The choppy boat ride only lasted about 20 minutes to Makoko, but in that time, I considered whether I would need to paddle to shore. We were approaching a new locale. Houses ahead…on water.
A shout of “Yevo” was quickly taken up and chorused repeatedly at high volume like a rallying cry. Eyes everywhere were upon us. Children shouting, dancing, posing, pointing. People staring, some friendly, most curious, some suspicious, still others disdainful. Welcome to Makoko, the stilt village of Lagos.
A place almost of folklore, Makoko has existed as a fishing village for over a century. In fact, most of the fish sold in markets all over Lagos is caught by the Makoko fishing community. Sometimes ironically referred to as the “Venice of Africa”, it was once a target for demolition by the Lagos State government in 2012 to transform the slum village into luxury property.
After much public outcry and opposition, the demolition was halted as a regeneration plan was submitted to the State government, though it is unclear what steps have since been taken in implementing the proposed regeneration. With a population said to be over 100,000 mainly composed of Egun migrants from Badagry, but also of the Ijo from Ondo and some Beninoise, the diversity of the residents is heard in conversations as strains of French and Yoruba and other tongues are spoken.
Our guide was the brother of the local chief, Shemade Noah who welcomed us with refreshments. Cruising through the canals of Makoko was a fascinating experience. As we saw the large numbers of boats gliding up and down the waterways, I noted that Lagos’ trademark traffic is not confined to motor vehicles on land. It was remarkable to see very young children expertly navigate the waterways by boat on their own.
Someone in the group asked Mr Noah to confirm or deny the oft peddled anecdote that the people of Makoko would throw newborn children into the water. He laughed off the urban myth but explained that most of the kids from the age of 4 learn to swim by teaching themselves. Sadly, whilst the children seemed perfectly adept with navigating the waters and running their floating shops, there appears to be a very low percentage of those children who attend school on a regular basis.
This is due to a number of reasons including the fact that there is only one school in the stilt village with 249 students. Clearly with a population of over 100,000 there simply won’t be enough places for all the children. There is also a lot of suspicion of the schools on the land and parents are reluctant to send their young ones to schools on land due to perceived dangers.
That negative perception of the “land” and the “Yevo” (which means “white man”) was evident as we cruised through the “Venice of Africa”. Although I had been keen for a while to see this other side of Lagos and better understand my city, it quickly became apparent that most people and even the children had an aversion to cameras.
I could understand their unease particularly in respect to pictures as I have never and will never advocate poverty tourism. But at the same time, I do think it is important for Makoko to be seen and experienced and for awareness to be raised to support the needs of the local people. To that end, I tried to respect their privacy by mainly focusing my pictures on the buildings of the stilt village itself but I think as we left, the residents were glad to see the back of us. For my part, I had seen so many paintings of this particular locale and I am so pleased to now have finally been to the mysterious and intriguing waterworld of Makoko.
Regular trips to Makoko are organised by the Nigerian Field Society. The monies from the trip fees go toward supporting the Makoko Floating School by paying two teachers’ salaries and the general upkeep of the village.
Written By Bidemi Adesanya