Makoko, community and resistance in gigantic Lagos (Nigeria)

Makoko is like an island in the chaos of the big city. It is a floating neighbourhood and we are in the largest city in Africa. Its name, by the way, was given to it by the police and means “criminals”.

With this background, you can imagine that we are not in a place that might remind you of the bucolic image of the floating markets of Asia. Not even the neighbourhood of Ganvié in neighbouring Benin State. No. This visit is not a pleasant stroll. It is a slap in the face of reality. The reality that some 200,000 people (maybe more because there is no official census) have to live with every day. With little or no escape route.

The view of Makoko from the Ojoo Expy or Third Mainland Bridge

We get up early and set off across Lagos in the direction of the Lagos Lagoon, from which the town takes its name. At one point, we start to cross “the bridge”. It is very long and seems to get lost in the morning mist. Like a road to infinity. The rush hour traffic jam seems just as endless.

Lagos lagoon bridge with traffic jam
Traffic jam at Lagos Lagoon Bridge on the way to Makoko

After a few minutes of driving along it, we begin to see an expanse of wooden houses with sheet metal roofs over the water. It is the great floating slum of Makoko, and its size, enhanced by the hundreds of floating logs in front of it, is impressive. Without a doubt, the view from this bridge is the best way to get an idea of where we are going.

slum of lagos called makoko seen from afar
Makoko Slum in Lagos, Nigeria

Understanding Makoko and its recent history

Desmond Shemede is a 26-year-old with a clear and lucid speech. He is used to welcoming tourists passing through Lagos and explaining the situation of the Makoko community.

desmond our makoko guide
Our host in Makoko

In recent years, this corner of the big city has become an attraction for anyone who stops here, even if there are few of us crazy people who venture into Nigeria.

It is early in the morning and Desmond welcomes us into a school building. By this time it is filling up with children with uniforms and backpacks.

Before that, we walked through narrow streets where mud, smoke and idle children came out to meet us, and climbed into wooden canoes.

makoko wharf with wooden canoes
Makoko jetty

Visiting Makoko is impressive. The amount of rubbish that floats on the water and piles up on the banks, under the houses, is impressive. And the very strong smell that comes from it and mixes with the humidity of the environment is impressive.

Desmond shows us some lessons and the view of the canal from one of the school’s balconies. Then he gives us some background: Makoko began to be built as an illegal settlement more than 100 years ago. Then I read that it was in 1860 that the first settlement was established. So Makoko has existed for more than a century and a half. And it is still illegal.

makoko canal with canoes and wooden houses around it
Makoko, Lagos

The people who came to Makoko were fishermen from Badagry (a coastal town on the Benin border) in search of good fishing grounds. This has not changed either, as the main activity of the people in the neighbourhood is fishing and smoking the fish that they then sell in the markets of Lagos. This is where some of the smoke that seeps through all the cracks in the houses, watery streets and lungs of Makoko comes from.

Makoko has been growing all this time, but it has never been recognised by the authorities. And because it is not recognised, nothing is invested in it. In fact, it is a nuisance, a facade that tarnishes the image of Lagos.

Without infrastructure or services of any kind, life there is really hard. That smell that we endure for a while means that the air is loaded with methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and many other compounds contained in the rubbish. They breathe them every day of their lives. And every night.

canoes and houses in Makoko, Lagos
Visiting Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria

According to Desmond, the Makoko community, seeing that there was no way of getting anything from the authorities, organised in 2009 to set up schools, some drinking water points and a small clinic.

Malaria is the most common disease, especially in the rainy season. There are also outbreaks of cholera, typhoid fever, and any disease transmitted by contaminated water. Covid is a joke.

Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria

In 2012, the government issued an eviction order

The police were sent to evict and demolish “some houses” in Makoko. According to the authorities, they had to demolish those closest to the power line because of the danger involved, but according to witnesses the intervention went much further. The inhabitants of Makoko are convinced that this argument was just a subterfuge to start emptying the neighbourhood.

Desmond says the government accuses them of living like animals, in the rubbish, without hygiene or services of any kind. It accuses them. As if they were to blame for not having the minimum for a dignified life, for not being recognised as citizens. They, who have been there since 1860.

As if they wanted to live like that, in the shit. Because “they’re into it” and dying of infections or suffering from perfectly treatable diseases is not so bad.

makoko "street" with rubbish in the water
Rubbish accumulates between the piles of houses in Makoko.

Of course there are more reasons behind the desire to make this town (and its people) disappear. The Lagos elites want Lagos to be the most powerful city in West Africa – or the whole continent, for that matter. The Lagos Lagoon is a highly visible face on which a skyline of skyscrapers showing the wealth of the powerful would look great.

In fact, plans to build a luxury flat quarter have had an architect and design assigned for a few years now. Nearby Victoria Island is already a showcase of opulence. Take a look at the Google photos and you’ll see.

Desmond tells us very clearly what the 2012 assault was like. He was a teenager at the time. The police shot, people died including a community leader, many were injured and houses were set on fire. Many of the disinherited people of Makoko suddenly found themselves on the streets, in the squalor of squalor. You can read a chronicle of this event here, although there are quite a few entries on the internet reporting on it.

What is the situation now? In the wake of the police assault, a lawyer whose name I couldn’t put down went to help them because of the injustice that was being done – remember the Erin Brockovich movie starring Julia Roberts? I was reminded of it when I heard Desmond talking about that lawyer.

With this lawyer and anyone else who wants to push the cause, they protest or defend themselves before judges and the administration. So far, they have succeeded in having the evictions declared unconstitutional, and the courts have ordered the government to compensate the inhabitants of Makoko and to provide them with decent housing. That was in 2017. The government has yet to invest a euro or dollar in the community.

In the meantime, the community is self-managing

Like everywhere else in the world, people try to make life a little bit easier and more dignified. They try to think that there is a future and that it will be better than the present. After all, it is the place where they were born. Even if breaking the structure of marginalisation is complicated.

The school we visited offers primary education to about 350 children and they try to help them to continue their secondary education on the mainland. Depending on the donations they get. The idea is to offer free education because the parents cannot afford the school costs. In addition, as is usual in these cases, many families want their children to work to support the family economy.

There are one or two other schools in Makoko, and Desmond estimates that 40 per cent of the children are in school. The other 60 per cent are not.

Makoko School, Lagos

Their big challenge at the moment is to maintain the school, the clinic and the two or three drinking water tanks scattered around Makoko.

We also asked him how they are affected by the new e-money policy that has recently been implemented in Nigeria, which you can read an excellent article about here. He tells us that it is another big stone in the road.

Most of the people in Makoko do not have a bank account, and when they go to sell their fish at the market, customers cannot pay them in cash because there is hardly any cash in circulation. They are offered payment by mobile phone and the fishermen do not have a bank account. They get by with the help of Desmond, his father and other local chiefs who do have the necessary electronic resources. But there are a lot of fishermen living in Makoko, so yes, it is complicated.

Touring Makoko by canoe

We move forward in the canoes. I don’t want to think about how they see us, I concentrate on observing carefully. Makoko is a labyrinth of canals invaded by rubbish, but with small rays of light that tell us of the inhabitants’ will to live.

Some of the houses are painted in colours that conjure up the dark grey colour of the water. All the time we are accompanied by the smiles of the many children we see playing or driving their own canoes between the piles. There are large piles of fishing nets hanging next to the houses. We pass a hairdresser’s here, a tiny shop there. Life goes on in spite of everything.

makoko women and children in their boats
Inhabitants of Makoko, Lagos
A makoko boy at the door of his house greeting
Children rarely stop smiling
Some of Makoko’s houses have colours and patterns that conjure up the greyness that surrounds them.

We stop at a clinic. It is a house like any other, colourfully painted, with a small room where patients wait and are treated. Here everything seems small and narrow, cramped, dark. Most of the group decide not to go in because they are a bit busy and we don’t want to disturb the patients.

When we reach the edge of the village and the “open sea” (the lagoon with the bridge on the horizon), the smell of rubbish subsides. I imagine that those who live in that area are more fortunate than those further inland, where the atmosphere is sometimes suffocating.

Some fishermen are returning from their day at the lagoon. We ask if they have noticed a drop in fishing because of climate change, but Desmond says no, there is still plenty of fishing. It’s almost the only good thing about this place, and his reason for staying here.

The men are the ones who go out fishing, and the women wait to collect the day’s catch and take it to smoke. The sons and daughters help them, if they don’t go to school. And if they are not fishing, they are involved in trade with their street stalls, in boats. They mainly sell fruit, soft drinks and straw baskets.

Fish from the Lagos Lagoon in Makoko
A cut-out container serves as a container for transferring the fish from the boat to the basin.

Now we see the floating logs up close. We are told that they are logs brought from elsewhere in Nigeria and that they are left there to prepare the wood before making boards and furniture. In fact, we have also seen some piles of boards stacked among the houses in Makoko, so I gather that this is another activity.

Lagos Lagoon and bridge seen from Makoko

I can’t help but say that there are those who highlight Makoko’s “apocalyptic beauty”. The camera’s playfulness. And I won’t deny it because I also love photography, but I don’t think Makoko deserves to be reduced to the subject of apocalyptic images.

makoko child at the door of his home
A child from Makoko, Lagos

We said goodbye to Desmond and were very grateful for his work as a guide.

Makoko is a slap of reality in the face. And a great example of the resilience that human beings are capable of developing. Hopefully it won’t be another 100 years before its people can pull their heads out of the water.

Nigeria is very diverse and has great cultural attractions, but at Kumakonda we are convinced that realities such as Makoko also need to be known. That is why we do not hesitate to include them in our trips.

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