Hungry children in a Nigerian slum, but life is 'not too bad'; LAGOS DAYS

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The Independent Online
You can catch a glimpse of the slums from the motorways that bisect Lagos: clustered at the edge of a lagoon or spreading like a stain over waste ground, thousands of shacks with rusty roofs. But you do not really know what the slums are like until you are among the houses, a Nigerian friend said as we drove through town.

I was invited to Amukoko by Sister Patricia Hoey, a petite Irish missionary nun who has been working in Nigeria for three decades. For the past few years she has been running a health clinic in the heart of Amukoko, which is built on reclaimed marshland.

An estimated one million people live in Amukoko. They are among the poorest in Lagos, but are not the worst off: they have homes, some have jobs, they even have a couple of broken-down schools.

When it rains, the canals and open drains overflow. The smell of sewage around the Medical Missionaries of Mary compound was strong but the nuns said they only noticed it when it got really hot. ''These people wouldn't live here if they had anywhere else to go,'' said Sister Patricia. "They come from every state in Nigeria and every country in West Africa. There's not much of what you'd call 'social cohesion'. They're drawn by the prospect of work and more are coming all the time."

It would make more sense if I were to meet some of the residents, she suggested. Yemi Akintimehin, a 33-year-old health worker who grew up here, would take me along on one of her home visits to a slum where people walked in mud, the roads were strewn with refuse and there were waist- high piles of rubbish.

Josephine Nwokocha, the object of the visit, lives in a room with her husband and six children. Under the same roof, on either side of a dank corridor which runs the length of a typical single-storey boarding house, are 21 other families. They share a single latrine. But the Nwokochas consider themselves lucky: some families live a dozen to a small room.

''Things aren't too bad because my husband has a job with a shipping company," said Mrs Nwokocha. "I take the kids to the nuns every morning for a meal. We eat again in the evening when my husband comes home."

Here is how their money works out: Mr Nwokocha earns 2,000 naira a month (pounds 16) Rent is 500 naira a month. So there is 1,500 naira for food, transport, medicines and other necessities. Mrs Nwokocha says she is happier here than in her village in south-east Nigeria.

All of her children are under six. She has a set of twins. I learnt later that she probably had to leave her village as twins are considered evil, unnatural, and their mothers are often cast out for witchcraft.

"This child", said Ms Akintimehin, pointing to the baby at Mrs Nwokocha's breast, "is not well and his legs are too thin to support him. In fact, all these kids are malnourished.'' The situation should improve, however, when Mrs Nwokocha gets the market stall she has long coveted. She has been accepted into a scheme run by the nuns to set up women in petty trading: old clothes, bottles or simple foodstuffs. She will have to pay rent for her pitch.

We make our way through the smoke-filled corridor - some families are cooking on charcoal stoves - and into the mire of the street. Ms Akintimehin points out the local sights: a school with no windows and 9,000 pupils and, next door, the Sambot Hotel, which is a brothel.

"Like everything else here, sex is a commodity", said Sister Patricia."There's lots of prostitution. Sometimes you couldn't call it that. They sell their bodies to get kids through school."

The nuns - two Nigerian and two Irish - run a leadership course which deals with everything from inter-personal to community relations. They try to encourage basic social analysis: why are the streets so filthy, how come no one makes an effort to clean them, why is there no civic spirit?

Does it improve things? Not much, they reply with a smile ... not much.