A Wild Week in Lagos
Yellow minibuses, or danfos, clog the streets in a city with only 68 (working) stoplights over 385 square miles.
Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik
From above, Lagos sort of makes sense: the kind of macrolevel organization that the architect Rem Koolhaas, a frequent visitor to Lagos, calls, in his documentary Lagos Wide & Close, "the human swarm." But as the writer George Packer has said, "People live at ground level, and at ground level, Lagos is a pretty hellish place." There's garbage everywhere, clogging gutters and littering streets. At roadside dumps, trash pickers scavenge old plastic and rags from refuse piles a hundred feet high. Many sections of the city are controlled by so-called "area boys," gun-toting gangsters even the police don't mess with. An American diplomat told me about the day he hit a dead body on his way to work: On his way back home, it was still there.

One morning, I paid a visit to a slum called Makoko, in the shadow of the massive Third Mainland Bridge. Because the city is so short on space, the poor have had to adapt. Makoko is built on the water: 300,000 people, mainly immigrant fishermen – just some of the 6,000 people who move here every day – live in thatched-roof shacks on stilts over the lagoon.

On the shore, a group of about 10 of us climbed into three wooden dugout canoes and paddled out. The water was black and smelled of refuse and human waste. (Koolhaas says the first few times he saw Makoko from the highway, he thought it was a dump.) The slum sits next to a sawmill, called Okobaba, and on the water were thousands of logs, floated from rivers all over West Africa. Nearby, shirtless men cut timber with band saws, raw material for people building more.

Nigerians are used to going without services – one joke says that the initials of the national power company, PHCN, stand for "Please Have Candle Nearby." But Makoko is extreme. There are no police, no hospitals, no public electricity. The only fresh water comes from a communal tank that the residents fill themselves, and the only time anyone from the government visits is during elections. Still, they've managed to build an entire shadow city, complete with churches, mosques, schools, barbershops, and even bars.

Our guide was a man named Joseph, who worked as a director at the sawmill. He talked to us as we drifted through the labyrinth of stilts, past children in blue school uniforms who waved as we passed, shouting "Oyibo!" – white man. Occasionally we would bump into another canoe, a young girl selling rice or detergent, or a woman hauling fish.

But at any moment, things can tip. After we'd been paddling for about an hour, a fisherman on some nearby rocks started yelling at us, demanding to know what we were doing. Suddenly, one of the men accompanying us peeled off his shirt and jeans – underneath was a woman's one-piece swimsuit – and waded over. After a brief, heated argument, he shoved the fisherman to the ground and started kicking him in the face. Another man picked up a stray two-by-four and broke it over the man's head.

Eventually they let the man go, and he limped away. "This man is a foreigner," Joseph explained, back in the boat. "He cannot tell us what to do. This is our country."

Later that afternoon, I visited a market called Idumota, on Lagos Island, the beating heart of the city – as my guidebook put it, "one of the most frantic and densely packed areas of Africa, if not the world." This is the original site of Eko, the Yoruba fishing village that modern Lagos was built on.

They sold everything at Idumota: canned beans, eyeglasses, welcome mats, wedding dresses, combination locks, kola nuts, Yankees caps, diapers, bras. In the parking lot behind the mosque, you could buy a fake passport for $30. Another block was devoted entirely to cheap DVDs. (Nigeria's movie industry, known as Nollywood, is the third-largest in the world.) On one corner, a meatmonger unrolled a large sheet of butcher paper on the sidewalk, then filled it up with an assortment of kidneys, livers, tongues, and penises. Over in the juju (witchcraft) market, milk-eyed old women sold everything from dried frogs to monkey's paws to live doves and cats. Sometimes there were reports of human body parts.

At one point, the photographer for this story and I climbed onto a pedestrian bridge to get a better look. We'd made it about halfway across when two area boys came up from the other side. "You cannot be here," one of them said. "You have to talk to security." OK, we said. Who is security? He gestured to his friend: "We are security."

Before we knew it, the two had become four and then eight and then a dozen. We were surrounded. "You have to pay," said one man in sunglasses who seemed to be the leader. "For taking the pictures." We asked how much, and he said 50,000 naira – about $300. I laughed and told him I only had 2,000, and he shook his head. One of the men grabbed for the camera.

Below us, Sunday was honking his horn and shouting for us to get down. "These are the bad men of Lagos," he explained later. "The law means nothing to them. They will hurt you, and they won't get caught." In the market below, two policemen were watching everything unfold.

A negotiation followed, and a price was settled on. The man in sunglasses smiled, and we all shook hands. "This," he shrugged, "is how it works here."