Monday, May 14, 2007

A Sunday drive through Lagos

We stood amidst an empty lot in a busy but tranquil downtown Lagos neighbourhood. There were heaps of crumbled plaster, tattered clothing, old shoes and sneakers, empty water bottles and plastic bags, and the crumpled remains of small kitchen appliances. The lot was surrounded by a moat of sorts; actually it was a sewer full of garbage, and bubbling black liquid. A chicken and her chicks pecked away at garbage by the sewer's edge. Right beside the lot was a primary school; on this day they were doing English grammar lessons on benches outside. It was drizzling but the students were protected by an overhanging tin roof.

It was hard to believe that on a July evening last year, a four-storey apartment building collapsed on this site, killing 45 residents. It was not brought down by a fire or an earthquake. It collapsed because it was poorly constructed, though nobody new that until the day it simply gave way. The developer skipped town in the wake of the disaster and has not yet been found. The survivors have found new places to live, either on their own or with family and friends.

I was there with Sunday Aborisade, a reporter from a daily paper called The Punch. He was working on follow-up stories to last year's accident. The government had promised to do a number of things in response to the tragedy: erect a new building and provide compensation to the survivors, strengthen and enforce building codes, and knock down other buildings in the area that might also be unsafe. Sunday was checking with area residents to see what progress had been made on these promises.

We spoke with a man who lived beside one of the buildings that had been deemed unsafe. He ended up knocking it down himself because the owner had disappeared and the government was dragging its feet. He decided to do it himself to protect his family and his tenants. The government didn't plan to cover the costs of the demolition, though an official commended the man's initiative when we visited the planning and urban development department later in the day. He also told us that a committee had been formed to tackle the various issues related to the tragedy. Some had been acted on (stricter building codes had been adopted, 200 new enforcement officials had been hired) and some had not (work on the new building had not begun).

Working with reporters like Sunday always strengthens my faith in the power of journalism, whether it’s in Nigeria or Canada.

I met him at the Sheraton Hotel in an upscale part of the city. He was in a suit and tie, pressed and sweat-free, a difficult feat in a grimy, hot city like Lagos. I thought maybe we were going to a government press conference or maybe the courts, something that suited his dressy attire. No, he told me, we’re going to visit this building that had collapsed, killing nearly 50 people. The government had promised to help the survivors and prevent this happening again, and he said it was his job to check and see if they were keeping their promises.

He was full of enthusiasm for telling stories that impact the lives of ordinary people, something taught in journalism schools around the world but rare in the real world of journalism. We got caught in a traffic jam on the way to the site of the fallen building, so we had plenty of time to talk about the human interest stories he covered.

In traffic we were surrounded by hawkers trying to sell anything and everything to stalled motorists – toenail clippers, soft drinks, flashlights, meat pies, you name it. Sunday said he wrote a feature about them last year. He said the hawkers said it was a growing market; as the city grew more affluent and more populated people were trapped in longer and longer traffic jams. They had less time to shop and were a captive market. It was often more profitable than paying to rent a storefront in a crowded marketplace.

Further down the road we could see the waterfront of the Lagos Island in the distance. He said he had once gone down there to visit the small fishing villages. He wanted to learn more about their lives, to see if they were able to earn enough to support their families. As good reporters often do, he found another story while he was there. It turns that many people down on their luck in this very poor city try to kill themselves by jumping off a bridge into the water. Nearby fishermen are often there to pull them out before they die. Sunday found out the fishermen often took them to the hospital or nursed them back to health. The fishermen recorded the rescues in a log but did not report them to police because suicide is illegal and they didn’t want the survivors to be punished. Sunday was told that they saved up to 20 people a year. He said this story was important because it showed the generosity of the impoverished fishermen; he said it also showed that life was very hard for people here, and that they needed help. He said the politicians, giddy and optimistic from the country’s oil wealth, can forget that ordinary people are not all benefiting from the boom.

We drove across a bridge on the way to the department of planning and urban development. Sunday told me that last fall he began to feel a heavy vibration whenever he passed over the bridge. He called some structural engineers and asked them if there might be anything wrong. It was discovered that the bridge was indeed damaged and Sunday did a series of stories that led to structural repairs and a ban on heavy trucks.

Sunday is one of a rare breed of reporters. He is someone who has the ability to spot the interesting and important stories in everyday life, and the ability to make a difference by telling them.

He helped get a bridge repaired that, had it collapsed, could have killed a lot of people. I have no doubt that one day he'll be one of the reasons why the survivors of the collapsed building get a new place live, and other people in derelict buildings are moved before something tragic happens.

- Mark


Anonymous said...

Very nice story Mark. I am still in shock over that type of unsafe environment regarding housing and general commodities like road, bridges, etc.. that are the least to say well under the minimum safety standards. Later, Patrick

Anonymous said...

Oh boomer!!!. Gosh how ready I was to read some thrilling adventure. Jane…and….. Markzan….I mean… eh … Janet and Mark, racing through tunnels, dodging bullets, staring down the cat-cuddling clean-shaven oil-rich tycoon, and walla….. coming out clutching the billions of looted nairas and smiling for the cameras as they hand over the money to the gun-totting ‘rebels’ in the Niger delta; the later promsing to turn their guns into machetes and butcher knives and become dentists and philosophers. Kidding aside I greatly admire what you are doing. I wouldn’t say you are doing a unique thing. Heck, you guys don’t consider yourselves superheros. You are extanding a helping hand, rousing people from slumber, opening apertures and learning something about yourself in the process. Are’nt all these what we do out here in the Northern hemisphere everyday? Minus ‘lights out’, trotro rides, obroni calls, etc etc etc . See what I am getting at! You are superordinarily ordinary people. Does that make sense? Geez, for Pete’s sake! You are Canadians! You are supposed to understand the imponderable and keep your confusion to yourself!!!
Kwasi George

Anonymous said...

Mark, What a story, Hard to beleive buildings can be that unsafe.Thankgoodness for people like Sunday that really care. You are certainly meeting lots of good caring people like you two. Love, Mummy and Daddy