Watching a documentary about Freedom Park in Freedom Park never really seemed a possibility. But with the former prison yard coming full circle to being an event hotspot, this idea no longer seemed out of the ordinary and it came to pass on the opening day of iREP 2012.
At the screening of Femi Odugbemi’s ‘And the Chain Was Not… ’ it was time to appreciate the splendour and the history of what is now Freedom Park. The documentary about the building was not just voice-over and talking heads. An enthralling spoken word performance by Crown Troupe’s Segun Adefila gave life to the struggle of the many former prisoners in what was known as Her Majesty’s Prison.
Swaying and gyrating to the indigenous sounds of the shekere, the omele, the bata and the gangan, as dictated by words from poems by Adefila himself and Oyindamola Olofinlua, the overall production is a wonder to see. Especially considering it is beyond the story of a transformation from captivity to liberation, but another of the struggle itself and how the bonds are broken for true freedom to be achieved.
According to the film, the prison was initially constructed in 1872 to hold 20 inmates. Made with the best quality building materials imported from Britain, the budget for the prison apparently cost more than the colonial government’s budget for education. While the prison stood, it counted on its inmate list, the likes of Obafemi Awolowo, Herbert Macaulay, labour leader Michael Imoudu and Esther Johnson, who was accused of murdering her lover. The prison even gets worthy mention in Awolowo’s memoirs.
Freedom Park was until some decades ago, one of the least popular historical sites in Lagos .the idea for renovating the former prison ground for recreational purposes was conceived by Theo Lawson, an architect. Now in its newfound glory, the former prison is home to all, but a home most especially for cultural purposes. In Lawson’s words, the former prison kitchen is now the food court, its execution stand is now a stage for unfettered expression and the former cells themselves are represented across the Park in the flower beds and the pagoda cells. Most interesting however, is the Prison Museum which holds artefacts excavated from the former prison.
And the Chain Was Not is a story of survival and a historical record, however subtle of an aspect of colonialism in Nigeria, particularly the prison system and its subjugation of the rights of local ‘troublemakers.’ That the chains are broken at the end of the documentary and that Freedom Park itself stands today, is testament to what strong will can achieve despite dominating oppression. This is what the director achieves in sharing this story now and for posterity’s sake.