And the Chain Was Not: A Journey in Time about Freedom Park
And the Chain Was Not, a documentary on the origins of Freedom Park befittingly wrapped up the recently concluded 2017 edition of the iREPRESENT International Documentary Film Festival (iREP) themed Archiving Africa. Written, produced and directed by Femi Odugbemi, with accompanying audio-visuals, the documentary navigates the transformation of the old prison yard formerly known as the Broad Street Prison to the popular cultural centre it is today, located on Old Hospital Road in Lagos Island (Lagos Central business district).
And the Chain Was Not reveals that the prison yard structures were initially built with mud and thatched roofs but due to frequent fire outbreaks, the British colonial masters in 1885 imported bricks from England at the cost of 16,000 pounds while they only spent 700 pounds on education for the whole year. The 1872 construction of Her Majesty’s Prisons alternatively referred to as the Broad Street Prison was initially designed to hold 20 prisoners. In 1876, the British colonial government passed the Prisons Ordinance that brought with it, the notion of convicts and criminals, which previously was not how offenders were perceived in the local system.
In 1960, Nigeria gained her independence after 100 years under British colonial rule. This period saw the departure of the British, as well as the abandonment of several historical structures and landmarks in Nigeria including the Broad Street Prison.
In May 2009, Theo Lawson an architect and the visioner of Freedom Park took over the site and began the transformation. According to him:
“50 odd years ago, this was a maximum security prison where political prisoners were kept. The Lagos state governor deemed it fit to enshrine the site and the concept originated 10 years ago as part of the millennium projects being carried out by a group of architects called CIA. We looked at the whole of Lagos Island as a project and my team took on this site with the idea to create a memorial park. 10 years later, it has become a reality. Even though there is a need for parks and trees in Lagos, this is a place of history, which deserved preservation. There were earlier plans to use it as an extension of the Island Maternity Hospital. A property developer even wanted to make the site into a cluster of high-rise buildings. It was also learned that Obafemi Awolowo put a curse on the place.”
Throughout its period of use in 1885, the Broad Street Prison held some of Nigeria’s foremost activists, anti-colonialists, nationalists and personalities like Hebert Macaulay, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Lateef Jakande, Mrs Johnson and Michael Imoudu; a foremost labour leader.
An excerpt from Awolowo’s book My March through Prison reads:
“The cells in which we were, were a set of rooms opposite one another with a long corridor between them. There were two doors to the corridor, they were both made of solid iron with huge iron bars to reinforce them from inside and from outside. Only one of them—the one that led to the prison compound, was in use when my colleagues were brought there. The other one had not been in use since 1870, after the abolition of the slave trade in Lagos.”
Within the grounds of the park, there is a museum, which was inspired by the old records office that existed there. There are excavated shackles and chains from the site, preserved and exhibited at the museum. The old kitchen became the food court, and the area that had the gallows was made into a stage, symbolic of a final performance before execution. The site of the old prison cells was also preserved and made into open spaces that occasionally hold exhibitions and sales of African fashion and craft items.
Professor Wole Soyinka and Joachim Gauck the president of Germany between 2012-2017
The documentary is interspersed with spoken word and performances by Segun Adefila, as well as several notables like theatre director Professor Segun Odewuyi, and Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate for literature Professor Wole Soyinka, who spoke about the transformation of the park. According to him:
“The whole notion of a degradation of a people, the expropriation of the humanity of a people, is centered usually in a prison yard; the place of detention, of restraint, of a complete destruction, denial of human and societal volition. It is the irony, the paradox of that conversion into a place of creativity, of imagination, of excitement, with a corner for children, this converting restraint into freedom is for me, one of the most marvellous statements that any former colonial people or any further occupied or in any way oppressed people can make.”
Founded 7 years ago by Femi Odugbemi, iREP has since inception taken place in this transformed yard. Taiwo Olusola Johnson, the official photographer for Freedom Park for 5 years, as well as iREP since inception, has captured some of the more recent developments at the park. He reiterated its historical importance; “I am happy and privileged to have documented some historical and iconic moments at the facility over the years”.
Today, Freedom Park continues to host art exhibitions, theatrical performances, poetry recitals, book readings and launches, cultural festivals, musical concerts, film screenings and visitors from all over Africa and beyond the continent. It is a place where the art cognoscenti gather for events and relaxation. Several musicians and performers like Ade Bantu of Afropolitan Vibes and Segun Adefila of The Crown Troupe, hold frequent concerts and stage presentations at the park.
Image credits TOJ Photography
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