As a photographer, I feel there is a major disconnect between the content of luxury lives which I put on my social media pages, and the actual reality of the larger populace. This is the reason why I made a mental decision to volunteer for worthwhile projects that connected with the common man.
During one of my rare scrolls on twitter, I came across this tweet requesting for volunteers to work on a project to clean up and feed people in the slums of Lagos; starting with Makoko. To my surprise, the project was led by my friend and brother, Folabi Nuel. After reading through the project’s brief, it was a no brainer for me to join the team and contribute my quota by documenting the work done through images. The project is called ‘Building Together’. Folabi calls it his #LoveProject.
The day of the Makoko Clean Up was set for April 29, 2017. A large part of the team assembled and left from The LifePointe Church, Lekki. In a convoy of cars, we arrived at Makoko less than an hour later. On arrival, we were told that we had to see the Baale (local chief) of the area (The Ilaje Community), before we commence work. Off we went, excited to see the Baale; an elderly man, with a deep and commanding voice. He was friendly in his exchange of pleasantries with the team.
The team lead explained the reason for our visit to the community, and after his talk, the Baale looked at him said ‘Oya do the right thing’.
Blank stares everywhere.
Edakun (please), what is the right thing?
Knowing my man Folabi, I knew he was clueless on what the Baale meant. Honestly, I had no idea myself. Realising we didn’t understand what the Baale meant, one of the Baale’s boys said we should put money in an envelope, and buy the Baale schnapps (alcoholic wine).
Well for me, I had a double reaction to this. First, this is Africa, so I’m not surprised that every opportunity, no matter how minute, is a chance to demand for financial favours. Second, it bothered me deeply that we had to pay the Baale to help his community – a suffering one that is a state of squalor.
“As far as I know, the Makoko community is one of the most documented slums in Africa, but for some strange reasons, nothing has changed there. My first visit to this community was in 2012.”
Almost got distracted! Yes, the reason we came to Makoko…
On the road side, right before we commenced the clean-up, there was a short prayer session. The team was briefed on activities and safety precautions. Gloves and surgical mask were handed out; I wondered what they were for. Hey, we were not about to conduct surgical operations right?
Off we went picking refuse. The trash bags filled out quickly, sweaty people everywhere, and right at a certain turn, we were welcomed by this foul smelling drainage. Aha! The masks provided then made sense.
Remember, I wasn’t participating in the actual activities; I had my camera, and was taking pictures, as per documentary photographer. Holding a camera and hiding behind a lens sometimes feels just like an avenue to dodge doing the actual work. (I don’t underestimate the work I do as a photographer)
After about 30 minutes of picking dirt, a team member said, ‘Oh it seems the dirt goes all the way down’. Makoko is partly reclaimed land from the Lagoon. Apparently this reclamation was done with plastic waste. At that point, another local corroborated this. He said the dirt is what keeps the land stable. His claim sounded plausible.
Anyway, one of the locals who took us to the Baale’s house beckoned to me that a team member needed my attention at the other side – a side I felt none of my team members should be on. In my mind, I’m like this is how they kidnap people o!
Instincts from all the Martial Art & Self Defense classes I took kicked in. I summoned courage, and followed the chap. One turn after the other, and deeper we went inside Makoko. I pulled out my phone from my pocket to call the team lead to inform him that I’m following someone. Then I remembered, pressing my phone will be a distraction if anything was about to go down. In the midst of all the thoughts flying through my head, one final turn, and voilà! Before me was this huge dumpsite of plastic waste with my friend Timileyin looking puzzled and staring into space like he had just received a revelation.
Obviously, I was relieved that this wasn’t a kidnap attempt. Wondering why he brought me out there, he explained that apparently based on account of the locals, the plastic waste is typically mixed with sawdust to reclaim the land from water. The science behind it is that plastic waste is non-biodegradable; it works as a binding agent and support for the sawdust, that is biodegradable. This mixture of materials makes the reclamation effort last longer.
Lesson learnt! The waste is good for them.
Or is it?
Finally I had two inspiring moments during the clean-up effort. First was this young boy, probably about 13 years old. He sat on the deck outside his home with his books. He kept on reading and taking notes throughout the time we spent there. His determination and will to study despite the environment and distractions, has been one of the most inspiring moments of my life.
Even in the limiting environment these kids grow, you can’t put a cap on their creativity and ability to create. When we were done, the kids picked the unused gloves left in the packs, blew air into them and turned them into balloons to play with. Never has such crossed my mind.
– The views expressed here are solely that of the author –