Walking along the streets of Makoko was like walking on any typical Lagos road. Riders perched on the seats of their bikes or tricycles and called out to potential passengers. The occasional bread hawker advertised her wares with a sonorous voice. Passers-by, not wanting to be left out of the circus, walked briskly almost as if there was gold to be picked at the end of the street. Before coming here I had associated Makoko with all the popular stereotypes – poverty, houses on stilts, a floating school and fish – lots of fish. I knew I was in for a surprise when saw the words “Welcome to Makoko (Mak Town)” on the signage at the entrance to the community.
By one street in particular, I saw an open field serving as a bank to the ocean. On the right, it was littered with vehicle parts that had seen much better days. On the left, there was a mechanic’s shed. Of course, there was a flurry of activity here too. Women and men alighted from canoes, carrying different packages in baskets. Other women huddled in a corner under a shed, eating or feeding their babies. A row of different canoes was arranged neatly at the foot of the bank and the edge of the ocean.
The banter was light-hearted. The men teased the women while the women laughed and nudged them playfully. Before I met them, I would have thought that these people belonged to another world entirely but they are no different from you and me. We talked about everything from sex and marriage to the Lagos hustle, forgetting that I was a stranger in their midst. I then wanted to talk to a fisherman and I asked around until I was directed to one.
He was short and stout with ashen dark skin. He had a well sculpted face and wore a frown like a second skin. His brown eyes looked like they hadn’t seen sleep in days. He had broad shoulders that acted as an anchor for his shirt and was clad in knee-length trousers and a hat. He didn’t look a day older than thirty. His name? Abel.
In very faltering Yoruba, he said he was from Benin Republic and came to Lagos more than twenty years ago. His father was a fisherman who struggled to make ends meet, so getting an education was not an option. He had to join the family business.
“I have been fishing since I was a child.”
While fishing might seem like a fun activity where you cast your net or throw a hook into an ocean and wait for your catch, Abel begged to differ. To him, it was a whole lot more.
“There are periods where there are plenty fishes to catch and there are periods where the fishes won’t be a lot. We catch lots of fishes during the rainy season and less during dry season. It is during the rainy season that the fishes thrive. They drink lots of water and are very big.”
The fishermen weigh their catch for the day and price them per basket. These were the packages I had seen being carried off the boats earlier. The cheapest basket will set you back 5000naira. The baskets are sold by women, mostly fishermen’s wives, at a nearby market. Abel says they are free to fish anywhere without paying any form of tax. However, the women selling in the market pay a small levy.
He preserves his produce by placing huge blocks of ice over his catch. He can’t afford the luxury of a freezer. On a good day, he can catch up to ten baskets of fish. On other days, he’s not so lucky. I wondered how sustainable this business was.
“The profit from the fishing business isn’t sustainable but it is manageable. I am not skilled in any other thing so, for now, I am stuck with this. It is from the sales of the fish that I send my children to school.”
Family is clearly very important to Abel. He inherited his fishing skills from his father. Now, he has a family of his own. He has been married for over twelve years and has four kids. His first born is nine years old and the youngest is three. He sources the produce, then his wife either sells the raw fish in the market or grills and hawks it on the side of the road. The revenue from this business keeps a roof over their heads and sends his kids to school. Abel’s venture, however small, is truly a family business. I asked if he planned to continue the tradition and introduce any of his children to fishing.
“I want them to concentrate in school to get an opportunity to be better than me. If they want to learn, I can teach them as I already teach some other people now but they have to be doing well in school before I can allow them join me on a trip.”
In fact, he loves family so much he’s planning to enlarge his – Abel told me he intends to marry at least two more wives in his lifetime. Polygamy isn’t the only item on Abel’s list of future plans. He says he is tired of the job and would love to switch to another business. He wishes the government could do more to assist people like him to at least expand their businesses, if not change jobs entirely.
“We have talked to the government about funding and assistance. We would love for the government to assist us with better boats to help with fishing.”
These boats are the lifeblood of Abel’s business. I spotted one canoe as it arrived at the bank of the ocean and its engine was switched off. It warmed my heart to see people embracing technology despite having no formal education. Assuming they would be stuck in primitive ways because of who they are, where they live and what they do would certainly be a huge mistake.
These simple structures were carved out of wood and included planks attached for seating. Though rudimentary, they looked pretty sturdy and strong. They also didn’t come cheap.
“There are carpenters that are contracted to build the canoe. There are some that cost 50k, 150k and 250k. It depends on the type of wood used and the engine. The engine is quite expensive because they use the engine of a car.”
Considering what Abel makes and how much these canoes cost, I could see why Abel was hoping for more government assistance. He was only able to afford his after saving for a long time but has no regrets. For him, it was worth every penny invested.
“You can catch certain type of big fishes at certain parts of the ocean. A canoe without engine cannot reach such parts. It depends on what the sellers want. If they want small fishes, we use the normal canoe but if they want big and healthy looking fish, we use the canoe with engine and they have to pay more.”
Better boat or not, Abel has set his sights on leaving the fishing business. In five years, he hopes to have learned another skill because he is simply tired of fishing. The working hours aren’t favourable and, as I could tell from the moment I met him, he wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep.
“We leave our house late in the night and fish all through the night because that’s when the fishes come out.”
The fishes might observe their happy hour at this time but I can see how this is inconvenient for fishermen like Abel. Apart from the ungodly working hours, they also have to deal with the extreme temperature which comes with living close to the ocean.
“This is why no woman joins us on trips. The weather is too cold and they cannot withstand it. We all wear thick clothing and still put on jackets when we are going to the sea.”
An even more serious problem the fishermen face is armed robbery. Most of the robbers are very good swimmers. They usually lie in wait under the surface of the sea and attack the fishermen when they approach. Thankfully, police now patrol the area at night whenever Abel and his colleagues go fishing. Police is your friend, but their protection isn’t free – the fishermen pay them with baskets of fish.
When he eventually leaves fishing behind, Abel says he would love to work as a mechanic or driver. He also hopes to leave Makoko in order to provide a better environment for his kids. In the meantime, Abel continues to contribute positively to his community. He makes time to teach aspiring fishermen the rules of the game and does this entirely free of charge.
That summed up my experience of Makoko. It might be a slum, but it is one with a strong support system for its members. From the women helping the fishermen by selling their wares to the jovial conversations by the ocean, there was an undeniable sense of community irrespective of ethnic differences. Makoko is not predominantly Nigerian but also welcomes many like Abel who come from the Ilaje and Agoyin tribes in Togo and Benin Republic. Many speak French and even run French-speaking schools alongside English ones.
None of these differences seem to matter. Even people like Abel who wish to leave for greener pastures still find a way to give back to the people around them. Makoko might not be your dream neighbourhood but its residents accept that they’re in it together, and they make it work. At the end of the day, that’s what counts.
People Like Us is an exclusive column created by TNC to document the lives of everyday Nigerians. Watch out for posts on Tuesday mornings at 10am twice every month.