Thursday, December 18, 2014

Makoko video

As the boat oared through the fetid smelling backwaters of Makoko, we could hear the sounds of a fresh new day. The sun was still an hour away and I deliberately didn't use the flash. Just so that you all can feel Makoko the way we felt it. As we glided by the water-alley of Makoko, we could hear the rooster calling out its morning note. We heard a few kids giggling away and a mother humming her love to her child as she breast-fed. Behind the veil of a fading light, life was as normal as it could be. Its only when dawn arrives, life reveals its different story inside Makoko.


Makoko is a shanty town in Lagos, built on wooden stilts upon the lagoon backwaters. This sprawling slum of 200,000 on the edge of the Atlantic is better experienced, than told. Large number of them are from far away Togo & Benin and speak French, unlike the Nigerian Pidgin. The locals are Egun, Ilaje and Ijaw speaking riverine tribes of South East Nigeria. The residents move about in canoes which house the mobile shops - selling everything from daily grocery needs to jewellery and electronics! It is a self-sustaining economy with little social interaction with the rest of Lagos. There is an economic connect with the Modern Lagos though; Makoko residents supply Lagos with fish and seasoned wood.

We visited Makoko today, even before it woke up. Ready to capture the residents on photos as they go about their daily lives. Some residents were curious, some diffident and other plain indifferent. We were escorted by an armed policeman and the established goodwill of Noah, a local school teacher. A Black Label and some cash for the Village Chief sealed the deal. Area Boys were told to keep a distance from us. Area Boys are unemployed youth who collect illegal tax from traders and visitors for providing them with protection. The tax collected fund their drunkenness and debauchery.

It was an experience. Much like what I experienced during my Kabul-by-foot trip that took me to out-of-bound, forsaken areas in Afghanistan. Look out for a series of photos I will keep posting over the next few days. They will take you through Makoko, a life you will never get to see the way it should be seen. Here are a couple: they show the vast expanse of the village.

Makoko New Dawn

The Third Mainland bridge is packed with a couple of million motors every single day at the crack of dawn. They ferry many more millions to their day jobs. They are the legitimate citizens of Lagos who eke out a living recognised by the powers-that-be. Their new dawn is part of Lagos' acceptable social fabric. They are part of Lagos' frenetic pace of economic and infrastructure growth fostered by foreign money.

Just beneath the German made bridge, which spans twelve kilometres over the Atlantic backwaters to connect the legitimate millions to their workplace, the new dawn means a different story to the Makoko residents. They are the illegitimate ones confined to their stilted homes and hand-oared canoes, with no social identity. Bereft of legal standings, they don't stand a chance to the join the mainstream populace. The grind of their daily rut-driven lives has evolved into a self-sustaining economy, which can witness human progress only from the distance of their fetid smelling homes. Every new dawn will see Makoko residents on their boats, beneath the Third mainland, dropping nets to catch fish after more fish. Fish that will fill the plates of the 'other Lagos'. And Makoko will continue to stare at the motors on the Third Mainland from beneath, hoping that someday they will leave the canoes to ride the motors above to prosperity. Till then, every new dawn will remain different for Makoko.


Makoko Fishing

When I wore half-pants, my dawns always woke me up to change into gray shorts of my beloved school. My hear always longed to trek the kilometre to the school bus stop, chatting way with friends as my black Bata Schoolboy remained busy kicking away all the stones and pebbles along the road. We were the fortunate ones.

For those not so fortunate, Makoko brought them to home. Not to let them walk down the road to school; but to make them throw fishing nets in the filthy Atlantic backwaters. Not to let them hold a pencil between their nimble fingers, but to make them deft at untangling a struggling fish from the cruel nets. Every sinew of their young ebony muscles work overtime to fend for their hungry souls. Its also called child labour. In the cruel world of poverty, it brings dignity.

The years add up the days to turn the young boys into a man of his own. The legs outgrow the shorts into a pair of trousers. But the fishing net remains a part of his existence. It just grows bigger with the years.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Makoko Child's play

Children love to play. It's as if they have the right to play. In play, they find happiness. In happiness, they find their soul. This interconnect of innocence makes them the children they are. They find happiness even in squalor; they are no less happy when gastric juices pour out inside their empty gullet walls. Under a spot-holed shantytown shack, they can find happiness in every tiny droplet, rushing down from heaven to kiss their lips. In Makoko, my eyes caught them happy even when my own heart was heavy.
I realised we have lost the spirit of happiness. We, the adults; and we, the privileged. We have left behind the joys, that gave us happiness in our childhood. I fear, we are spreading this mutable virus among the generation we have procreated. It's time we start finding joy in the simple things of life. I have. If you can't, walk over to the Makoko near your home. There, you will find joy in abundance. Breathe it. Set your soul free. If it comes back, it was always yours. If it doesn't, it never was.

Makoko Moments

There are moments in life that outlast the length of time, they come visiting us for. Moments, which help us gather our souls; and find our beings. 

Makoko happened to us one early December morn, in the fading darkness of a rising dawn. As we wandered down the last alley leading to the floating village, unpleasantness enveloped us like the thick morning fog. The glances told us we were unwelcome. We bent our ears to pick up harsh, staccato, unfamiliar syllables directed at Noah, our guide, leading us a few paces ahead. Noah is one among them, but still. Their ebony coated figures formed a silhouette against the fading darkness. They are like the guard bees, tasked to picket the shanty-town entrance; beyond which,  the road takes you to the world of Makoko. A modern day, shanty town civilisation floating above the mighty Atlantic backwaters, not even rooted to this world. In the footprints of history, it may not even have a chance to leave behind its trails.

If one looked beyond the unwelcoming air, one could hear the whispers of the moments waiting to catch your attention. The roving eye needed just a few alert peeks to forget the anguish of the minutes spent on the way inside. The heart started flirting with the moments, willing to embrace them in a tight squeeze. The flurry of the camera clicks which followed, inspired the soul inside to drop all inhibitions. By the time the sun kissed the backwaters golden, the frames had captured many moments that came visiting us that day. Moments, that will outlast their length of time.       

The alleys inside Makoko didn’t have the tokunbo (secondhand) cars discarded by the developed world, plying down. It didn’t have the bumper hugging traffic snarls of the Third Mainland above, obeying the synchronised commands of the green-amber-red lights that control our freedom. In Makoko, you chose your way, you chose your pace and you chose your time. The Atlantic backwaters have laid an endless network of roads that gave you the freedom to move your way. There are no fights when you bump into another boat. As if the curved edges of the boats kissed each other hello as they thudded by, guiding them on their way. Makoko doesn’t fight on trivial matters. Parking is free; and no one issued parking tickets either. It’s yours to park anywhere. The air in Makoko breathed with unconstrained freedom. Civilisation didn't steal away their liberty. They haven't submitted themselves to an organised regimen to live harmoniously. Makoko’s soul lies in being carefree amidst utter chaos. I realised, in that moment, we have lost a lot.

Outlawed by the powers-that-be, Makoko is a world by itself. Removed from the rest, it lives by itself, for itself. Every dawn brought with it a new hope for another dawn for three long decades. The hopes of the once young girls have turned into a daily toil of the women they have now become. Yet, their spirits haven’t lost the strength to provide for new hopes for the nubile youngs, who canoe the backwaters to reach their school desks. Makoko women stand out. Much like their equals who grind hours after more hours on the vast landmass of Lagos, the other world, outside Makoko. Every dawn draws the Makoko women out of their stilted homes to eke out a living of dignity within the boundless horizons of Makoko. One of them wearing a bright printed long dress was selling home cooked dried fish. Complete with red-hot pepe sauce. Rowing her boat through the lucid backwaters, she hollered out her presence. In a moment, few boats gathered around hers, to savour the lip-smacking preparation. Business was brisk. A little far away, another lady was selling bananas and tangerine. Still afar, what looked like a bazaar, more women were selling fresh vegetables, meat, pounded yam and what not. Makoko bazaars are a collection of boats, anchored side-by-side, almost hugging each other, gently swaying with the ripples, cradling the matriarchs in their bellies. The morning air of Makoko was filled with the fresh voices of its women, the matriarchs who have become adept in running a grocery store out of the shallow belly of a boat and equally managing the needs of a growing toddler within its small confines. That moment, I learnt that space has deep space within small confines, which our eyes never manage to spot. 

At the far end of the distant horizon where the Makoko houses appear to have come together to form the village, the air above is covered with smoke, as if protecting them from the outer weather. Underneath the thatched roofs, walled by flimsy cloth that make them into the houses they are, women were busy making food in the fireplace fuelled by fallen woods. Some for themselves but mostly to be sold in the bazaars, to feed the thousands waiting for the love of home cooked food. These moments wrapped in poverty, taught me that unbound love has found a home in the poorness of Makoko. Such love has given us a miss. 

When I walked up the rickety wooden steps to the small two-storied school run by Noah, my soul felt happy. The young minds were resolute in their eagerness to learn. They want to learn more than their parents, hoping to leave the boats behind to get a life on the shore. Hoping to be counted as one of Lagos. Five of them have. They have reached the classrooms of a college in mainland Lagos. Noah’s hope is to change the trickle into a stream. The change has started. The hope of thirty years has finally raised the flicker into a flutter. Its time for us, who have a place in the world of haves, to make it more welcoming. The soul of Makoko knows unbound love. It knows how to give. It knows how to keep a hope alive. It knows how to overcome depths of despair. We, the haves need that spirit to enrich our souls. And spread the moments that can change the world for better.