Lagos, Nigeria: Coronavirus is the least of concerns in the ‘Venice of Africa’
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 traffic.
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 away.
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 land."
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.