Education on Watery streets. There are some things that are better learned by personal experience than by stories we hear from other persons. However, it is also true that we do not desire to learn or experientially learn everything. There are things we would rather hear about, and others we prefer not to learn of at all. We choose to be willfully blind to certain things so as to maintain our aloofness from the glaring realities around us. Our choices of what realities to be open to, or immerse ourselves in, demarcate the boundaries of our willingness, readiness and availability to intervene in dire situations.
There are lessons that remain indelible in our minds and are scarcely eroded by the passage of time. One of such lessons for this writer was learned on a trip to oilfield communities in the Niger Delta in the late 1990s, organized by Oilwatch International as part of a cultural exchange between friends from Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. It was a long and tortuous trip made on foot, by bus and by boats. We were thoroughly trashed by bumpy, dusty, muddy and broken roads. At a time the bus ride was so bumpy we had to individually decide whether it was better to endure the ride standing up or sitting down. At the end of the bus ride, which literally was the end of the unpaved road, we were glad to place our feet on solid ground.
Have you ever been in a community where children pay school fees on a daily basis? Can you imagine that a child has to pay 50 (fifty) Naira daily to be able to sit in classroom to learn? Can you also imagine that because of the difficulty of raising 50 Naira on a daily basis, many children are out of school and others can only afford to go to school on a certain number of days per week as their parents can afford to pay the fee?
That was not our destination for the day. We pressed on, but this time by boat. It was already dark and the creek ahead of us presented a foreboding picture of an uncanny mystery. As paddles plowed through the dark waters, a guide held a paraffin lantern to ensure we didn’t make a wrong turn and to assure us that we were on the right path. Verdant boughs formed canopies over the creek at some points, mangroves provided staging platforms for frogs and other active contributors to that hum and chime that arises from rich ecosystems. Were they singing for joy or where these sounds plaintive whelps for help? Soon we saw flickering lights ahead of us and then we were at the village where we were to pass the night.
We were welcomed by joyful community folks who had prepared rooms for us in a guest house whose doors were barely hanging unto their hinges. The joy of the reception, the hot dinner and the beauty of the dark night were enough to erase any worries about dusty roads, muddy paths, doors that stayed ajar and mosquitoes that quickly assembled in uninvited orchestra. Before calling it a day or night, there was an assembly with community youths and leaders.
All these did not strike this writer as anything exceptional or out of this world. Having experienced the deprivations suffered by resource rich communities in various parts of Africa and others in the global south, and having been born and raised in another part of the Niger Delta, I was at home. Literally. What struck me was a statement made by a friend from a neighbouring country. He was absolutely aghast by what he saw. He was overwhelmed by the poverty, the neglect and the dire situations of the communities whose only access to energy was the polluting paraffin lamps or the roaring flames of gas flares a little way off. As we walked to our guest house that night, this friend declared that he would have become a revolutionary if he had been born in any place like the ones were were visiting. Before anyone could respond to our friend, a sage from Latin America answered, declaring that being a revolutionary is the inescapable path for anyone that is attentive the objective realities of his or her environment. Many years have passed and I have had to recall this episode on different occasions and in different ways, but the import remains fresh in my memory, proving light as we plow through the often spooky creeks of life.
That admonition comes alive whenever I visit Makoko communities in Lagos, the aspiring mega city and the economic capital of Nigeria. Understandably, many residents of Lagos do not even know where Makoko is, although it sits on the fringes of the Lagos Lagoon and is visible from the Third Mainland Bridge. The task of making it through the traffic on that bridge could actually keep motorists focused on the many stickers on the bumpers ahead of them other than to be distracted by a smog smothered community on the lips of the lagoon.
Makoko is home to over 100,000 Lagosians. It is made up of vibrant, thriving communities with a large number of the people living above water, moving on water and conducting their businesses on water. The housing here gives an indication of what residents of Lagos may resort to in adaptation to sea level rise and other impacts of climate change. The environment is clogged with plastic and other wastes pushing their way to the open lagoon and to the sea. Residents are weary of pollution tourists and others who are constantly going through the watery streets with cameras at the ready, clicking away at the exotic buildings and colourfully decorated boats.
Here is where some environmental and human rights activists have stood with the people, resisting the persistent attempts by property speculators who hide in the folds of the gowns of political leaders, and are working to demolish rather than upgrade these communities. Among activists that have stood by the communities are Felix Morka, the director of Social Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) and Betty Abah of Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection also known as CEE-HOPE. Their joy in working in these deprived communities must be fired by the conviction that the human spirit can thrive on solidarity and rise above the constricting realities of pervading neglect.
The streets of Makoko are clogged by boats piloted by kids, some probably as young as five years old. Others learn the skills splashing about in basins on the fetid waters. Their hope of having more schools in their communities were raised by the once iconic Floating School which had gained global attention but was knocked down by a storm and left the hapless kids watching as their dream was shattered and the debris floated away.
Have you ever been in a community where children pay school fees on a daily basis? Can you imagine that a child has to pay 50 (fifty) Naira daily to be able to sit in classroom to learn? Can you also imagine that because of the difficulty of raising 50 Naira on a daily basis, many children are out of school and others can only afford to go to school on a certain number of days per week as their parents can afford to pay the fee? You would be excused if you wring your hands or noses and snort that primary eduction is free. What options do children have in places where there are no public schools and only a handful of spaces are available in struggling private establishments? That is the reality in Makoko. That is the cry of the children of Makoko. What would be your response if you lived in this reality? Accommodation? Resistance? Transformation?