Whenever I drive past the Third mainland Bridge in Lagos and look out of the vehicle, towards the lagoon, there is always smoke rising from somewhere in the distance. The smoke comes, apparently, from a settlement of wooden houses built on stilts across the water. From the Third Mainland Bridge, you can see canoes and rafts and little boys and men on them, tending to fishing nets. They are too far away to be nothing but moving figures in a city of dreams they have no stake in.
Makoko. That’s the name of the community. The only time I have heard them come up in the news, it was either for being recipient of charity – donations of clothes, food, basics or for being victims of the Lagos state government’s beautification projects which involves demolishing shanties and ghetto communities, without advance notice most times, and without resettlement alternatives for the people.
They appear on television and blogs, life hardened faces, pictured against a backdrop of rubble and smoking ruins, frozen in grief or rage. The photographs and videos often capture children too. They almost always appear in their underwear; little black faces that define vulnerability. Sad eyes that do not fully understand the violence let loose upon their world.
To most people in Lagos and Nigeria, the people of Makoko are just news items and figures to be looked at from a distance, through the windows of cars and buses plying the Third Mainland Bridge. They are the poor that Jesus said would always be with us. They are the people who exist more as stories than actual faces and bodies.
My friend Kola, sometimes, does street and travel photography. He’s in the Nigerian Navy, but takes photographs and writes in his spare time. He doesn’t really have the genius for writing, but he has a good eye for pictures. When he told me that he was visiting Makoko with a couple of friends, I told him I wanted to come. I wanted to see Makoko close up. I wanted to put faces to the figures I had come to know from a distance. I wanted to see their stories unfold before my eyes.
The afternoon was hot and dusty as Kola and I headed towards Makoko. We got to Bariga and debated whether to board a bus or a bike. The traffic settled it for us. Buses could be grounded in several miles of traffic, but bikes could swerve through tiny passages between cars and buses and sidewalks. Lagos has too many people and too many cars and not enough roads. Our bike slipped between yellow danfo buses and cars whose drivers were leaning heavily on their horns. The spaces the bike slipped into were so narrow that, occasionally, our knees brushed against the sides of cars and buses. Now and then, there was a jolt as the bike rider made sharp swerves while on high speed to avoid collisions and potholes.
Kola and I were used to it all. In Lagos, you live on the edge.
We arrived Makoko. There was the part I didn’t read about; the part of Makoko that’s built on land. Kola made some calls and we waited for the guy who was supposed to pick us up. We stood outside a mosque undergoing renovation, opposite a woman selling provisions. I thought she was stealing glances at me, at the tattoo on my arm, her expression disapproving. I looked away.
Kola’s guy led us through narrow paths and corners littered with dirt, people and children. The further we approached the water people, the more the dirt and the poverty became glaring. We left solid ground and walked on planks and bamboo bridges. The water underneath was black and held patches of floating debris in corners. The smell of decay and smoke hung in the air and followed us. The children I saw didn’t look anything like the ones on the news, except for the lack of shirts. Their eyes had light. They waved at us as we passed by on canoe. The afternoon sun had nothing on the glow on their faces.
Makoko floated into the distance. Water lilies grew along the route. There are floating kiosks where women in canoes sell fried yam, biscuits, soap, sponges, slippers, handkerchiefs, second hand shirts, clothes. There was traffic along the waterway as we paddled towards where Kola was meeting his friends. In some corners, there were too many canoes and not enough space to move, because there were too many houses. Too many people. Not enough water. Typical Lagos.
We reached our destination. A two-storey shack. The canoe tilted as I got up and my heart jumped. I couldn’t swim and since childhood, I have always had a morbid dread of being immersed in water. To bathe me, my parents would first have to wrestle me to the ground, pin me there and splash water over me. Splash because I never stayed still enough for them to pour the water on me. We got out of the canoe and the guy who brought us led us up the stairs of the wooden shack.
White people, about seven or eight of them, sat in what looked like a meeting room, on benches that had been spread to form a circle. A couple of guys wearing branded NGO shirts were there too. Four guys, three ladies. I stood outside, disinterested in whatever they were discussing, the heat on my face, watching people paddle past and kids playing football in sand filled areas. They ran hard, tackled each other without holding back, but nobody played strong enough shots. They obviously didn’t want the ball to go beyond the makeshift stone posts, into the water.
I was with my phone, fighting the urge to take photos of the poverty and desolation all around me. There was something undignified about it. Like those people were freakshows to be gawked at, sighed over and pitied. The media gave me the impression that it was a community of charity cases, but looking around, there is really no difference between them and the rest of us in Lagos. We are all struggling to survive. We are all under a state government that takes so much and gives so little back. The illusion that we on Lagos Mainland and Lagos Island are the better off ones is just what it is; an illusion. Nobody is better in Lagos. The woman at Oshodi with her wares spread by the roadside and the one whose goods are piled in her canoe in Makoko and the one who spends four or five hours in traffic commuting to and fro work, they are the same. They are both trying to survive.
I lost the fight to take photos and turned my camera towards the horizon. I noticed more than a few hostile looks as people spotted me taking shots. I understood and tried to be discreet, pretending I was on a video call with someone (as if they would know the difference, so long the camera was pointed at them). I finally gave in and put my phone back.
The people inside finished their meeting and came out. The white people brought out their cameras and phones and started taking photos. I noticed how the kids who hid their faces when they spotted me aiming my phone at them, posed for their pictures to be taken, big playful grins on their faces. The same older people who looked at me with venom didn’t even bat an eyelid at the whites. Maybe they felt the white people were there to help them, so they could do whatever. On the other hand, I wasn’t deemed to be of any use to them. I was just some nosy person with a camera phone.
We got on boats. The boat boys paddled us along the waters using long bamboo poles as paddles. We stopped at another building that I soon realized was the community hospital. The rooms had beds and cupboards, otherwise they were bare. There were sick people in some of the rooms. They looked at us with blank faces as we passed. A new born baby and its mother were in another room. The air reeked of misery.
They were given benches to sit. I sat away from them, facing a group of curious kids just opposite the hospital. They waved and made faces at me. I made faces back and made a pistol out of my first two fingers and my thumb.
“Bang! Bang! Bang!” I said, pointing and shooting. Some of them fired back. One of them, a kid with a horrible looking belly scar that was still healing, made a machine gun out of his two hands and sprayed me with bullets. Not to be outdone, I tore a pin out of a grenade with my teeth and hurled it at them. They took cover.
The group soon got up to leave. I took out my phone to take a picture. I motioned them to gather together, but they refused, backing away and hiding their faces, some disappearing out of the camera angle. I thought they were just being shy, until the white people came and focused their phones and cameras at them and I watched them rush to pose, the bigger ones almost trampling over the smaller ones.
I tried again and again they scurried away as if my camera was a device capable of stealing their childhood from them. I was confused and a little resentful. I had been playing with them when the whites were inside talking. I thought we were cool.
They waved at me as I followed the group out. I didn’t wave back. I didn’t smile. Those little demons were no friends of mine. We were getting into the canoes for yet another stop further along when it hit me suddenly that the white people we were following around were not NGO people. They were not there to help or save a soul or any of that white savior cliché.
They just came to look.
I felt resentment welling up inside me as I watched them take photos, wave at the kids and converse. But what could I do? Who could blame them? It wasn’t their fault those people lived where they did, the way they did. It wasn’t their fault that most of the little children here went about naked, open sores on their bodies. It wasn’t their fault that the people’s government saw them as pests, dregs and things they could bully from their homes and lands whenever they feel like doing yet another white elephant project to perpetuate the myth that Lagos is a modern city of lights and tall buildings.
There is only one thing Lagos is: a jungle.
We stopped at an NGO-run school that had been abandoned. The name on the signboard at the entrance to the building was the same as the name emblazoned on the branded shirts of Kola’s friends. Kola has been following them, taking pictures. I was bored. A group of four kids had gathered on the school grounds to watch us. I approached them.
“Give me money,” one of them said.
I stared at the boy. “What for?”
He was silent. I thought he didn’t hear me. I repeated, “What do you want me to give you money for?”
I could give him money. I had spare change in my wallet. But I was curious. Did he know his needs? Or was it a reflex action; asking someone who you thought was in a better place for money?
He put a hand to his mouth. “I want food.”
I stared at him for moments, then I said, “have you eaten at all today?”
“Will you eat in the night?”
He nodded again. The other kids stood at a distance, watching us.
“So, what do you need money for food for?”
He looked like he was thinking. I waited. Another boy, about the same age, joined us and started talking to me. I told him, “Shhhhhhshh.’’ He Shhhhhshed.
“I want to eat,” the boy said again.
Within, I shook my head, but I understood. He had been conditioned to a life that revolved around the monotony of eating, playing and sleeping. Everything he was accustomed to bordered on survival.
I spotted one of the kids playing with a single roll of dice. I called him over.
“Let’s play for money,” I said to Mr. Food. “If you win me, I will give you money, but if I win you,” I shrugged, “nothing for you.”
He started smiling. The others began milling around us, they wanted to play too. I said, fine. Anyone who beats me gets my money.
So, we gathered around a table outside like Oshodi underbridge gangsters, taking turns to throw a single roll of dice. The kids were smart; they tried to increase their odds of getting the sides with higher dots by manipulating the way they threw the dice. But they didn’t know I was playing dice with sharper minds and faster hands way before they were even born; I knocked out the first three, then, by a stroke of bad ‘throwsmanship’, lost to the last boy. He smiled as I pulled out a 50 naira note from my wallet and handed it to him.
The other boys were not to be beaten. They requested a rematch with shining eyes. I obliged them, beating everyone. I rolled a six, one little criminal kept the six side facing up and instead of throwing, he twisted the dice in a whirl and scored a six.
“Ojoro! Ojoro!” I protested, but I played another hand and rolled a five. He paused when the dice was handed to him, balled his fist around it and muttered into his closed fingers, probably chanting an incantation for good luck. He threw the dice and his face fell when he saw a three.
They asked for yet another rematch. By then, my group had come out from the classroom and some of the white people were watching us. I ignored their stares and cameras. I played with the kids and beat them again. This time, they didn’t ask for a rematch. It must have occurred to them that I was not their mate.
I gave them the money anyway. I pulled a 200 naira note from my wallet. “Everybody should take 50 naira,” I said, “and give this girl too.” I pointed to the only girl among them. She had stood by in silence, smiling as if to herself as she watched us play.
They nodded and bounced off. I watched them go then turned to face my group. The whites and the NGO guys were posing for pictures in front of the building, the banner of the school as backdrop. Kola kept stepping back to get a good shot. I called out something about being careful not to fall into the water. Canoes sailed past us. The sun started to dim and a cool evening breeze blew across the lagoon.
Something kept nagging at me as I stood there watching everyone talk and take pictures. It was the desperation of the boys as they played with me. The way they kept trying to beat me. I turned back to where they had gone. I saw the girl standing by the school, almost out of view like she was hiding. She was standing with the boy who had won against me.
“They didn’t give you the money, abi?”
“Won o fun mi,” she confirmed my suspicions in Yoruba. I looked around, but the little rascals had vanished. I looked at the girl again.
She should be 7 or 8. She had a stump where her right foot should have been. And I could see it wasn’t a deformity because a large scar crept from the stump and rode up to her knees. Like someone had savagely attacked her with a machete.
I turned to the other kid. He sensed I was about to accuse him and quickly shouted, “I am not among o!”
I sighed. I dug out my wallet and gave the girl a 500 naira note. There was a smaller kid tugging at her heels. I told her, “For both of you,” pointing at the smaller kid. I didn’t even remember if she said thanks. Actually, now that I think of it, none of them said thanks. The world owed them, that’s what I think they had been taught to think.
I wanted to tell them about growing up lacking so many things when I was their ages. About coming from a place where we spread basins under a leaking roof whenever we went out in case it rained. I wanted to tell her I knew what disability means, what it meant to be different. To work at adjusting, at blending in so well that people didn’t notice something was unusual about you till the second or third look. Or fourth.
Instead, I turned away from her and her sister and the boy who beat me at the dice game and returned to my group. Kola was standing alone from the group, watching me approach. I started to tell him about the dice game and the kid who cheated and still got his ass handed to him…
Something made me interrupt myself and look back. I started walking towards where the girl had gone.
I saw her stump before I saw her face. There was another pair of feet close to hers. Corrugated tin sheets nailed together to form a bathing area hid them from view. The lower end of the sheet had rusted away, brown and jagged like a cancer eating its way up.
I saw her fall and I began to move faster.
She was locked in a brutal battle with the boy who had won me at the dice game. The one whom I had given 50 naira. He was trying to wrest the money I had given her from her grip. His back was towards me so he didn’t see me as I stood there. She saw me but nothing changed in her expression. There was no Look! My saviour is here! Instead she fought him as if she was alone in the world, as if I was there to support him. She fought him with such ferocity that tears that were not there before had appeared on his shirt. Around them, adults, drawn by the noise, had come out of their houses to watch. It was the first time in a very long while that I would see adults let little children fight. What does it matter that one of them was handicapped? What does it matter that they were fighting close to blackwater and all it took was just one push…
I walked up to them.
“Leave her alone!” I thundered.
He froze and relinquished his grip. But she was like a possessed child, she fought on, swinging with the fist the 500 naira note was enclosed in, and clawing at his face with the other hand. It occurred to me that if I hadn’t stepped in, she would have eaten him alive.
I pried him away from her clutches.
“What’s wrong with you? I already gave you money. Take your money and go. If you touch her again, I will take the money I gave you.”
Shame and defiance were etched on his face as he stared at me and nodded several times.
I told the girl to go while I made the kid stand by me till she was out of sight. Then I told him to get lost.
As we got into the canoes, heading back to the landed Makoko, I spotted the two kids who had ran off with the 200 naira. They saw me too and waved, laughing to each other like I was the funniest thing in the world. I just stared at them. I watched them stop a woman paddling a canoe, selling popcorn.
We started moving and they were soon out of view, but their amused laughter stayed in my head. They were kids. Bad kids, but still kids. Just kids. Why then did it hurt so bad?
We got back to land and after our goodbyes to the group, we got on bikes and headed home. As the bike man weaved through evening traffic and impatient drivers, I thought of Makoko and the little children and the water and my horror when I realized the reason the kids could comfortably play at the edge of the water was because they could and do swim in it. I thought of the grownups sitting outside, watching us as we passed, throwing challenging glances when they caught me taking their pictures, being indifferent when the white people snapped them. I thought of the women on canoes, paddling from spot to spot, occasionally calling out their wares, trying to make something before evening becomes night. I thought of the things I saw floating in the water. Shit, plastic bottles, plastic bags, a baby’s lost sandals, Indomie noodles sachets, 50 naira sachets of Alomo and Agbara bitters, soaked cardboard boxes and water lilies. ✚H
David is the author of Gundown, a crime novel.