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Tolu Sangosanya Builds Refuge within the Refuse: The Dustbin Estate Story

“What people don’t understand is that what we plant in the lives of those kids will have an impact on where they’ll be in the next 20 years. I don’t see short-term; what I see for the kids is future presidents, senators, industry leaders. I don’t know if most of the parents see the same thing: the same way I want the children to grow up and change the lives of their parents for good.”

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My trip to the Dustbin Estate on Sunday 7 November 2010 was one I took with caution. I had heard so much and seen a bit on the TV screen earlier in the year, but I was not totally prepared for the repugnance that came on me on arrival at the Estate. At exactly 1PM, I was at the International Church of Christ gathering which held at Glover Hall on Lagos Island to meet up with my interviewee. She commended my on-time arrival and greeted me with a warm smile. About fifteen minutes after she had ushered me in, the church service came to an end. After the regular banter and some minutes of waiting, Tolu changed from her beautiful shoes into her flat slippers. It was time to head to her ‘workshop’ at the Dustbin Estate. Ninety minutes and two cranky bus rides later, we were in AJ city under the hot afternoon sun. There I got to “meet” Tolu Sangosanya and experience life in the Dustbin Estate that she is so passionate about rejuvenating.

Meet Tolu Sangosanya

Tolu Sangosanya studied Mass Communication at the Olabisi Onabanjo University in Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State. She is very driven, assertive, energetic and observant. Our first meeting was at the Future Pre-Awards conference in February 2010. There, she had stood in anger to condemn the overly suggestive and shallow lyrics of one of the musicians while extolling the patriotism promoted by a young chap who had composed and performed a scintillating song about loyalty to his country, Nigeria. With her fiery stance, it was clear this young lady meant serious business. She is passionate about her country. It was not much of a surprise to me when she won the Future Award for Best Use of Advocacy on her philanthropic work with the children living on lots of debris in Dustbin Estate, a shack settlement in the Awodi-Ora area of Ajegunle, a popular Lagos ghetto-suburb. She had graduated from mere talk unlike many Nigerians, and had chosen to walk her talk.

The Dustbin Estate

Aptly named, the Dustbin Estate is a collection of shanties on refuse dump where a very poor set of people live in Ajegunle. Living on a large heap of rubbish poses a myriad  of health hazards to both adults and the children, not neglecting the attendant environmental issues. Whenever there is rainfall, the situation is worsened as the entire ‘estate’ is soaked in flood and people still go about their normal duties in this deplorable state! One wonders how these people survive; they eat, drink, have their bath, sleep, talk and do virtually everything in this ever-smelly settlement. Some of them make money from charging people who dispose their refuse here, but one wonders if the 50 Naira note collected for each pack of refuse could ever sum up to justify and alleviate the prevalent abject poverty and hazardous living.

The beautiful children of the "Dustbin Estate" learning in the midst of decay

Tolu’s Fascination for Philanthropy

“I started giving as a profession when I was 23. It started as celebrating my birthday on December 28, feeding and showing love and attention to kids. I am from a broken home and one of the things people from my background really lack is love and attention. Such people seek love and attention from other sources and not from the normal sources which are parents and loved ones. I read from one of Zig Ziglar’s books that if you want something, you have to give it out first; then it automatically comes back to you. Sometime later, I was coming from Maryland to Ikeja in Lagos, then I saw a child leading her father to beg and I looked into the girl’s eyes and I saw hopelessness: no spark, no life. I looked at that girl and thought, ‘what future does this girl have? I have education at least, even if I didn’t have the love of my parents, (or so I thought…)’ I prayed, ‘Father Lord I need you to use me to show the kind of love you have for humanity to other people’… and that’s how we started…”

Initially, when she started, she invited friends and the first event they planned was tagged “Feel Their Pain For One Day”. But it did not hold. It was supposed to involve fashion designers taking sewing machines on the streets of Lagos and making clothes for the kids instantly, without shade, under sun or rain, so that the volunteers could have a feel of how these people lived, sitting under the sun and begging. “There’s something about begging that doesn’t do justice to your esteem. It kills the way you view yourself and belittles you” she says. The other part of that event would have been people going on the streets and begging on behalf of the beggars then giving the proceeds to the ‘professional beggars’. Nevertheless, the failure of that first programme did not deter her from pressing on. “I realized that for you to be able to do anything in life you have to be able to ‘kill’ yourself for people to believe in what you are saying and I did that to myself” she adds.

Her Motives and the Journey Thus Far

“The closer I get to God, the easier my work gets because I realize the motive and reason why I started initially was to get something which was love and attention and I was giving it out to get that back… and over the period of time I’ve been doing what I’m doing, motives and reasons have kept changing. It came to contributing to Nigeria and Nigeria’s development and preparing kids for the future. After studying the Bible over a period of time, I also realized that there is a reward for everything you do on earth, be it negative or positive, and that how we spend eternity depends largely on what we do on earth.” She believes that giving to the poor, giving clothes to those who lack and welcoming them into ‘our homes’ are biblical and have eternal rewards. “It didn’t make sense initially because people have forgotten that other people are made in the image of God. When you treat someone kindly for being an individual, you are treating God kindly because if someone is in your image, of course it’s still relating to the same person, the one and only source. I think that is the level I am on right now… By next week I don’t know what my motive for doing what I do is going to be, but again I believe I’ve received so much love from God and I need to give it back.”

L-R: Priye (literacy class teacher); Mr. Biodun (community member); Emmanuel (literacy class teacher), Tolu Sangosanya

Results and Impact Assessment

“When we first came on December 18, 2008, we got across to over 1,000 people; on February 14, 2009 we had a Valentine’s Day party for the kids and were able to reach a hundred children. On May 27, 2009, we had a party for them at the UNILAG multipurpose hall which was tagged “They Are Stars” in conjunction with Magic Moment and it was with other NGOs, but most of them were orphanages. There were 12 orphanages plus LOTS Charity Foundation. In December 2009, we took sixty one kids from here to the Silverbird Galleria, Shoprite and the Chinese Restaurant on Ajose Adeogun, Victoria Island, so that their minds could be nourished and they could see how other Nigerians live and begin to dream of bigger things about their future. Some people said to me, ‘why would you want to go and hire an air-conditioned bus to convey these kids?’ I said to myself: ‘If they were your children, what would you give? Would you give secondhand treatment to them or first class?’ We need to get rid of this greed and selfishness and think of other people.”

After, the February 14, 2009 event, LOTS Charity Foundation started a literacy class for the Dustbin Estate kids with only 25 children. This number later doubled and increased. In 2009, a hundred and twenty (120) children enjoyed the literacy programme. Some of the kids have stopped attending while new members have joined, putting the current number at 77. Impromptu gifts and donations from churches, friends and family come in handy. Banky W celebrated his birthday there this year. Fountain Church, VGC, Women’s Fellowship were there recently with clothes, toys and stuff for the kids. Pan African University came in 2009 and was able to reach about 200 kids that day. Since inception, an estimated 2000 children have felt the impact of the NGO’s efforts. Next month 5,000 kids will be fed in Lagos; 1500 each simultaneously in three places- Makoko, The Beggars Colony in Oko-Baba and here (Dustbin Estate), then 500 children will be fed on the street-those begging and hawking.”

Battling the Challenges of Philanthropy

Despite the tremendous work she has done so far with and the results achieved, there have been various challenges faced and many more to be conquered. The first major challenge the LOTS charity foundation has faced is inadequate funding. The second one is actually getting capable hands to work with. She has had people who volunteered in the past, but soon realized that their motives were wrong. “The major issue I think we have when it comes to volunteerism in Nigeria is that everybody still has this selfishness in them. They are looking for what to get from something. I did this job for five years without getting paid myself, it doesn’t make sense to even me that did it, but again there are reasons why I did it. I was driven by eternity; there was passion behind whatever I did and still do anyway…. but most people still want to get ‘what’s in it for me?’ and I’m wondering ‘how am I supposed to work with these people?’ This kind of job is a non-for-profit. You can make excess and surplus and you’ll plough it back into the business. Even when we get people who have the competencies to do what we want them to do; most times, we can’t afford to pay their salaries, at least for now. And because of that, I’m wearing too many caps: I’m the fund raiser, I’m the PR, the Admin manager, and I do planning and organizing. I’m looking for other alternatives for making money and raising funds for these kids. Thank God we have teachers, but again I need more people who are self-driven and trustworthy. A person who is not passionate about children and does not love children will fade out.”

The LOTS Charity foundation needs help with organizational structure. Tolu acknowledges a deficiency in this area. “There are a lot of companies that I’ve seen; NGOs that are run more effectively because of the structures they’ve put in place; I don’t have that. We are willing to pay for professionals to help, but right now we don’t have the funding. I do not intend to do this and be the leader of this organization in the next ten years. At that time, the only thing I want to do is just to give ideas and advice. I want a company that will outlive me.”

Another major challenge is the lack of cooperation of some parents. Some have stopped allowing their children to attend the literacy classes for reasons as flimsy as their children not getting material gifts when items are occasionally shared by private and corporate donors. “What people don’t understand is that what we plant in the lives of those kids will have an impact on where they’ll be in the next 20 years. I don’t see short-term; what I see for the kids is  a future as presidents, senators and industry leaders. I don’t know if most of the parents see the same thing: the same way I want the children to grow up and change the lives of their parents for good. I don’t know how they view education and how important they think education is… so in itself, trying to break the barrier of dealing with the parents who have the largest influence on the kids right now and getting across to the kids themselves is a lot of struggle for me. What I see for the children is something big. For instance, next year is going to be an election year and I plan that the kids would have and wear T-shirts with the message: ‘Vote for Me, I’m your Future President’ boldly printed on them.”

She continues to vent, “Some people value education, others think they are doing me, as an individual, a favour by bringing their children to come and learn how to read and write and I say to them… ‘I only love Nigeria and your kids because God loves me. If I’m going to be like every other person, I’m just going to mind my own business and go and work in the oil companies and shut everybody out and buy the Jeeps and buildings in VGC and build fences that are high enough and put electricity on them. I’d just mind my own business and live my own life on an Island, but I can’t do that… I’m supposed to be the light of the world, supposed to be the salt of the world. I cannot function as salt if I don’t mix with other people and I know the life of those children will actually be better if their parents support what we are doing and begin to see something positive for their children. I can’t keep dreaming for their children if they themselves can’t dream for their children.”

Keeping Body and Soul Together

“I run two companies simultaneously: LOTS Charity Foundation and Lots of Things (also abbreviated as LOTS). In the other company, we do Lots of Things! From real estate to event planning, to fundraising, organizing charity parties…” She is also completing her studies at Nobel Afrique, a popular fashion school in Lagos. The for-profit business is intended to provide for the not-for-profit organization. After attending a social sector management course at the Pan African University, Lagos, she learnt to grow beyond writing proposals and seeking people’s donations. She derives inspiration from the Oxfam model. “Yes, the donation can be supplementary; it mustn’t be the main source of income. That’s the level we’re aiming for in the long term. We are writing books, we’re selling clothes, we are going into agriculture, and we do event planning and real estate.

On Advocacy, Government Interventions and Marriage

“I have been to the Local Government office, they asked us to go and register somewhere as an NGO for them to recognize and partner with us. We have gone half-way in meeting some of the requirements. I have written a letter to Governor Fashola of Lagos State, but there’s been no response yet. I hope they would consider the interest of the children which would not only affect the local government, but also the state government and the Federal Government. So do I have any link with the government right now? No. Do I want to? Yes”. A man popularly called Chairman has been most helpful, securing the church premises used for the literacy class in front of his house. Two of the young men who used to harass her for money earlier on now help her with advocacy with the parents.

On the impact of possible future occurrences such as marriage on her work, she says, “I have to sieve the kind of people I attract to myself or get attracted to me because it would have a great impact on what I do and how I do it. I can’t move at the same frequency with someone who doesn’t believe in what I’m doing, so that itself is a prayer point… those who don’t care about what I’m doing: That God will chase them away from me! I can’t marry a selfish man.”

Grand Plans for the Future

Plans are on to establish a modern resource centre which would cater for various needs of the children. On October 1, 2010, Africa Magic featured Naija Diamonds, a documentary on different young Nigerians making positive impact in the country. Tolu’s work was featured and as a result, a Cameroonian who works with the World Bank in South Africa showed interest in her work. Someone else who owns a furniture making company wants to help with designing nice tables and chairs for use at the proposed resource centre. “The resource centre itself would be a refuge out of the refuse. Right now the kids live on a refuse dump proper… We want to have a resource centre where they can visit and be able to think beyond their immediate environment; to stimulate them to think differently and say to themselves: ‘that we started from here does not mean we should end here’. They should begin to aspire for greatness”, she explains.

The Resource Centre is planned to have a Common Room where the kids can watch educative programmes on some DSTV channels (Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and Cartoon Network); a Computer Room for acquiring computer and internet skills; Classroom(s) where Montessori teachers will apply audiovisuals in teaching. There’ll be a Soup Kitchen where, hopefully, kids will be fed three times in a week. There’s going to be a Vocational Room where useful entrepreneurial skills like photography, carpentry, fashion design and tie and dye will be taught. (The volunteer who owns a furniture company is willing to take interns during the 3-month long-term break. Someone has also provided twenty cameras for the kids while another person has volunteered to train them in the art of photography.) Also included in the Resource Centre plans are a Library and an administrative office. The annual ‘Worship for Change Concert’, held by the Fountain of Praise Ministries led by Pastor Wale Adenuga, raised funds for the support of LOTS’ major project- the Resource Centre in October. Though the total amount raised is yet to be announced, it is hoped that it would go a long way in actualizing this big dream to change lives on Dustbin Estate.

Photo Credit: © Gbenga Awomodu – BellaNaija.com
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To give financial support to the LOTS Charity Foundation, here are the account details:
Account name: LOTS-LOTS OF THINGS,
Bank Name: Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), Ajah Branch
Account number: 2276513535110.

You can also send Tolu an e-mail at: projectlots@yahoo.com or toluboni@yahoo.com

Or visit LOTS website here!

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Gbenga Awomodu is a freelance writer and editor. He blogs at Gbenga’s Notebook!, a repository of his thoughts and other works.

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