Life in Lagos: Building the City, One Bucket at a Time

Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.

Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.

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Fixers are local guides for journalists and photographers. They might also translate, sometimes they drive, many act as security advisers. My fixer in Lagos, Nigeria, is also a great friend. We would go everywhere together. He refused to come sailing though. It wasn’t his aversion to the brackish water of Lagos Lagoon; it was more the rickety boat in which we would be floating. He wasn’t convinced it would survive the voyage.

The muscular, half-naked men sailing the dozen or so vessels moored in a corner of Lagos Lagoon were, like their boats, a little rough around the edges. Many of them were immigrants to the city, living in squalor in poor neighborhoods, hardened by their time in a tough city full of ambitious Africans eager to “make it.” Meeting these men reaffirmed my fixer’s fears—he would wait for me onshore.

Lagos is Africa’s biggest city and it’s getting bigger every day, with thousands from around Nigeria and West Africa moving here in search of a better life. This ever expanding population is continually pushing at the edges of the city, and Lagos is spreading upward and outward, unfurling over Nigeria’s map.

You can’t have a concrete jungle without concrete. And that is why we were going sailing.

Most of the sand for the concrete used in expanding Lagos comes from the bottom of Lagos Lagoon. Those rough sailors on those rickety boats are actually miners. The sand diggers, as they’re known, are like many of the miners I’ve seen around the continent—physically impressive, doing exhausting, dangerous work for a pittance. The only difference is that instead of mining underground, these men mine underwater.

The sand diggers are a crucial part of the city’s boom and growth. Early every morning they are tugged out into the lagoon. They lower ladders from their boats, 13 to 16 feet down to the lagoon bed, take a deep breath, dive down to the bottom, fill a bucket of sand, then haul it up the ladder and tip it into the hull.

The day I joined the sand diggers the lagoon, thankfully, was still. The only sounds were the water lapping against the hull, the diggers’ deep breathing as they prepared to go under, and their gasping for air as they came up. After the too-loud streets of Lagos, the calm was refreshing.

The athleticism of the men was impressive. The way they balanced on narrow planks that crossed the hulls of their vessel was almost graceful. When, after several hours of exhausting diving and digging, their vessels are weighed down to the point where the sea is almost level with top of the boat, they sail back to shore. The planks over the hull constructed the frame of the sail. The sails themselves were a patchwork of unstitched rice sacks. How they used these rough materials to propel the sand-laden boat was beyond me. We were weighed down so much that the waves came perilously close to washing into the hull.

As we headed toward shore, the weather turned against us and the waves became bigger. The brief reprieve of calm had passed, as if reminding us that we were still in Lagos; there’s not much space or time for tranquility in this forever buzzing city.

In the afternoons, from the Third Mainland Bridge that joins Lagos Island to mainland Lagos, I’d see dozens of sailing boats being pushed toward shore by the prevailing winds. From that distance they were a curious and beautiful sight.

We arrived onshore, where a different set of men were ready to take over. They balance large, weaved baskets piled with sand on top of their heads and bring the heavy cargo, one basket at a time, onshore. From there, it is sold to builders and developers constructing Africa’s megacity.

Dried out from the return journey, the sailors retire, exhausted, to their home or a local bar. The next day they would start again to mine the bed of Lagos Lagoon, doing their part to grow Africa’s biggest metropolis.

In a city with such wealth, it is astonishing to think that the materials to construct it could be gathered in such a labor-intensive way. But while Lagos is wealthy, there is an enormous gap between the rich and poor. Unemployment is high, and unskilled Nigerians pour into the city every day searching for work. They are willing to work hard to get by and none work as hard as the sand diggers. Some end up doing this work for many years, but most do not view this backbreaking labor as a career. They’re digging their way out of poverty in the hope that the sand they work so hard to collect will one day not be for someone else’s house, but for their own.

Read Hammond’s other blog posts on Proof, covering Nigeria’s Fashion Week, the rising African middle class, the upstart Nollywood film industry, and
the roar of big religion.

See more of Hammond’s photos from Lagos, including a gallery of portraits, in the National Geographic story “Africa’s First City.”

*****

Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk.

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