by Boy Iyke, an acrobat and a magician. Boy Iyke is the one, who named me Mark Steven and he also taught me acrobatics and magic. He is the guy who brought me to Cotonou. So, in 1991 I was in Cotonou for the first time. After that first visit, I returned to Cotonou on and off.

“We used to go perform at parties and in different hotels in Cotonou. We performed frequently in Soweto Bar, Afrika Nite and at many other nightclubs and eateries called marquis. In those days, Afrika Nite was one of the hottest spots in Cotonou”.

Segun’s early days as an immigrant in Cotonou
Interestingly, it would seem that fate had prepared Segun for life as a homeless immigrant, when he was forced to live under a flyover in Lagos. When asked how he coped in his early days as an immigrant in Cotonou, this was Segun’s take: “At some time, Boy Iyke and I left Cotonou. But in 1992, I started coming back and since I didn’t have a home here, I slept anywhere. Fortunately, there are motor-parks with sleeping space and public lavatories here and I used to pay 100CFA (N35) for a mat, 100CFA to bathe and 50CFA (roughly N18) to use the toilet. I did that for five years, till 1997; when, during a visit to Cotonou, I ran into one Ibrahim, a Senegalese drum-maker.

“Ibrahim was a Djembe (drum) maker and he became my host any time I came to Cotonou. I used to stay at Ibrahim’s place until he got married. After his wife moved in, Ibrahim introduced me to a friend of his, Bongo Man, a half Ghanaian-half-Burkinabe. Subsequently, I went on to live with Bongo Man in Guinkomey, Jonquet.

“O, Benin Republic was very nice. In those days, with ‘cent francs’ (100CFA or roughly N35), you ate enough to fill the tummy. Of course, Benin Republic is still nice, but with the conomic problem across the world, things have changed. Those days, there were more tourists in Cotonou. Once, during one of my performances, someone even gave me 5,000CFA (N1,750 approx). That was a lot of money back then.

Our first report on Segun was part of a story titled, Resurrection in an estuary of death. Published in 2004 in my Daily Sun Travels column, Resurrection in an estuary of death revolved around Easter in Cotonou, which derives its name from the Fon language phrase Kou to nou. Sources say Kou to nou roughly translates as Mouth of the river of death.

Those days, Segun was engrossed with drums. He actually collaborated with French Cultural Centre, Lagos; to run a Djembe Workshop. Aside his interest in Djembe, Segun had also told us, those days, that he also doubled as an entertainer as well as worked as a comedian and magician, sometimes.

Recently, more than seven years later, we engaged Segun in another chat and it came to light his focus has shifted, somewhat. Nowadays, Segun is preoccupied with getting kids off the street. He is struggling hard to save lives. He said street kids could be snatched from a life of crime by giving them a trade. Something like crafts-making skill that could serve as a source of income for mendicant kids, thus restoring their sense of dignity.

From workshop to crafts school
In line with his new love, Segun recently held a workshop Atelier de cirque et des Art Vivant avec des enfant de la rue (Circus and Live Art Workshop for Street Children). That exercise lasted three days, from December 14 to 16; 2011. Atelier de cirque et des Art Vivant avec des enfant de la rue, which involved 17 children, took place at Curis corkiage aka Chez Rada along Rue des Perche (Fishers’ Road) in Tongben part of Cotonou, we gathered.

Reminiscing further on the latest workshop he organised, Segun insisted he was convinced he had chosen the right path for himself because just watching the children during the workshop, he was moved by their desire to learn. He added that the success of the latest programme convinced him it was a positive and welcome contribution, which is why he was already working towards holding another and subsequently more follow-ups.

“O, I was touched by the children’s passion to be useful human beings and make a success of their lives. So, I have vowed to continue to help provide that break or second chance that street-kids desparately need”, declared Segun, who has spent roughly 20 years living in Cotonou, Benin Republic.  

“The aim of the workshop, which we are planning to hold regularly in different West African countries, is to give children the opportunity that art has given to me”, he remarked.

Speaking further, Segun, who never really had the benefit of formal education; declared: “Art has changed my life and given me a lot of enlightenment through the people I meet. Some of these people learnt art during formal education but through interacting with all kinds of people, Art had given me confidence”.

He said that being an ex-street kid, he knows what street children go through. “I know what street children suffer because I experienced it personally. We were called ‘Omo’ta’ (a Yoruba phrase that translates as lay-about). For me, it was a hurting blanket stigmatization”, he lamented.

“If street kids are not given a break, how do they make progress? Like me, many street kids are talented but without exposure, how do we tap their talent”; queried Segun, whose long-tern objective is to set up a school.

“Ultimately, I hope to establish Ecole des cirque et des art vivant West Africa. At this school, street kids would be picked from West Africa, especially Niger Republic, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin Republic and Nigeria. The selected kids will learn to read and write. They will be taught how to make decorations, costumes, to light a show, to cook; because this is also a form of art. We will also teach the children to paint and to play music”, he mused.

Perhaps more importantly, Segun added; “The kids will be given a place to sleep, and this place will offer street kids an opportunity to interact with children from regular homes. This will help the kids grow instead of stigmatizing them as ‘Omo’ta’ (rascals). The school will have a centre in Nigeria and Benin, and later spread to other countries”.

Interestingly, Segun revealed that though he had discussed his dream with several people, only two friends; Paola Anke (a German) and Anique (a Burkinabe born in France), supported the project financially.

“Paola had seen a circus show I did, called ‘Omi’. I told her that I’d been working on this project for two years. But, when I met Paola in Berlin (Germany), she asked me to do a workshop with the children first.

I later came to realise that, from the workshop, we could shoot a short movie of the proceedings and participants. With that as proof that we are serious, we could then start looking for more sponsors. Paola and Anique have been very supportive”, Segun concluded on an enthusiastic note.

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