“Hypocrisy abhors in others, what we excuse in ourselves.”
I don’t remember the first time I heard the quote above or where I did but it first made an appearance on my Twitter feed in April 2013. In that time, it has informed one of the filters through which I make sense of the world. The same people who tell you “Africa is not a country” are mute when Davido and Burna Boy go on American radio and talk of “representing Africa”. In the case of any confusion, that’s the same Africa that is not a country and is home to about 54 countries. This lack of self-awareness is reflected in Makoko: The Floating Slum, a documentary anchored by Reggie Akingbade and produced by Debo J Films. A Nigerian man wearing a colonial hat and a foreign sounding accent went to one of the most symbolic slums in Nigeria’s most populous city and opens the documentary with 5,000 naira gifts and food hand outs. Is this really far removed from Yes Julz’s use of poor Ugandan kids as a prop for her messiah complex?
Makoko is one of the biggest content farms in the developing world. Its existence in a direct line to the skyscrapers that mark the hub of Lagos’ commercial activity gives it a unique sense of symbolism. Its very existence being based on water also adds to its novelty factor. With that context, it’s not surprising that it features so much in contemporary culture. That said, the themes that have resonated from that have been very similar. They largely focus on the extreme deprivation of its inhabitants and this documentary falls into this trap. The project is pitched as Akingbade “immersing himself in a community stricken with poverty, poor sanitation, and other human basic needs, while investigating what it’s like to live in the Floating Slum.” To call this an “immersion” is hyperbolic, in the least. The closest thing to an immersion comes at the laughable but well-intentioned attempt at fishing. There is no rapport between the subjects and the narrator and while this shines all through, it is best reflected in the disjointed questioning- the narrator speaks in English while the subjects respond in Yoruba. The distance is also embodied by the closing exchange in which the Baale asks for Akingbade’s name and requests that he come back. From the outside looking in, it looks like an IJGB turned up with his camera crew, got all the footage he could and ran off.
Typically, documentaries are predicated on socio-historic value. Aesthetic value is often an added bonus. However, in Makoko: The Floating Slum, like pretty much everything coming out of Nollywood right now the aesthetic value is its only redeeming feature. Considering what this is- a documentation of one of the world’s most impoverished communities, this is largely inconsequential. To the larger point about the socio-historic value, the documentary does not really enlighten anyone with a passing interest in Lagos’ geography and the knowledge that Nigeria is the world’s poverty capital. In that way, it takes the easy route. The Makoko community is one the Lagos State government has gone great lengths to erase. For instance, in 2012 the Babatunde Fashola led administration sought to demolish the community on the basis that per the BBC it constituted an “environmental nuisance, security risk and an impediment to the economic and gainful utilization of the waterfront” and undermined the “megacity status” of Lagos. In 2018, residents of the community protested to Governor Ambode over the “invasion of their community by some men of the Nigerian Police Force and the Lagos State Task Force”. There are greater and more timely stories to be told about Makoko than the poverty porn showreel we’re subjected to. This story required deeper thought than its production team delivered.
In fairness to Akingbade and Producer, Debo Johnson, the subject matter is one which carries a degree of complexity. With that in mind, a simpler topic would have been more appropriate for their debut in this format. A lot of avoidable missteps were made ranging from starting the documentary with the lens clearly focused on their philanthropy which leaves a bad taste in the mouth to Akingbade’s incredibly tone deaf and cringe-worthy one-liners like “It’s as if you’re having a BBQ at home” and asking the couple on their 4th kid “Why do you keep having children when you can’t afford to put them in education?”
Photo Credit: USA Today