There are many contenders for the list of the world’s top wonders. One potential wonder is entirely man-made and is located in one of the world’s most undersold travel destinations, Lagos, Nigeria. HDYTI guest contributors, the adventurous duo of Ifey and Emeka Frederick (also the brains behind Chuku’s London), recently ventured into Makoko, Lagos, the world’s largest floating ‘city’. In this soulful piece, they share their experience and insights from that trip.
We had been sailing down river in our rickety canoe for less than 50 metres before we realised that our mode of transport was flawed. There were five of us in one small boat! We had all enthusiastically climbed in moments earlier – our photographer/tour guide, our older and youngest sisters who had joined us on this trip, our helmsman and us – but now the lips of the canoe were pressing ever closer to the fetid water.
With any movements (and they didn’t even have to be sudden), we were in danger of capsizing. Without life jackets, there was also the very distinct possibility that we would drown. At the very least we would gulp down copious amounts of the grey, polluted water.
One of us (Emeka) wanted us to push on, confident it would all be okay. However, the other (Ifeyinwa, the younger, more cautious and (in this case) wiser sibling) thought the better of it.
With the help of our local tour guide and pilot we flagged down another boat to spread the load. Safely settled in our new vessels, we set off to tour Makoko, the world’s largest floating city.
To begin with, this was an unexpected boat trip. We had organised a day out with our new photographer friend to see some of the sights that Lagos had to offer. As the day passed he continually reiterated how much he would love to take us to Makoko, a place he described as ‘Nigeria’s happiest community’, before dismissing the idea.
“I don’t have the energy”, he said, suddenly feeling too tired for the tricky negotiations he knew he would have with the local young men who, protective of their home, have started charging apparent tourists for entering.
However, thinking Makoko too magical a place not to show us, he soon changed his mind. So we set off for Yaba, the suburb of Lagos Mainland in which the historic water community of Makoko is located.
The area is home to at least 85,000 people, although some estimates indicate closer to 300,000 floating city dwellers. Population figures, like much of Nigeria’s data collection is poor, a fact confirmed by Heinrich Böll Foundation, one of the most active not-for-profit organisations in Makoko.
Having been founded as a fishing village in the late 19th century, the prevailing smell as we entered the area was of smoked fish. Just like everywhere in Lagos, this town was alive with an infectious energy. Semi-naked and fully naked children ran through the streets, playing games of tag and paying minimal attention to us as we arrived in our vehicle.
We waited patiently in our Uber, whilst our tour guide negotiated our path to and across the water with the local young men. Exasperated, he returned to the car. There were too many fixers to settle.
For a moment, it looked like our mission would be aborted. Suddenly, a young man appeared. He and our tour guide exchanged some words in Yoruba and reached an agreement. He agreed to act as our local security and take care of us. Perfect!
We walked through a local market to the waterfront. There we waited patiently for our canoe before gingerly stepping into our vessels, guided by our local security guard-cum-helmsman. Although no longer on the road, even on the water Lagos was busy with traffic.
We bumped into women on their way home from the fish market, fishermen returning to their cabins with nets to repair and school-age kids on Christmas holidays, who had taken their games of tag to the water.
Though we were worried about falling in, the locals were clearly at home in this habitat. Despite living on top of a polluted lagoon, our tour guide highlighted that nobody ever got sick. Growing up here appeared to have strengthened their immune systems to the extent that, for them, communicable diseases like cholera were not a problem.
Moreover, the little kids were masters of the waters, having been sailors from as young as two years old. Whilst we held on tightly to the sides of our canoes, we watched in awe as a little girl, rowing solo, confidently scurried from one end of her boat to the other.
We were yet to find that level of confidence and so, for once, we decided against taking selfies. The fear of the water had us too nervous to think about our best camera angles. Instead, we happily watched the locals live their lives on the water, many of whom, contrary to what we’d heard about their distrust of tourists, were more than happy to pose for our cameras. Some even decided to snap us back!
Though we did not experience it much, the wariness of the locals to voyeuristic cameras is easily understood as a form of self-protection. For, embarrassed by the unflattering impression that photographs of Makoko gives of Lagos, government officials have attempted to erase this part of the city several times.
More recently, in 2012, Lagos State sanctioned eviction notices which escalated into fire-strewn demolitions supported by armed police officers. This left over 30,000 people homeless. However, this attempt to erase the city didn’t succeed.
The stilt village can still easily be spotted by anyone crossing Third Mainland Bridge, Africa’s second largest bridge, which connects Lagos Mainland to Lagos Island. This is a popular route for those travelling from the international airport in Ikeja to do business in Victoria Island or socialise in high-brow Ikoyi.
From the bridge Makoko looks so peaceful, just like any fishing village, almost organised. However, it is not until you get on the water that you experience the hustle and bustle. As we sailed closer to the Third Mainland Bridge, our photographer and tour guide started indicating that it was time to go home. Daredevil Emeka wanted to press on into the deeper waters. But wisely outnumbered, we started to make our way back to shore.
Sitting in the car and electrified by the Makoko community’s energy and the unexpected highlight of our Lagos city tour, we realised that we had not thought to visit the famous floating school.
Designed by Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi as a prototype structure in 2013 and installed with financial support from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Makoko Floating School (MFS) also served as a community hall. Not only was it Makoko’s most popular building but it also gained international recognition, winning multiple art and design awards.
The impressive structure floated, as a steep, three-storey triangular wooden frame sat atop of 250 plastic barrels. It balanced the community’s social needs with environmental considerations and had been built by local labourers using locally sourced wood and bamboo. It seemed odd that no one had mentioned it whilst we were out in Makoko.
Sadly, we later learned that the school had collapsed in a heavy thunderstorm. Being a prototype, it was never meant to have stood for so long. Fortunately, no schoolchildren had been hurt, as they had been relocated to another site. MFS II, the second generation of the Makoko Floating School, is underway.
It seemed classic of the city that we have fallen in love with – in the midst of chaos and under the threat of destruction, Makoko was not only surviving but thriving. In Lagos, hope is seemingly everlasting and, whatever the situation, Lagosians always find a way to get by and keep on smiling.
HDYTI Tip: Want to visit Makoko? Bear in mind that tourists in this floating city have come to be looked at warily for obvious reasons. Locals will often see tourists in hand with DSLR cameras and assume that the photos they take will be used to make money that Makoko residents will never see. If you’re visiting Lagos, it is best to have a local tour guide to negotiate your access to Makoko.
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