The sea of rusty rooftops is visible from a bridge that connects the Nigerian mainland to Lagos’ island districts, but to visit it you need a resident guide.
Welcome to Makoko village in Nigeria, the Venice of Africa where shops, schools, churches, homes and even toilets stand on murky water.
Makoko is built on stilts on the Lagos lagoon, and wooden canoes are the main form of transport for residents, including children, who have mastered the art of paddling.
That children learn to paddle before they can crawl is an interesting case of nature versus nurture, and this skill, mastered at an early age, is a critical survival tactic for any Makoko resident.
The village derives its name from Omi-Akoko, which loosely translates to “waters ringed by palm trees” in the local Egun language. It is home to the Oko-Agbon and Ago Egun communities.
We’re a team of 25 journalists visiting this floating village, and the guides advise that we walk in a single file to board the canoes.
But, however well travelled you are, nothing prepares you for the experience of this village, whose amphibian residents’ lives are so inextricably linked to fishing that they cannot imagine life far from water.
It is this contaminated water that is the medium of disease transmission, but they will hear none of it and will readily use the cultural and ancestral tethering argument to remain afloat here.
“Can fish survive on dry land?” one resident, Noah Shemede, asks rhetorically. “We live on water because it is the most convenient way to get fish, which is our source of food and income,” he adds.
Every home owns a canoe, so hundreds are “anchored” on the lagoon to form a maze that only a skilled resident can navigate. Paddle-powered vessels are communal, so one does not have to pay to use them, although the community guides insist on booking the wider ones for visitors to the village.
As we board them with a sense foreboding, the residents look on in amazement and disbelief that we find it amusing that this is their only mode of transport.
Four or five of us warily sit in one of the vessels, made slightly more comfortable by the addition wooden benches borrowed from a nearby school.
On our way towards a floating school, we come across a girl of about six or seven using a household basin and a wooden stick to paddle her way around.
There are whispers of isolated cases of children drowning because they could not swim, but the local guides dismiss these as “normal accidents”.
“On the mainland, there are road accidents involving pedestrians and vehicles and this is unique to their environment,” Shemede confidently explains, adding that by the age of five, most children can swim.
Makoko village comprises rickety wooden houses and is home to an estimated 100,000 people; the exact number is hard to tell since they were not included in the country’s 2007 census.
Part of the village was cleared by the government last year over flooding hazards, but the residents were quick to rebuild their houses, citing their cultural attachment to the village.
Established in the 18th century as a fishing village, Makoko is home to hundreds from neighbouring Togo and Benin, apart from the native Nigerians. They buy water from a borehole nearby for as low as Sh1 per 20-litre container.
Makoko is also home to a floating school, a three-story A-shaped structure comprising a 1,000-square-foot play area on the ground floor and a classroom each on the second and third floors.
The school, which stands on 256 plastic drums, was designed by a Nigerian architect who hopes the idea can be replicated in the construction of homes, which currently stand precariously on stilts.
“My people have lived in Makoko for the last 200 years and we are all inter-related, with a common culture built around fishing,” says Chief Francis Agoyon. “We will die if you move us from here.”
MOVE OR PERISH
With regard to health facilities, the village has a few informal clinics, also standing on contaminated water, a paradox the villagers do not understand.
So serious are the health conditions here that numerous researchers have come up with one verdict: move or perish. But none of the residents is convinced that they should move.
A roughly-built structure with no roof serves as a latrine, and the “local architect” who built it was keen to ensure that it provided ample privacy to defecate openly.
That they have no social value for toilets is not only a grave concern, but also endangers the lives of thousands of children unaware of the effect of the open defecation on their health.
The latrine hole opens into the inky waters that also serve as streets below, and a recent paper by Nigerian researchers warned that the sorry sanitation state of Makoko makes the village a cholera playground, but residents would hear none of that.
Attempts to relocate the residents have been met with stiff resistance. The last confrontation led to the death of one person.
The researchers noted that the presence of faecal coliform in the sampled water also suggests high contamination with sewage and animal waste due to the low levels of personal and domestic hygiene.
Titled Living Conditions and Public Health Status in Three Urban Slums of Lagos, Nigeria, the paper also highlights the living conditions as well as the health issues facing the slum residents, citing disease breakouts.
“Personal hygiene habits are very poor; open defecation in ditches and the lagoon is widely practised. Respondents are faced with perennial flooding due to blocked drainage systems, resulting in a number of diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea, cold and cough,” read part of the paper by Pheabian Akinwale, deputy director of research at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, and others.
Researchers also found out that residents are generally aware of illnesses and treatment. However, their quest for health care is largely limited by the lack of money.
“Economic growth in Nigeria is not as fast as the rate of the growth of its urban populations, and this has given rise to an increasing growth of the populations that have out-paced the country’s health and social services,” noted the researchers.
Migration has also led to uncontrolled and unplanned development of slums in metropolitan Lagos, and the study noted that the main reasons for this are poverty and unemployment.
HOME IS BEST
Residents, therefore, are faced with poor living conditions and poor access to safe and adequate drinking water, toilets and proper garbage and sewage disposal mechanisms, which pre-dispose them to illnesses.
The women spend their days in their homes while the entrepreneurial ones eke out a living selling the fish their husbands bring home after a long day in the high waters. The residents get their household supplies from floating shops, with some opting to hawk their wares on their canoes.
Makoko is also the city’s fishing hub, with some Lagos residents who want seafood at reasonable prices travelling here for their supply of crabs, red snappers and prawns.
Shemede, a young resident who went to school on the mainland, says he has known the place as home for more than three decades, adding that the government’s plans to relocate them to dry land is unfair.
“I was born and brought up here and although I attended school in Lagos up to secondary level, I just had to return to Makoko, where I am serving as the head teacher in one of the schools,” he told DN2 during an interview.
Shemede is the head teacher of the only nursery and primary school in Makoko, which has 200 students.
“We prefer to have our children attend school in a familiar environment although they proceed to high school on the mainland and later return to Makoko like I did to work as teachers or fishermen,” Shemede said.
The floating school is yet to host its first set of 100 proposed students because the Lagos State government says that the structure was constructed illegally.
Interestingly, Chief Agoyon takes me on on a debate about the cause of the occasional malaria outbreaks in Makoko.
“We do not get malaria from mosquito bites at home; it’s because we are out in the deep seas the entire day without rest,” he argues. Whether mosquitoes bite these fishermen during the day in the deep seas is a debate for another day, but he is quick to counter statements by public health officials that the prevalence of malaria and water-borne diseases is alarmingly high in Makoko.
Typhoid and cholera are common as the raw sewage goes directly into the water beneath their homes. But the villagers refuse to admit that these two diseases haunt them.
According to public health officials, eating infected food, vegetables and fruit washed with water contaminated by sewage or drinking water that has been contaminated by the effluence of infected people makes the community prone to cholera.
The chief also dismisses the cases of typhoid outbreaks from using the contaminated water, saying they are scares propagated by the government to force them to move to the mainland.
Typhoid is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi that is found only in human beings and is transmitted through contaminated food or water, while cholera is an intestinal infection caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae that affects both children and adults, and where water, sanitation, food safety and hygiene practices are wanting.
There are a handful of makeshift privately-owned clinics here, but they cannot adequately meet the health needs of the people.
Two hours later, our visit to Makoko comes to an end, and Shemede and other guides take us through the process of boarding the canoes so that we can make our way back to the pick-up point at the entry to the village.
But not before curiosity drives me to ask where they bury their dead because, while alive, they want nothing to do with the mainland.
“We have bought a portion of land where we bury Makoko residents but this has to be done after a ritual to ensure the person’s peaceful transition,” the chief says.
Security in Makoko is homegrown as it is provided by self-styled vigilante groups known as “Area Boys”. The Lagos state police rarely venture into Makoko unless it is for the occasional demolition of the shanties, which the residents are quick to rebuild.
The village, therefore, polices itself through a community initiative and Chief Agoyon says that insecurity is not a problem.
As we leave in a single file, I am distracted by a newborn baby in one of the households on the path. I steal a few minutes from the group to hold her and her mother is quick to volunteer the name of her seventh-born daughter: Patience (the second name is too difficult to remember). I whisper a prayer that one day Patience will grow into an assertive young woman, away from this hazardous environment.