This article was published in the Guardian on 9 May 2009 but had to be shortened considerably. The original can be read below.

Some pictures by Jacob Silberberg, the photographer I worked with, can be seen here

'Everyone's sleeping with one eye open'

What's it like to live in the middle of a population explosion? James Meek reports from Lagos, bursting at the seams and soon to overtake Cairo as Africa's biggest city

James Meek in Lagos

Gleamingly bald, naked except for a pair of shorts, with a torso as thick, round and strong as an oil drum, Emanuel Ekang was asleep. To reach the dirt yard where he lay dreaming I picked my way through the half-crumbled concrete spars of an unfinished church, two storeys high. It had no roof, walls or floor. Baby goats tottered between the pillars while women hung washing from its beams.

  Ekang, who hadn’t been warned I was coming, woke easily, swung upright and patted a place for me on the hard wooden bench where he’d been sleeping. He’s a preacher and he spoke fluently, as if he’d known my questions in advance. The unfinished church of St Patrick of Christ, he said, was about to be knocked down. ‘They’re going to demolish the whole structure soon, because it’s a death trap,’ he said. His father had begun to build it, then died. He pointed to a lone whitewashed tomb in the bare ground on the far side of the yard. ‘That’s his grave over there,’ he said.

Even here in Ajegunle, the biggest, toughest inner-city slum in Lagos, the plot where the unfinished church stands is valuable as building land. Once there was a government plan to raze Ajegunle and let its residents scatter as best they could. It wasn’t carried out; but Ajegunle has never sensed more nervously the heave and crush of the vast, taut metropolis coiled around it, straining against its bounds. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and if Lagos hasn’t yet overtaken Cairo as Africa’s biggest city, it will. The dread of sudden eviction chafes deep into the already hard dollar-a-day lives of the people who call Ajegunle home.

‘They came here this afternoon,’ said Ekang. ‘They’re going to destroy some houses by the side of the canal. OK, make Lagos like London or America, fine, but make provision for them. There are virgin lands where you can resettle these people.’

‘Everyone’s afraid. Everyone’s sleeping with one eye open.’

We got up and Ekang led me through earth-paved alleys barely two metres wide, lined with an ancient collage of concrete, timber and rusty metal sheets behind which thousands of people sleep at night, squeezed into tiny rooms, bursting out in daytime to trade, strive and hustle. We came out at the edge of one of Lagos’s canals. Both banks were obscured by a thick, deep, grey mulch of rubbish made up of plastic, paper and cloth shredded into tiny scraps. Grubby white cattle egrets stalked and picked over it in the shade of hardy trees that seemed no less intensely green for having their roots embedded in Ajegunle’s middens. Down the canal, jerry-built walkways stretched out onto the water to long-drop latrines.

There was a bakery close to the water’s edge. Through the open doorway I glimpsed the puff of flour in the cool dimness. Outside, sitting on the ground with their backs to the wall, staring miserably out at the canal, were the bakers. On the flaking plaster above their heads cryptic government acronyms and a cross were freshly sprayed in red paint. The previous day, the bakery, which never had a legal right to be in that place but had stood there for years, had been served with an ‘abatement of nuisance notice’ by the Lagos government’s Office of Drainage Services. In three days, they were told, the bakery and neighbouring houses would be knocked down. There was nothing they could do about it, and no alternative land would be provided; they were on their own.

‘We have nowhere to go,’ said Ismail Lasisa, who’d worked in the bakery for five years. ‘At the moment we’re making money from the bakery, this is where we toil, our daily bread. Now there’s no more food; there’s no more bread.’

It’s a trend. Just after New Year, police and a government team called ‘Kick Against Indiscipline’ descended without warning on the illegal hive of commerce that sprawled across the main highway from Lagos airport at Oshodi junction. Thousands of small traders shrieked and wept impotently as their stalls and goods were demolished by bulldozers and burned.

To Ekang, the ruthless demolition of illegal or semi-legal homes and businesses manifests the willpower of one man: Babatunde Fashola, the 45-year-old lawyer elected governor of Lagos in 2007. Most Lagosians I talked to see it the same way. The middle classes love him. But governors come and go. What doesn’t change is the overwhelming, inexorable force each has to grapple with, the force that smashes buildings and builds new ones, squeezes people into smaller and smaller spaces or makes them move scores of miles from where they grew up, jams the roads, smogs the air, fouls the water, magnifies fortunes, atomizes individuals – the force of the city’s swelling population.

The rate at which Nigeria’s population has increased, and continues to increase, is staggering. In 1950, ten years before it gained independence from Britain, 34 million people lived here. The UN believes there are now almost 150 million Nigerians; it has become the world’s eighth most populous country, bigger than Russia or Japan. Between now and the middle of the century, only India will add more people to the world’s population. If you want to see what it means to live in the middle of a population explosion  – the kind of generational leap in size that happened in London in the nineteenth and New York in the twentieth centuries – Lagos is the ideal place. Where, I wondered, do all the extra people go?

The city’s vastness is beyond dispute. Lagos looks from space like a giant sack of flour that has been dropped on the hard floor of the Atlantic coast, split open and spread out, forty miles wide and twenty miles deep. Yet its exact size is a politically charged question. The national census organisation says that the city and the rest of Lagos state around it have just over nine million people. Lagos makes a convincing case that it has 18 million, which, if true, would make it the sixth biggest urban sprawl in the world – bigger than Delhi.

The grime and neglect of Lagos’s public realm is not unchallenged. The classic Lagos drains, for instance – open channels between roads and shopfronts, straddled with makeshift footbridges by locals, usually blocked, abrim with black standing water, bubbling ominously, thick with discarded plastic drinking water bags and often containing human waste – are being replaced by covered drains made of concrete shells. The mounds of burning trash which used to wreathe the city in smoke and stink have disappeared, partly because LAWMA, the Lagos Waste Management Authority, now pays freelance scavengers, by weight, for the rubbish they collect.

Yet LAWMA is running to keep still. If Nigeria’s population is growing by 2.3 per cent a year, Lagos’s, swollen not just by births but by migration of fortune seekers from the rest of the country, is increasing by about 4.5 per cent – equivalent to Liberia, the world’s fastest growing country. That’s about half a million extra people every year. The city has no central sewage system for human waste, and those houses that do have toilets use septic tanks. Lagos has a little over half of the treatment plants it needs to process the output from the tanks; the trucks carrying the rest simply empty the sewage into the lagoon.

Ola Oresanya, the head of LAWMA, said his crews were collecting 9,000 tonnes of trash every day – that’s not far short of London’s 12,000 tonnes, in a much richer city. The amount of rubbish people are throwing away is increasing twice as fast as the population.

I asked him if he could imagine a day when Lagos might have to say ‘Enough – no more people?’

‘It might come,’ he said. ‘I’d call it “re-ordering the growth pattern.” Poor people who see open space put up market stalls. Now they’re being moved out of the area and the government is putting better infrastructure in. This is redefining the cost of living in these areas. It’s not a matter of saying to people “You can’t come any more.”’

Oresanya’s words might be echoed by officials across the developing world. Our planet passed an extraordinary turning point last year. For the first time in history, more people worldwide now live in towns and cities than live in the countryside. In the next four decades, the world population is expected to rise from six to nine billion people. All of that increase, the UN predicts, will be urban; the rural population will shrink.

It is not only Lagos’s peers among the developing world megacities – Mumbai, Dhaka, Calcutta, Karachi, Kinshasa, Cairo - that are experiencing its problems and groping for solutions. There are hundreds of vast cities, little known outside their own countries, expanding out of the global eye. China has 93 cities with more than a million inhabitants; India has 40. Medan, Surabaya, Semarang, Palembang and Ujung Pandang - chances are you haven’t heard of all or any of them, but each is an Indonesian city with more than a million people. Nigeria itself has seven more million-plus cities after Lagos. They are being built by capitalism, corruption and class warfare rather than planners; by forces deeper and older than market forces – family forces.

Ambition, as well as desperation, has driven migrants to the cities for millenia. That journey made Europe. And as alarming as it is to look forward to a world where six billion people live in cities, many of them, perhaps, resembling Lagos more than Singapore, the future which was predicted for the developing world four decades ago was bleaker.

In the late 1960s, it was widely forecast that the world couldn’t expand food production fast enough to cope with the planet’s soaring population. Taking his cue from the nineteenth century English clergyman Thomas Malthus, an American entomologist, Paul Ehrlich, published a best-selling book, The Population Bomb, which forecast mass starvation on an unprecedented scale. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” he wrote. “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

It may yet happen. But it didn’t happen. So far, the neo-Malthusians have been wrong. The prophet who has been right up till now is the Danish economist Ester Böserup, who died in 1999. She pointed out that people in poor countries can be just as capable of adapting to change as their rich world cousins. Men like Ehrlich assumed that if the number of mouths to feed went up, food production wouldn’t, and mass starvation would result. Böserup predicted, correctly, that societies threatened by population explosions and hunger would have the wit to seek ways of growing more food and having fewer babies.

But Böserup also foresaw the scale of despair and dog-eat-dog struggle in cities like Lagos. A country, like Nigeria, which doesn’t invest in infrastructure nationwide, uses its oil wealth to import food and puts cities ahead of the countryside, will end up, she said, with ‘an over-dimensional metropolis in a country of rural misery.’

One day I went looking for the growing edge of Lagos, the place where, as I naively imagined it, I would see a vanguard of scaffolding and building materials spreading out into untouched bush, with the newest districts of the city right behind them. I thought of a city growing like mould on fruit, an expanding circle. I had forgotten that cities don’t grow like that in the age of the car. They grow like ivy, shooting out roads for tendrils, sprouting leaf-like settlements and businesses off that narrow line.

The most urgent tendril of Lagos now is the four-lane highway that reaches out from the old colonial heart of the city, Lagos Island – with the down-at-heel skyscrapers of the 1980s business district at one end, the rich post-colonial residences of Ikoyi at the other – across Five Cowrie Creek, through the smart new banking and shopping district of Victoria Island and on east into the Lekki peninsula.

To aspirational Lagosians – that is to say, all of them – the word ‘Lekki’ provokes both hope and despair. It conjures up a dream of space, of an affordable family house where children can breathe and stretch out; and a nightmare of hours – four or five a day is common – spent in gridlock on the Lekki highway, commuting to work in a city where car is king.

Taibat Lawanson, a young mother who teaches at the urban planning department of the University of Lagos, moved to Lekki. She told me that she had to get up at five in order to be at work by eight. ‘If I don’t leave work by four, then I don’t get home before eleven. But that’s where we got land to build, and it’s really peaceful at the weekend. At least the children can go out and play. It’s a small sacrifice to make so that the children can have a childhood rather than being cooped up in a flat in the centre of town.’

The land on either side of the Lekki highway has been fought over, parcelled out, sold, but much of it not yet built on. Unpaved roads shoot off into the bush towards new housing developments. Reeds grow out of stagnant ponds filled with rubbish. Traders sell bricks, planks, giant steel staples, gates by the roadside. Land fraud – people selling land they don’t own, building on land that hasn’t been sold – is rife. Building after building is daubed with the warning THIS LAND IS NOT FOR SALE. A recent petition to the Lagos state police commissioner from the family of the hereditary head of the local Olumegbon chieftaincy describes how a developer began building on their land without having bought it. In January the dispute escalated into a violent confrontation which – the Olumegbon clan claims – led to the local police shooting at them, arresting family members and beating and cutting them till blood flowed.

The road, lined with banks and churches, reminded me of Texas. A dialogue between Christ and Mammon sputters at the expressway’s edge. Jesus – The Answer. Zenith Bank. Skye Bank. Mountains of Fire and Miracles Ministry. Gracespring Chapel (Oil of Gladness Ministries Inc). GT Bank. EcoBank. Holy Fire Evangelical Church. Consuming Fire Christian Ministry.

In many ways, Lagos is a right-wing Texan’s paradise: rich or middle-class families are resigned to doing everything for themselves, spurning a venal and incompetent government. There’s little public transport, so you drive. The state schools aren’t good, so you aspire to send your children to a private school. There are few landlines, so you have mobile phones. There is almost no central water supply, so you dig your own well. There are no sewers, so you have a septic tank. Mains electricity works only a few hours a day (for a population more than twice as large as Britain, Nigeria generates less than a tenth of the electricity) so you have your own generator. No money? Work harder, pray harder, get better cronies. The standard car licence plate motto reads ‘Lagos: Center of Excellence’ but a slogan I saw painted on the back of a taxi seemed to better match the Lagosian ethos – ‘No Money, No Friend.’

I called on Mudashiru Lawal, hereditary chief of Igbara, an area at the heart of the Lekki land rush. A plumber by trade, he lives in a small two-storey house he calls his palace, surrounded by the same sort of ad hoc sprawl of wood and concrete structures, half-house, half-shop, that I saw in Ajegunle. The palace is being extended. While we talked some of his sons came to the threshold and prostrated themselves, the traditional Yoruba form of deference.

When the chief was a boy he lived in the country. Now, at 60, he lives in the city of Lagos. He hasn’t moved, but the city has. In his childhood the peninsula was cut by lakes, inlets and swamps. The family would gather coconuts and take them to Lagos on foot and by canoe, carrying it down to the boats on their heads in single file.

‘All our father are making farm,’ the chief said in his pidgin-influenced English. ‘When we come, making farm with them together. And every area that we were making farm been taken over by government building houses. All where we were making coconut farm, no more again. Farm for yam, for rice: no more again. Even to go to lagoon and fish: no more again...We can’t say we are going to continue as before. We have to move. We have to progress. But the progress we are making is too fast. We don’t know where we are going.

‘We have to think of tomorrow; that if we die, where are we going to sleep?’

I couldn’t understand what he meant by this until I realised that, in the race to build houses on Lekki, developers and the government have – besides all the other essential services they haven’t provided, like a hospital - failed to set a place aside to bury the dead.

The chief’s own male ancestors are buried in graves just below his window, partly covered bamboo scaffolding poles and building sand from his works. But local people can’t get away with that now. ‘In the olden days you have to make bury by the side of the houses,’ he said. ‘No-one to challenge. But now no any area again. No bush again. In fact some times we have a small portion where we bury something. But the government has taken over the area and built houses. They removed the bodies.

‘Where are we going? Every place government thing...and taking much of land. Government is taking land and build house and sell before the benefit of the people.’

It’s an article of faith in Lagos that the city’s population growth is caused by migrants, yet the chief has four wives, twelve children, twelve grandchildren and hundreds of nieces and nephews. The chief’s patrimony is not sufficient to provide for them all and they have had to scatter to other parts of the city’s periphery. Some of his daughters live in Badagry, a satellite town on the opposite, western side of Lagos.

  Most modern cities have three ways to grow – outwards to suburbs, upwards to the sky, or inwards to more crowded homes and smaller rooms. The high rise route is difficult for Lagos because the electricity shortage means people don’t trust lifts. And the move inwards doesn’t only affect the poor in rookeries like Ajegunle. As their families grow, the middle classes face hard choices.

‘Where I live currently, when I moved in there in 1995,’ said Dom Okori, the eminently middle class head of SERI, an organisation that campaigns for slum dwellers’ rights, ‘there were four units of housing occupied by four families. It looked palatial. It was very well built. At that point I paid 150,000 naira per year. Today I’m paying 800,000 a year. The place that used to house four families now houses twelve. It’s like a barracks. The alternative is you go out to the outskirts.’

Lagos’s state government has a planning department, and when I called on its head, Makinde Ogunleye, he cranked up the projector and his laser pointer and showed me what he called the regional master plan, filled with grand aspirations for a new airport in Lekki and a network of commuter railways. But he admitted that the city’s rampant growth since the plan was drawn up had undermined its meaning. ‘There’s a plan now to review the whole plan,’ he said.

Leke Oduwaye, who is Taibat Lawanson’s boss at the university’s planning department, was scornful of the sketchiness of the city’s outdated plan. Lagos, he said, knew neither what it was, nor what it ought to be.

‘We don’t actually know the magnitude of the problems we are trying to resolve,’ he said. ‘Why is the government trying to impose the developed world model of how a city should look on our cities? They’re shying away from the fact that our economy is not as advanced as those countries. We don’t have an economy that can adapt to all those big supermarkets. We buy things when we’re going home from work. People don’t earn much, they don’t have savings, they have to buy every day because there isn’t enough electricity for a freezer. By the time it comes together this is what you end up with; this dirty, fragmented city is what the economy can carry for now. If we shy away from that then we continue to inflict pain on our people.’

For Nigerians, of course, having many children doesn’t count as a failure; on the contrary, in Nigerian eyes, I – childless at 46 – am the unsuccessful one. And, as financial factors replace the need for work hands in families, Nigerian birth rates are dropping sharply. Men are more likely to think twice about taking additional wives (tolerated among Nigerian Christians as well as Muslims). But the baby bulge will take decades to work through.

  Clara Adetuyi, a lawyer and telecoms entrepreneur in her late fifties, was one of six children; she and her husband Kola, who these days spends most of his time in the capital Abuja, have four. At least one member of the next generation looks to be following this diminishing progression - her daughter Bola has two daughters and, with her husband Joseph, isn’t planning more.

Adetuyi lives in a comfortable, fifty-year-old, two storey house in the shabby-genteel central district of Yaba. Yellow trumpet flowers and a giant cactus poke up over her garden wall. When I called she offered me an iced coke and biscuits. Some of her grandchildren were watching TV in the roomy lounge. Early in our conversation the power failed and we began shouting over the noise of her generator.

Adetuyi’s story is the story of Nigeria – the struggle for national unity, for education, and for each new, bigger generation to prosper. Her father, the only son of one of a village chief’s many wives in the Igbo-speaking east of the country, got an educational head start in the 1930s when one of his stepmothers tried to get rid of him. Missionaries came to the village, recruiting children for a new school, and the stepmother, assuming that the missionaries planned to take the children as slaves, made Adetuyi’s father go with them, hiding her own sons. Only later did she realise that that the offer of education was genuine.

‘My father was one man who saw the future in education,’ said Adetuyi. ‘When I was a girl it was difficult for girl children to go to school and he was one of the pioneers. They’d say “Why train her? She’s just going to have children for another man’s family.” But he stuck to his guns.’ She got her education; she grew up in the Hausa-speaking north of Nigeria, survived the civil war which set the Igbos against the rest of the country, moved to Lagos and married a member of Nigeria’s third large ethnic group, a Yoruba.

Of her nineteen nephews and nieces, eleven live abroad, including four in Britain, but all her children live in Lagos. Each has done well, but none expects to be able to afford a family house in the centre of town like their mother. It’s Lekki, or tight, expensive, rented city centre space. Bola and Joseph have already made the move to Lekki and Adetuyi frets about their gruelling commute.

  Adetuyi’s eldest daughter Yetunde is 36, also a lawyer. With her businessman husband Alvin she has two children of eight and one. They live in a rented flat in Yaba; it’s handy for work, and she can drop her children off at their grandmother’s easily. But even with only two children the family is beginning to feel cramped, and they’re thinking about having more. Exile to the suburbs looms. ‘I want the kids to grow up with what I was used to, having my own space to play,’ she said. ‘The rents are beginning to get very high in Yaba. I don’t want to move out and I don’t want to move to Lekki, but...’

Her unmarried brother Olusegun, who is 28 and still lives at home, said space had tightened. ‘When I was was natural to find a house like this with a family in it,’ he said. ‘Right now, in this neighbourhood, it’s almost a rarity to meet one family living in this sort of house.’

Like his mother, who praised the governor’s lack of ‘sentimentality’ over the demolition of slums and illegal markets and the ‘stupidity’ of the people who built where they weren’t allowed to, Olusegun foresaw a different Lagos. ‘There are a lot of people who are not supposed to be in Lagos,’ he said. ‘By the time people have to cope with things like parking tickets they’ll find they have no option but to move out. I’m sure it’s the same in London; people move out of the centre because it’s too expensive.’

Ajegunle may be Lagos’s biggest slum, but just around the corner from Yaba is its most visible slum, Makoko. It’s hard to miss. It lies under one of the city’s main bridges, the twisting motorway carrying traffic from Lagos Island to the mainland. It is smelled as much as seen. Sometimes there’s a smell of burning and sawdust from the smoky expanse of shacklike lumber yards, processing the log rafts rowed over the lagoon; sometimes a stench of rancid fish from the fishing families whose houses on stilts are spreading out into the black, contaminated waters of the lagoon; sometimes – a much rarer smell in the streets of Lagos than the fastidious European might imagine – the plain guff of human shit.

On Makoko Road one Friday morning recently, yellow minibuses and tuk-tuks bounced in and out of the ruts. Schoolchildren in purple blouses, pea-green wimples or lime-green shorts stalked dreamily through the crowds on their way to the local state schools.

A local head teacher assured me that state schools were absolutely free, and that they’d take any child who wanted to enrol, but it’s not that simple; by constantly pressuring the poorest parents for contributions to make the state school better – a hundred naira to repair toilets here, a hundred for extra books there – the better-off parents force the poorest parents out. The strain of the growing number of poor children, their parents ever more desperate to educate them, is taken up by private schools like St Mary’s in Makoko, which will squeeze a child in for the equivalent of ten to fifteen pounds a term.

I visited St Mary’s one morning, walking down an alley where families were washing in basins heated on open fires. The school is a shed roughly seven metres by three, made of rough planks nailed together and a corrugated metal roof, with no electricity, no water, no window glass and a dirt floor. Into this space six teachers and more than a hundred children in six classes are squeezed, without partitions except a couple of blackboards. In one tiny space in the middle of the room, crammed shoulder to shoulder on three benches, a class of seventeen was being taught algebra. They listened with furious concentration, writing down everything in jotters with slow, round, loving loops on their g’s and y’s, as the teacher waved a dog-eared book entitled General Mathematics and soaked his shirt in sweat, yelling to make himself heard over the noise of the other teachers. Fixed to the wall behind the teacher was a poster showing photographs of a man on a stirring progress through life. ‘OBAMA 1st American Black President,’ it said.

‘Every day people do come from outside and at the same time the number of children is increasing, every day,’ said Ita Edet, the school head. ‘If you count the population this morning and come again tomorrow you see it will increase.’

Outside there was the beat of a drum as a funeral procession went past and the kindergarten children at one end of the shed jumped up, giggling, and began to dance. On my way in, I’d seen a group of laughing locals pelt each other with flour in celebration of a birth. Perhaps it was honours even for mortality in Makoko that day. As the district becomes more crowded, illness and malnutrition prevail. A clinic near the school, set up by Dominicans nine years ago, is seldom patronized because local people can’t afford the drugs, even though they are half price. The clinic’s matron, Livina Nwabu, spoke of chronic diarrhoea, gastro-enteritis, typhoid, malaria and measles, often exacerbated by treatment with native remedies. With large families living in single rooms, isolating the infected was impossible. Her experienced eyes saw the symptoms of too many mouths to feed. ‘There are many children here who are starving,’ she said.

  I went back to Makoko two days later. It was cooler after the rains. It was a Sunday. Two small girls in the long white dresses of the local white garment church raced past me on what was, judging by their faces, a serious angelic mission. Their bare feet made a soft pattering sound on the mud.

I went to see Bumi Lott, a 38-year-old mother of six children, four of whom are at St Mary’s. Her and her husband between them earn about a hundred pounds a month as prophets at the Holy Ghost Church of God; a quarter of that, she estimates, goes on the children’s education. Sometimes she and her husband go short so that the children get three meals a day. Here was another answer to the question ‘Where do all those extra people go?’ The family, all eight of them, live in a single room with chicken wire on the windows, a shoe tidy hanging from the blue painted wall and a double bed. There is about a metre of additional space on two sides of the bed.

Before praying for me and my colleague Sam, the prophetess outlined her vision for the future. ‘I pray not to die here,’ she said. ‘I hope to build my own house some day. The important thing is education. I want my children to have an education. I’m hoping one will become a doctor, one will become a pharmacist, one will become a nurse. I’m hoping that my children will move abroad and when life is good for them they will say “Mum, come join us.”’

A young boy came in and looked at the visitors in surprise. He must have been ten. ‘This is Michael,’ said Bumi Lott. ‘He’s going to be a doctor.’