Making The Megacity A Home
Photos by Bill Stephens
Timothy Nubi is
trying to transform the slums of
Lagos slums by building new community centres.
place human beings should be living," Dr Kuye Obufemi says without
hesitating. "Oworo's atime
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
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.
the success o fAmerican urban enterprise centres and London libraries.
needs a community centre. Lagos has no communal
spaces. Traditionally every African settlement had a centre.
l want to revive that tradition.
improve the buildings in slums. You also have to improve the people and their
skills. That's where a community centre comes
The challenge, he knows, is daunting. As
the world's fastest growing megacity, Lagos has a long history of urban
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
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
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
NUBl AND HlS NON-GOVERNMENT ORGANlSATlON
"Nigeria manages its resourceswell, we can eliminate slums," Nubi says.
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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
"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
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!"
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."