Part Five: Makoko MacGuyvering
Aaron and I spend the entire van ride trying to figure out a mount for the Ladybug that will work on a boat. We come up with nothing that we are confident will be steady enough to stay stable on a moving water vehicle. Except maybe my head. So we’ll bring the helmet. The TetraMic is once again too cumbersome to take, so I opt just to bring the Brahma. As the van bumps and crawls through weaving traffic, we repack so we’re down to 2 bags to be as mobile as possible.
From what we are told, no one from Lagos wants to go to Makoko. It is an ancient fishing village turned mega-slum on water where almost a quarter of a million people live. The people there have built thousands of shacks on stilts that only slightly rise above the black, polluted waters filled with trash and debris. Makoko has multiple gangs notorious for robbing people and shops, set fire to anything they see, and beating up or even murdering random innocent people. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I knew was that for safety reasons, we have to leave before 4pm, so we were up against the clock.
The first thing I notice when we open the van doors to the crowded streets that will lead to Makoko is the smell. You almost have to hold your breath until you acclimate. Decades of rotting filth streaming into our nostrils as we sling our fresh black backpacks over our shoulders and weave through open doorways and endless alleys. We meet up with people who can take us to the floating school.
The Makoko Floating School is a bold an innovate approach to solving several problems in the village: flooding, rapid urbanization, and education. The wooden structure that floats on plastic barrels was designed by Nigerian born architect, Kunle Adeyemi. This three-story school floating on air-filled soda bottles that is a communal gathering place and a school for the children of Makoko. Whereas their government has come in and razed hundreds of homes in this illegal settlement, the architectural community has endeavored to find ways to support the people.
The female permit officer, Mary, who has been our constant companion, takes my hand and doesn’t let go as we walk past old men crouched in corners and children no older than a year old sleeping alone on concrete passageways, swarmed with flies. These are the images we often see of Africa in American charity brochures and tv ads. It strikes me at that moment that these poster-children are likely completely unaware that they become the icons for raising millions of dollars – which they will never see. This are not what we are here to film; this is not the story we are trying to tell. Onward.
People shout “Yavo” (I’m told this means “white man”) at us from every direction, announcing our arrival. As we step out on to the wooden floors at the beginning of Makoko, we are surrounded by curious children shouting and waving at us. We take a left, a right, a right, a left and on and on until we stop near where canoes are so piled up in the passageway that they can’t move. This is where they want us to set up. Aaron is not taking out his camera here, but we start to put together a mount for the Ladybug. Within minutes there are so many children crowded around us that we can barely move. Aaron calls it off. We need a place where we have space to figure out a mount.
We decide we will go to the school first, create the mount and then come back. The canoes rotate and we walk, foot in front of foot, on a narrow rotting board out to a canoe with a “driver” awaiting. The guide asks us to put away our cameras as the canoe pushes off. This, the most depraved and desperate of their people, is not what they want outsiders to see. It’s not the story we want to tell either. The canoe pushes through narrow black waterways. On each side rise the shacks, crammed with children of all ages – and everyone waves and shouts “Yavo” at us as we pass by. Most wear no clothes or only a t-shirt. Without plumbing or running water, I see children defecate in the same water that their mothers wash dishes in.
Yet, amidst all this filth, this poverty, the little clothing that everyone wears seems to be immaculately clean and the smiles that they share are abundantly joyful. As the children wave eagerly at us, we wave back hello. The younger children are elated and sometimes shy; the older ones are more skeptical and curious. The human exchange of energy is invigorating and exciting. I wish my son was here to share this moment with these kids.
The waterways get wider and wider. Once we reach the mouth of the community, we see the bright blue roof iconically standing out. Behind us are the crowded polluted waterways, ahead of us the floating school rises out in the distance like a beacon of hope. This is why we are here. The shot that I want is of the journey to the school with the school children. I want the audience to see where these children come from so they can viscerally feel the power that this building has as a symbol of a brighter future.
Use your head
Once we are on the school, we have more room to work. We start going through our gear. The tripod isn’t in the bag. I am determined that we get the shot on the boat. The only option we have is to put the Ladybug on my head.
Aaron busts out the gaff tape and starts building a rig with the helmet as fast as possible. The 3” long screw that we’ve been using to thread into the lightstand bores into my skull when the weight of the camera is added. Not an option. He puts a roll of electrical tape inside the helmet that provides a decent enough barrier between the helmet and my head. On the top of the helmet, a roll of gaff tape provides a stable base and the wiring is threaded through the air holes in the helmet.
It’s taken us over an hour now to set-up. It is almost 3:30pm. The kids and locals crowd around me as I plug the cord into a computer and launch the SDK on the computer. I move over to the sunlight to set the calibrations for the lenses as Aaron builds the rig on my head. Jenn is capturing sound with the Brahma. Dan is getting harassed by the local fishermen on the school, who have identified him as the money man.
The boat is standing by to go back and get the kids to take them to school. My light is fading, my settings will start failing soon. Balancing between the edge of the school with the laptop in my arm and the camera on my head, I tip-toe into the rocking wooden canoe, careful not to step in the black slime on the bottom. One foot. Two feet. I slowly lower myself to sit. I check the the camera view and my laptop is in plain view. I’ll have to close the computer within an inch so that the lens don’t pick it up. Which means I can’t monitor it. Which means we need to leave now.
Going back to School
When we shove off from the school, I am alone on the boat with the Makoko driver and Eke. We pass back by the houses that are now expecting us to pass through again. Teenage boys stare and gyrate with random pelvic thrusts in my general direction. Somehow this reminds me that I’ve left the ambisonic mic back at the school. It’s a long way back and we don’t have time to turn around. I open the computer, find a sound record software and test that it works. That’s as good as it’s going to get.
When we arrive back where the children are waiting, they look at me with excitement and nervousness, proudly donning their clean school uniforms. I roll the camera and keep my head as still as possible. They’re looking at me, which I know is below the sightline, so I smile at them and make a face as a point up at the weird looking contraption on my head. They laugh and it seems to put them at ease.
Once more, we journey through the waterways of Makoko. The children look up at me, up at the camera and soon lose interest, finding their classmates in the houses we pass back by more interesting to converse with. This reminds me of my own son, who is just slightly older than these children. The inquisitive first moments quickly giving way to the comfort of what they already know. The boat pushes through, past the canoes being built and into the openness that the school occupies.
When we arrive, the children climb out of the boat with simplicity and ease. With a camera strapped to my head and a laptop on my legs, I am a bit more burdened. Eke realizes this and reaches down to help and all I can think is “crap, that means I have to cut my shot.” I’m not getting out of the boat seamlessly, so I gratefully accept his helping hand.
Taking Time in Makoko
By now it’s well after 4pm. I got one shot at the boat sequence I wanted. Now it’s time to get footage of the school children on the school that’s our safety shot. There’s no time to remove the camera from my helmet and set up another mount. So I sit in the middle of them with the Brahma mic as they clap and sing, walking in a circle around me, the camera and the computer. They are so excited about the camera, trying to see what it is, that they keep inching closer and closer, which will clip the stitching lines. This isn’t going to work. I hope that the boat shot came out clean.
Across the school, I hear Aaron talking and playing with other children. I want a glimpse into the lives of these people. I want to take a moment and be with them. I pick a place right smack in the middle of the structure to set up and just roll the 360 camera without interference. However, the other children have swarmed around me, cuddled up to me, one is quietly saying “give me money. give me iPhone. give me money” while Aaron has found a water-ridden stick that has been wallowing in the black water cesspool and thinks it looks like a good tripod. This guy makes anything happen. I hold the Ladybug to the top as Aaron gaff tapes the long screw to the post. Except that the post is so wet the tape won’t hold. GoPro clip to the rescue.
Once again, I huddle underneath the camera, palm gripping the wet wood “tripod”, mentally thanking Dan for making me get every shot known to man before leaving on this trip. This had to look weird. Villagers just kept staring at me. I’ve called out to Eke for translation help so many times during the Makoko shoot that at this point, whenever I say “Eke”, it becomes a rally cry on the school. This time I’m asking Eke to have the people go about their lives – just ignore the strange white woman huddling under a bizarre piece of equipment strapped to strip of rotting wood. And then I just sit. I don’t move. I look at the SDK image rather than directly at anyone in the hopes they will stop looking at me and just do their thing.
Only now do I have a moment to myself. I wonder how many white women ever venture here. Every photographer I read about that went here was a man. If “yavo” means “white man”, is there even a word for “white woman”? I stop thinking and just “be” for the rest of the take.
After a solid 10 minute take, I cut camera, relax my arms, and smile at the fishermen on the school who have been untangling their nets. Hopefully they understand how grateful I am to have been allowed into their community. I don’t really have a way of saying how much I hope that the piece we are putting together brings genuine respect for their village and potentially opens the door for more people to reach out to Makoko and continue working with them to build their community.
It’s way past when we were supposed to be out of Makoko. We pack up the gear and pile back on the boat. I clip a 360fly on to the side of the boat for the ride back and then alternate between trying to ignore it so it’s a decent shot & making sure it’s not getting stolen. Mostly people don’t know what to make of the this strange black object. In my hands I’m holding the Brahma and hopefully capturing an ambisonic soundscape that we can use to cut into the school trip that was only captured on the computer.
Back on solid ground, I walk through the streets with the 360fly still rolling against my side. Our permit hostess is holding my hand in fear for my safety, pushing me away from the guys doing tricks on the bicycles. all I want to do is put the 360fly on the handlebars, but it’s likely I’ll never see the camera again if I do that. So I am pulled along and ushered back in to the van. This time the van seems all too small and the smell of Makoko becomes overwhelming. I don’t know if it was the filth rotting stick I held on to for 10 minutes, or the black water that our feet had been sitting in at the bottom of the boat, but we are all rank.
Nightmares & Dreams
All I wanted to do was take a shower. So of course that night, the hotel had no hot water. Washcloth wipe down. Food. Transfer footage.
Every time I get back to this hotel, it seems I have more problems than I started with. Tonight, I dock the 360fly camera to the computer and there are no files listed on the device hard drive. The entire day – the Nollywood set up, the market walk – everything on the 360fly may be lost. I send an SOS to 360fly guys. Dan and Jenn are sending SOSs to Rwanda, since we still don’t have our visas.
I can’t go to sleep without seeing how the footage from the boat turned out. So I fire that up. I’m relieved and excited to see that what we pulled off worked – and worked really well. The movement of the canoe, the reflections in the water, the spirit of the children, traveling through the village to the rising beacon of hope in the distance… it’s a damn good shot. But I know that without the soundscape getting sorted out in post, much of the experience of Makoko will be lost. To hear the children call out to each other, the swish of the paddle pushing the canoe from behind you will make all the difference. And the music. We’ll need music to capture the transcendent state of what that school means to that community.
I start composing what that sounds like in my head as I drift off to sleep, trying to ignore the awful stench of myself I’m sleeping in. Tomorrow we are going to Idumota. Unlike Makoko where I didn’t know what I was getting into, I’ve read up on Idumota and it looks and sounds like insanity.