- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

LAGOS, Nigeria — In the center of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city, hand-carved canoes slip across a lagoon, cruising gently through a cramped maze of two-story bamboo houses perched on stilts above the water.

Fishermen standing at the rear of pirogues seem to walk across the waves, dipping 15-foot poles into the shallow sea to propel themselves forward.

It’s Nigeria’s version of the canals of Venice. Part slum, part fishing village, Makoko has been expanding for decades, its thousands of residents spreading out over the Lagos Lagoon. It’s on the front line of a population explosion, the spillover from a teeming metropolis bursting at the seams.

For some, Makoko is a refuge from the frenetic life in one of the most congested cities on the planet.

For others, it’s a place to escape Lagos’ notorious crime. “Armed robbers don’t bother us out here. They don’t know how to swim,” said Francis Agoyou, a fisherman in his 40s.

Near shore, the water is black — a mixture of slime and sewage, floating garbage, worn-out flip-flops, plastic bottles and sunken canoes. But the farther you get from the network of long wooden planks connecting the settlement to land, the cleaner — and less crowded — Makoko becomes.

Nigeria’s 126 million inhabitants make it the most populous nation in Africa. About 14 million of them are jammed into Lagos, the country’s commercial capital and the sixth-largest city in the world, according to the U.N. Population Fund.

Despite sprawling traffic jams, fuel shortages and a lack of electricity and running water, people keep moving in. Lagos will be the third-biggest city by 2015, with 23 million residents, the United Nations predicts.

It’s already too big for many people.

“I couldn’t live on the land. There’s no space, no place to live,” said another Makoko fisherman, Emmanuel Sokoni, 50, gesturing toward lagoon-side skyscrapers faintly visible through the haze.

“At least here, we have some fresh air, and a breeze.”

Relatively speaking, that is.

An eye-watering cloud of smoke hangs over much of Makoko most of the time, the result of too many fires for cooking and for smoking fish.

Mr. Sokoni’s pristinely clean two-bedroom bungalow, made of thin, perfectly aligned bamboo poles, is perched on the breeziest part — Makoko’s outer limit. He, his wife and four children can look out over a broad expanse of choppy water that snakes toward the Atlantic Ocean.

The view isn’t likely to last.

Newcomers constantly stake out new territory — granted to them by traditional village chiefs over cups of tea or beer — and inch ever closer to a government-imposed boundary marked by power lines strung along huge pylons. Not far away, the Third Mainland Bridge is filled with the noisy traffic of yellow taxi-buses and cars carrying commuters to Lagos.

Like many big cities, much of the area’s growth has been fueled by migrants looking for jobs.

Nearly half of Makoko’s inhabitants are Nigerian, but even more, including Mr. Sokoni, are from nearby French-speaking Benin. Those from Benin communicate with their new neighbors in pidgin English or the local Yoruba language.

They come with dreams of a better life.

“This lagoon is bigger than anything we have at home,” said Mr. Sokoni. And, crucially, “It’s got more fish.”

According to another migrant from Benin, it also has fewer fishermen — at least for now.

“It’s easy for us to make a living here. There’s a much bigger market in Lagos. That’s why we came,” said Appolinaire Gbenonnou, 23.

In the muddy water just beyond Makoko, fishermen cast out nets, hauling in small catches of shrimp, repeating the procedure over and over. Others catch crustaceans with wicker basket traps.

The better-off have motors on their canoes, so they head out into the Atlantic to fish. The poorest rig canoes with sails of ripped cloth, bailing out leaking water with colored plastic cups.

Catches are passed on to wives, who come out in their own canoes and then, shaded by straw hats, paddle the settlement’s labyrinthine waterways looking for customers or sell the seafood at street markets in Lagos.

Some people spend weeks at a time on the water without ever stepping on land. Everything from soft drinks to popcorn to bread to fresh water is sold by vendors who cruise around in canoes.

Churches, clinics and schools perch on stilts. There are even a handful of paddle-through bars.

And there are traffic jams, just as on land. Canoes, many piloted by children, crash harmlessly into each other like bumper cars.

“We’ve got electricity sometimes, too, just like the rest of Lagos,” said Felix Houetchenou, 25, who works at a clinic made of pink-painted bamboo.

A lot of people seem to have TVs, too, judging by the forest of antennas jutting at odd angles from rooftops.

Pointing at the city looming across the lagoon, Mr. Houetchenou said: “Who would want to go there, when we’ve got everything here?”

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