Nearly 6:30pm and Sogunro, Makoko, is alive with human activity; a cool evening breeze bouncing off the water canals and bathing the people in coolness. The noise of children playing and shouting, falling and fighting; men sit around talking in grave voices and facial expressions; women sit in close circles talking and watching over their children.
The scene would have been idyllic and reminiscent of evening in a closed community but for the foul smell – a horrid mixture of smoke, fish, dirty water, unwashed bodies and excreta – that hung in the air. It stayed strong and unmoved by the cool evening breeze that came from the lagoon.
“They always smoke fish here,” Paul, a displaced former school teacher from the Otodo Gbame slum who is visiting family in Makoko, tells me.
Sogunro, Makoko, is a slum community at the edge of the Lagos Lagoon, underneath Third Mainland bridge. To get to Sogunro, one must travel through series of streets in Yaba, driving through residential areas which is usually a mishmash of upper to lower class buildings sitting neck to neck on the same street.
Even though the streets of Makoko leading up to the slum become increasingly decrepit as you move along, Sogunro creeps up on you. It appears suddenly without warning that one is approaching a slum community.
Yaba has a long history and this history can only be felt and gleaned through the ramblings of colonial buildings strewn together by newer ones in the area.
Assisted by a friend, I visit a 1935 building. It sits at Petgrave Junction, Herbert Macaulay Road, Yaba. The one-story building is small and appears to be falling apart. Despite its storied history – living through colonial times and surviving Nigeria’s dynamic political scene since independence, the building sits humbly and almost unseen amidst the developments in Yaba.
There is an elderly woman in the house – perhaps in her eighties or, possibly, 90s. She speaks Yoruba, rattling off the language so quickly and in a high-pitched voice that it is almost impossible to follow with my little knowledge of the language.
Through Idumota and Oyingbo, Yaba is connected to the Island and I am told that Yaba area was a residential area for Nigerians – and some expatriates – who worked on Lagos Island but couldn’t afford to live there for different reasons – including the fact that the Lagos Island, at the time, was a huge business district and overpopulated.
But over the years, Yaba has grown into its own identity completely independent from Lagos Island. It has become home to several high-value businesses and it is witnessing an increase in the number of middle-class workers who are attracted by the area’s advantages.
Perhaps Yaba’s biggest blessing is that it sits in the middle of Lagos, becoming a central area of sorts between the Island and Mainland. Yaba still plays host to a good majority of educational institutes in Lagos – including the University of Lagos and Yaba College of Technology.
It has also become the tech hub of Lagos: Yabacon Valley. But even though there are fancy tech companies with huge investor funding popping up here and there in Yaba, it is a restaurant that appears to be the area’s favourite spot.
At 3:00pm, “White House” is still buzzing with lunchtime traffic. The usual long line for food has diminished but sharp looking ladies and suit-wearing men can still be seen, ties loosened digging into their buka meals.
“People come in by this time, in the afternoon, mostly,” Shina, a young man who appears to be a manager of sorts, says. He is standing next to the soup servers, collecting payment from customers and, occasionally, casting a supervisory eye around the restaurant.
When Drake and Skepta jumped on the remix of Wizkid’s Ojuelegba, did they know this place from whence the song drew its name. Would they ever know that in the centre of Lagos is a beating, steady heart, pulsating with activities, shouts of conductors hailing passengers, agberos arguing with bus drivers, book vendors occupying the pride of place under the bridges, big trucks expelling thick cloud of smokes that somehow permeated the thick layers of your skin, sneaking in through the pores and holes of the ears and eyes.
This is Ojuelegba, a place that is too small for the gravity and popularity of its name.
It is a song about this place – this chaotic beat of a million things happening at once, battling to be heard first – that propelled Wizkid from a well-known African act to a global phenomenon.
Ojuelegba sits in between Yaba and Surulere, neatly cutting the two areas into different halves of the same circle. Both areas are highly symbolic and have within their bellies pieces of Nigeria’s history. They are also home to an increasing number of new business and middle to upper-class Lagosians.
Back at Sogunro, Makoko, I sit with a group of men: two elderly men (probably in their mid to late fifties) and three younger men. We sit in a semicircle, children running wide circles around and one, occasionally, playfully runs into the men’s semicircle. The men speak in hushed tones, their words, spoken in their Egun dialects, come out slowly as if great care must be taken in speaking.
These are troubled men, you can see it in their eyes. Men rendered powerless by society and living at the mercy of kind strangers and NGOs. They sit here all day long, jobless. Waiting, hoping, unsure of what tomorrow will hold. They live by blind faith, putting out their hands in the darkness and hoping someone will lead them to safety.
Some of the residents in this slum come from different Lagos slum communities that were demolished in the past. They settle into Makoko slums, causing an increase in the population of the slum which is already over-populated and has access to no facility that is conducive for human survival.
I am here in search of faith, God and joy. To question the idea that poverty and joy cannot coexist. Much like other Nigerians, this community also has a strong faith in their religious institutions. Churches are scattered around, sitting in between rows of shanty buildings.
In writing about a place like Makoko’s slum, people (readers and writers alike) are often trapped in a pity party – that feels hypocritical on one hand and self-absorbing on the other. Forgetting that for people in places like this, there’s joy too in their daily life and sustenance by blinding faith in a higher power.
One of the men, Pascal Torsinhun, is “a Minister of God”, was a fisherman and grew up in the fishing slum of Otodo Gbame. But like other residents of that community, he lost everything and now, with his wife and three children, lives on his boat floating on the water canal, secured by a rope tied to a pike at the edge of the water.
Even in the face of his troubles, Torsinhun, who barely speaks English, still has faith in God. To prove this, he makes references to the biblical stories of men who suffered and still emerged victorious. Torsinhun says that it doesn’t matter the present position in life, things always look up for the better especially if you have faith in God.
“In my own belief, despite everything that is happening to me, the number one faith is that I will still get to the promised place,” the minister says through an interpreter. Despite the difficulties in his life, Torsinhun has hope in God.
He references the biblical story of the Israelites and when they were facing difficulties, God used the difficulties as a readjustment for existing and future problems.
“And when God took them through difficulties, he still brought them back to their own life. So, what happened in Otodo Gbame is the will of God. Maybe God wasn’t pleased with the way things were and wants to make it better. So if we’re going back there, we will go with joy.”
Torsinhun reflects also on the biblical story of Job, the temptation he faced and the difficulties he went through but his faith in God remained resolute.
“I have faith in God that something good will come out, based on the situation I am now.”
As he speaks, the men around nod in silent agreement.
Read the previous instalment in this series: