…Where the lagoon is a blessing and a curse
Lawrence Enyoghasu; Vera Wisdom
The welcome sight to Ilaje is far from welcoming. A first timer would find it disheartening. Take a walk down Church Street, the major thoroughfare that bisects the community and the lagoon, and you would be shocked by the sight of swampy areas choked with garbage that leaves the atmosphere stinking with a serious gagging stench. You can glimpse human faeces in the putrefying mix of green alga and decaying household waste dumped indiscriminately into swampy places. The refuse piles and in time hardens into sediments that solidify into dry land. That is the method the community uses to reclaim a significant part of the solid land on which their houses are built.
Abandoned run-down houses here and there accentuate the pervading aura of desolation. One house carries the notice “Pumping machine for rent.” A nearby flooded building provides the answer to the riddle. Overall, the first impression of Ilaje is of a forsaken neighbourhood.
Home of poverty
Ilaje fits the Western world’s image of a Third World poverty-stricken community. Located east of the Lagos lagoon, below the Third Mainland Bridge, and sandwiched between Akoka and Bariga end of the Lagos mainland, Ilaje meets the description of the word slum. Rich in squalor, densely populated, characterised by hovels and all sorts of substandard housings, dirt-poor economy, skyrocketing HIV prevalence, an absence of potable water––in all ramifications, the enclave is grossly representative of the sordid underbelly of an overpopulated Lagos with a glaring infrastructural deficit.
A walk through the streets––Bamiji Lawal, Araromi, Oyenaiye, Ayoola, Odelana, Alhaji Alimi, Ogbere and others––conveys a sense of precarious existence. Nowhere else is the maxim “life is a risk” truer than in this locality that is perennially under the threat of flood from the lagoon, such that at high tides, homes are submerged, and when the flood ebbs, the residual pools around homes are breeding ponds for mosquitoes that put the community at the risk of a never-ending malaria plague.
What they call homes are dreadful structures made mostly of woods. The foundations––of single straight woods––embedded in the lagoon, hoist the ground floor of the building a few feet above the water.
Typically, houses were built close to the water, until the prohibition by the state government of houses near a body of water, now forces them to build houses of bricks and cement blocks.
The aged and the unemployed dominate Ilaje’s demography. Worse still, most of those who boast of employment are engaged in unskilled, transient work, predominantly, clearing of construction sites and haulage services. Even the fishermen among them do not fare any better. Several months of the year, when fishing haul dwindles, they are unproductive and out of work and therefore cannot provide for their families. Others dabble in commercial transportation, eking a living as Danfo (bus) drivers and conductors with a few diversifying into operating Okada (motorcycle) and Keke Marwa (tricycle). You are likely to find someone from Ilaje taking up the kind of menial jobs most Lagosians reject. Sadly, the community also has a flood of children. Nearly every house has at least 10 young ones.
Ilaje is not occupied by indigenes alone. As a haven for all that has no hope, its legion of inhabitants is drawn from near and far––as far as Benin Republic, Togo, and Ghana. However, it is generally recognized as the abode of families who deal in fish business, and they firmly stamped their presence on the communities with their fishing activities. Any time of the day, the air is choky with smoking fish cloud that oozes from various parts of the community. Women, young and old, with bare, black, sweaty skins, can be seen busily turning the fish on the mesh over the fire, seemingly immune to the fumes that make other residents cough or bring tears to their eyes.
In Ilaje, a piece of dry land is more precious than gold. This much Saturday Sun gathered during the visit to the community, that a piece of land is scarce, coveted and obtained at great trouble.
John Ajeigbe, who had lived in the neighbourhood for 28 years, spoke of how difficult it is to get a piece of land in the area, drawing from his own travail.
Ajeigbe, one of the community’s senior citizens, avowed that he spent all he had to get what is now legally his.
“The problem this place had from the beginning was government’s demolition of peoples’ houses. I once left because I was a poor man and the small money I had, I didn’t want to build with it and see my effort demolished. If they do that, where do I get money to build another one? So I left. But in 1957, a woman who was a member of my church, encouraged me to come back, that the demolition was over.”
According to him, he, the woman (now deceased) and another man he identified simply as Ojekale living in the next street, were “the pioneer of this place.”
We started the struggle, he claimed. “We came to the realization that if we were to remain here, we must do the regularization process for our properties. Today, some of us have done it; others are yet to do theirs.”
That property regularization turned out easier said than done. The process, started by Ajeigbe in 1993, was concluded 25 years later on January 3, 2018, when he eventually got his Certificate of Occupancy at the cost of one million naira.
Said he: “By 2000, I was given assessment but I couldn’t pay because of the huge sum of money involved and, also, by then, I was ill. I had to start the assessment afresh in 2010 since the previous one was discredited. They gave me another assessment form worth one million naira. I paid and got it done but had to battle them for years to get my document released. It was this year’s January they finally gave me my C of O.” For all his trouble, what he got was a lease “for 99 years,” he grumbled.
A neighbourhood of classes
In the slum of Ilaje, the Marxist order prevails as the community is divided into upper and lower classes. While the upper class is dominantly the indigenes, the lower class is categorised by outsiders.
The prevailing social class distinction has easy telltales. Houses with electric wire connections belong to someone in the upper crust. Those in the lower class illuminate their homes with lamps and torches.
There is also distinction by school. Offspring of the lower class attend schools built of makeshift structure inside the maze-like streets. One of such is Lyliland Nursery and Primary School, built right on the edge of the gutter.
Saturday Sun approached a man, who later refers to himself as Mr Mathew. He stands in the doorway of the one-class school, reeking of marijuana. Behind him, pupils are learning how to spell five-letter words with a few examples on the blackboard. Steal. Thief. Fight.
Matthew, noticing the reporters peeping into his classroom, grows defensive and growls at them. But as soon as they inform him they are seeking accommodation in the area, he turns from a teacher to an agent in the blink of an eye.
“There is house here. It will cost you N1000 if you want a ready-built house, and N500 for empty land you can build upon. Don’t worry about getting a good place, I am an agent, the school is my brother’s,” he states.
In contrast, children of the upper class are privileged to attend a better school––Hope Vision Children where they pay at least N3, 000 per term and claim is affiliated to Corona Schools. The reporters’ visit coincides with the day Corona Schools donated a set of 100 study chairs and tables to the school.
By their houses, thou shalt know them; in this wise, Ilaje’s well-to-do families inhabit brick houses. The lower class, living in shacks, wake at dawn when they can use the cloak of darkness to take their bath. They use the time to go to the toilet, otherwise, when its daylight, they would have to make the long trip to the lagoon coastline to defecate. Some even defecate inside their houses, pack it up and dispatch it when they go into the lagoon or the ocean, claims a resident.
As per source of living, the lower class lives off fishing. For many, fishing is a family occupation, as concisely captured by Ayode Poju, an Egun fisherman, who proclaims that fishing was his father’s job, and to roast fish was his wife and mother’s job. “I tell you that I will be supplying you the best of fish. I have experience in it and I be one of the best in this business. I also get good delivery system,” Poju brags in broken English.
The water dilemma
That they live close to the lagoon and the ocean hardly translate into any advantages. Apart from being a source of fish, the body of water around them has been a plague. It breeds diseases. Sometimes, it kills their loved ones, especially children.
Bose, a fish seller tells Saturday Sun when the ocean rages, the pain is more than the gains. “It might look like luck to you that we live close to nature but there is nothing blissful about it. The last time we had flood, we lost four children to the incident. Our parents did a lot of warning against the ocean why we were growing up.”
Their situation is like the tribulation captured in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge––“Water, water, everywhere, No any drop to drink.” Since the ocean could not provide good water, the help provided by Hon. Oluwatoyin Dahunsi––a four-tap-borehole––has turned to a burden. It has become a source of violence and intimidation.
“Akin that was in-charge of the tap has finished us,” says Ade Vyhutu, when asked about the condition of the borehole. “He beats our siblings and molests our girls. He has also asked us to be paying N100 per keg. The project was free. The generator that was supposed to be a backup power has been sold or personalized.”
Thuggery is another problem that smoulders in the community. Violence––or fight as written on the blackboard of Lyliland School––is a way of life and sharpens every community member’s sense of survival. And incidentally, survival is the excuse for the community’s herd of the unemployed proclivity for the quick-money syndrome. Baba Are Adeleke agrees the community has a lot to do to change the orientation of those that have questionable characters. “We try as much as possible to curb much of their excesses and we are getting there. They are not totally thieves but merely persons that can do anything to survive.”
Life goes on
The hopelessness or helplessness of the people of Ilaje is better understood in light of how they have survived this far. The patriarch John Ajeigbe provides an insight: “We have only one healthcare centre here, by the market. We have UNICEF to thank for that. Most of the electricity materials were bought by us; we called the authority to fix them for us and we paid them for the connection.”
In spite of its depressing atmosphere and bleak prospect, Ilaje has its jolly side and its residents have a way of keeping their spirit high. For instance, children, who are mostly boys, take to a local snooker game.
The youngsters also indulge in betting and are increasingly adopting it as a legit means of earning money. After placing their bets, they head into a viewing centre on Bamidele Lawal Street to watch the games, and the next few hours is characterised by jokes, jeers and jollifications.
As for those with no interest in betting or soccer, a few drinking joints is at hand to raise their moods. Anyone who visits during these moments of jollification will have to admit that “there is life here.”