Residents of the world’s largest floating slum are keeping their hopes up as lockdown sinks their livelihoods
Makoko, an informal waterfront settlement in Lagos, Nigeria, is often referred to as the ‘Venice of Africa’. Here, thousands live in stilt houses nestled deep in murky black waters.
With the shortage of boats, getting a ride is difficult at the best of times. Photo: Damilola Onafuwa.
At first glance, Makoko’s population could be considered at extreme risk from coronavirus. Hygiene and social distancing pose a serious challenge in these crammed conditions. On closer inspection, however, the global pandemic, which has infected more than 20,000 people and resulted in over 500 deaths in Nigeria, is the least of their worries.
Fishermen and fish sellers who account for most of the 100,000-odd people who live here in poverty have bigger concerns. Hunger and the ever-looming threat of eviction pose a bigger risk to residents’ way of life than disease or infection.
Families who live on the water also depend on it for their liveli-hoods. “I work between five to six canoe trips in a day,” says Owolabi James, a canoe rider. “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 coronavirus wreaks havoc with incomes.
The Government is ramping up support for some of the most vulnerable groups in the country. The Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, for in-stance, provide food rations to schoolchildren with the technical support of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Abuja and Lagos.
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.
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 socializing is done.
With markets shut because of COVID-19, however, life as people knew it has stopped. Jutin 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.
Despite all the poverty, Owolabi James would not want to live anywhere else. “I like living here on the water,” he says. “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.” Even in lockdown, life floats on in the muddy, murky waters of Makoko.
Source: June 2020 Edition of UN (Nigeria) Newsletter.