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A Slum Called Makoko Waterfront

Despite the surface calm of a waterfront slum in Lagos there is an underlying fear of eviction as a documentary shows, Michael Jimoh reports…


Beneath the looping concrete tarmac of Third Mainland Bridge lies a community of boat people who depend on water for their livelihood. Their decrepit stilt houses made of plank covered with corrugated iron sheets, thatch roofs and cartons stand erect on water. The canoes they use for fishing bob and weave on an ever restless sea stretching as far as the eye can see. Scattered here and there are fishing nets cast over territories marked out for crayfish, shrimps, a dozen species of small and big fishes as plentiful as the ocean can provide.

For them, their life is water and water is their life. Local lore has it that children are dunked into the sea at birth. When they die, they carry the corpses far away and toss them into the ocean. There are no lands, let alone graves for burial as we do on land. Parties – christenings, weddings and funerals – are celebrated on water. The indigenes crowd themselves into wooden dugout canoes on top of water, complete with musicians, and make merry till they get tired.

These are the slum dwellers of Maroko Waterfront, a glancing distance from Yaba in Lagos Mainland. They are mostly Eguns and Ilajes whose origin can be traced to at least four states in Nigeria and two other West African countries. They live by the sea spanning the Atlantic coast, all the way from Nigeria to Benin Republic and Togo.

Every day from sun up till sundown, Lagosians in squeaky clean, air-conditioned Toyotas and Hondas, Benzes and BMWs glimpse the boat people from the safety of the bridge, unaware of the existence below – until you go there yourself.

Last weekend, a gaggle of journalists had just that chance, courtesy of documentary filmmakers from South Africa and Chicoco Radio, a broadcast media somewhat like the waterfront dwellers: Chicoco is basically a floating station, helping to propagate documentaries not only about the plight of slum dwellers in some African countries but their resolve to remain where they are and even partner with governments.

For ages, waterside residents have always had a running battle with government. The fear of eviction by government hangs over them like the flotsam and jetsam on the water that floods their wooden sitting rooms during high tide. But while tides come and go, the fear of displacement has remained as ominous as the dark clouds of rain that hangs above the Lagos sky.

As we Indian-filed from Apollo Street – the major road through which human and vehicular traffic struggle for right of way – down to the waterfront, the paths were getting narrower and ever more winding. We went past decaying buildings, sidestepped muddy puddles and all the while startled indigenes gawked at us in wonder at the sudden invasion. They didn’t know who we were but it was obvious to them we were strangers.

At least four of the reporters wore recommended glasses and looked more like pampered academics than wrinkled fishermen or women. Soon, we were by the brackish water of the sea. The stench was overpowering. The floating school was about 10 minutes away by canoe. One by one, we stepped gingerly into the dugout canoes. The fear was palpable for first timers, and that meant nearly all of us. And so the drift to the school began apprehensively, other canoes brushing ever so dangerously close.

“Commot your hand from the side,” Afolabi, a lad of about 12, 13 cautioned me. Leaning or resting your weight on one side of the canoe could capsize it. The sea isn’t deep enough to cause drowning but falling into the polluted water was no person’s idea of fun.

Other canoes cruised by, market women from distant places with their wares, fishermen and women with baskets of fish returning from a late evening catch. There was a boat party of drummers and dancers, men and women, swaying and gyrating to music from giant hi-fi speakers right on top of water. And then, a tyke floated by so casually in a plastic basin, blasting away on a whistle like an excited referee booking a faulty defender.

The documentary in question was in defence of the right of the slum dwellers to live where they choose to. In this case, it is water. Generations have lived and thrived on it. More than a quarter of a million still do today at Makoko Waterfront. Rather than be resettled elsewhere, or forced to evict, they prefer to partner with the government – state or federal – for development projects within the community.

It is not hard to see why. For most of the residents, fishing is their main occupation. Forcing them from their land would be tantamount to taking away their means of livelihood. A provider of fish to much of Lagos State and its environs, relocating Makoko residents elsewhere would affect the state’s economy tremendously.

When we arrived at the floating school (a pyramidal steel and wooden structure smack in the middle of the sea) the brain child of Kunle Adeyemi, an architect and committed Chicoco member with unalloyed affection for the slum dwellers anywhere in Africa, a film crew was already rigging a collapsible rubber screen screwed to a big canoe. Because of the strong sea breeze, it could not stay erect, swaying here and there.

Already gathered were hundreds of residents, men and school children all around, some workmen around the screen, some of them going up and down the floating school while some others danced to music blaring from a set. The sense of expectation was palpable, giving the impression of a carnival about to begin. And when the premiere did begin, it was anything but dull from start to finish.

Shown many times in South Africa, the award-winning documentary, Dear Mandela was making its debut in Nigeria, and aptly so in Makoko Waterfront, a place that has identical features to the slums in Durban except that Mkpalo on the outskirts of Durban is on a hill. Still, residents in different parts of the continent endure the same deprivation: They lack potable drinking water, live in unsanitary conditions, lack medical facilities and other necessities of life and often stigmatized for the way they are.

All of that was brilliantly captured in the film. But the highpoint was the way the slum dwellers resisted forced eviction, by first protesting peacefully and then taking the authorities to court, a case they won. The message to Makoko Waterfront inhabitants was very clear – let no government forcibly evict you.

According to a source, Dear Mandela follows the journey of three slum dwellers in Durban “from their shacks to the highest court in the land as they invoke Nelson Mandela’s example and become leaders in a growing social movement. By turns inspiring, devastating and funny, the film offers a new perspective on the role that young people can play in political change and is a fascinating portrait of a South Africa coming of age.”

Also shown was a documentary about Njemanze Waterside residents in Port Harcourt titled People Live Here. By the time the documentary was recorded, more than a quarter of a million people had already lost their homes.

Respondents in the interview are those left behind in the slum. One of them claimed to have been born there 56 years ago. His mother died and was buried in the slum. In short, all her life, she admitted, she had always lived there with her children. “Our fathers came as fishermen. They bought the land and filled it with sand.” In her 56 years, she said, she has never been anywhere else apart from Njemanze Waterside.

Another respondent in People Live Here, Nene Briggs, former president of Njemanze Waterside in Port Harcourt declaimed to the camera: “They came, they came with their soldiers and their bulldozers.” That was on August 28, 2009. Later, you see some of the settlers running away from the demolition force, evoking pity from viewers.

Next to that was the documentary of Makoko Waterfront itself. As soon as the film came on, the children recognized one another – either paddling a canoe or sitting and staring from the doorway of their crumbling buildings – and shouted each time the camera panned on them. Some of them even jumped on their seats, delighted to be recognized like upcoming stars in a film.

Dear Mandela was directed by Dara Kell & Christopher Nizza. The screening in Nigeria was undertaken by the energetic duo of Michael Uwemedimo and Ana Bonaldo of CMAP. Already shown in three cities, Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, the tour of Dear Mandela is “to raise awareness about housing rights issues and forced evictions as well as their impact on lives while telling the stories of communities struggling with this gross violation of their human rights.”

It is sponsored by Amnesty International Nigeria, The Ford Foundation and CMAP. AI Nigeria Housing Rights Researcher, Morayo Adebayo said of the aim of the documentary in the country: “Our objective at this very event is to highlight the human rights issues evoked by forced evictions while sensitizing stakeholders on their obligations and rights, through human rights education and discussion sessions.”

AI, she also insisted, “is very much concerned about the trend of forced eviction which appears to be spreading across the country at an uncontrollable rate.”

As it is, the film has made some impact on government. Rumours abound that instead of sending demolition squads to Makoko Waterfront, there might be collaborative effort with residents to turn the place into a modern residential area while still retaining their way of life as fishermen and women

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