The women maneuvered their crude canoes down narrow alleys of brackish water. They dipped their paddles lightly, gliding slowly past scrap-built houses elevated on spindly sticks that held the structures just beyond the reach of the tide. Here and there a head popped out of one of the homes to check who or what was passing. In the small harbor where the women beached their boats, the shoreline was a work in progress. People were filling the shallows, tamping down layers of trash to reclaim solid ground from the murky brown. Nearby, under a thatched-roof pavilion on one of those pounded patches stolen from the sea, a woman lit a match and put it to a pile of wood chips and sawdust at her feet. A lazy haze of smoke rose into the dusty air.
Greetings from Makoko, one of the most notorious squatter communities in one of the most notorious cities of the world: Lagos, Nigeria—a metropolis caught in a vortex between modernity and misery. With hundreds of ATMs, scores of Internet centers and millions of mobile phones, this bustling, maddening, overjammed city of between eight million and 17 million (depending on where you draw the lines and who does the counting) is fully plugged into the global grid. A hyperentrepreneurial international trading center and the commercial capital of Africa’s most populous country, Lagos lures an estimated 600,000 new arrivals every year. Yet most neighborhoods, even some of the very best, have no water, no sewers and no electricity. Makoko—part on land, part hovering above the local lagoon—is one of the mega city’s most deprived communities.