Making The Megacity A Home

Story & Photos by Bill Stephens

Timothy Nubi is trying to transform the slums of

Lagos slums by building new community centres.


"This isn'ta place human beings should be living," Dr Kuye Obufemi says without hesitating. "Oworo's atime bomb."

Oworo (a ka Oworonshoki) sits on marshy soil on greater Lagos'vast mainland, squeezed between Lagos Lagoon to the east and the Third Mainland Bridge to the west. South of Oworo Road sit aging tenement and commercial buildings. North of Oworo Road, the structures grow less sound, giving way to shacks teetering atop the lagoon.

lnstead of sidewalks, Oworo has trash-strewn open drainage gutters. Old, mud-splattered Peugeots without hub caps, dusty VW ans and motor bikes try to avoid pedestrians. Oworo's dilapidated tenement houses have rusty, thin corrugated tin roofs and cage-like security bars. A typical multi-use three-story building on Oworo Street sports the following signs:  lmole Ayo Hair Dressing Salon: Redeemed Christian Church ofGod; Training for lnstant income: learn professional guitar or furniture spraying in 30 days.

Timothy Nubi is spending a lot of time these days as a community organizer in Oworo, which he wants to transform using approaches new to Lagos. If he can succeed in Oworo, the University of Lagos (UNlLAG) professor hopes to use his non-profit organisation to duplicate that success in other Lagos slums.

Although Nubi is also encouraging commercial development that will fund better housing, his key idea for Lagos slum neighbourhoods is to build community centres, with rooms for skills training, town hall meetings and libraries. At these centres, local people can come together and work collaboratively to transform their community.

"l've seen the success o fAmerican urban enterprise centres and London libraries.

"Every neighbourhood needs a community centre. Lagos has no communal spaces. Traditionally every African settlement had a centre. l want to revive that tradition.

"You can'tjust improve the buildings in slums. You also have to improve the people and their skills. That's where a community centre comes in."


The challenge, he knows, is daunting. As the world's fastest growing megacity, Lagos has a long history of urban neglect.

 ln 1957 oil was found in Nigeria and in 1960 it won independence from Britain. Then, in 1967 Nigeria was racked by the bloody three year Biafran Civil war, which prompted many Nigerians to move to Lagos.

 Global oil prices boomed in the 1970s, spurring industrial growth but also agricultural neglect, leading many rural Nigerians to flock to Lagos. Nigeria was under military rule during most ofthe 1970s and in 1983 military dictatorships returned forthe next 16 years. These dictatorial regimes reportedly enriched themselves, mismanaged the economy and ignored Lagos' urban growth problems.

 ln 1999, civilian rule finally returned to Nigeria. That,  and the rise of global oil prices, has improved the economy of Nigeria, which in 2006 paid off its foreign debt.

 The Lagos State Government has launched infrastructure, services and slum improvement projects, but the challenges are huge. Lagos has grown from 230,OOO people in 1950 to 17 million today. The city is projected to reach 25 million by 2015, making itthe world's third largest megacity after Tokyo and Mumbai.

 Since 2003, Nigeria's GDP per person has grown from $800 to $1500. But, reportedly, the informal economy represents a large percent of Lagos' employment and the average Lagos resident earns less than $1 per day. Lagos still has hundreds of severely blighted slums.

 Some urban scholars think that if Lagos can solve these urban problems, it could become a model for Africa and the developing world.



"Nigeria manages its resourceswell, we can eliminate slums," Nubi says.

 Nubi's office is in a low-slung building on the bustling UNlLAG campus. Some ofthe buildings have the graceful modernist architecture of post-l960 independence when Nigeria was eager to show its post-colonial spirit. Nubi is a department head and people are constantly coming and going from his office. Despite the constant



rushing , Nubi laughs a lot, with the rich warming laugh many Nigerians have. His shelves are stocked with urban planning books.

He was born 50 years ago in a Nigerian village, one of six children. He was inspired by his grandmother, a hard-working tenement dweller who, in later years, built a house of her own to live in.

"lf Americans had gone through half of what l have, they'd have died," he says. "Growing up, we walked miles carry in a bucket on our head to get water.

Nubi ultimatel yearned a doctorate and now teaches town planning, Healso started an NGO, to which he gives many unpaid hours.

He visited urban regeneration projecls in Dubai, Malaysia, Singa ore and the U.K. In 2004, as an Eisenhower fellow studying American urban redevelopment, Nubi was told by an African-American professor: "What ever you do in life, add advocacy. speak for the voiceless."That was an inspirational turning point.

 "l can't stand to see people sufFering. want to do something,"

Nubi, who is also a pastor in Oworo, challenges his UNlLAG students to become NGO leaders, remind in the that Barack Obama started as a community organizer. The first time Nubi took his students to a Lagos slum, they wept. "We never knew it was so bad,"they told him, "What can we do?"

 The government doesn't have enough slum information. So my students do llegwork. As a professor l access students. As a pastor l access the community."



On a weekday morning Nubi is in Oworo explainin his NGO. Walking a dusty street, he passes tin-roofed stucco tenements with wet laundry hanging from balconies. Many are fronted by beauty salons and small shops selling snacks and sodas. Scooter taxis and old cars zoom past. The air smells like exhaust fumes. An intersection policeman makes a half-hearted attempt to direct traffic. A man loses his temper and shouts at another man. A moment later they are laughing together.

Nubi began focusing on Oworo, where he is a pastor, some months ago. ln early 2010, Nubi and 20 UNlLAG town planning students be an visiting regularly visiting the Oworo stums to find out peoples' most pressing needs.

His students walked the streets of Oworo talkingt o people in their homes and places of business. They met many Oworo residents who are rural newcomers,  attracted to this urban neighbourhood by low rent and nearby downtown jobs, aiming for a better life.

Nubi'steam found that, while Oworo residents make creative use of what they have, most need more education and skills. Many locals are working poor, try ing to survive as small traders. The majority are unemployed or low income males under 40.

Nubi stops at a small hospital where Dr. Kuye Obufemi tells him "there's too much alcohol and poverty and too few doctors and nurses" in Oworo.

Nubi talks to Obufemi about building'"a community centre where people can tearn skills, get information and relax" and has little trouble securing his support.

That afternoon, as he drives back to UNlLAG, Nubi says he made good progress today. "l met people we can work with.

"Most people welcome me as someone who can help. Being a Nigeria-based NGO is an advantage in slums. We know Lagos. People know us and trust us because we're from the university."

Later in the week Nubi visits Oworo's new full-time priest Father Joseph Etim. He tells the priest about his NGO community centre idea and the need for teamwork among local leaders.

 Nigerian-born Father Joseph, here because of the growing local population, says he's shocked how Oworo people live and by the rough local road that thwarts parishioners. "we'll try improving the road ourselves. l'm very busy building a church, but l commend your effort and l'm willing to attend a meeting."

He adds: "Maybe your NGO should first address food, a new school and fishing."

Nubi says he's impressed with the new priest's dedication. "Churches can be a catalyst for neighbourhood regeneration. we need to involve pastors in our NGO work because people trust them."

He adds that people are actually more important than money when it comes to community improvement. "You need committed people working together."

One morning Nubi and his students travel to Oworo's palace, where they present their findings and suggestions to adozen robe-clad traditional chiefs, who are lounging on old couches in a narrow stuffy room with a low ceiling.

Their recommendations to the chiefs include building a community centre where locals can learn job skills to help regenerate Oworo; working with government to repair infrastructure: and encouraging commercial/ residential development that will fund better, affordabie housing. After the presentation, Nubi asks for questions.

 After an awkward silent moment, a chief says: "We're ready to give you total support. But we hope you're sincere. People have promised to improve Oworo before, then didn't deliver."

"We don't want to promise and fail," replies Nubi.







Afterwards, a patace ollicial says Nubi's community centre proposal sounds interesting. "The project will have wide support, especially since the chiefs support it. And if developers provide timely, alfordable housing and people can stay they like it."

 After Nubi's church sewice thart evening, recent widow and mother, Yemisi, sits in an empty pew and tells me that the church helps her pay rent. She likes Oworo because it's close to Lagos Island. 'But it's crowded--with many families often sharing a few rooms. The local shacks are a fire hazard. Oworo is noisy. There's high unemployment. We need a community centre where people can learn skills."



 The next week Nubi travels to the offices of the Lagos State Urban Renewal Authority (LASURA), a government agency that focuses on improving poor neighbourhoods in Lagos.

 ln a meeting some months ago, LASURA officials totd Nubi that they are running slum renewal projects, but they're limited in staff and budget.

"l have students who can collect data for ou on slums," he told them. "Let's work together. We can do more!"

Today he is back to re-establish contact and update LASURA on his NGO's Oworo project. ln LASURA's modest one-story complex, Nubi joins  young, attentive LASURA town planners around a long conference table.

 Nubi begins the conversation.

"A docror in Oworo recently told me that unemployment makes Oworo a time bomb. That's why he Oworo community centre we're proposing will do job training. ln the U.S., neighbourhood enterprise centres get people jobs. That's what we'll do."

 A LASURA staff member updates Nubi on the government's Oluwole slum redevelopment project in central Lagos. After the update, Nubi reminds everyone he has 5O students collecting slum data and that partnering with an NGO and the community reduces government's slum regeneration costs. "We can accomplish big things together! lf we don't, our grandchildren will ask us why."

Later in the day, Nubi tours the Oluwole project with LASURA people. On the drive back, Nubi sits near LASURA principal town planning offtcer, Adesoji Ogunsanya, a 35-year-old man with nine years of town planning experience. A former student of Nubi's, Ogunsan says he pursued town planning as a career because it's creative and helps people. He's excited to be in this field now in Lagos.

It's excitin to see a project go as planned and to see people happy we did what we promised." He says that in the last three years LASURA town planners have visited China, Malaysia, Brazil, Singapore, Dubai and the U.S in search of projects that have shown true success. Ogunsanya says that turning slum dwellers out to the streets is an old, outdated idea and they need to find something new to make real chane in the slums.

"At lsale Gangan on Lagos lstand we recently replaced shanties with high rises," he says. 'The people can come back rentf ree. The government is fundin gthe project and private industry is providing manpower. People have heard about our lsale Ganan an regeneration project and now want us to come to their neighbourhood. We can have an impact when we partner with the private sector."

 Later that day, driving back to campus, Nubi is reflective. Nigerians have suffered and become resourceful. They see other countries developing and ask why can't we have that? As leaders, we must lead people to a good living environment.

"All over the world where the poor are neglected, they fight back. lf you keep neglecting them, one day it'll explode.

 "There are no quick fixes for Lagos' slum problems that took 50 years to create. No magician can fixt them."

 But Nubi is optimistic. "Because Lagos government's now delivering on its promises, people are paying their taxes. Lagos is finally at the stage of fixing our problems and reconstructing, which will create jobs. As our garbage piles have disappeared, so slums will disappear one day."

 Today's LASURA meeting, he says, was an important reconnection for him. He wants to convince LASURA to get involved and work with him on improving Oworo. "We'll keep talking about Oworo with LASURA, which needs to see a successful community centre."



 Sitting in his UNlLAG omce, Nubi says he's encouraged about his Oworo progress so far.

 "Everybody say sthe community centre is a good idea. lf everyone agrees on a community centre, we'll approach foundations and organisations for funds."

 Parallel efforts will address Oworo infrastructure and housing. For instance, Nubi will mobilize local people to start fixing local roads. "lf the community can do some of the work, government will work on four roads not one."

 With a new community centre, more jobs and improved roads and housing, "Oworo will start being transformed. "

Nubi grows animated. He says he wants to be able to tell people to look at what's been done in Oworo. "Then, rather then one or two Lagos slum projects. we can do fifty!"

Later Nubi reported that a prototype community centre design has been developed and that"we're taiking to some churches inside and outside Nigeria for support," and that he Lagos state governor wants Nubi's NGO to start housing improvement efforts in some Lagos locations, including Oworo.

 Despite this upbeat scenario. Nubi is realistic about the challenge of what he's trying to do in Lagos. An admirable man with a big vision.

 He leans forward in his chair. "We have to make this work We don't want to make empty promises."



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