• PROOF:
  • January 9, 2015

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

Author
Robin Hammond

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.

*****

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.

Much of the sand pulled from the Lagos Lagoon is dug by hand. Sand miners dive 13-16 feet to the bottom of the lagoon and fill the boats one bucket at a time.
Much of the sand pulled from the Lagos Lagoon is dug by hand. Sand miners dive 13 to 16 feet to the bottom of the lagoon and fill the boats one bucket at a time.

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.

Sand dug from the seafloor of Lagos Lagoon is being used to reclaim land and to make the concrete blocks that many of the city's houses are made from.
Sand dug from the seafloor of Lagos Lagoon is being used to reclaim land and to make the concrete blocks that many of the city’s houses are made from.

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 boats are powered by wind and propelled with sails made of rice sacks.
The boats are powered by wind and propelled with sails made of rice sacks.

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.

The high-rise buildings of Lagos Island’s business district rise above the Third Mainland Bridge and the slum and sawmill district of Ebutte Metta (foreground).
The high-rise buildings of Lagos Island’s business district rise above the Third Mainland Bridge and the slum and sawmill district of Ebutte Metta (foreground).

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.

Men meet the boats and carry the sand onshore, one heavy basket at a time. The sand is then sold to builders and developers who are constructing the new Lagos.
Men meet the boats and carry the sand onshore, one heavy basket at a time. The sand is then sold to builders and developers who are constructing the new Lagos.

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.

There are 25 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Charles Saliba
    January 28, 2015

    To answerTheo Ewoluwa if there is a possible solution to remove sand from a fever or ocean bed. The answer is a powerful vacuum or dredge conveyor. It has been done by this method for hundreds of years.

  2. Ayodele
    January 22, 2015

    Love the interpretation of this concept, of course Lagos is a fast developing capital city. Hope to be able to collaborate with you someday.

  3. Marcy
    January 21, 2015

    I have a project I want to come to life to help people in this and similar countries faced with the same challenges. My blocks made of sand are a third or less of the cost of concrete and a community could own there own mill. It also produces a sliver of the fraction of pollution and requires no electricity. To help my project receive attention for funding please have a look here http://startgarden.com/ideas/detail/the-solarblock

  4. andreea
    January 19, 2015

    Waw i al so lucky

  5. Mordi
    January 16, 2015

    Fantastic pictures; very beautiful, & a moving story. That said, if you had taken a trip to the other end of the Lagos Lagoon, you would have seen a lot of mechanical dredgers at work, excavating massive volumes of sand. That’s where “most” of the sand that is building Lagos, comes from. It just isn’t possible for manual labour to generate that much volume, for industrial scale construction. Still, Nice article.

  6. Brian Bradford Nelsen
    January 14, 2015

    Thank – You for reminding me how being a “poor”. American Isn’t such a bad thing.My meager life looks pretty good after seeing what hard work truly entails.

  7. Courtney Tudor
    January 12, 2015

    The photographs are so powerful and descriptive that words although helpful are not necessary. The best I
    have viewed in this Proof collection. Continue to tell your stories! Bravo!

  8. Kristine Dear
    January 12, 2015

    Your article was very interesting and the photos superb! As a photographer, myself, I was drawn into the story which you captured very strikingly! Good job!

  9. Justin Tatel
    January 11, 2015

    I have to be periodically reminded of how good we have it here in the so-called ‘First World’.

    I wonder if there will ever be a time when there will be equality for all.

  10. Jeff McAllister
    January 11, 2015

    I agree with so many other commenters here, these dispatches have been as fascinating as they are stunning. My curiosity in Lagos was sparked after reading Will Ferguson’s brilliant 419 and this series only continues to surprise me. Hopefully your posts will continue to rebrand the ‘Western’ view of Africa as an ambitious, bourgeoning place, and this story will act as a counter-balance of all the violence current taking place at the hand of Boko Haram further East.

  11. Jonathan Bornman
    January 11, 2015

    Thank you for this fantastic article! I’m A fan of working sailboats and a regular visitor to Africa. Earlier this year I was in Portharcourt and spent the afternoon with a welder who builds massive diesel powered sand dredges. I assume that Most of the construction sand in Lagos comes from dredges. But like everywhere in Africa modern and medieval co-exist. I admire the young men working these sailboats, their courage is amazing!

  12. Brian
    January 11, 2015

    Simply amazing

  13. Robin Hammond
    January 10, 2015

    Thank you all for your comments. I’ve never seen people work harder for their daily bread. I think Dickens would have have a field day in Lagos Kevin. Lagos is often sited as the richest city on the continent, but on some tables it is ranked as the third most unequal (by income) in the world. A tough city, but one viewed with life changing opportunity by many.

  14. Tunde Salman
    January 10, 2015

    It is a nice write up, but sound over simplification to assume that’s how sand for building Lagos obtained.

  15. mbryan0027
    January 10, 2015

    they will shoreline land mass

  16. Theo Ewoluwa
    January 10, 2015

    I wonder if some potable dredging device cheap enough to gain their attention can be found or contrived.

  17. olakunle oladipo
    January 10, 2015

    An eye opener.

  18. meeta laxman
    January 10, 2015

    Absolute unorganized labour work. Absolutely exploited industry.

  19. sujan
    January 10, 2015

    Can you please weigh one basket like this? I wonder how heavy this is

  20. Paul
    January 10, 2015

    I doubt if 3 of me could carry that basket of sand. Maybe the next generation will benefit from the strength & sacrifice of these men.

  21. farid masoumi
    January 10, 2015

    Great,,,,!!!!!!! Grasias me gusta mucho

  22. Sherrill Danebroek
    January 10, 2015

    Great photo’s. But what a shame that such strong men should have to earn so little for the hard work they do. Wealth is indeed unequally divided , in the world. Nothing wrong with the ricesack sails though, thats recycling, here in Europe it would be called ‘Art’. Very good that you show and share you’re experiences with the world.

  23. Michael A Brouwer
    January 10, 2015

    As a street photographer in Detroit, Michigan I aim to bring public awareness to the everyday troubles and challenges. Your work is inspirational that I can send a message….make an impact. We are storytellers…

  24. Satarupa Bose
    January 9, 2015

    Lagos is increasingly becoming the face of Africa giving it a new identity.

  25. Kevin
    January 9, 2015

    I’m following your dispatches with keen interest. I wonder if Lagos isn’t a modern reincarnation of Dickensian London with its vicious social inequality. Fantastic photos. Every one a story in itself.

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