From the Magazine: Living on the edge

by Allwell-Okpi

Much has been said about the people of Makoko, who live in literal squalor, but this reporter visited the slum armed with a recorder and a camera, and thinks more still needs to be said.

Makoko on Water

Mrs. Egungbohun lives in ‘Makoko on water’, in one of the hundreds of houses built with stilts spread across the surface of the Lagos lagoon, on the right side of the Third Mainland Bridge, facing the Island. It is a fishing village with most of its population, either fishermen/fisher women, or traders dealing with fish and allied products.

According to the Baale of Makoko on Water, Emmanuel Shemede, the community has been around for over a century and is  made up predominantly of the Egun, a tribe from Benin Republic.
Others ethnic groups in the community include the Ilaje and the Ijaws, both groups that live in marine environment.

The community has been expanding, and even  more rapidly in recent time, with new stilt houses springing up. The expansion continues in spite of the real fear of an impending demolition exarcebated due to various pronouncement by state government officials, referring to the stilt houses as ‘illegal structures’. Most residents of Makoko fear that one day government will destroy their homes, just like illegal structures in Oshodi were demolished and burnt in one fell swoop in January 2009.


Makoko is one of the most famous slum communities in Lagos State, mainly because of many environmental and health challenges. It’s also about the dirtiest neighbourhood in the state. Both on land and on water, people live – literally – in the midst of filth. The water on which they live on, is dark, slimy and smelly, due to years of waste dumping. In ‘Makoko on land’, heaps of refuse are seen right in front people’s homes.

“It’s miracle that these people are living in this kind of environment and they are surviving,” says Tolu Olayinka, a public health practitioner. “It’s amazing to me. One would expect that an epidemic will break out here, something like cholera and some other kind of disease, wipe out everybody there.” But in spite of these challenges – including a lack of portable drinking water – the people manage to live a normal life without any form of government presence.

This is home

As you sail throughthe streets of ‘Makoko on water’,, you see signs of order – barbers shops, DVD shops blasting their music on high volume neatly arranged, schools teaching in French Language, shops selling food stuff and household items, as well as mobile cooked-food vendors on canoes. There is even a clinic, where residents go for treatment when they get ill and do not want traditional medicine. All run by residents.

24 year-old Matthew Abani, a resident of  ‘Makoko on water’, teaches at Whanyinna Nursery and Primary School, the community’s major school. Considering the amount of work it takes for the kids to come to the school and how hard it is for the volunteer-teafchers to convince the kids to learn, it’s ‘Virtue and Hardwork’ motto is quite apt.

“Before, children and young people in this community don’t like to go to school,” Abani, himself a student of the Yaba College of Technology, said. “So sometimes we used to convince some of them to go to school. We have only one graduate in Makoko on water. But now, we have some young people from this community in different higher institutions. So very soon we will have many graduates. Now many of the children like school, they don’t pay school fees here, but some of them that go to school outside pay school fees.”.

Just another town

Detached as it is from the mainstream Lagos communities. ‘Makoko on water’, according to the Baale’s estimate, houses probably over 400, 000 persons who share poverty, lack of access to affordable and adequate health care, portable water and electricity, housing and transportation difficulties – and a resolve to cope without government.

Over the years, the craftsmen who build the stilt Makoko houses have mastered and improved the art – so that they now construct storey buildings with the stilts. But it is not for lack of space – it is instead an enforces social classification. “There is enough space to build more houses, but some people just want to build upstairs, says a middle-aged fisherman who introduces himself as Doussou. “And it is because they have money. Now they are building one storey, soon they will start building two storey buildings.”

It costs an average of N50, 000 to build a regular stilt house for a household of about 10. The bigger, the costlier – hence another mode of classification. The relatively successful fishermen and traders build their homes, and others – especially new entrants – rent.

But Makoko is still a slum. And like most slums, most of the houses do not have toilets.  and waste water is discharged right into the water. Excreta and waste water is The waste disposal system that is powered by the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) might have managed to clean up many parts of Lagos, but it has yet to reach Makoko.

There is no electricity, so residents illegally tap electricity from ‘Makoko on land’, so that inter-connected wires can be seen from house to house.

‘Makoko on water’ has one clinic – a stilt house with a red cross on its wall, and enough equipment and resources for first aid, even in the midst of health challenges, the most common being skin diseases.

There might be big men here – but they live in the midst of big trouble.

Suffering and smiling
Yet, iIn spite of all these challenges, children swarm the place. More than half of the population is under 18 – Makoko women are given to pro-creation.

“We like to born many children,”. Mrs. Egungbohun, who is 36 and has five children, confirms. “And we used to start giving birth on time, many women here give birth to their first child before they are twenty years old.”

Many of the families are polygamous, with children in excess of 10. As a result, the average Makoko woman joggles her business with the tedious job of watching over infants constantly at risk of falling off the wooden platform of their homes into the murky water underneath. Indeed, this is said to be one of the highest cause of infant mortality in the community.

Still the Makoko people smile through it all. They socialise at joints, host social events including white weddings, and play on the water with mechanised canoes.

Government officials may have variously called it an illegal settlement to be demolished, even if to improve the lagoon’s aesthetics, but the people are perfectly happy where they are and unwilling to relocate.

“Let me tell you, we are happy here,” the Baale says, defiantly. “Government should leave us alone here. They should come and clean up the place if they don’t like it like this.

“But we don’t want to leave here. This is where our ancestors lived and died, and this is where we were born. In fact some of us are not used to living on land. This is our life.”

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