Femke becomes Funke: A people gone numb

When your own rights are being violated on a daily basis, at some point you risk going numb for the rights of others.

Lonely poles are sticking out of the water, like palisades without any function. 24 hours ago the wooden constructions still carried fishermen’s houses. The rattling noise of chainsaws echoing over the Lagos Lagoon; the demolition of a part of the Makoko slum is still in full swing. Two days after I arrived, I am on a gondola to report about the eviction of one of Lagos’ most famous informal settlements, also euphemistically known as the city’s Venice.

It is not the first time I visit this centrally located area on the Lagos Mainland. I know my way around and I have talked to the families who have often lived there for generations. The slum built on the water lacks most basic facilities but the community has organised itself over the decades, started schools for the children, and built up a largely self sufficient economy.

Makoko has been under threat of eviction for years, just as neighbouring slum Okobaba where inhabitants literally conquered land from the water by systematically dropping saw dust from the saw mill into the lagoon. Last year already I reported about how residents slept with one eye open, afraid to be evicted and left with nothing.

As our little boat glides past the wooden pole ghost town we pass entire families who have packed what they could save of their belongings on their boats where they are now living underneath improvised plastic roofs. Thomas Gbehon’s six children and his grey haired mother spent the last two nights under such a makeshift roof. Along with his house his boat carving workshop, Gbehon’s livelihood for the past 11 years, has been destroyed.

As our boat comes closer to the chainsaws, the lagoon gets more crowded with families on boats who have just fled their homes in the demolition. Saratu Bonje sits on a gondola with her former neighbours, recounting how it took the men with axes and chainsaws only 15 minutes to destroy the house where she settled forty years ago. Further down where government workers are tearing down the wooden structures a woman cries silently as her roof is being dismantled.

The Lagos State Government says with the foreseen thunderstorms it has become dangerous for residents to live within 100 metres from the electricity pylons in the lagoon and has therefore ordered eviction of that area. The government has no plan to resettle displaced persons, as they have illegally occupied the land in the first place.

When I tell a friend in Ebute Metta about the eviction, she shows no sympathy towards her countrymen just turned homeless. She pays 720,000 Naira a month for a two bed room apartment not far from Makoko near Oyingbo market, excluding service fees, and has a small and a big generator to cover her electricity needs when PHCN inevitably lets her down. ‘Why should those people live here for free?’ she wonders.

Amongst Nigerians, online sympathy for the Makoko slum dwellers is also much less widespread than I had expected. I am still wondering how come? When a Nigerian tweep responding to my report on Makoko asks me: “But seriously Funke, what would u have government do?”

There is no way I can answer that question in 140 characters.

We come from such different places. In my country, until recently, it was not illegal to squat an empty building if it hadn’t been in use for a year.  When you have a low income and pay a lot of rent, Dutch social security will subsidise part of it so you do not have to spend your entire salary on housing. This all based on the fact that a roof over one’s head is one of the most basic human rights and it is the government’s duty to provide safe and affordable housing for its citizens.

Nigerian citizens cannot count on their government to provide them with anything. Not the basic needs, let alone the more sophisticated ones. Nigerians are forced to fend for themselves.

When your own rights are being violated on a daily basis, at some point you risk going numb for the rights of others. Even if they are much worse off then yourself… even when it concerns children whose only fault is that they were born in a dirt infested slum on the Lagos waterfront.

There are many things I want to learn from this county and its people. This is not one of them.

Talk to Femke on Twitter @femkevanzeijl

Previous entries of Femke Becomes Funke:

Frigging Snow White

My drawer of self deception

Sex and closed draperies

No people deserve dog food

Guilt and privilege
The word I hate most in any language
‘Idiot oyinbo woman’
As good as your gadget
My moin moin madness
White sexual commodity
‘I became angry the Lagosian way: skin deep’
Beer in the morning? I would not dream of refusing
Golden opportunity
A terrifying dream


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (3)

  1. I asked frm you on twitter what you would have goverment do concerning the eviction of Makoko slum dwellers but I never said I was in total support of how they were evicted. I know how it is for someone to be displaced so I feel sorry for them because I have blood flowing in my veins. Take note Funke the flood from Bariga,Akoka,Shomolu and their surrounding environs is channelled to that makoko lagoon but due to the increase in people living in that slum and more shanties built there the lagoon is shrinking and we know what that means-flood. I really feel bad for them but on the long run it is for everybody to be safe. I agree with Leslie who made the first comment Nigeria is a place where our complexities and contradictions are much. May God help us!*sigh* I sincerely wish the state government will find a place suitable for them to continue their lives so that they can afford to take care of their needs.

  2. I really feel for the displaced residents and understand your stance. However, Nigeria functions very differently from Europe.The margin is really wide.

  3. The complexities and contradictions of Nigeria are many. We don't want slums but can't provide enough affordable housing. We have don't want people pouring in from the country side but can't provide livelihoods there. We pay slave wages to the many personal staff we hire and expect them to live…where? How? We begrudge them a free roof if we can't also have one. We treat the slums and its denizens like cockroaches ignoring they that thrive on the excesses from wasteful living and corruption. Meanwhile the govt watched them grow and take root without action, its agents milked the illegality to line their pockets. Then one must wonder whether a govt with ltd resources and at the bottom of the development curve should or could prioritize housing before education, infrastrcuture, health, safety, security etc etc etc. So many questions

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