By Damilola Onafuwa

Arete photographer Damilola Onafuwa tells us about his experiences on assignment for our client the World Food Programme in May 2020. He was documenting their rollout of a home school-feeding programme in disadvantaged areas of Lagos in response to the Coronavirus lockdown.

Arete Photographer Damilola Onafuwa on assignment for WFP in Lagos, Nigeria, on 21st May, 2020. © Damilola Onafuwa

Lagos is the economic centre of Nigeria. With a population of about 25 million people, it is densely populated with a largely informal economy. Most people have to earn their living daily.

The first COVID-19 case in Nigeria was in my home city, Lagos. When it was first discovered, I could not help but wonder what a major breakout in Nigeria would be like. My main worry was that if COVID-19 spread here, it would be a disaster nobody was prepared for. It was clear that the people living in low-income areas would be the most affected.

I have lived and worked in Lagos most of my life and the rhythm of the city is like nothing I have experienced anywhere else: the colors, the noise, and the lifestyle. Lagos is a place of activity; everything is loud here, the music, the markets, the often-cramped yellow buses, the churches and mosques. At the end of March 2020, the President announced a lockdown of Lagos and other major cities within the country to help stop the spread of COVID-19. All economic activities were halted and everyone was told to stay at home to curb the spread of the virus.

A crowded Balogun market in Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria on 25 September 2018. Photo: Damilola Onafuwa

Another major issue presented itself as Lagos went into lockdown. With economic activities on pause, the vast majority of people who depended on daily incomes to feed their families were no longer able to make a living. This seriously affected their ability to get by.

Almost two months later, a few days after the government started to ease the lockdown, I was on assignment with the World Food Programme (WFP) who were providing technical support to Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. I was documenting the provision of home food rations to parents of children in Primary 1–3 enrolled in schools that had been closed in the lockdown.

An empty classroom with books in a Primary School in Lagos, Nigeria, on 22nd May, 2020. Photo: Arete / Damilola Onafuwa / WFP
An empty classroom with books in a Primary School in Lagos, Nigeria, on 22nd May, 2020. Photo: Arete / Damilola Onafuwa / WFP

I was eager to see what difference this intervention would make for the beneficiaries; I wondered what it was like to stay locked up inside your house for weeks with no source of income because your income depended largely on daily sales.

On the first day of distribution, we visited Makoko, which is the largest slum in Lagos. The scale of the population living here in stilted houses is unknown but understood to be at least 100,000. Makoko is situated along the Lagos Lagoon, between the Lagos Mainland and Lagos Island. You can see the vast stilted community from the 3rd Mainland Bridge. I had enjoyed working in Makoko several times before and was keen to return. I was accompanied by Adedeji from WFP Nigeria. We boarded a wooden boat and were rowed for about 20 minutes to the home of Alice Tinsheme, a grandmother who was receiving the food ration for her grandson David, aged 8. David’s parents live and work in Cotonou, Benin and he lives with his grandmother, attending school in Makoko.

A view of Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria, on 21st May, 2020. Photo: Arete / Damilola Onafuwa / WFP

Alice works as a fish smoker. She buys the fish from fishermen, smokes them and supplies them to stalls at the market. She told us her business had been seriously impacted by the lockdown because the markets have been closed. With nowhere to supply her fish to, her income had vanished. She said all the money she had saved had to be spent on feeding herself and her dependents.

Alice Tinsheme, aged 50, and her grandson David, aged 8, receive their food voucher in her home in Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria. 21st May, 2020. Photo: Arete / Damilola Onafuwa / WFP

Alice’s story highlights the impact of the Coronavirus lockdown on people from low-income communities in Lagos.

The next day food distribution started in the schools. Parents had received food vouchers the previous day in their homes and were invited to come to the school and collect their take-home food rations. At the entrance, a tap of running water and soap was provided and the WFP staff ensured that everyone maintained social distancing.

A beneficiary of the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme washes her hands in Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria on 22nd May, 2020. Photo: Arete / Damilola Onafuwa / WFP

The beneficiaries were asked to present their food vouchers for verification. After this, their names were checked from a database and they were invited to collect their food rations. It was a really easy process so everyone could get their food on time and go back home.

Beneficiaries of the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme observe social distancing as they get their food vouchers verified on 22nd May, 2020. Photo: Arete / Damilola Onafuwa / WFP

On Monday 25th May 2020, I met Elizabeth who was also a beneficiary of the program. Her daughter Geraldine is student of the school and she had come to collect the food on her behalf. She told me that her dream for her daughter would be for her to “get to great heights”. She wanted her to get the education that she had missed out on herself. She expressed concern for how the lockdown had affected Geraldine’s studies but made clear that she was grateful for the food they had received. The food provision meant they would be able to manage for a while, waiting for the economy and schools to reopen.

The distribution continued for the rest of the week. I met and spoke with other parents who had been affected but were trying to stay safe while still providing for their families.

I know it is unrealistic to meet the needs of everyone affected by the impact of the Coronavirus, but I could see how initiatives like this WFP one really help to cushion the effect of such a sudden economic downturn. As the lockdown lifts and Lagos opens gradually, people will start to get back to work and be able to make a living once more.

Elizabeth Anabu, aged 30, speaks with her daughter Geraldine Anabu in their home in Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria on Monday 25th May 2020. Photo: Arete / Damilola Onafuwa / WFP

There was no shortage of technical challenges shooting in this location. Firstly, it was at the beginning of the rainy season in Lagos and we had to time the canoe trips by reading the weather so as to avoid torrential downpours. The journeys take a minimum of 20 minutes but it’s easy to get caught up in canoe-traffic-jams for a long time. Another risk to avoid was falling into the water from the canoe, as happened to me on a previous shoot in Makoko — fortunately, I managed to avoid this fate on this occasion.

Gaining access to shoot in this community was a delicate process. I worked with a fixer from within the community who was able to negotiate with the area boys to vouch for our team’s integrity. They were suspicious that we were from the government trying to evict them. Our fixer acted as a gatekeeper and a conduit for establishing trust within the community who, understandably, wanted to know how the images would be used. Once we were found to be non-threatening, the people of Makoko were incredibly warm, friendly and welcoming, even offering us food and water.

The homes of the families we were visiting in Makoko were all tiny and very dark, which created a big challenge for composition and exposure. I handled this by avoiding compositions that showed the windows, but they (and their accompanying flare) were hard to avoid. On some occasions, I was able to make good use of the stark silhouettes that these conditions create. An example of this is with the portrait of Elizabeth and her daughter, shown above, which I exposed for the scene they were looking out onto. This showed them in their immediate surroundings: their world, from their point of view.

It was a real privilege to shoot this assignment for the WFP. It felt so important to bear witness to what this extraordinary moment in global history looks like in a place like Makoko.

See more of Damilola’s photos in this article on the WFP website.


From Our Photographer: Covering Coronavirus in Lagos’ Slum-on-Stilts. was originally published in Arete Stories on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.