Residents of Nigeria’s floating slum keep their hopes up as lockdown sinks their livelihoods

The World Food Programme has been responding to the hunger crisis in Lagos – and the waterfront settlement of Makoko is one of those hardest hit by the knock-on effects of the coronavirus

Kevwe Okporua
Monday 05 October 2020 09:00 BST
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WFP staff travel by boat to the homes of beneficiaries of the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme in Makoko
WFP staff travel by boat to the homes of beneficiaries of the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme in Makoko (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

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A riot of canoes bumping into each other in narrow waterways –  paddlers yell a chorus of instructions to other boats: “Move! Shift! Stop!”

Expletives are thrown in for good measure in one of three languages spoken here – Egun, Yoruba and French. Children can be seen floating by in large plastic basins, joining the hustle and bustle of traffic.

Makoko, an informal waterfront settlement in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, is often referred to as the “Venice of Africa”, though also “the world's largest floating slum” where thousands live cheek-by-jowl in stilt houses nestled deep in murky black waters.

One participant in the daily chorus is Owolabi James. He's ferried residents and visitors around these waterways for almost 20 years , yet he's only 25. “I was born and bred here,” Owolabi says with a smile. “I started doing this work when I was a child, and now I own the canoe that I work with.”

Makoko's population could be considered at extreme risk from the coronavirus; hygiene and social distancing pose a serious challenge in these crammed conditions.

Alice Tinsheme, 50, with her grandson David, 8, wait to travel home by boat after receiving food rations
Alice Tinsheme, 50, with her grandson David, 8, wait to travel home by boat after receiving food rations (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

The social and economic fallout of Covid-19 threatens to plunge millions of people into hunger and malnutrition in Nigeria – Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country.

Over 90 million people (46 percent of the population) in Nigeria live on less than $2 per day. The urban poor depending on daily wages have been hit very hard. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is concerned that the combination of a rise in conflict and the fallout from Covid-19 could mean a hunger catastrophe for thousands of people in northeast Nigeria.

Fishermen and fish sellers who account for most of the 100,000-odd people who live in poverty in Makoko  –  there has never been a census  – have other concerns. Hunger and the ever-looming threat of eviction pose a bigger risk to residents’ way of life than disease or infection.

Alice and David head home
Alice and David head home (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

“I work between five to six canoe trips in a day,” says Owolabi. “But since the coronavirus came and everyone was told to stay at home, I've only been doing about three trips daily.”

Nigeria is Africa's biggest economy and, with 182 million people, the continent's most populous country . The food security of millions of people is at stake as the coronavirus wreaks havoc with incomes.

Elizabeth Anabu sits in a stilt house on top of the water in Makoko. She doesn’t have a job but feeds her family of four using cash gifts she receives from neighbours who come to her for spiritual guidance.

Elizabeth Anabu, 35, carries her baby after receiving food items from the food programme
Elizabeth Anabu, 35, carries her baby after receiving food items from the food programme (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

“I do God’s work,” she says. “I survive on the help that I get from people who come to me to hear from God.”

But her neighbours are mostly daily traders who have temporarily lost their own sources of income, and because of the lockdown, they cannot visit her at home, leaving her penniless.

Where the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 has hit hardest, the WFP is ramping up support to the government to assist up to half a million people through a combination of cash-based transfers and food distributions to the most vulnerable people in urban poor communities.

Makoko is often referred to as the ‘Venice of Africa’
Makoko is often referred to as the ‘Venice of Africa’ (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

In Makoko, people must maintain multiple incomes to survive. Sarah Tinsheme is a tailor. The 24-year-old also helps her mother sell basic non-perishable food items such as bottled water, dry pasta and seasoning cubes. Most of her time is taken up in another way, however.

“My main occupation is selling fish,” says Sarah. “We smoke the fish beforehand.”

The task of smoking usually falls to women, while men are occupied with sewing fishing nets, building and mending their canoes and then wading into the deep parts of the water to cast, as motorists zipping past on Lagos's Third Mainland Bridge look on.

Good fishing nets are a priceless asset in Makoko because fishing is the main source of income
Good fishing nets are a priceless asset in Makoko because fishing is the main source of income (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

Everyone here  –  be they fish sellers, commercial canoe riders, canoe builders or canoe repairmen  – relies on daily takings to survive. Makoko's fish market, one of the largest in Lagos, is the beating heart of the community. It's where families buy the food they need to eat, where they earn their living, and where most socialising is done.

With markets shut because of Covid-19, however, life as people knew it has stopped.

WFP staff travel by boat to the homes of those benefiting from aid
WFP staff travel by boat to the homes of those benefiting from aid (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

Segodo Avlanwhen owns a hair salon. Her customers, market traders, have stopped coming. The 38-year-old mother of five says rationing meals for her children has become her new normal.

Another challenge for people living here is the shortage of canoes for ferrying people around, not to mention social distancing.

“It's very difficult to move around if you don't own a canoe,” says Jutin. “It's one of the biggest difficulties we face here. If the canoe riders don't come on time, the children are late for school.”

David, centre, with his neighbours
David, centre, with his neighbours (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

Many children whose families do not have access to canoes or cannot afford canoe-rider fees simply don't have access to education.

The Makoko community both sits and floats in the Yaba local government area of Lagos State. Sits, because although the area is mostly covered in water, one-third of it is on dry land. It was first inhabited by migrant fishermen from neighbouring Togo and the Republic of Benin who settled in the area and made it theirs.

Alice is a fish trader
Alice is a fish trader (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

The relationship between the government and the community can be an uneasy one. For locals, attention from the government can often only spell one thing: eviction. Any government presence is given a cold reception, so perhaps unsurprisingly they tend to stay away.

In 2012, the government forcefully evicted thousands of residents from their homes, with only 72 hours’ notice, rendering them suddenly homeless. The intention was to get rid of what many call ‘Lagos’s Shame’ – Makoko's sprawl of labyrinthine waterways, clearly visible from the Third Mainland Bridge that almost 100,000 drive across daily.

Lagos’s Third Mainland Bridge seen from Makoko
Lagos’s Third Mainland Bridge seen from Makoko (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

Evictions were abruptly suspended after indiscriminate gunshots fired by police officers killed a resident. Since then the residents, whose living quarters constitute the ‘dirty linen’ of Lagos State, have managed to keep their homes.

Today, for Sarah Tinsheme, and many like her, life in Makoko isn't necessarily all gloom, doom, and dirty black water.

A woman leaves with food items
A woman leaves with food items (WFP/Damilola Onafuwa)

“I like our life here,” she says. “We often have parties here in Makoko. All we need to do is find a venue where there is a lot of sand, like the church. The church is located on the part of Makoko that is on land. But we can't have too many people at our parties because there isn't much dry land.”

Despite all the poverty, Owolabi James would not want to live anywhere else. “I like living here on the water,” he says. “When I'm not working and I want to relax, I call my friends so we can hang out and chill and just enjoy each other's company. I don't have any plans to leave because I enjoy it here. I have my peace of mind, the cool breeze and fresh air.”

You can learn more about the World Food Programme at wfp.org

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