A pirogue glides through Makoko. Photo by Jane Hahn
It might seem deluded to some people to mourn the destruction of one of the most outlandishly squalid shantytowns on earth. Perhaps it is. But I’m fairly sure I’m not the only person sad to see Makoko in Lagos torn down and its residents made homeless.
Known variously as the “slum on stilts” and the “Venice of Nigeria” it was the product of immigrants improbably capable of recreating their West Africa fishing villages on the shore of a mega-city lagoon.
Their accomplishment has begun to be demolished with just 72-hours’ notice. Men with machetes came to hack the homes and businesses to pieces. They are expected to finish before the end of July. Makoko fell victim to the ambitions of state authorities who told its hundreds of thousands of residents that they were an “impediment” to Lagos’ “mega-city status”. Few, if any, of them would have agreed.
I remember it best as “Mak-town” the defiantly urban name given to the sprawl of shacks supported on posts above the polluted water and detritus of Africa’s biggest city. It was how it was known to Joseph Blabi, a chameleon of a character who lived there and loved to show it off.
Joseph had a definite style which fit perfectly with his vision of Mak-town. Of medium height, lean and muscular I remember him wearing tight jeans with an exaggerated wrinkle effect and a loudly patterned pink and red sleeveless shirt. The look was finished by a pair of jewel-encrusted sun-glasses with blush-coloured lenses.
Like almost everyone I met in Lagos his answer to the question “what do you do?” came in multiple parts. He was a dedicated churchgoer and volunteer with the Salvation Army, where he learned to play the cornet; he was an up-and-coming actor in Nigeria’s prolific film industry, Nollywood; and an occasional tour-guide to the waterworld of Makoko.
We plied the byways between the shacks, in a pirogue alongside floating shops that paddle along with phonecards, sweets, biscuits and tea. I watched the endless supply of raw sewerage, falling at eye level from a thousand crude outhouses, turning the water so dark and viscous that it seemed to part only reluctantly on either side of the hull.
I remember as well his account of Makoko’s creation myth with the magical union of a local Yoruba carpenter and a visiting Egun fisherwoman from what is now Benin: “She would bring him crabs and fish and shrimp, and eventually they fell in love,” Joseph explained. “Their children became Makoko.”
In water that most people would fear to touch naked children larked about, jumping from one dug-out canoe to another, or swimming from one shack to the next. Underneath the huts, in the grey mounds of plastic waste that form dykes of rubbish, you could see chickens peck away in
search of something nutritious. And just above the waterline thousands of what looked like armoured white lice swarmed over the stilts, making use of the final inches of available space.
It seemed like the kind of place that would welcome anyone able to survive in it. But of course it wasn’t. Mak-town’s offer of waterborne poverty stood in the way of developers’ visions of a wealthy waterfront. This week that battle ended and I was sad to hear a local politician tell the BBC that Mak-towners had “come from somewhere” and “should now go home”.
Maybe he imagined that the fabled carpenter and his fisherwoman could paddle back to Benin in a pirogue. I doubt any of the residents saw the destruction in such romantic terms.
Joseph’s old cell phone number no longer works so I don’t know where he and his cornet have gone. I feel confident that he’s working the angles and finding a way to thrive or survive: “Lagos is good; it’s not bad,” he insisted two years ago when we hit the open water of the lagoon and surveyed concrete spurs of the giant 1970s expressways. As he spoke a fishing boat came past, its sail rigged from a giant Hennessy brandy billboard puffed out by the wind.
“Yes, you have to work and struggle,” he admitted. “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.”