BY ‘FEMI BALOGUN
Footbridges provide connections for communities to safely and easily access basic services and opportunities, but this infrastructure is either in a poor condition or non-existent in many underserved communities around the world. A key challenge to constructing and sustaining road networks in underserved communities is the fact that their transport infrastructure is simply underserved. This is because they are often difficult to access, with complex logistics and limited local contracting capability as well as the paucity of skilled engineers. This condition leaves residents in communities like Ago-Egun disconnected from safe access to school, health care as well as employment and other economic opportunities.
Ago-Egun is a fishing community on the Makoko/Iwaya waterfront in the Bariga area of Lagos. It is part of the several other communities that constitute one of the largest aquatic trading communities on the suburb of the mainland coast of the Lagos lagoon.While this may seem like a beautiful scenery for tourism and relaxation, the waterways and canal along Ago-Egun and its environs are not so fancy to look at. Essentially, the settlements that constitute the Makoko/Iwaya community is branded by a plethora of unplanned settlements that remains a flashpoint of environmental degradation particularly the canal that straddles the community. The canal is surrounded by heaps of refuse and the stench of human waste putting the lives of community dwellers at the risk of air and water borne diseases.
The extent of environmental decay and the trauma of mobility that residents of Ago-Egun encounter on a daily basis as a price for survival remains a collective embarrassment and is enough reason for any responsible government to act. This leadership gap shaped the basis of the community development project implemented by selected students from Fazil Omar Secondary School, Iwaya, Lagos. The community change project formed part of the key activities they had to engage in during the year long leadership and life skills training organised by LEAP Africa tagged ‘iLEAD’.
Having to cross the canal to school, the students explain the difficulties they must encounter daily using a boat. They must wait on long queues and endure the stench of both material and human waste resulting in lateness to school and acute disorientation. If their school uniform gets stained from splashes of the smelly murky water of the canal, they either go to school that way or return home. For many of the students, returning home means they are done for school that day, due to having just one pair of uniform.
At the community level, traders and business people are disconnected from potential customers because of the trauma associated with crossing the canal. Artisans such as carpenters, plumbers and builders who live in Ago-Egun are also cut off from business and employment opportunities. Students give account of experiences where traders loose valuable goods in the canal as well as the suffering that comes with it. Residents of Ago-Egun community were left with no viable alternative, leaving many stranded and the continued hurdle of life-threatening crossing. Furthermore, the difficulty associated with access to other basic services like health care was a nightmare especially for pregnant women and people who have emergencies.
After defining the many problems that the absence of a bridge imposes on the community, the students with support from their teachers were able to bring together critical stakeholders to support the building of the footbridge.Beginning with the local chief of the community, the students sold the vision and were able secure buy-in. This allowed them to leverage the influence of the chief to garner the support of local artisans who provided labour at a reduced rate and to negotiate the cost of materials required to construct the bridge. This is because the students were only provided with a seed fund of N50,000 (approx. $150) from LEAP Africa which required them to engage their enterprise abilities to fundraise with support from their teachers. Following this, the students went seeking the audience of other groups and individuals within the community to spread the word and to also raise additional resources to support the construction of the bridge.
In the aftermath of the bridge construction, speaking with community members revealed how enthralled they were about what ‘their children’ (as they described them) had achieved. The intervention essentially can be defined as the moment of leadership emergence for the students who had articulated a vision and communicated this to a useful degree as they engaged stakeholders to realise an outcome that was for the good of the entire community. In this case, leadership comes to play as this group of students were able to meet certain social needs, having released into the social context certain ideas and tendencies that was well received because they indicate solutions of needs which are dimly sensed.
Demonstrating excitement, our conversation with the community chief revealed that an initial makeshift bridge had been damaged during a political rally. The local government had initially promised to fix the bridge, but the promise never came through. As a result, he was in full praise of the students and in awe to learn of how enterprising 14-year-old teenagers had become. The reconstruction of the bridge according to him had brought ease to the community – the women who are trading, the students who go to school, as well as artisans who have jobs on the other side of the city.
Just at the foot of the bridge we met James. James owns a barber shop close to the bridge, he seemed to be smiling when we asked him how excited he was about the bridge. He replied us reluctantly – ‘the bridge don dey bring customer’ (meaning the footbridge is bringing in customers) and kept moving his hands directing us towards the local chief. While at the site we witnessed how people commuted on the bridge with ease – everyone seemed to have abandoned the boats by the bank of the canal.
We were able to determine that over 800 people use the footbridge daily, enabling residents to have access to both sides of the community as well as ease access to school and the health care centre on the Iwaya side of the canal. Before the footbridge, accessing the other side had its hazards, but this appears to have deceased significantly. From an economic perspective, the footbridge holds the potential of increasing household income and investments into the community more broadly. At the domestic level this is substantial, and at the community level this is massive. A simple footbridge has transformed the lives of the people of Ago-Egun.
Although we were unable to determine how long the bridge would last, residents of Ago-Egun have been reconnected after a long time of isolation.The footbridge may likely weaken when the rains return, but the students have already won the hearts of the community and this will make it easy for them to mobilise the community again, if the bridge comes crashing down. The implicit notion here is that the students have not only been inspired to become good citizens, but they have also been equipped and empowered to lead change in their communities and beyond – a life skill to exercise leadership.
The project was initiated by selected SS1 students from Fazil Omar Secondary School as part of their community development initiative on LEAP Africa’s leadership and life skills training programme called ‘iLEAD’. iLEAD is a one-year public secondary school leadership programme that equips underserved youth in public secondary schools with leadership and life skills and aimed at transforming mindsets and equipping youth to be value creators and change agents.
Balogun is manager MERL, LEAP Africa.