Sunday, April 23, 2006

Amazing world of amphibious Lagosians

First published in the Nigerian Tribune

  • They throw babies into lagoon to acclimatize
  • Organize parties in floating bars/hotels
  • Have own hospitals/maternity, cemeteries,’ police’, kings and floating palace on the lagoon.
It is possible for someone to live in Lagos for 100 years and never get to see all of its aquatic splendour, all of its perilous life styles, incredible filth, and all of the diverse kind of people who make it up. But anyone who cares to investigate would be shocked by the sheer difference between life as it is known by a generality of Lagosians and as it is seen by a smaller group of less privileged others who also live in the self-same city.
Driving over the third Mainland Bridge, many motorists have wondered at the sight of houses, mostly of planks, bamboo sticks and corrugated sheets erected right in the middle of the sprawling lagoon. There is no access to them except by boats, mostly canoes. Many are wont to wonder who the people are. Do they have children? How do they prevent their little ones from drowning? Are they real human beings or spirits? Given the phobia of most Lagosians for water, they are most likely to conclude that the people on the lagoon are spirits.

But as Saturday Tribune found out last Sunday, they are no spirits. They are human beings carrying on their lives in their little watery community, oblivious of how anyone else is living outside their immediate environment.

Welcome to the world of rustic living in the fishing communities of Sokoro, Migbewe, and Adogbo situated just a little above water level on the lagoon.

Woman frying puff-puff in a canoe
The first major challenge of the expedition was transportation. From Iso pako (saw-mill) in Ebute Meta end of the Third Mainland Bridge to the community of this ‘amphibious’ Lagosians, one needs a boat. But being a Sunday, there was no commercial boat. A friendly machine operator who would like to be identified only as ‘Baba Tee’ at the saw mill advised that such an expedition was better done on a weekday or a Saturday when there would be commercial boats.

But are the people friendly, or would they take exception to a young man poking his camera at their faces on a sweet Sunday evening? Did they have any latent propensity to throw strange, pestering people into the lagoon when nobody is looking?

“Ah ah, they are nice people o! Why would they do that?” Baba Tee asked, laughing. “They are real people like you and me. They just happen to be living on water because of where they come from. If they don’t live here (on water) they will fall sick”. Baba Tee said in Yoruba. He repeated his advice for a return visit on a week day.

Floating 'hospital'
But the community was visible from the saw mill and one could not imagine coming that far without being able to accomplish the rest of the task. One could see many canoes being paddled across the lagoon, but as the saw-miller explained, those were privately owned ones and they would not come to the saw mill from where one could convince them to offer charter service.

A long wait at the saw mill however paid off as a young man came ashore to see a friend at the saw mill. He willingly agreed to be an emergency tourist guide, and in a rustic simplicity eagerly ushered one into his canoe without asking for payment. Or did he harbour a hidden agenda to take the stranger to the deepest part of the lagoon, overturn the contraption and swim to safety? He looked harmless enough and smiled very broadly and genuinely. But he had a tattoo of scorpion on his either shoulder.

He wished to be known simply as Folorunsho. The expedition started. Initial trouble turned out to be how to keep the canoe from shaking as if it was going to empty its two passengers into the lagoon at any moment.
“Is it normal for a canoe to shake like this?” one asked Folorunso. It is not the canoe that is shaking sir. It is you,” he replied, smiling reassuringly. “There is no problem” he assured. One had earlier inquired about life jacket and the question drew laughter. What use would it serve, Folorunsho had asked. There was not a single person in the community who could not swim. Even pregnant women would dive into the lagoon should a favourite spoon drop into the brown water, he added..

The entire community is made up of three small ones that would be no more than streets were it to be on land, namely Sokoro, Migbewe, and Adogbo. They used to be separate communities with different baales (chiefs), but now population expansion has removed the distance or distinction between one community and the other. Individual communities still retain their baales.
As it is on land, so is it in this watery settlement. The ‘streets’ are filled with kids and women roaming about with wares to sell. The difference is that the hawking is done with a canoe. What you can get to buy from them range from fruit such as banana, oranges, pawpaw, mangoes; cooked food such as ewa (beans), pap, bread and butter, fried egg and yam, and fried puff puff, hot and fresh, off a sizzling frying pan in a canoe. It was amazing to see the woman maneuver her canoe expertly in the heavy traffic of other canoes, with the charcoal stove on top of which is balanced a frying pan with hot oil, mixed flour, and water for washing her hands.
The sort of jobs these people do ensure that they do not have cause to go ashore for a very long time. Folorunsho and another son of the soil (or water, in this instance), Mayowa, explained that there are people who have never gone ashore since they came to the settlement from their original villages in Badagry. They are largely fishermen who leave from the settlement for the high sea and return straight into their homes at the close of work.
Buyers of fish from outside visit them in their homes while their wives and children smoke the rest for later sales. Most women are engaged smoking fish and selling them to buyers who come from outside.
There are also fish net makers, boat- builders, crayfish trap makers, barbers, tailors, shoe makers and at least one GSM call center operator, among others.
The houses are made of planks, bamboos, corrugated sheets or palm fronds and related materials. But one rich person sank a block house right in the middle of the community. How he managed to do this without the technology of Julius Berger would get many modern construction engineers scratching their heads.
Folorunsho tried to explain the technique, and it turned out not to be dramatically different from the one employed by construction companies in constructing bridge pillars in the water. The only difference is that this local effort did not profit from any technological assistance. It was pure brawn. An area of the lagoon was encircled with very strong planks, closely planted into the base of the lagoon. Then the circle was filled up with sand and concrete till it was elevated above water level. Folorunsho explained that it was very expensive. He personally would have preferred to use money for such a venture to go and buy land in town.
It takes about N15 000 to erect the common plank and bamboo house on the lagoon. It can be erected in a few days and can be very fast when the owner has all the money ready from the onset. 50 percent of the entire community are living in rented houses. An entire house of two rooms and a parlour goes for N600 per month. Rent is paid strictly per month and no landlord is allowed to ask for more than one month at once.
Some of the houses are tastefully furnished. Most of them have black and white television. There is one with a colour Television, Video cassette player and a VCD/CD player. The gentleman even has what qualifies to be called a rug, a two-seater cushion chair, and has his treasured pictures hung on the bamboo wall.
Electricity is tapped from town but no NEPA man has yet been bold enough to visit the community to serve bills or collect money for light consumption. One or two houses also have generators.
With the structure of the house one wondered if they never caught cold especially during the harmattan period. Folorunsho and another community member, wale said on the other hand heat was their biggest problem. According to them, most people sleep on their verandahs to avoid heat.
Community Police
The community has its own arrangements for security. Folorunsho explained that this was necessary since the regular police in Nigeria were reluctant to come into the lagoon to enforce the law.
“Police don’t like to come here to arrest people. The water used to scare them” Folorunsho explained in his imperfect English. Our expedition made a brief stop over in the house of the overall head of the community’s security apparatus. The man looked too young for someone who is the equivalent of Nigeria’s Ehindero on the lagoon. He seemed happy to see our little party. He was okay, except that the repercussion of bleaching was catching up with him in all the wrong places. If the ‘IG’ was this badly bleached what would the criminals in the community look like, one thought.
His job was said to be easier than Nigeria’s IG’s, because there is hardly any theft in the community.
“First nobody can come from outside to steal here. Secondly, everybody knows everybody very well. So you cannot steal from your brother,” Folorunsho explained, adding however that in the event that anybody did, the community police took care of the person in such a way that he would never try it again.
Community damsels
The community was complete with its own damsels. A couple of them were sighted strolling on the hand-made overhead bridge that led to the most popular floating hotel at Sokoro. Elsewhere, you could see young ladies with made up faces in t-shirts and trousers commuting in canoes to destinations within the community.
Then there was the shocking sights of topless ladies smoking fish in many verandahs in the community. There were a couple with nothing on besides panties.
Folorunsho explained that the business of smoking fish was a very difficult one which got the women very uncomfortable.
“It is one of the most difficult jobs here. You know the smoke is entering your eyes and the heat is too much and you are sweating. So some of them just don’t care about clothes”, he explained. But would that not bring all the young men coming in droves to buy fish they have no use for, one asked.
“Ah ah, no. Why? “ Folorunsho answered laughing. “There is no such thing. But may be some people do it. But it is not common. You know the women are not really beautiful at such times. You even pity them. And again they are our sisters.”
Promiscuity level
The community frowns seriously at men who sleep with other people’s wives. All the men and their families are known to each other and bond very well. But as Folorunsho explained, it had been known to happen for a man to have affairs with women they are not married to. When the original husband catches the philandering man, he is free to administer any punishment he deems fit, or he may just call in the community police who takes the offender to the chief. But there is said to be a very strong traditional curse that afflicts women who indulge in extra marital affairs.
“They will begin to bleed and if they fail to confess they will die”, Folorunsho explained. Although he had not seen anyone so afflicted but the belief is overwhelming among the community residents. Many male residents would rather go over to the floating hotel where some call girls are said to reside and pay for sex.
The singles are however free to do what they see fit. Under the cover of the night some of them cross the overhead bridge into the floating hotel to earn some money, pleasuring men.
Throwing babies into lagoon
“But is it true that you people throw your babies into the lagoon to ascertain whether they are bastards or not”, one asked.
“Oh I 've heard people say that. They say if the baby is a bastard he will sink and if not he will float. I don’t know if other community do that. But we do not. You cannot know a bastard like that. What we do is we throw our childrens into the water to become friends with it so that they can never be killed by water again. But the childrens must be well at the time. You must not throw sick childrens into water. Our childrens know how to swim before they can even talk self because when their mother is swimming she throws them into water too,” he explained.
On the most popular ‘street’ in the community which qualifies to be the community’s equivalent of Oshodi, the ‘traffic’ was chaotic, even for a Sunday. Canoes bumped into each other and finding where to dip your paddle sometimes was a problem.
“Do you have traffic accidents here?” one asked.
“Yes, but not like the ones on the land. People don’t die in such accidents. Some people may not be looking at where they are going and seriously hit you. You just settle it and go your way. But engine boats can be very dangerous because they sometimes lose control. If there is one coming your way and you see that he has lost control, you just dive into the water before he hits your canoe.”
Folorunsho also explained that for there to be sanity, engine-propelled boats had been banned from hawking in the ‘streets’. Even when they are going to the high sea , they use paddle until they get out of the community.
“Our chief is a tough man. If he catches you, there will be trouble. There are many children using canoe. You cannot just ‘drive’ anyhow.” Folorunsho said.
One Canoe per person
Despite the spirit of communality, canoes are one thing that community members don’t share. A canoe or two is parked outside each house as people park cars outside their homes on land.
“Nobody will borrow you his canoe. Everybody has his own. Some even have five. If you have many childrens you will like to give them their own canoe to move around. And you must keep your paddle very well. If you go out and park your canoe and leave the paddle inside, somebody may just take the canoe away. So you must take the paddle with you or put it somewhere else.
A carved boat is to this community what a Mercedes Benz is to the people on land. A small carved canoe costs N5000 and can last up to 20 years. A carved boat with an outboard engine is to this community what a Pajero Jeep is to the people on land. It is owned by the rich. Apart from carved boats, there are ones built from planks. They cost between N2 000 and N2500 and do not last more than about two years. A huge fishing boat of this type costs N10 000.
There is a common cemetery for burying people who do not wish, or are not rich enough to be taken to their original village. According to Folorunsho, the cemetery is a tiny island further down into the lagoon. But when the water level rises during raining season, the so called cemetery is submerged.
Consequently the lagoon has on occasions returned some dead bodies to their owners before the beer bottles used for the burial ceremonies are parked away.
The stench that wafts into the nostrils of commuters on the highways (waterways) in this community is incredible. It is a mixture of the murky smell of fresh fish, smoked fish and human waste.
In the densely populated Migbewen, human waste plops up beside your canoe now and again as you navigate the lagoon.
The reason is simple. The toilet system in the houses is the more original form of water closet (WC), whereby you squat on a platform and do the business directly into the water below.
Five minutes of navigation on this brownish water fills your mouth with saliva, but the residents find nothing wrong with it. A child not more than ten was even sighted doing a backstroke in the evil-looking water beside their house while his parents look on.
“How often do people fall sick here?, one asked.
“Oh we are very strong people. We don’t fall sick. But we have many hospitals and clinics. I will take you to the biggest one. But you are only going to find pregnant women there waiting to deliver. People don’t fall sick here” Folorunsho said proudly. But that’s a shock because if normal people were to have a dip in the evil smelling water in the community, they are sure to land on their back in a hospital, being treated for a combination of cholera, stomach disorder and respiratory and urinary tract infections.
Friendly people
Whatever their problem, these amphibious Lagosians are generally friendly and easy-going. They greeted the Saturday Tribune crew with smiles and took no exception to their pictures being taken. Some of the children even shouted that their pictures should be taken. Most of them have not seen the four walls of a school. They speak pidgin and say sorry when they splash you water with their paddles or when their canoes bump into yours. There are only few lucky ones as Folorunsho who went as far as a secondary school before returning to the community to commence fishnet making, shoe cobbling and singing.
“I went to the high sea for fishing once and nearly died in an accident. Since then I’ve been doing other things. My ambition is to be a popular musician. I can rap in English and my dialect. I have a demo ready and hope to find a sponsor someday,” he concluded as he completed his task as a guide, bringing the canoe to a final stop at the saw-mill.
In another few minutes and with an unsolicited tip in his pocket, Folorunsho would happily row back to his community and his usual routine which he must faithfully maintain to keep his head above water until his big dream comes true.
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