Makoko's floating school project — an uncertain future

Makoko is a slum settlement on the Lagos Lagoon. There are no reliable population figures, but estimates for the number of inhabitants range from 100,000 to 300,000. According to the NGO Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC), Makoko supplies forty percent of the dried fish sold in Lagos.

The settlement is not a face of Lagos that the state government is proud of, and there have been attempts to pull it down and evict the inhabitants, as has been done elsewhere.

The first time I visited Makoko, in November 2011, a bunch of residents showed me (I was visiting with two foreign journalists) evidence of what the demolitioners had accomplished on a previous mission. The dank waters lay studded with wooden poles that once propped up wooden housing. In July 2012 the demolition men moved in again, with a mandate to demolish structures lying dangerously close to electricity lines. Thousands of residents were displaced; one person was shot dead by police.

My second visit was on March 3, 2013, this time in more hopeful circumstances. I was visiting to tour a floating school designed by Amsterdam-based Nigerian architect, Kunle Adeyemi (and launched on March 2).

Adeyemi is one of the most passionate advocates for Makoko. He believes that instead of attempting to displace them (there are rumours the government wants them to make way for luxury beachfront developments), the government should be pursuing innovative ways of keeping the inhabitants while improving the quality of their lives.

And so as a first step to show the possibilities, Adeyemi, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Heinrich Boll Foundation (HBF), designed a radically different structure to serve as a school for the community’s teeming children. (At the moment Makoko has got only one school — a primary school).

The actual construction was done by the residents themselves, as a means of creating jobs, and a sense of ownership. And of course it was also crucial to tap into the community’s knowledge-base, built up over decades of living on the lagoon. “We learnt from the community; lots of exchange of ideas," Adeyemi said. "They understand floatation more than we do.”

The school floats atop 250 second-hand plastic barrels, put together such that individual barrels can be replaced easily if damaged. Because it floats, it is immune to flooding. Regular Makoko structures, because they sit inflexibly on stilts, are not.

The idea of it is intriguing — a three-floored wooden structure (the wood was all locally sourced) impressively stable on a giant bed of plastic. The school building is the tallest in Makoko, and is easily visible from afar (also stands out from the 3rd Mainland Bridge). Makoko soil is very loose, and constructing viable foundations is a challenge, Adeyemi said. "Above two floors conventional foundations cannot carry [buildings here]."

The building is equipped with solar panels to provide electricity, and Adeyemi said a compost-based toilet system is being designed. The school is a pilot project; the idea is to recreate Makoko out of similarly designed buildings — producing a modern, functional, floating city out of an unplanned, crowded slum.

One of the members of the tour party likened the structure to the Eko Atlantic City, "but the houses are smaller."

Adeyemi disagreed vehemently. "It's the anti-thesis of Eko Atlantic City," he said. "Eko Atlantic is about fighting the water; [here] we're saying — live in the water!"

Surprisingly, the state government doesn't seem impressed. At a press briefing on April 25, barely two months after the unveiling (which was attended by a number of government officials) the State Commissioner for Waterfront and Infrastructure Development described it as "an illegal structure" and "erected without the permission of the state government."

Here's hoping that's not a portent of fresh sorrow, tears and blood in Makoko.

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