Residents of the world’s largest floating slum
are keeping their hopes up as lockdown sinks their livelihoods.
Written by Kevwe
Okporua. Photos by Damillola Onafuwa
A riot of canoes bumping
into each other in narrow waterways — paddlers yell a chorus of instructions to
other boats: “Move! Shift! Stop!” Expletives are thrown in for good measure in
one of three languages spoken here — Egun, Yoruba and French. Children can be
seen floating by in large plastic basins, joining the hustle and bustle of
Makoko, an informal
waterfront settlement in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, is often
referred to as the ‘Venice of Africa’, if also ‘the world’s largest floating
slum’ where thousands live cheek by jowl in stilt houses nestled deep in murky
black waters. One participant in the daily chorus is Owolabi James. He’s
ferried residents and visitors around these waterways for almost 20 years — yet
he’s only 25. “I was born and bred here,” Owolabi says with a smile. “I started
doing this work when I was a child, and now I own the canoe that I work with.”
At first glance,
Makoko’s population could be considered at extreme risk from coronavirus —
hygiene and social distancing pose a serious challenge in these crammed
conditions. On closer inspection, however, the global pandemic, which has
infected more than 14,500 people and resulted in 387 deaths in Nigeria, is the
least of their worries.
Fishermen and fish
sellers who account for most of the 100,000-odd people who live here in poverty
— there’s never been a census — have bigger concerns. Hunger and the
ever-looming threat of eviction pose a bigger risk to residents’ way of life
than disease or infection. Families who live on the water also depend on it for
their livelihoods. “I work between five to six canoe trips in a day,” says
Owolabi. “But since the coronavirus came and everyone was told to stay at home,
I’ve only been doing about three trips daily.”
Nigeria is Africa’s
biggest economy and, with 182 million people, the continent’s most populous
country — the food security of millions of people is at stake as coronavirus
wreaks havoc with incomes.
Government is ramping up
support for some of the most vulnerable groups in the country — the Ministry of
Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, for instance,
provides food rations to schoolchildren with the technical support of the World
Food Programme (WFP)in Abuja and Lagos.
In Mokoko, people must
maintain multiple incomes to survive. Sarah Tinsheme is a tailor. The
24-year-old also helps her mother sell basic non-perishable food items such as
bottled water, dry pasta and seasoning cubes. Most of her time is taken up in
another way, however. “My main occupation is selling fish,” says Sarah.
“We smoke the fish beforehand.”
The task of smoking
usually falls to women while men are occupied with sewing fishing nets,
building and mending their canoes and then wading into the deep parts of the
water to cast, as motorists zipping past on Lagos’s Third Mainland Bridge look
on. Everyone here — be they fish sellers, commercial canoe riders, canoe
builders or canoe repairmen — relies on daily takings to survive. Mokoko’s fish
market, one of the largest in Lagos, is the beating heart of the community.
It’s where families buy the food they need to eat, where they earn their
living, and where most socialising is done.
With markets shut
because of COVID-19, however, life as people knew it has stopped. Jutin Segodo
Avlanwhen owns a hair salon. Her customers, market traders, have stopped
coming. The 38-year-old mother of five says rationing meals for her children
has become her new normal.
Another challenge for
people living here is the shortage of canoes for ferrying people around, not to
mention social distancing.
“It’s very difficult to
move around if you don’t own a canoe,” says Jutin. “It’s one of the biggest
difficulties we face here. If the canoe riders don’t come on time, the children
are late for school.”
Many children whose
families do not have access to canoes or cannot afford canoe-rider fees, simply
don’t have access to education.
The Makoko community
both sits and floats in the Yaba local government area of Lagos State. Sits
because although the area is mostly covered in water, one-third of it is on dry
land. It was first inhabited by migrant fishermen from the neighbouring
Republic of Benin and Togo, who settled in the area and made it theirs.
The relationship between
the Government and the community can be an uneasy one. For locals, attention
from the government can often only spell one thing: eviction. Any government
presence is given a cold reception, so perhaps unsurprisingly they tend to stay
In 2012, the Government
forcefully evicted thousands of residents from their homes, with only 72 hours’
notice, rendering them suddenly homeless. The intention was to get rid of what
many call ‘Lagos’s Shame’ — Makoko’s sprawl of labyrinthine waterways clearly
visible from Third Mainland Bridge which almost 100,000 drive across daily.
Evictions were abruptly
suspended after indiscriminate gunshots fired by police officers killed a
resident. Since then the residents whose living quarters comprise the ‘dirty
linen’ of Lagos State have managed to keep their homes.
Today, for Sarah
Tinsheme, and many like her, life in Makoko isn’t necessarily all gloom, doom,
and dirty black water. “I like our life here,” she says. “We often have parties
here in Makoko. All we need to do is find a venue where there is a lot of sand,
like the church. The church is located on the part of Makoko that is on land.
But we can’t have too many people at our parties because there isn’t much dry
Despite all the poverty,
Owolabi James would not want to live anywhere else. “I like living here on the
water,” he says. “When I’m not working and I want to relax, I call my friends
so we can hang out and chill and just enjoy each other’s company. I don’t have
any plans to leave because I enjoy it here. I have my peace of mind, the cool
breeze, and fresh air.”
Even in lockdown, life
floats on in the muddy, murky waters of Makoko.