UN Habitat

What's In A Name? That Which We Call Makoko.

In this article, Noah Shemede - spokesperson, youth leader and founder of  Whanyinna School - tells us about the history of the infamous fishing village, Makoko, and the story behind its name. 

By Tobi

When driving on the stretch of Third Mainland Bridge, it is impossible to miss the brown and red thatched stilted structures that pixelate the ‘perfect’ Lagos landscape. More energetic than whimsical, it doubles as a photographer’s dream and way of life, with locals casting fishing nets on one end, and in adjacent, a thriving timber industry. Makoko, or the ‘Venice of Africa’ as popularly referred to, is home to approximately 100,000 - 300,000 people. 

If not garnering attention through empathy tourism, Makoko can be found caught in the controversial web of urban development and internal displacement. The historic fishing community is often eclipsed by its lack of government presence, service provision and hygiene - and understandably so. On visiting the community with Noah Shemede, however, I was more intrigued about the story behind the story — one of its culture and the evolution of the waterfront.

The first time our forefathers came to the community, they were fishermen, and as fishermen they normally move around to various areas. You can hear about Falomo — Falomo means Fawedomo* in [Egun]. It is our forefathers that [first] settled down there.

Welcome On Board, Yavo!

Yavo is francophone for foreigner - equivalent to Oyinbo in Yoruba. 

Formed in the 18th century, Maroko was initially a temporary settlement for migrants from Badagry and other riverine regions that border Lagos. The maritime nature of Lagos, in addition to the influences of the Awori (Yorubas) and Portuguese had paved the way for fishing as a lucrative business; leading men like Shemede’s grandfather to settle in Falomo, Mekwen and then Makoko:

Our forefathers migrated from Badagry to this village. It was initially bushy, and they built [it] on stilts. They hadn’t come with their wives; they would catch fish and take [the fish] close to [the] land to sell for the Yorubas and Igbos.

Years later, the rest of the men’s families migrated gradually to what was previously called ‘Eko’ - today’s Lagos. On land were the Yorubas, Igbos, Hausas and Ishekiris - a potpourri of cultures spread across two communities: Sogonru and Apollo. The waterfront - ethnically dominated by the Eguns, Ijaws and Ilajes - has since sprouted into sub-villages of Adogbo, Yanshiwhe, Migbewhe and Oko Agbon

Sitting and listening to Shemede, I could not help but notice as the sea mirrored the women’s vibrant attires. The women informally sold household items in their boats, while awaiting the men to return with the catch of the day. These women of Makoko, since arrival, continue to play an active role in the value chain of the fishing industry that now accounts for the majority of Lagos’ supply of fish — they clean and smoke the catch, and then sell.

Heritage: Somethin’ Money Can’t Buy

As with the many other faces slums wear, Makoko is commonly characterised by non-state governance. Though now more of a function of exclusion, self governance was, in fact, the norm prior to colonialism. In the case of Makoko, self governance is often mistaken as violent system with ‘puffed up gangs’ in control. This fishing community is, however, governed traditionally by four chiefs or Baales — serving as the jury and judicature of the aforementioned villages in Makoko ‘waterside’.

If anybody commits a crime or an adultery, they will catch the person; They will put him, like this kind of big boat; they will just tie him down there. Everybody will be beating drum[s], shouting his name…They will chase him [away] from the community. That process is what they called ‘Mahoho!’
… [Thereafter] if people on land are coming to buy fish, they will be telling themselves that they are coming to where they are doing Mahoho. That Mahoho is what they now turned to Makoko. Makoko was derived from the name Mahoho!

Who would have known that the name 'Makoko' was coined from Mahoho - a traditional ceremony!  Schemede revealing the story behind the name makes one realise how, too often a time, the beauty and cultural heritage of such communities are overshadowed by the negative attention they receive. A name for one, could mean a thousand things, or tell a thousand stories. For the people of Makoko, their culture of waterside living - though a perpetual nightmare to the government - is symbolic, and economically relevant to the Lagos story.

*If Fawedomo has been spelt wrongly in this article, please feel free to leave the right spelling the comments below, or send an email to us at info@thebookbanque.com.