On a typical morning in southwestern Nigeria, a dense blue-gray smog hangs menacingly over Lagos Lagoon, blotting out the sunrise and casting a sickly pall over the mainland and islands that comprise the continent’s most populous city. Within this chemical haze, the rotten egg stench of sulphur dioxide mingles with the acrid chlorine notes of ozone and nitrogen dioxide (all highly reactive byproducts of fossil fuel combustion) to create an overwhelming affront to the senses. These noxious fumes, generated by the massive number of fuel-burning cars and electricity generators in Lagos, combine with other industrial pollutants to create an environmental and public health crisis in the region.
Nowhere are the effects of this toxic shroud more evident than in Makoko, a massive floating slum on the outskirts of Lagos that houses nearly 100,000 residents. During my recent visit, I experienced a burning sensation in my throat and itchy, watery, eyes as I traveled through Makoko’s bustling waterways in a leaky pirogue (the main method of transportation in the community). Both of these physical symptoms were poignant reminders of how stifling the pollution is within the slum, and made me long for a lung full of fresh, clean air. These already extreme living conditions are exacerbated by clouds of smoke billowing out from thousands of cooking fires within the shanties that line the community’s maze-like canals, and by reeking garbage and raw sewage that residents dump directly into the lagoon’s placid water.
Located along mainland Lagos’ shoreline in the shadow of the Third Mainland Bridge (Africa’s longest bridge), Makoko is a massive agglomeration of ramshackle hovels, most of which are built on stilts above Lagos Lagoon. Nearly all of the patchwork shelters are pieced together from scavenged materials and lack indoor plumbing and ventilation systems. An improvised network of power cables crisscross precariously over the community’s waterways and bring pilfered electricity into a number of the homes.
Since Makoko is an unsanctioned settlement, it has no formal emergency service providers or law enforcement representation. This fact means that fire, crime, and disease are persistent and significant hazards in the community. Unfortunately, most of Makoko’s impoverished residents have few options other than to brave the squalid and dangerous living conditions around them. As a result, a tenacious community of survivors has emerged in the midst of this chaotic shanty town. Within Makoko, numerous shops, churches and even schools cater to the needs of the settlement’s huge population. Neighbors greet each other with smiles as they pass in the floating markets or along the driftwood boardwalks that line the community’s watery passageways. Despite the many hardships of living in such a perilous environment, people endure and life carries on.
Check out all the high-resolution shots from my trip to Nigeria in my album on Flickr.