The Struggle for Survival in Nigeria's Floating Slum

  • Makoko’s waterways are a hive of activity.

    Shacks sit atop rickety stilts while flotillas of trash slowly drift past down below. Crowds of people paddle past through the stagnant waters in boats, and foul smells fill the air while the baking sun beats down. And yet, in this sprawling floating slum, where basic human needs are barely met, the people refuse to succumb to despair despite the hardships they face.

  • Boats ply the murky waters of Makoko, which serve both as a thoroughfare and floating market for its residents.

    According to a local folk tale, the floating slum Makoko has its origins in a magical love story. An Egun fisherwoman from Benin would visit a local Yoruba carpenter, bringing him her catch of fish, crabs and shrimps. Eventually, the two of them fell in love, and the family they had together became the foundation of what is now Makoko.

  • Both sexes must struggle to survive in the floating slum.

    At first glance, it is hard to see anything magical in the Makoko of today. The slum squats above a reclaimed lagoon filled with debris and human waste. The stench alone is enough to scare off most visitors. However, there is more to this aquatic shanty town than meets the eye. The people of Makoko (the population is estimated at 15,000, but may be as much as 100,000) are drawn to this place from all over West Africa, creating a vibrant and evolving community. There are many problems here, but there is also a strong sense of hope.

  • Children born in Makoko learn to navigate the boats at an early age.

    Makoko is part of Lagos, Nigeria – Africa’s most populous city and one of the fastest growing urban centers on Earth. By 2015, the government estimates that Lagos will have 25 million residents, making it the world’s third largest city. Every day, a mind-boggling 6,000 immigrants from across the West African region arrive to add to its diverse mix of culture and languages.

  • The view from a stilted shack’s window out onto the lagoon.

    The port city of Lagos was founded on several islands separated by creeks but has now expanded onto the mainland as well. The shanty town of Makoko perches on stilts above Lagos Lagoon at the edge of the city, close to a busy expressway. As hinted at in the old legends, it began as a fishing village in the 18th century, and continues to be home to many fishermen today.

  • Everywhere shacks that appear to float on the surface of the water greet the eye in Makoko.

    For most residents of Makoko, home means a hut built on stilts banged together from assorted panels of wood, zinc, plastic and rubber, and crowned with a tin roof. Each shack is accessible either by narrow footbridges or the canoes that populate the lagoon’s dark waters. Makoko’s shacks on stilts also house businesses – everything from hair salons and bars to fishing net repair outlets – all of which cater to its diverse and hard-working community.

  • Huts are built using a variety of materials, including wood and plastic.

    Space is a luxury in Makoko. Overcrowding is a huge problem in the floating slum, where up to 14 children can live in a single hut. Part of the problem is the neighborhood’s high birthrate: an average of four children are born every day. Midwife Giselle Hakonzu blames the high number of births on Nigerian culture, saying large families are viewed as a symbol of prosperity, while families with only one or two children are ridiculed. Quite a problem for those who would encourage family planning.

  • A fishing net hangs in a hut. The majority of foreign immigrants to Makoko are fishing families from Benin, Togo or Ghana.

    Along with the high birth rate, overcrowding in Makoko can be attributed to the new residents arriving in their droves from neighboring countries like Benin, Ghana and Togo. Many are Egun fishermen who have arrived from Benin by sea, hoping for a better life for their families. Once they arrive, they find that life is much more difficult here than they anticipated, yet they stay and make the best of it. And more keep coming.

  • Waste disposal is one of the primary problems the slum faces.

    There is little in the way of infrastructure in Makoko to support all these people. The huts have no running water and only sporadic electricity. Power is, in fact a problem, all over Lagos. Whereas in the past, residents dryly joked that the initials of the power company NEPA stood for “Never Ever Power Anytime,” now that the company has been renamed Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PLC) its nickname has, in turn, become “Problem Has Changed Name (Please Light Candle).” A humorous take on what must be an incredibly limiting and frustrating problem.

  • A man poles his canoe through murky waters.

    For Makoko residents, the water under their homes serves as a toilet, garbage dump, road and floating market. Mounds of plastic waste accumulate under the huts and the lagoon has become a thick, noxious soup. Despite this, children can be seen swimming and splashing around in the dark water, seemingly immune to the foul stench and toxins. Drinking water has to be either purchased or brought in from water points.

  • A canoe supplies fresh water, a valuable resource in the shanty town.

    For many in Makoko, the waterways around the huts are a source of trade. Their canoes are small floating shops that sell anything from fish and palm oil to drinking water. You can even buy hot snacks, cooked fresh on small fires kept alight in the boats – just one example of the ingenuity of the people who live here.

  • Women being transported by boat, looking irked at the intrusion into their lives.

    Although life here is undoubtedly tough, projects are underway to help the inhabitants improve their quality of life. One is the “Hope Floats Initiative,” the idea of Akin Afolayan – a Nigerian living in Atlanta – and a group of Atlanta architects. Working with the local government, the initiative has created an amphibious health clinic and community center in Makoko. The floating clinic is already in operation, performing free surgeries on those who need them most. The hope is that the organization will soon be able to construct more amphibious centers in other locations where they are badly needed, too.

  • Here you can see the walkways that connect many of the Makoko huts.

    Along with health services, education within the slum has also been a problem up to now. Within Makoko, a quarter of people under the age of 30 cannot read or write, while 14 out of 20 are educated only to between primary and secondary school level. However, there is hope that this may soon begin to change. Three years ago, an English-speaking school was established in the community and it now has over 200 pupils, with a further 400 on the waiting list. Perhaps the success of the school will encourage more schools to open across Makoko.

  • Many children in Makoko work with their parents rather than attending school.

    Another organization, Change-A-Life, is tackling the ever-present threat of malaria in Makoko. Although the abundance of water is a requirement for the fishing community who live there, it also harbors the mosquitoes that carry this deadly disease.

  • Fishing, along with wood processing, remains the number one industry in Makoko.

    To help combat the malaria problem problem, a team of doctors and educators from Change-A-Life have been sent out to teach residents about the dangers of malaria and how they can protect themselves, as well as distributing Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNs). Like the other organizations helping the people of Makoko, Change-A-Life operates with the support of the local residents, who are eager to see their community improve.

  • A young boy poles his canoe through a narrow channel between huts.

    Another potential positive development for Makoko and other Lagos slums would be the installation of biogas generators that run on sewage. Microbiologist and inventor Olatunbosun Obayomi, himself from Lagos, believes the generators could be the solution to power problems in slums as well as the disposal of untreated sewage. If Obayumi has his way, the generators could be used by households to power all their cooking, heating and electrical needs – a far better use for sewage than polluting waterways.

  • Seen from a distance, the slum looks almost peaceful – far from the energetic hub of industry and community it is in reality.

    Make no mistake, life is hard for the vast majority of Nigeria’s citizens. The global NGO Transparency International lists it as among the most corrupt countries in the world, with billions of dollars in oil revenue going straight into the bank accounts of the country’s rulers. And, in Lagos, two out of three inhabitants are slum dwellers like those of Makoko, living without access to basic facilities or services.

  • If the planned improvements are made in Makoko, these children will enjoy a much better quality of life than their parents.

    Despite the daily hardships they face, the people here carry on their lives with resilience, resourcefulness and hope for the future. Photographer Seun Bankole says on her blog that she was “amazed at the fortitude of the residents and [their] survivor attitude against all odds.”

  • Sunset over Makoko.

    But perhaps the last words should be left to Makoko resident and part-time actor Joseph Blabi. Speaking to a journalist from The Independant, Blabi says: “Lagos is good; it’s not bad… Yes, you have to work and struggle. It’s only good for those with business IQ… Lagos isn’t a place where you come and sit down. You come to work. It’s not for the lazy and it’s not for the old.”

  • Sometimes even a densely populate place like Makoko can seem like a ghost town – when the men have gone fishing.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History