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Floating school offers hope in Nigeria's 'slum on stilts'


It's been dubbed the "Venice of Africa" but comparisons between the sprawling Lagos community of Makoko and the historic Italian city begin and end at the water's edge.

Makoko's makeshift huts rise from the murky waters of the lagoon around Nigeria's biggest city, a far cry from the ornate bridges and buildings that mark out Venice's cultural and commercial past.

The arts transformed Venice and sealed its reputation as one of the most important centres of the European Renaissance.

Now it is hoped that education, with the help of innovative architecture, can help create a better future for the children of Makoko.

The prospect comes in the shape of a floating school, built entirely by locals and launched last year, whose triangular frame rises from the water like a half-built house submerged in a flood.

The project, backed by the UN Development Fund, the Nigerian government and the Heinrich Boell Foundation, is the brainchild of local architect Kunle Adeyemi.

His design was inspired by life in the so-called "slum on stilts" and he said that improving the neglected area required a new approach more in tune with local customs and the environment.

"Living on water is actually a way of life... so, the question is then how do you improve that condition, how do you address the challenges of living on water in a safe, healthy and environmentally sound way?" he told AFP TV.

A landmark building

Unlike Venice, which attracts millions of tourists from around the world every year, few visitors to Lagos are likely to find their way to Makoko.

From the Third Mainland Bridge which snakes nearly 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) through the lagoon, thick wood smoke and fumes from diesel-powered generators can be seen hanging above the patchwork of corrugated iron and tarpaulin roofs.

Fishermen on the lagoon scour the waters in search of the day's catch. Wooden canoes -- the only way to get around -- ply the watery strips between the flimsy lean-to shacks and washing lines.

The new school is also visible from the bridge, floating on 250 empty blue barrels fixed under its wooden base designed to get around the problems of periodic flooding in the area.

Its three storeys make it the tallest structure in Makoko and with 220 square metres (2,370 square feet) of floor space, it is also the neighbourhood's biggest communal facility.

Fishermen can tether their canoes to the base and come just to mend their nets, as much as children wanting to learn -- often for the very first time -- or play.

From the top of the A-frame, under its solar panels, the high-rise buildings and lights of Lagos Island -- the heart of Nigeria's financial hub -- can be seen in the distance.

Adaptable design

The people of Makoko eke out a living by fishing and trading. Few of the estimated 150,000 people who live in the neighbourhood can aspire to escape a life of poverty.

Jeremiah Oleole Austin is one of the few young people to have gone on to further education.

"I was born and brought up here so I know how the people suffer, I feel their pain, I feel their cry and I also know their happiness," said the art student, who is also known as "Big Babba".

"I know what they really need in this community and which is not capable for us to do it. Without some... training or skills, how can they go places?

"There's only a few of us that went out into the city to see more... If there are more schools, I believe there is going to be changes in the community."

Headteacher Noah Shemede couldn't agree more.

"Every child deserves an education wherever they are," he said. "We are on water and that doesn't mean that we can't go to school on water. We have to.

"We need more schools to accommodate thousands of children that are at home. We need more schools."

Adeyemi for his part said the building could also be used differently -- both in Nigeria and beyond.

"Its main aim is to generate a sustainable, ecological, alternative building system and urban water culture for the teeming population of Africa's coastal regions," his firm, NLE, said on its website.

"It is really just a structure that could actually be used for different forms of uses," added the architect.

"It could be a home, you could use the same prototype and develop that into homes, you could develop it into hospitals, you can develop it into a theatre, a restaurant, all kinds of facilities.

"The key thing is that we have developed a prototype of building and architecture on water using local materials and local resources and available technology."