Soap-Seers, Snake-Fat Juice, and Lemon-Grass Gin

LAGOS, Nigeria—Taye paddles us between the stilt-borne homes. Women glide by in canoes on their way to the market, men on their way to sea. Small children paddle themselves to school. They look at me warily, and I try to return their gaze, but my eyes still sting. The smoke from the cars grinding their way across the 7-mile-long bridge toward the city center has crept across the lagoon and gotten into my clothes, nose, and eyes.

It is morning in Makoko, a slum neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria, built above lagoon water fetid with pollution and industrial and human waste. Men and women fish from dugout canoes as they have done for centuries. They also have two or three cell phones, each from a different service provider, which they use according to which mobile network is functioning best that day.

Every day, several million people cross over three bridges onto the two island hubs of Lagos where most of the banking and commerce in Nigeria takes place. Underneath the longest of these bridges is Makoko, a cluster of shacks sticking up jaunty-legged from the jet-black water.

No one knows the exact population of the neighborhood. There is no official government representative on the water, no police, no hospitals. But there is plenty else. Churches, schools, market centers, traditional clinics, bars, and barber shops all share space on the water.

On a recent afternoon, I met up with an aspiring actor named Joseph and his friends Taye and Simeon, who would be my guides and interpreters while in Makoko. After a short and terrifying tightrope walk over jagged planks, we reached our canoe and headed out onto the water.

Almost immediately, I felt we had slid into a different time and place. The tension in my shoulders and arms, necessary when navigating the turmoil of Lagos’ streets, slipped away. The poverty endemic to Nigeria was still visible, but on the water it seemed less dire, less immediate.

After a few minutes of paddling, we saw a man leaning out of his window, keeping tabs on his children as they mended a fishing net. We pulled alongside the house and greeted him. His name was Prosper Bako, he was 42, and like many of Makoko’s residents, he was a fisherman and an immigrant, from neighboring Benin.

The sense that anything can be done in Lagos with sweat and ingenuity brings tens of thousands of migrants from poor, rural regions of Nigeria here, but they also come from neighboring West African countries.

“I came here five years ago,” Bako said. “There was no work in Benin. My wife had a baby, and I had no money to support them. We live here because there’s no space on the land. We have no choice.”

There are fish to be caught in Benin, he said, but the market is too small to support a good living. A half-dozen small children played or worked at Bako’s feet, so I asked him how many children he had. He hesitated. Four, he said. Maybe five. His wife, hidden behind a plank until then, stuck her head out and laughed. Five!

A few minutes later, we approached a house where a dozen men sat chatting and drinking from a bottle filled with green herbs. It was sodabi, a popular home-brew in Benin. This particular batch was mixed with lemon grass, roots, and a few secret ingredients that I was not permitted to know. We were invited up and offered a shot. I drank one back and felt the familiar burn of homemade gin but with a strong, grassy aftertaste that reminded me of summer. The men laughed and clapped me on the back, telling me it would help any stomach problems I might have.

They were all fishermen, some from Benin or Togo, others natives of Nigeria. They were waiting for the wind to pick up. Their small boats bobbed nearby, the sails made from old stitched-together rice sacks wrapped tightly around short masts. I thanked them for the drink and wished them luck.

After an hour or two, I noticed that we had passed several canoes laden with large brown boxes. I asked Taye what they contained. Frozen fish, he said, imported from Europe. Foreign frozen fish in a fishing community?

It was a sign of the degradation and pollution of the local fishing waters—and of the constant expansion of the city of Lagos into traditional fishing grounds. It was also a simple matter of supply and demand. There are so many people in Nigeria—many of whom love to eat fish—that local fishermen can’t keep up.

That night, as we made our way in the dark toward the house where we would sleep, we passed a small shack, and Joseph stopped our canoe. Inside, a man sat hunched over a single kerosene lamp.

“Do you want to have your future told?” Joseph asked.

Sure, I said, why not?

The oracle, an unkempt middle-aged man, greeted us, and we sat down on a narrow bench in the one-room house. The walls were unadorned, better to focus attention on the objects on the floor. Stones, feathers, clumps of multicolored powder, a necklace of small shells held together by ratty string. I was instructed to take out a bill. I handed the oracle 500 naira, about $4, and he quickly wrapped it around a bean. He said a few words to the money. Then I was told to put some sweat on the bill and whisper a secret question. I did as instructed. My guides, happy young men who had been laughing and arguing about Premier League soccer just minutes before, were silent.

The oracle made a few movements with the crumpled bill and his shells and powders, then issued his decree.

“You are not making as much money as you should,” he said.

This is true, I thought.

“There is a job you want but haven’t gotten yet.”

Also true.

“This is because someone jealous of you is blocking you with bad magic.”

Suddenly I didn’t want to hear any more. Just in case.

Toward midnight, we eased into the mooring area of the house we’d sleep in. As we clambered up the steps, a dog leapt out at us, and I jumped back, almost falling into the water. I hadn’t expected a dog to live out here.

We took turns showering outside over a hole in the wooden floorboards; then the four of us were given one thin mat to sleep on and a mosquito net to sleep beneath. Our host, Joseph told me as we fell asleep, was also a seer, a prophetess. She would tell me my fortune in the morning. There were balls of pink soap involved, and a crucifix, and snake-fat juice. The prophetess would ease my mind, he said. The snake-fat juice would make me strong.