A 2010 Reflection: Makoko on Water

As we slowly close in on the end of one of the most terrible years in many decades, I can’t help but feel a striking sense of hope and excitement for 2010.  Governments plod along as they normally do, trying to solve the world’s problems with all the nimbleness of an oil tanker — it can be depressing.  However, through working with N-Map, I have come into contact with two communities of incredibly energized people who are making enormous sacrifices to address these same problems.  They give me the confidence that 2010 will be better than 2009, and that the world will continue to move toward the day where everyone has the choice to pursue their dreams and live in dignity.

One of these groups is the Echoing Green community, and social entrepreneurs generally.  N-Map is incredibly lucky to be a part of this community.  It is easy to find people who are well intentioned — but all too often, people mistake good intentions for actually taking action.  The entrepreneurs who make up Echoing Green have all taken big risks to put their ideas to the test, to actually try to improve the lives of others.  Each and every one of them is committed, smart, skilled, flexible, and they take the responsibilities of social justice and entrepreneurship seriously.  They inspire me to calmly move through exhausting flights, cash flow scares, and the demoralizing moments that occur in the startup phase of every new company or organization.

The second of these groups is our clients, and the communities that they represent.  One such community stands out — the “slum” called Makoko on Water.  Makoko is an old town in the middle of Lagos that exists entirely above the surface of the Lagos lagoon.  300,000 people live their lives entirely on the water.   Their homes are built on stilts above the lagoon, their culture is based upon fish: catching, smoking, eating, and selling it; their commerce occurs on water, their education occurs on water, and even young children are adept at navigating the complex canals of the town, as well as the open lagoon.

It is a beautiful place.  However, it is constantly threatened, as the Lagos government makes moves to destroy it on the grounds that it is an illegal or informal settlement, and that it poses a public health risk.  Many in the government hope to build expensive houses and boat marinas along the lagoonside where Makoko currently sits and floats.  But they fight, day and night to protect their town, with help from our client, SERAC.

Makoko hit me hard.  Being there — getting lost in the maze of houses and floating platforms, talking to its people — made me realize that magic still exists in the world.  It reminded me that the world can still be surprising, can still be beautiful, even in places like Lagos, which people assume are wretched and ugly.   It reminded me that strong, committed, and creative people can thrive, even in places that everyone dismisses as poor.

Makoko is the future of Africa, and the world.  Makoko, despite the uncertainty of its survival, seems far more durable than the political parties and banks that have been so destructive in recent years.  It is through this kind of strong, vibrant, and creative community that Africa’s — and the word’s — best future lies.   It is naive to believe otherwise.

Happy new year.

More pictures of Makoko below the fold.

The Chief (Bale) of Makoko on Water

Ben Gets Some Help Shooting in Makoko

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