Smoked Fish and Children

Trip Start Mar 18, 2010
Trip End Dec 30, 2011

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Flag of Nigeria  , Lagos,
Saturday, June 19, 2010

During my stay in Lagos I have been on the Ibrahim Babengida Bridge and Third Mainland Bridge, many times. When going to the airport or when off to the mainland to teach or go to the wedding. Every time, I have looked over the side towards land and seen a plethora of wooden shacks on stilts. And wondered what's that all about, I'd love to get some photos.  With the two bridges combined length being nearly 13 miles, you have plenty of thinking time.

The Bank that I’m here doing some work for have a boat, actually they have two, but I’ve only been in the little one that holds up to eight people.  Most of the time the boat speeds out to the beach house that sits on the sand bar between Lagos Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean.  Henry, the boat’s driver is very proficient at negotiating his way through the stretch of water with huge tankers, cargo ships and wreckage.  Today he had to go 'the other way’.

I’d booked the boat a few weeks back, and I had planned a short trip out to the area for a few shots of the area and fisherman using my zoom lens.  What I ended up getting was an experience I will never forget.  Thanks to Todd’s gym junkie ways, I have recently met a nice young man called Jonathan from Canada.  He happens to know a couple of folks who live in Makoko Fishing Village and when I mentioned at dinner  last night that I had this little jaunt planned, he made a couple of calls and it was all set.  He would come too and conduct a little business; I would get to take all the pictures I wanted. 

At just before seven I was awoken by an enormous clap of thunder.  The chalet shook and I lay thinking end of days had finally arrived as I listened to the rain slam into the roof with the weight of a freight train.  I couldn’t hear the key tones as I texted Jonathan to say 'It’s raining, keep you posted about the boat trip’.  I really didn’t hear the reply come in, but saw the phone light up, ‘The rain will more than likely clear by nine’.

At 9AM the rain stopped and the clouds drifted away.

I met Jonathan at the Fiki Boat Club.  It’s right under Faloma Bridge and a little ramshackle.    The concrete balustrade is chipped and broken, only held up in some places by the now rusty steel rods that held the concrete. 

Henry, filled up the boat, and then helped us climb aboard.  Mike Mk2 came along for the ride too.  I know it probably breaks social and employer/employee rules but I hate leaving him sitting in the car, just waiting.  He loves the odd trip out of his day to day. 

We motored out of the club and instead of turning left after going under the Ahmed Bello Road Bridge we turned right.  We went past cargo ships on the port side and the city on the other.  The skies slightly grey from earlier storms were slowly clearing.  The temperature was near perfect so the brisk wind coming over the bow gave relief from the usual stifling humidity.

I took a few pictures, but the up/down motion of the boat across bow waves resulted in either the bottom or top of the subject being chopped off. 

Out of the lagoon and into open water it was a little rough, I had to look forward and concentrate on my equilibrium.  Very quickly we were under the Third Mainland crossing again and into shallow waters near the settlement.  Fishermen in banana boats and walking on flotillas were all around us.

Due to the shallow waters we had to go in on a banana boat, so Noah, the Chief’s brother came out to met us and take us in.  Henry and Mike Mk2 followed us in on the bigger boat, but with the reduced weight, it was able to negotiate the narrow, shallow water ways.

I have shocking balance so seeing the long, slender, wooden boat that I had to climb into, my throat constricted as an image of me tipping the whole thing and ending up in the water appeared in my head.  Very kindly, Noah and his buddies didn’t laugh at me too hard.  But I did get a glimpse of their beautiful wide smiles as they helped me. 

Jonathan didn’t have as much trouble as me.

Our first stop was the Cavery Baptist Church and School to meet the Chief.  I had taken no pictures yet, despite have an itchy shutter finger, but we had to get permission from the Chief first.  We stopped outside a two storey wooden building with fishing nets covering the varandah.  A man was sitting on a low stool mending one of the nets.  I took the picture in my head only.  He was gone when we return after seeing the Chief.

We climbed a set of planks that masqueraded as stairs and entered the low ceilinged upper level.  We were asked to sit on plastic lawn chairs and before us were set two more.  We were about to have an audience with Chief Shemede (sh-me-de). 

Soon, a man came in wearing a dark slacks and a brown and beige polo shirt.  He sat in one of the chairs, but said nothing and neither did anyone else.  A couple of minutes later, an older man wearing local sakoto and buba (matching top and bottom that Todd calls pyjamas) made from bright batik fabric entered and sat in the other chair.  Everyone sprung to life.  Noah was suddenly talking and seemed to be translating for Jonathan.  An exchange happened, Jonathan gave the Chief the gift he brought with him (they’ve met before) and turned to me to introduce myself.  Which I did.

Then it was Mike Mk2 turn.  He bowed so low, I thought he’d hit his head on the floor.  They went on to have an exchange that resulted in much laughter and a discovery that they could be of the same bloodline. 

Jonathan talked business for a bit and then asked if it was OK for me to take pictures around the village.  We were granted permission and told we would be taken to a few places including a hospital and a couple of schools.  Then we were dismissed.

Mike Mk2 bowed his way from the room, Jonathan and I didn’t.  Maybe because we didn’t know we had to, I followed J’s lead; after all they had met before.

Back on the boat, Noah and his mates where laughing more openly, my unsteady clambering onto the boat is after all cause for hilarity.  The white knuckle grip on my seat as the others climbed in and it rocked from side to side, the edge getting perilously close to letting some of the black water in.

We took off with the aid of and engine.  We were under oar power now.  We moved is silence through the channels of water.  Every now and then a group of children would appear and cheer at us, waving.  We’d wave back, but every time I raised the camera they vanished as fast as they had appeared.  Adults were not as keen to draw our attention, some scolded at us as we passed.  Most just did their best to ignore the presence of outsiders. 

I had been warned that the smell inside Makoko was something you wouldn’t forget in a hurry.  I had imagined something worse than it was.  The overriding smell for me was that of smoking fish.  I’d expected something like a rubbish tip, but the real thing wasn’t that bad.  If you can handle smoke.  It seems that that every second house is smoking fish, plumes pour through gaps in the walls.

This smoke also gave all my photographs a haze, which no matter what the settings, just wouldn’t go away.  I’ll just call it atmosphere. :-)

Our first stop was a maturity clinic, a three room hut with low cots in two rooms and the nurse’s office in a third.  A storm lantern cried out to me as it sat next to a few open boxes of calcium carbonate injection and a dirty tub of something.  No one had given birth that day.

Next stop was Noah’s house.  Jonathan had never been here before and it proved to be a growing of trust.  We saw a worker in Noah’s household smoking fish and a basket ready for the markets.   She was embarrassed about the attention, but let me snap away as J and Noah chatted.  I had to be careful were I put my feet as one false step could have seen me disappear into the water below. 

Next stop was a school.  I imagine when the person who wrote ‘There was an old lady that lived in a shoe’ had this building in mind when it was written.  Children poured out if the door when we arrived.  They hung out of the windows on all sides and crammed themselves on the decking to get a good look at us.  Some tried to speak with us, but most only spoke French.  I’m rubbish at French, so it really didn’t work too well.  I managed to get some ‘Hello’s’ out of them before they got shy and disappeared inside to be rapidly replaced with another.  Noah explained that some 400 children attend this school, but based on him telling us his Dad was 120 years old we doubt numbers are a strong point. 

Age is a big thing here.  Everything is done by age.  You will very rarely find a young manager.  It doesn’t necessarily mean they actually know more than the staff, they are just older and someone in their 30s would NEVER question someone in their 40s. It’s just not done.  So I am going to guess that the father of the Chief, while not the most important in title needs to be of an age that puts them as the wisest in the place.  I’m guessing at this, but it’s the only thing I can think of to explain why a 120 year old man looked about 60 and was walking around with ease.  It certainly has nothing to do with having had an easy life.

Our final stop was another maturity hospital.  A lady sat in a corner nursing her newly born baby.  We were entertained out on the deck.  The nurses thought Jonathan and I were married.  It isn’t always easy to explain that it is possible to travel with a member of the opposite sex that you aren’t married too.   

Mike Mk2 had been quite for a long time.  He was slightly wide eyed, but couldn’t resist telling the local children to put pants on as we passed.  He’d hiss, click his tongue and wave his arms at them.  They just waved at us and laughed.  I waved back as I told Mike to relax.

On the way out I saw a lady selling fabric from her boat.  I gave her N3200 in exchange for 12 yards of a cotton batik printed in red, black and white.  She seemed very happy.  I’m sure a local would have paid less, but I except I’m oyimbo and no amount of haggling from Mike Mk2 will change that.  I got her down from N4000 so all’s good, I made an effort.

On the way out we continued seeing children, there really were so many, hanging out of windows, running around on decks and rowing boats.  Tiny tots with no pants on to 8 or 9 and older in boats with family or alone. 

One little girl was rowing a nine foot boat solo.  She saw us and waved, she didn’t see me with the camera at first, but when she did, she poked out her tongue.  She continued to wave until we rounded the corner.

This will be the image that will stick with me forever; a small girl with seemingly little prospects in life, but completely free to be herself, at this age.  She’ll grow (health care permitting) into a woman and still have nothing compared to western standards, but as with many others I have met here, and in Lagos in general they appear to be completely happy.  I found myself leaving the area, uplifted by the people I had met but ever so slightly depressed at the conditions I had seen people living in.  I also found myself judging myself and my kind, oyimbo: pretty much every person who lives in western culture with only one television and have the nerve to use the word poverty to describe their living conditions.

I was asked why I had a tear in my eye after seeing this little girl by one of our boat crew.  I said, I find it amazing to see a girl her age on a boat alone’.

‘Our children learn to row very early.’ I was told

I could only say, ‘our children would never be let out alone at such a young age, let alone on water.’

He pulled a confused face and summed up my entire trip to Lagos, not just my morning, ‘This seems strange to me’.
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DW on

A real eye opener for me! LOVED the photos!!

ken on

beautiful pictures, nice video, I can't wait to get to Lagos on December, thanks a lot for sharing

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