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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sprawling Lagos Forces Newcomers Into Lagoon

LAGOS, Nigeria -- "If I lived over there," said Jeremiah Faton, gesturing vaguely toward the skyscrapers across the lagoon here in West Africa's largest city, "where would I put my boat?"

Faton, 65, is a fisherman in Lagos. He lives on one of the countless islands in Lagos lagoon, trolling its murky waters with his dugout canoe during the fishing season, ferrying passengers to the mainland during the low season.

"Where would I fish?" he continued cheerfully to a visitor who had sought shelter from a cloudburst inside his shack and had asked him if he had ever considered moving to the mainland.

Rain rattled the zinc roof over Faton's two rooms erected on stilts, held together with clapboard and driftwood. Three girls giggled in the darkness of the main room, one of them carrying on her back a boy with glassy eyes. Cracks on the floor showed goats snuffling below the shack, lured by refuse the tide had left behind. A pig stood on a mound of garbage outside, triumphantly, somehow, as it scratched its belly with a leg.

Tens of thousands of people like Faton live in the shadows of Lagos, squatting on bridgeless islands or, sometimes, on the lagoon itself inside huts built on stilts. If the ever-widening ripples from Lagos and other cities are changing the rhythm of traditional rural life in Africa, Faton and the other inhabitants of the lagoon must surely rank among the most singular of urban migrants.

Nomadic fishermen, they have replicated their way of life in the unlikeliest of places: Lagos, the megalopolis whoseofficial population of 8 million is considered a gross underestimate. Lagos, the loud, harried, urban giant who heaves to life every morning, with the risk of collapsing under its own weight by noon.

Like many African cities, Lagos seems less a city than a cluster of villages inhabited by different ethnic groups, each clinging to its own way of life amid the most inhospitable of conditions.

In one corner of the lagoon, three fishing shantytowns rise above the stinking black water. A maze of raised flimsy planks, linking hundreds of shacks perched on stilts, rests on a cesspool. Children swim, bathe and play in the stagnant water. In the huts, women smoke fish inside large clay pots, as the burning smell wafts through one town called Makoko.

"It's our custom," said one man, Abraham Messou. "We build on water since we are fishermen."

As the setting sun cast an eerie orange glow on Makoko, the town sank under a haze from the smoked fish. Returning canoes passed under the Third Mainland Bridge, past an island where locals dig up clay for their pots and bury their dead infants. The boats entered the labyrinth, gliding on waters putrid from the day's wastes, continuing their Stygian descent into Makoko.

People were more prosperous in the next town, Sogunro Iwaya, where sections have been filled with land. Kids played at a pool table; others at a Nintendo running on the lone generator.

"We can say that Nigeria is like the France of Africa," said Pierre Kodja, 49, explaining that most of the townspeople were from the neighboring country of Benin. Kodja, a fisherman, tailor and traditional healer who had left Benin in 1977, was sitting in the courtyard of a house belonging to the chief, Moise Messou, and his brother Abraham.

In the 1950s, poor fishermen from Benin gravitated to Lagos lagoon, where they found more customers, they said. Over the years, more Beninese immigrants settled in the lagoon. Their lives have changed little from their village in Benin, so little that few today speak English, the official language of Nigeria, and many more understand French, the language of Benin's former rulers.

The town's one practitioner of Western medicine, Dr. Pierre Denakpo, walked up to the chief's house. He came from Benin 15 years ago to treat his own people here. The illnesses here never changed: diarrhea, malaria, cholera. Faton, the fisherman, said five of his 11 children had died over the years.

"I am returning to Benin next year," the doctor said.