A boy, not more than seven years old, dives headfirst into the black, filthy water. For fleeting seconds, he remains underwater. When he comes up for air, he finds he’s about to be trapped between two canoes coming in opposite directions.
He buries his head again only to resurface at the other end of the narrow street, grinning cheerfully, kite in hand. Kazeem (not real name) was after his homemade plastic kite.
As he climbs out onto his canoe anchored nearby, fists of human excrement drift past. A knowing smile plays on his face as if to say, “I got this.”
Kazeem lives in Makoko, a fishing community in Lagos infamous mostly for its squalor, and perhaps, the irony of facing one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in West Africa located across the Lagos Lagoon.
Makoko is bordered by Yaba, Ebute Metta, and is not very far from the University of Lagos.
Despite being ensconced between its more illustrious neighbors, Makoko is just a little blank spot on Google Maps.
It seemed fitting for a community often targeted by successive capitalist administrations in Nigeria's commercial capital.
Makoko being a blank spot on the map is both literal and symbolic for a few reasons. Being an eternally-neglected community — a settlement the state officials would be happy and willing to wipe off — its welfare is never a priority. In fact, an official in the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy said there was no literature on the community in the state archive.
Made up of five smaller communities, each with its own baale, (a traditional ruler a step below a crowned king), Makoko has no hospital. Médecins sans Frontières opened a floating clinic in the community at the beginning of 2011 . The clinic shut down less than a year later.
Baale Jeje Aide Albert, a 59-year old leader in one of the communities, said many residents have died needlessly. Some of them were pregnant women.
“We are suffering in Makoko,” Albert said in Yoruba overtly inflected by the Egun language. “There is no big man in Makoko.”
Baale Jeje Aide Albert, Makoko leader
There have been several interventions by different non-profit organisations to better the way Makoko residents live. But it still feels like an abjection. Some of the interventions, a couple of residents said, have not been beneficial to the community. Instead, they line the pockets of the initiators of such interventions.
Today, Makoko looks more like an orphan pawned off and then left to die by rich relatives. The Lagos State Government considered the settlement a needless blight on its megacity drive.
The residents of the close-knit community are wary of outsiders. Being used to make illicit money by pretentious and dubious 'helpers' has its effects. “We have seen it all,” a resident, Senami, said. “People use us to make money. We are tired of their lies.”
A few other residents felt the same way — exploited, violated, cheated and then left to wallow in the blank spot. But a new ambitious mapping project kickstarted by Code for Africa (CfA), a South Africa-based non-profit civic tech organisation, aims to bring Makoko and its population, which Baale Jeje puts at over two million, on the map.
Putting Makoko on the map: details captured with OpenStreetMap*
Most Lagos streets have names and signs that proclaim their identity. It is not so in Makoko. CfA project manager John Eromosele leads a team of Makoko residents working to change that story through mapping. With the project, Code for Africa wants to literally put Makoko on the map, empower the team made up of young women known as Makoko Dream Girls, and help create an environment that can make government and private interventions more impactful.
“I did not know anything about mapping before,” Hannah Shemede, one of the girls working on the project, told us sitting in a canoe at the edge of the community overlooking Third Mainland Bridge. “Now I can fly a drone and map anywhere.” The fixed-wing drones were used to photograph and map the community algorithmically.
The mapping kicked off in September 2019 with funding from Humanitarian Openstreet Map (HOTOSM) and ended in February 2020. About 75% of the task had already been completed by the end of November with 80 points of interest - including schools, private traditional medicine homes, SMEs location, drinking water sources and boat terminals - already identified.
Places of Interest in Makoko*
The mapping is done using a customised Open Data Kit, an open-source data collection software toolkit that has been used by Google, Red Crescent, USAID and World Health Organisation.
“We mapped over five kilometres in perimeter,” Eromosele said. “We have all major streets/routes and some minor streets mapped out by the drone. The ground team has pinned names given by the community to these areas.”
The map will be presented at a town hall meeting so residents can agree on the names assigned to the streets and waterways.
“The resulting open geodata will, for the first time, give community leaders, residents, planners, and development agencies exact intel on everything from schools and clinics, to water sources, sewers, roads, markets and homes in Makoko”
said Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOTOSM), an NGO dedicated to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping. HOT is also partnering with Code for Africa on the project.
Makoko as mapped on OpenStreetMap
Makoko is a child of necessity. The first residents of the slum, predominantly fishermen, were living on the mainland. But the need to be closer to the source of their livelihood forced them to move closer to the Lagos Lagoon in the 19th century.
A 2015 World Bank document estimated that about 250, 000 were living in the slum. Baale Jeje’s unofficial figure puts the current population at between 2 and 3 million. Another resident of the slum said the number could actually be about 300,000. But no one is absolutely certain of how many people live there.
Percentage of urban population living in slums*
The over-300% growth in population in less than 15 years was partially enabled by the ease to secure spots to build homes on the water. Makoko operates an almost free ‘land’ ownership system. Residents willing to own homes go to any of the five chiefs with a bottle of gin and as little as ₦2,000 (about $6). A prayer is said and spots are allocated thereafter.
Development of Makoko over 20 years*
As the community grows in size and population, there is an urgent need to decentralise its leadership from a single community-ruled-baale into smaller units for easier administration. For a faceless community, the installation of the baales, usually at the instance of a king recognised by the state, was without gerrymandering and high-stake politicking.
All five of the current baales were recently recognised by Lagos Mainland Local Government. Their communities breathe as one, yet each understands where his domain begins and ends without physical boundaries.
The initial settlement was largely built on the bank of the lagoon without any permission from the local or state government. It grew rapidly into the lagoon and without proper planning. Former Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola claimed the expansion portended danger for the environment.
In July 2012, agents of the state forcefully curtailed the expansion of the community. A letter was served on the residents giving them a 72-hour ultimatum to vacate their houses. The tone of the letter was scathing and showed the capitalist mindset of the state administrators. The letter cast Makoko as a blight on the “megacity status” of the city and an “environmental nuisance, security risk and an impediment to the economic and gainful utilisation of the waterfront.”
Eviction history of Makoko*
Some of the wooden houses that were built under power lines on the outer part of the community that faces Third Mainland Bridge were demolished. Multiple media reports said one person died in the stand-off between residents and police officers during the demolition.
“That lagoon is the only lagoon where we drain water during rainy season from Akoka, Bariga, Shomolu, Oworonsoki and from Macgregor Canal,” Fashola told leaders of the community who protested to him after the demolition. “The lagoon is shrinking because they are expanding and building into it; it has to stop.”
“That is the natural drainage that God has given us, and we have to preserve it. The only issue was the expansion of the community, and the time to define the boundary is now.”
Fashola might have sounded altruistic and genuinely caring. But developments in other parts of the city did not support that. Six years before parts of Makoko were demolished, Lagos State signed a private-partnership deal with South Energyx to build a new city — Eko Atlantic City — on a strip of land to be reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Victoria Island. Two years after the demolition, the state authorities began work on Ilubirin Estate. Eko Atlantic and Ilubirin were designed to only cater to the affluent.
In April 2018, the state announced that it was firming up an arrangement with a foreign firm, LaTerreBatiment Limited, “to build” a new island in the state. It also claimed a proposal for the redevelopment of Makoko by Bufad Engineering Services was awaiting approval. But by 2020 nothing further has happened, and an official of the state said he could not comment on the government’s plan for the community.
“Let the government come; we are here. We want schools. We want hospitals. We can only hope for a better future when we are healthy. Our children also need jobs.”
Baale Jeje Aide Albert, Makoko leader
But Albert said the community is not resistant to government intervention. Anything that can ease their pain and make living more comfortable is welcomed. For him, education is very important.
A bird's-eye view of Makoko
Climate Central, a science and news organisation based in the US , said in October that rising sea levels will overrun more coastal cities by 2050. Research by the organisation shows that 150 million people in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe may be displaced by a high-tide line.
Although a map of the cities that may be affected does not indicate Lagos is at risk, a few earlier studies suggested that the city is not totally out of danger.
Mathew Aide, one of the local guides working on the map project is aware of the danger rising water level poses to his community. He said the community is already feeling the effects of climate change but residents, because of rampant illiteracy and lack of proper education about the phenomenon, are oblivious.
Residents are aware of the possibility of water rising when pegging the stilts on which wooden houses are built. Still, houses were flooded, more than usual this year. Hannah said deaths were recorded in the past, too. But like everybody else in Makoko, Aide believes he can always survive whatever the lagoon throws at him.
“Living on water is part of our culture. So there is nothing that would come and make us fear.”
Matthew Aide, local guide
Albert shares the same sentiment. Old and bent by years spent outdoors fishing in the murky waters of Lagos Lagoon, his concern is not about climate change. For someone who did not have formal education, Albert believes the lack of quality education and healthcare facilities can wipe off his community faster than climate change could.
Makoko can be better. Venice, to which it is often compared, suffers from massive overcrowding, devastating floods, pollution and other environmental damage from the massive cruise ships that pass through every day. The city saw its worst flooding in the last 50 years this year (2019), with 45% of the city flooded, according to Tide Forecasting and Reporting Center of Civil Protection. Nevertheless, the city’s challenges have not impeded its viability that much.
The Italian councillor for tourism said the city receives about 26 million tourists every year. Other estimates move that figure to almost 30 million. It is a sad reminder of what Makoko could be. Instead of being a money-spinner, Makoko is a constant charity case that shows no significant improvement.
But Nigeria has never been kind to slum residents. It is not expected to be kind to the residents of Makoko. The demolition of Maroko and Otodo-Gbame, another fishing settlement, in Lagos is a constant reminder that Makoko’s future as a community is not guaranteed. It is easier to picture the settlement as a future playground for the rich than a community of fishermen living in a saner condition.
But for now, the people are not asking for too much: a cleaner environment, good schools for their kids, accessible and affordable healthcare, and protection of their livelihood.
Eromosele hopes that the mapping project will play a part in making these happen.
To view the full interactive story, please visit The Guardian (Nigeria) website.
*Flourish data visualizations and charts courtesy of Code for Africa.
Drone Imagery: Frederick Mbuya, Ayo Akinseye and Khadija Ali
Design and Data Visualisation: Chrispine Odhiambo, Sakina Salem and Emma Kisa
Produced in partnership with: Code For Africa, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Humanitarian Open Street Map Team, Makoko Dream, AfricanDRONE and UhuruLabs