Residents of Makoko, Lagos’s shanty-town on stilts, face an uncertain future as they are caught between preserving their life on the sea and finding a better future for their children.
A new floating school, built with foreign aid, offers the chance of education to Makoko’s youth. But the government initially prevented it from opening as it wants the residents moved to higher ground.
Nobody knows for certain how many people live in Makoko, with estimates ranging from 80 000 to 250 000. Up to 12 people share one-room wooden shacks, perched atop oily black water. Men, women and small children navigate their way expertly through narrow canals, punting wooden boats of up to 3 metres in length in the manner of Venetian gondoliers.
But Makoko has become a thorn in the side of local government. Some residents suspect that the authorities want to sell the lagoon area to property developers who have already built an affluent gated community on its outskirts. But there are undeniable health and sanitation concerns. The shack stilts are embedded in a thick layer of white scum, while the air is heavy with the stench of sewerage as waste from toilets and baths run freely into the water.
In July 2012, the government intervened directly.
““A few of our balles [local council leaders] went to a meeting with the state,” remembers local chief Francis Agoyon, 57. “The government said we should remove our properties. We had 72 hours.” Thousands of houses were demolished with machetes and chainsaws.”
Chief Agoyon says that 18 months later, some residents who lost houses are still shacking up with others.
He shakes his head. “We don’t even know the reason [for the eviction]. They say we are polluting the water. But we are fishermen. If we don’t live on water, we don’t have life. “
Chief Agoyon says his community is the biggest supplier of fish to the residents of Lagos, and they depend on the income from this to live: “We make enough money on fishing to feed our families. We are also able to buy fishing material, clothes and to send our children to schools. Moving us from our environment will not be an option.”
Nomalia Jesuwami makes her living cooking, smoking and selling fish caught by Makoko’s fishermen. Three of her five children play next to her, picking at portions of maize meal wrapped in plastic, as she waits for the men to arrive with their catches. Government’s demolition of parts of Makoko in 2012, and its plan to clear the area, have disturbed Nomalia deeply.
“We need to beg the government not to take away our homes because we don’t have anywhere to go and we need to be near the fishing,” says Nomalia, who was born in Makoto.
In March 2013, the Makoko Floating School was completed: a collaboration between Dutch architects, the UNDP and the Heinrich Boll Foundation. An elegant triangular structure built from bamboo and timber, it is intended to provide a sustainable educational resource for Makoko’s children.
It is precisely this attempt at sustainability, however, that earned the project the displeasure of a government that wants to see less, rather than more, incentive for people to make Makoko a permanent home.
“The floating school has been illegal since its inception,” Prince Adesegun Oniru, the Lagos State Government’s Commissioner for Waterfront and Infrastructure Development, told Architectural Review last year.
David Shemede, Makoko’s Community Development Chair, says that the issue is now resolved. “We have already selected the children who will go here,” he said, standing on the school’s third floor. “In February the school will start.”
Residents say they are happy in Makoko, but they also know that education is key to a future for their children on dry ground as fishing stocks dwindle.
Victor Iwalokun has fished for most of his 40 years. Yet today he has one foot on land as he tries to establish his own church. When asked whether he has ever been educated, Victor answers “yes and no”.
“Experience is the best teacher,” he elaborates. But then he frowns and says that his two children, aged 10 and 12, “must be educated”.
The future is uncertain for Victor and his community, yet he does not know what else he should do: “You have been out in the world and seen things. Can you advise me what I should do with my life?” he asks.