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Makoko Community: Living on water and hassle of housing, education

By Victor Gbonegun
31 December 2021   |   4:10 am
Although residents of Oko Agbon community, Makoko, sleep and wake up on water, getting clean water is harder than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.


Although residents of Oko Agbon community, Makoko, sleep and wake up on water, getting clean water is harder than a camel passing through the eye of a needle. However, the abundant water they live on is heavily polluted. In fact, the water is dark and impure. Think of anything dirt, you’ll find in the water. A first time visitor in the area might throw up as a result of the stench from the environment, but not for the residents, who are used to it. They eat and drink by the mountain of dirt in the environment.

A recent visit to Makoko by The Guardian revealed that the place lacks toilets facilities as everything is done on water. Residents urinate directly into the water, which they paddle to and from their houses.

The people lack essential basic social facilities, like schools, drinking water, inadequate liquid and solid waste management. They also lack hospitals, good structures, are unemployed, among other societal ills and overcrowding worsens these issues.

Housing conditions are a far cry from the ideal, as dirt and faeces litter major surrounding areas. Aside from Agege, Ajegunle, Amukoko, Badia, Bariga, Ijeshatedo/Itire and Ilaje, this coastline settlement in Nigeria’s commercial centre, often referred to as Venice’s less attractive counterpart, is a mass of crumbling shanties filled with inadequate housing for the over 300, 000 residents, who are under threats of diseases and ocean surges.

The community is only accessible by canoe, because it is essentially built on stilts comprising poles, posts and pillars that allow a person or structure to stand at a height above the ground in flood plains, to protect them from damage by water or waves. They are always comfortable using wood or bamboo for construction.

This appears to be a quite sustainable system for the community due to the community’s proximity to sawmills as well as availability of bamboos.

Established in the 19th century, the fishing village not only surrounded by water, is peopled by settlers from different tribes, including the Egun, Ijaw, Ilaje and over 40,000 migrants from neighbouring West African countries.

Residents are considered as illegal settlers, who are at the risk of floods and waterborne disease.

There was an attempt by the Lagos State government to demolish the community in 2021, which was met with protests from the residents. This generated a mixed-reaction, which made development experts to say the community should not be demolished because of its historic position in the country. They even canvassed that it should be made a tourist zone and improved rather than demolished.

Reacting to the demolition threat, Hunbeji said: “We held a meeting with them and they assured us that they would only redevelop the community and not evict the people from the area. Since then, the government has not done anything but we expect a positive response.

We held a meeting with them and they assured us that they would only redevelop the community and not evict the people from the area. Since then, the government has not done anything but we expect a positive response.”

The United Nations Deputy Secretary-General and former Nigerian Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed, who recently visited Makoko alongside some UN officials, stressed the need to urgently address the rising sea level.

Mohammed, during the visit, engaged the local chiefs, women groups, and youths of the settlement, saying: “Adaptation funding for innovative solutions is key. Lagos State has the opportunity to demonstrate that communities can co-exist suitably with water and that water cities could evolve into an ecosystem of nature-based solutions for smart, resilient and inclusive life.”

The schooling system is also poor. Existing schools are not the type that will provide the desired education to the people. For instance, the only school on Oko Agbon is a French school established by a fresh graduate, who was pushed into the initiative as a result of unemployment.

A teacher in the school, Mr. Agbodjogbe Alafia, said life has been very difficult in the community; as a result most parents cannot afford to send their children to school.

He said: “Though parents used to pay N50 per child daily as school fees, many of them cannot afford it. Most of them have many children and this makes them unable to send all their children to school. Some of them are asked to go and fish and a small number of the children are sent to school.”

The parents are not literate and some of the pupils are not able to cope with school because of poverty. But some of them already know how to say good morning in French and how to sell and buy.

Lagos slum Makoko is one of Nigeria’s poorest communities. PHOTO: TONYE BAKARE

Alafia noted, “people here are from Badagry and Badagry is close to the border with Benin Republic and some of them are from Benin Republic. The larger number of them is from Badagry and so many of them are desirous of the ability of their children to speak in French and English languages.”

The head teacher of the school, Laurent Sozomey, said that it was started in 1989 as a result of yearning from some educated parents who want their children to go to school.

He said: “The school is basically a primary school and we have about 120 pupils. It is difficult for the people to cope but they are getting used to the environment. During the rainy season, overflow of water is a major problem. However, the pupils still manage to come, but we don’t always have a good place to cater for them. When the rainy season comes, we often raise high steps for the pupils to climb and have classes at the upper class room as well as assembly and other things.

“We need assistance, we have ideas that we wish to develop but we lack the wherewithal. Normally, we operate primary one to six, but because of poor response from parents, we don’t have money to pay teachers. We had to join primary one and two together and other classes. Before we hired four teachers but due to poor income, we had to send one teacher away.

“We cannot collect school fees per term because the parents are not earning money through salary but through daily work. They go fishing on a daily basis and they pay the children’s fees per day. We have tried per term tuition, but it didn’t work. Parents were not paying. We rented the school site and pay as high as N100, 000 yearly.”

Meanwhile, the youth leader, Oko Agbon waterfront, Mr. Whewumi Raymond, called on Nigerians to support the community in building more schools to encourage children in the area to get educated.

Raymond said: “We need borehole water and a hospital on the water. The water area where we live is very big. The only school here is not enough for the population, we need more. We need English school and because we live in Lagos, our people must understand English to be able to live successfully in this English speaking society.

Whenever it rains, the school environs usually overflow with water and we spend more to buy planks and sands to fill up the school premises from being swept off by flood.”

Speaking with The Guardian, the Baale of Oko-Agbon, Makoko community, Daniel Hinka Hundbeji, said his forefathers, who were fishermen, migrated to the community from Badagry, adding that the area is like an ancestral home to them.

Only school in the community

Hundbeji said: “Our father migrated from Badagry to this place and gave birth to me here. His job, which is fishing, brought him here and I’m close to 65 years of age now, and so, I have been living for 65 years. It is not easy to live here because it’s always full of water. Although the water is drying now, last month, everywhere was full of water.

“Our houses are built with planks and bamboo; it is the best for us. The peculiarity of where we live made us adopt that housing construction methodology. As a fisherman, you can’t live on land; it’s easier for us to live on water. We fish and sell it in the market to survive.”

“The use of cement and block buildings started somewhere during the time of our forefathers, the same thing happened to bamboo housing. What makes the type of housing we live in easy for us is the fact that the sawmill is also closer to us and so building our own house is not difficult. What the government can do is to help us in reconstructing this community. There is no road.”

According to him, each street in the community is supposed to have a name, and directives on what type of buildings to be built towards restructuring the area like a popular water community in China. He stated that the government knows what best to do to revamp the area, yet not ready to do that.

“There is a school here, which ordinarily kids should not attend because it’s not suitable for them, the government is aware. There are good hospitals, somewhere else in Iwaya, Adekunle and Ayetoro, which this community deserves. We also lack good fishing equipment. During the dry season, it is difficult for Canoes to navigate the waters, which needed to be dredged.

“Most of the people are not wealthy and even the whites come to the Better Life market to buy fish and the government makes good money from the transactions. It is the fishermen that aid the smooth operation of a better life market. We need borehole, good schools, the hospital we have in this area is private and so we need government hospitals.”

A youth in the community, Mr. Houngbeji Bienvenu, explained that a major challenge for young persons in the area is the high rate of unemployment, which has triggered many of the youths to engage in stealing and other nefarious activities.

He said: “ Some of the youths in my community are idle and not engaged in any job. In my case; I wanted to study French and English in the University of Lagos but there was no money to enroll. I had to come back here to start cooking with someone who was my boss but something happened to him and I couldn’t continue, and unfortunately for me, my wife was delivered of a baby during that time, which further complicated the situation.

Children in the community

“Most of our youths need to be empowered to stop them from getting involved in criminal acts.”

Over time, a major concern for experts is that authorities never adequately allocate resources to Makoko, rather they exploit the area by attempting to grab the land and displace dwellers.

The Project Director of Arctic Infrastructure (AI), a private organisation with focus on infrastructure delivery, urban development and the environment, Lookman Oshodi, told The Guardian that there is an existing regeneration plan prepared by the people of Makoko with the support of different non-state actors.

According to him, the ‘Makoko/Iwaya regeneration’ plan submitted to Lagos State Government in 2014 contains different comprehensive details, approaches and strategies to revamp the Makoko in the area of environmental improvement, housing options, water delivery, transportation systems both water and land, land accessibility and titling on land and water.

He said the plan could be a guide for other water-based communities in Lagos and other parts of the world.

He said: “In implementing the strategies, the key thing is that the private sector needs to come in, the government needs to make input but the role of the private sector is essential. What we have seen is a sort of land pooling approach in such a way that the private sectors make investment and are able to look at A to Z resettlement approach for the people of Makoko.

“We have a similar situation in Copenhagen, where the water was so dirty and heavily polluted but it took a clear pathway of water restoration mechanism to get the water back. That approach can be considered for Makoko. A lot of things could have hindered the implementation of the plan ranging from political orientation of the government to implementation, getting the right people in the implementation and getting the community ready.”

The former President, Nigerian Institute of Town Planners (NITP), Bunmi Ajayi, said problematic resettling of residents could be as a result of enormous resource that would be needed, adding that the type of management needed, civil servants can’t provide it.

“The people are sitting on valuable land facing the sea. The Ilaje people lived all their life on water and so what do you do with them? The balance has to be worked out. There should be installment urban rehabilitation and not government party rehabilitation. Running the government in Nigeria is against the poor and that is why it took many years before committing funds into water transportation,” he said.

A Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Lagos, ‘Leke Oduwaye, said improving the condition of the Makoko as well as resettling the people is a little complex as living on water appears to be no man’s land.

He said: “The United Nations will tell you the city is for everyone sounds nice but without legal statutory papers, the urban system will sort out everybody where they can afford. The government can’t fold its hand looking at people living in unsanitary conditions. Government could intervene and if the people need titles, they can tidy it up.”