How communities live on water?

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by Adun Okupe

Many things come to mind when I think of the word ‘intelligence’. At first thoughts, it almost always leads me to think of espionage:  Le Carrè’s works, Ian Fleming’s Bond, Christopher Nolan’s Inception : one must be able to think on one’s feet, adapt to changes and also have the ability to commit to memory substantial quantity of information, and the many exciting, alluring things that the industry of 007 has ensured we relate to ‘intelligence’ :  multi-lingual, well-built and well-dressed men and women, extremely fit and able to defeat limits of heights, speed and time.

I know intelligence is not always about espionage, there are other forms of intelligences, one of which is collective intelligence – how people come together to find solutions that allow them to meet their needs in the society. The pictures in the link below will tell the story of water dwellings in Makoko. What I find captivating about the Makoko story, as someone who grew up in Lagos, is that there are sometimes phenomena, ways of living around us, which we do not understand, and because we do not understand them, we cannot appreciate what they in totality. Again, perhaps it is just me, but I find the whole concept of architecture and planning in developing cities very engaging, not least because Lagos is a high-density mega-city renowned for its traffic jams and all the chaos that comes from living in a city with over 20 million dwellers that commute to the same location at the same time everyday – referring to the Lagos traffic and living condition as ‘disorganized chaos’ does not even begin to scratch the surface.

makoko in the city
Yet within such ‘chaos’, or apparent disorganization, the system works. Somehow it does, and nowhere is this more exemplified than in Makoko, Lagos’ water community. Kunlé Adeyemi of NLÉ works is doing some very interesting work in this community and I am enthusiastic. Not only does the community provide 33% of Lagos’ fish supply and a high proportion of its timber, but it is also the city’s cheapest dwellings. I find it fascinating that the houses are independently built on water, and the mode of transportation is by canoe. I mean think about it, you want to visit your neighbor 4 streets away, and so you ‘canoe’ away, which for Makoko’s residents must be as normal as getting into a car for those of us that are land-based. But then I think of what they cannot do. They cannot really take a walk down the street, but then, maybe this isn’t necessary to them or even considered as a ‘cannot’. Perhaps, to this community, taking a walk down the street is as alien as it is for me to go visit my friend via a canoe.
life in makoko
Now my mind boggles at the logistics of this – where do they park the canoes, how do they decide when to build, how to build, how to place the stilts in, I mean in Lagos, you hear of houses on land collapsing, so what technologies are in place to their structures stable? How do they make the most of sunlight? Electricity? How do they cook? Do they have ‘mansions’? Are there GRAs (Government Residential Areas) within the community? What about schools? What are their requirements from life, what are their career prospects? What are their thoughts on happiness, existence and life? Basically, how does one live on water permanently, in a developing country?

It seems so far away, but yet it is so close, especially at the realization that this is a community about 10 minutes drive from where I live! The fact that this community continues to exist after 100 years shows that there must be a way around this. A form of collective intelligence that goes into how the residents co-habit successfully, how they build, how they plan their dwellings, how they have adapted to their environment. I find it interesting and exciting. Excited to learn more about it, to understand it, and know how this intelligence can be replicated across the city in terms of intelligent and effective urban planning.

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This is intelligence!
Kunlé Adeyemi’s work  (

This article originally appeared on on the 5 November 2011. 
Images from NLÉ works

Adun Okupe is a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey. Her research is focused on understanding the leadership behaviour of senior executives in the airline industry, and explores how leaders learn from their experience to shape, modify and adapt to the needs of their environment.

 She holds a Masters in Globalization and Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London). Prior to this, she trained as a Chartered Accountant with KPMG, London. She has worked on several advisory projects in the tourism industry.

About FutureLagos

Olamide Udoma is a researcher, writer and filmmaker holding degrees in BSc Architecture, MA Design and MPhil Infrastructure Management. Olamide has worked in London, South Africa and Nigeria with various organisations focusing on transport management, slum upgrading and housing rights in urbanising African cities. At Our Future Cities NPO, she is the Lagos manager and editor.