Tuesday, February 27, 2007

one squatter community's surprising position in global trade

Here's a story that might surprise some European fishermen: their catch is being processed in one of Lagos, Nigeria's most notorious shantytowns.

The squatter community of Makoko, home to perhaps 200,000 people, is most famous for its small riverside population. For almost 100 years, the people here have fished the local waters and have built their homes on stilts above the placid and increasingly polluted lagoon. Here, women paddle canoes between the houses, selling bread and cassava, candy and cloth, sodas and staple goods. Some even cruise the waters selling home-cooked meals.

Occasionally, one of the wooden homes looks like its on fire: smoke slides between the rough boards and billows out the windows. A closer look reveals that these seemingly burning buildings are local smokehouses. 50-year-old Ogun Dairo tells me that she's been smoking fish for better than 30 years. She purchases the fish from a local refrigerated warehouse that's also in Makoko, but on dry land. For all of the 30 years she's been in the business, she reports, the fish has been imported from Europe. She buys between five and seven large boxes of fish every day, then she smokes the catch (each fish has its tail stuck into its mouth, making it shaped like a ring) over a fire stoked with wood and sawdust (other Makoko merchants purchase the firewood and sawdust from nearby riverside sawmills and transport it to the community by canoe.)

Ogun Dairo sells the fish to retailers who work the streets and markets of Lagos.

There are many smokehouses like Ogun Dairo's scattered across Makoko. They are all buying European fish, proving that squatter communities like Makoko have long had a role to play in the global economy.


By the way, Ogun Dairo's fish tastes great: delicate rather than overpowering, and really refreshing in the Lagos heat.


Anonymous said...

Hi there Robert, I was just passing by and was wondering if you know the geographical location of Makoko? I can't seem to find a map anywhere...

rn said...

Hey Anon:

It seems that Lagos is quite literally not of this world when it comes to online mapping services. Time to dig out that wonderfully old-fashioned tool called an atlas. I don't have one at my disposal here and my Lagos street map doesn't feature latitude and longitude (and, indeed, doesn't even show which way is north!).

I can tell you that Makoko is on the mainland, perhaps a couple of kilometers up the coastline from Lagos Island. When you cross the Carter Bridge heading out from Lagos Island, you're in Ijora. As you journey along the lagoon, you go through the communities of Oyingbo and Ebute Meta before you hit Makoko.

For more accurate details, I'd suggest you visit your local library to see if they have a decent atlas with a reasonably detailed map of Lagos. I'll do the same when I get back to the states.