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Sea-Dwelling: Makoko, This Bitch of a Life

Gbubemi God’s Covenant Snr, visited the waterfront communi-ties of Makoko in Lagos State and came out with a tale of two set-tlements, one buried in the grave of urban development, the other living in apprehension of the Dooms Day.


There once was Mokoko, a col-lection of communities, all coastline waterfront dwellers and wood workers in Yaba/Iwaya under the local community de-velopment area (LCDA) in Lagos. Lagosians will remember July 2012, the day evil visited the inhabitants; the ambitious hammer of the Lagos State government called Urban Development dealt viciously and treacherously with the coastliners but, two years on, the people will not go with the wind in a hurry, or become a ‘once-upon-a-time’ tale to be told to future generations.Aided by the latent strength of the human spirit and mankind’s inherent tenacity to survive, remnants of Mako-ko coastline, comprising women, chil-dren and men, are still very much visi-ble all over Lagos Island and Mainland, having taken the pains and shocks of losing their homes in their strides. Now, this is Makoko Ori’Omi, the core sea dwellers who will frown if you refer to them as Makoko without the emphatic Ori’Omi. They are a people at home on the sea, perched precariously on the face of the Lagoon. Like a never ending soap opera in a city of contrasts, the Makoko entity is an adventure that started more than a century ago. So many versions of the migration of the Patriarchs who came in trickles from across the borders and across the seas over time have been told, but the last is yet to be heard. Now living in constant fear of the Ur-ban Development monster, the people of Makoko Ori’Omi continue to live by faith, trusting in whatever they believe in that the Doomsday may never come, at least, not in their generation.Almost like a hidden entrance from Estate bus stop by the shore of the sea as you head for the 3rd Mainland Bridge from the Oworonshoki end, Daily Times followed a nar-row path towards the Lagoon, and broke into a beehive of ac-tivities; everywhere were wood-workers, saw millers, timber traders, women and children packaging waste planks for the huge firewood market; male and female of all ages, especially of note were pretty ladies and young men living in make-shift plank houses, working round the clock amidst sawmill dust and waste. The stench of this environment would make a visitor sick. Behind the Mainlanders were the sea-dwellers, a large fishing community made up of tribes and tongues most from Togo, Ila-je, Epe, Awori, even people from Port Harcourt, Ijaw and Warri.A two-hour boat tour of Ma-koko Ori’Omi revealed a very peculiar civilisation with streets, avenues, and crescents bubbling with hawkers of a different kind, restaurants and churches, schools (for want of a better name). Makoko Ori’Omi even boasts a maternity; herbalists in almost every street and a resi-dent witch-doctor who continues where the herbalists come to the end of their knowledge.Makoko Ori’Omi presents a picture of a fairy tale; they have recreated every activity on the land and translated it to the rhythm and style of the sea; vir-tually every human moving ac-tivity is done sitting or standing in a locally carved wooden canoe. No family here is without canoes of their own. Canoes here are as essential and a dire necessity as transportation system anywhere in the world. Kuto George, a Togolese builder holding the title of Osi Baale is one of the chiefs of Egun migrants here. Holding brief for Baale Ayinde who was not avail-able at the time the visit, Kuto told Daily Times their presence in the place dates back to the days of their forefathers many of whom are late, but one surviving remnant named Funyemi Awude is now head of all the leaders of the different arms of the commu-nity. On Olulu Street, our corre-spondent could see the sea float-ing under the floor boards in the home of the herbalist who re-ceived him for a chat.Everything around him stank of poverty and lack; even rags made up for roofing in many of the houses, but take away the poverty and rickety shanty state of the houses, streets have been charted on the sea and the aes-thetics are a beauty to behold. Population:As in every society of this age promiscuity is rife here so chil-dren born out of wedlock are as many as those legitimately mar-ried; the moment a daughter is found pregnant the “culprit” is found immediately and the ques-tion of denying does not arise be-cause everyone knows everyone, and no two can couple together without attracting witnesses all around, and when it happens, the pregnant girl is led straight to the lover boy’s family house and she stays there while the family sorts out the matter which sometimes ends at the Baale’s house.This perhaps, may be respon-sible for the great number of infants and toddlers, revealing these fishing families as fertile as the fishes in the sea below. About seven out of every 10 women were carrying a baby; some were found pregnant while still nurs-ing a little one. It is like after a good fish meal, and perhaps a shot or two of the local brew, the next thing is love-making; and one wonders where they do it in these shanty homes overflowing with children of all ages. Perhaps living on the water surface has something to do with their procreation; as King Solo-mon wrote in the good book: if two lie together, they will gener-ate heat and be warm on a cold night. In this community, every night is cold, and when the rains come down, ‘lying together’ will generate enough heat.The tour guide put the num-ber of an average family in Ma-koko Ori’Omi as between 10 and 16 with some as high as 22, and this is believable as you find in-fants, toddlers, adolescents, teens and 20s male and female in most homes. As you’re reading this, a two-some is making love inside these shanty houses, and condom has no place in these homes.When my tour guide put the population of this community at over 300,000, it sounded like a gross exaggeration, until our cor-respondent looked beyond the aesthetics: each of the rickety and shabby house is a massive explosion of children and adults with infants, adolescents and young adults on the higher scale. One Iya Suko, whose other trade besides fishing is selling orange has eight children in quick suc-cession, and she is not done yet!HealthTheir good health is a wonder, because the air is not as pure around here as it should be. The sea water they dwell upon, which health authorities would frown at anyone using, they wash and bath in it and some even cook with it and they appear no worse for it.They may be living below the poverty level, but the community presents a picture of a people in good health, fit as a fiddle, healthy and happy. The young men, looking like stallions, ap-pear very much at home with their environment and loving every bit of it. Baale Emmanuel nodded, satisfied.

‘We are happy and satisfied; as you can see, we are self-sustain-ing. The most important thing we want from government in the area of health is public toilet; in this whole community there is nothing like toilet; everybody empty their bowels inside the same water we live on top of.‘Also we need boreholes to give us potable water. We buy water from private boreholes for now and it is not enough. We don’t have hospitals, not even a dispen-sary, apart from one maternity that is run by one of us. EducationSome white missionaries built a school for the community with planks and zincs on the water and they have another school where some natives who care are given French lessons. No government presence in Makoko Ori’Omi in both health and education and it is unlikely any teacher would be ready to teach in this environ-ment. Also, the young ones here are not showing interest in the rigours of Western education; as a result our correspondent could not find one literate individual in Makoko except perhaps the tour guide who managed to compound pidgin with some English.The peoplePaddling through Streets like Upolo, Igbehinadun, Eredua, Adetia and Okoagbon streets, our correspondent was greeted with scenes of hawkers pad-dling their wares in their boats in the Yoruba tradition of hawk-ing every domestic item. These ranged from pepper to plantain, peanuts and palm oil, deter-gents, raw and cooked foodstuffs, even smoked fish. Their natural meal is made more beautiful as they paddled and hawked their stuffs about the major streets, crescents, avenues and some close that ends nowhere except that the houses simply stopped there. Mobile eateries and food vendors complete the scenario. You really have to be there to ap-preciate the beauty of a natural habitat: there is no greater tour-ist attraction. Children as young as five were seen strolling around the neigh-bourhood in their boats; moms and children paddling their jerry-cans to buy water from the few boreholes somewhere in the community; just like you see food vendors hawking their eba, amala, rice , indomie and water on their heads walking from street to street, here you see the same paddling all in their boat along the streets; people relax-ing in their homes would call out for what they want and the vendors would manoeuvre their canoes with ease to a side of the house and transact their busi-nesses. Boys were seen drinking either tea or pap while the ven-dor waited patiently in her boat; another measuring gari out to a customer, and oh, such dreamy scenes all over the community.One wonderful sight was on a major street where the ma-ternity centre is located. Children and adolescent female and male residents were seen swimming in the street; the older ones swam quickly to their homes upon sighting our correspondent shooting away while the children swam mea-surelessly about enjoying the beauty nature has blessed them with. While many hawkers and residents protested the camera recording their native lifestyle, our correspondent had to make a deal with a woman frying yam over the fire she packaged neatly in her canoe as she paddled from street to street to record the photographs.The family opposite the maternity on Isosan Street had a native Togolese music blasting from an amplifier as the adults relaxed while the kids danced away un-der the clear blue sky. Such is the beauty of a people at home with nature.Uneasy calm in MakokoMegbewe Street is one of the busy major streets in Makoko where you find a single-storey building to the left as you paddle towards the high seas; this is the home of the Baale of Makoko Ori’Omi.Now, Baale in Yoruba literally means the father of the land who serves as the mini monarch over his people, but in this community where men opted to live on water, Baale seems to have no relevance as the people have no land, and Baaomi, (Father of the sea) is a bit too mighty to ascribe to any son of man. However our correspondent was received to the palace of Shenideen Emmanuel, the young mini-monarch of Makoko Oriomi (Community on Water).

He loves introducing his community with Ori’Omi to make that distinction between Highlanders and the Sea-dwellers.It turned out to be a pretty mod-ern palace, with tiles and some city furnishings and plumbing. Understandably reluctant to talk to the press after the demolition of Makoko, their sister communi-ty, Baale Emmanuel unburdened his heart after a long hesitation ‘My people have been living in Makoko for 104 years. We are fishermen and fisherwomen; all the people dwelling on the face of the water are professional fishermen and women. We are a self-sustaining and peace loving people. We have no ambition outside our fishing and running our everyday life on top of the water; we are water-dwellers. Our life is water and water is our life and livelihood.‘Now we have been living un-der threat of government that they want to demolish our homes and throw us out. That threat has been on many years, but recently we’re hearing government is warming up to remove us from here like they have done to some other places. ‘Let me use this medium to ap-peal to the government that we are pleading with them to leave us where we are so we can con-tinue dwelling in the midst of our livelihood which is fishing. If you count my people living on top of water here, we are up to 300,000, plus our wives and children.‘What we are hearing about government throwing us out of here frightens us. They should tell us what the problem is; if they want us to rebuild our houses we will gladly do so, but let them not drive us out from Ori’Omi. No matter where they want to send us to, it can never ever be like Ori’Omi to us be-cause nothing can sustain and hold meaning to us like the water we live on top. If they relocate us out of here, coming back here to do our fishing will be a problem to our people, that’s why our forefa-thers preferred that we live on top of the water because in so doing we are living with our work and livelihood.‘Instead of thinking of remov-ing us, we plead with government to give us schools, hospitals, give pipe borne water, make this place better; they can preserve Makoko as a tourist community and make good revenue from it instead of de-stroying a good thing. The schools we have here were built by private organisations, not government. If they think our environment is not good enough let them plan to make it better. We beg them to please leave us let us live with our work; don’t throw so great a num-ber of families into nothingness. There is no reason to take us from where God has given us to live on.’He makes a case for the eco-nomic relevance of his fishing community:‘All the fish eaten in Lagos State are gotten from here; there is nowhere else in the state that produces fish like us. If you find anyone who disputes that, let the press bring us together let us show our statistics. All the fishes they catch at Epe, if they divide ours into ten places one part will be more than all their own put to-gether. ‘Makoko Ori’Omi is the natural source and home of fish. All the women who sell fish in Agege, Oshodi, Mushin, Oyingbo, and Lagos Island either come from here or they buy from our people. So please help us beg the Lagos State government to let Makoko and her people be, both for now and for posterity forever.” The headman defended his people as law-abiding and hard-working: ‘We have no thieves or lazy people living in Makoko; fishing is our life and everybody here is a fisher whether young or old, or male or female; we work with our hands. We don’t have mis-creants. Ask from all the police stations around us whether they have been having problems from Makoko people, we do not make trouble. From sunrise to sunset we are fishing, even from dusk to dawn we are busy; there is no idle hand among our people. Whatever disagreement we may have among ourselves we settle it amicably. There may be problems from people on the mainland, but with us water dwellers, we have no conflict, we have problem.He revealed the construction tradition in his domain. ‘We don’t hire contractors to build our houses for us. Each house you see is a complete household, and the families put their resources together and build their own house by them-selves with their own hands.‘To build a house on water could cost between N300,000 to N400,000; a really large house can cost N500,000. We don’t build houses for rent here, it is a father, mother and children that are per-mitted to build house here; and because we don’t build houses for rent therefore we don’t have house agents or land agents. If you go and rent a house here and you don’t know how to paddle ca-noe or how to swim, how would you move about? We don’t have have or use Danfo or BRT buses; our motor is canoe which we do by ourselves; we don’t go to show-room to buy it, so you see that many of the problems you people have on land we don’t have them here.‘Our living expenses are mi-nimised because we don’t pay transport so whether the price of petrol is increased or not, wheth-er transporters or workers are on strike or not, it doesn’t affect us because we are not mainlanders, we are sea dwellers.‘In this whole community ev-erybody has a canoe of his or her own, whether as a family or as a person. Construction of a boat costs about N34,000 for the domestic ones that we use in our community here. Other bigger ones, the commercial ones which are motorised, cost from between N40,000 – N80,000 depending on what you want to do with it.’ Seeing children as young as five years paddling leasurelessly makes one wonder, do they have a school that teaches kids how to swim and paddle?

The young monarch laughed heartily.‘Nobody teaches anyone how to swim or how to paddle your ca-noe. Everyone is born into it so it is very natural with our children, boys or girls, they are very good swimmers and canoe paddlers. You can see the people selling their wares, some cook food or fry dodo and paddle about, they sell everything you people hawk on land by paddling their goods from street to street or from house to house. We are a complete community, very happy and very satisfied people.’The Baale dismisses any possibility of water swallowing up their homes at any time.


Children at Makoko, Lagos


*this was published in the Daily Times newspaper dated: Monday, December 15, 2014

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Ihesiulo Grace

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