The waters of Makoko ran black, luminous, like oil. Large swaths of the land were littered with trash, and the ground sank beneath you with each step. We were in one of Lagos’s notorious water slums, built on stilts above the Lagos Lagoon and populated by the poor and desperate. Some eighty or ninety thousand people live this way.
When I had told my friends in Ghana that I was planning to visit Nigeria, the reactions I got were almost the same. “Good luck, man; I hope you come back,” one said, only half-jokingly. I had been living in Ghana a few months already; how different could Nigeria really be?
Picking up my luggage and making my way through immigration, I stepped outside the airport into the heavy, humid air. A driver was supposed to meet me, but there was no one to be seen. I looked out over the crowd again, getting a little bit more anxious. I had started to attract attention. The sun was setting rapidly behind a cloud of smog that enveloped the city. The warning I had heard so many times was echoing in my ears, “never walk around Lagos at night.” I took out my phone; it was nearly dead. After several tries, I finally got a hold of my company’s security service. “Get back inside the airport”, she said “There should be a coffee shop. Do not leave until you get word from one of our people on the ground.”
Despite my rocky start, I was determined to get to see the city and know the people. I was determined to see the full range of existence in Lagos. That’s how I ended up in the slum neighbourhood of Makoko.
We pulled up in two large SUVs. There were four of us, plus our two close protection officers and our driver, Obinna. We could feel that we were not welcome.
A man emerged from one of the makeshift structures and singled out my Nigerian colleague, hissing at him in a language I couldn’t understand. Another stood menacingly, arms crossed on the plank that connected us with a few of the homes on stilts, black water flowing in between.
We went towards some women and children who had started piling out of the homes. The reactions ranged from wonder to open distrust. We tried to greet them. No response. “What’s the local language?” my colleague asked me under his breath. “Yoruba,” I said. “How do you say hello in Yoruba?” my colleague called across the water. “A-gu” one of the women responded with a smile. “A-gu” we called back. A few of the kids started to smile too.
Before long, the children were giving us a proper lesson in Yoruba, laughing mercilessly at us when we got a new word wrong. I felt a tug on my hand and looked down. It was a boy who couldn’t have been older than five. He held onto my hand and wouldn’t let go. I knelt down on the soft, sandy ground and shook his hand. “Hi, I’m Ben; it’s nice to meet you.”
My Nigerian colleague came back. One of the community elders had agreed to show us around. And so we walked through the alleyways, past houses and countless spectators. The structures were basic, no running water and only a few frayed electrical wires for the lights hanging from the ceilings. My American colleague noticed a stray dog drinking from the black liquid that flowed through the neighborhood. “How could an animal survive like this?" he asked. Even the water bore the stench of decay.
We continued on. Many of the children happily called after us, “Oyibo, oyibo!” I had just learned that was Yoruba for “white man”. “Oyibo, that’s me!” I called back to them, inciting a great deal of raucous laughter. Further on, we met a young man, shirtless and holding a homemade cigarette that definitely contained something besides tobacco. “Hey oyibos, I want to work! I’m strong, and I want to work!” he said, flexing his muscles to show just how strong he was.
Makoko is held to be one of the most perilous parts of the city, notorious for its area boys or street gangs of teenagers. But what we found there was actually overwhelming kindness. Everyone we met wanted to show us a different view, to talk to us, to tell us who they were. I could only imagine how it must have seemed to them as two big cars pulled into their little village and a group of oyibos poured out. But as soon as we became human to them, as soon as there was the slightest bit of common ground, we connected as human beings. They, like us, like anyone else, feared the unknown, and yet just as universally, they also yearned for connection, for expression, to be understood.
Credit to the folks at the BBC for helping me edit this, even if it won't end up on the air. Here's to finding another interesting experience to write about!