‘We needed to do more’: volunteers step up in lockdown Lagos

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Groups of professionals are helping deliver essential packages in Nigeria’s largest city

Twelve friends fill hundreds of carefully arranged aid packages into four cars, then trail through Oniru’s empty streets, past sky-coloured luxury apartment blocks.

In what is notionally an affluent suburb along Lagos’s coastline, the cars stop outside the shells of abandoned, part-constructed buildings, and the friends file into the informal housing compounds that sprawl within.

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World news | The Guardian

Twelve friends fill hundreds of carefully arranged aid packages into four cars, then trail through Oniru’s empty streets, past sky-coloured luxury apartment blocks.

In what is notionally an affluent suburb along Lagos’s coastline, the cars stop outside the shells of abandoned, part-constructed buildings, and the friends file into the informal housing compounds that sprawl within.

They unload packages and tick off names from a growing spreadsheet of hundreds of families in need of food and other supplies.

For years, the group of professionals in their 30s and 40s have delivered weekly or fortnightly packages to the poor in Orile, an underprivileged area of Nigeria’s largest city, and Oniru, where they live.

But since a lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus, their task has become more urgent.

“As soon as the lockdown hit we knew we needed to do more,” says Fifehun Osinkanlu, one of the friends. “You could see how desperate people are, it was really overwhelming and glaring.”

The lockdown in Lagos, which accounts for more than half of Nigeria’s 2,000 confirmed infections, is due to gradually ease from Monday. Yet the impact on millions, particularly those living on the edge in daily informal labour has been acute.

Amid limited government support, an outpouring of hundreds of initiatives has emerged across Lagos, providing food and essential goods. A range of food and aid distribution has been set up by NGOs, private businesses, community groups and local people.

People stand well apart as they wait for food aid. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

Fifehun started volunteering in the group started by Ann Ogunsulire, a coordinator at an NGO, and Daryn Wober, a yoga teacher living in Oniru. Through Daryn’s yoga WhatsApp groups and by appealing to their friends, the couple solicited money to buy food and sanitary products. These donations are sent to their home and packaged and delivered on weekends.

“We were feeding around 570-600 families each time we went out, in the space of around three or four streets,” says Wober. “Since the lockdown we deliver to about 1,000.”

The group, now called Feed The Streets Lagos, keeps records of the locations, size and specific needs of the families they give aid to. “After a while we got to know these people, so we could better understand their needs,” says Ogunsulire. ”

Lagos’ government says it has provided “food stimulus packages” to 250,000 people, and cash transfers to a further 250,000, out of the city’s 22 million people.

Nigeria’s government is providing support to the poorest 3.6 million people, in payments of up to 20,000 naira ($51) a month.

Yet the support only scratches the surface. Even before the effects of the lockdown, 87 million people in Nigeria lived in extreme poverty, according to the Brookings Institute.

The support has also been too simplistic, Ogunsulire says. “People have needs that are not just food. You can have food but no cooking oil. You can have cooking oil but no fuel. You can be able to eat but not have water or other really vital needs.”

Ten days into lockdown, Noella Nwakwesi, an interior designer, noticed several people in her neighbourhood in Lekki holding placards saying: “I am hungry”.

Residents make use of the food bank in Oniru. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

“The numbers were growing everyday,” says Nwakwesi, who formed the Lekki Food Bank.

Volunteers made up of young professionals, including bankers, consultants and pastors, distribute roughly 1,000 meals a day and 500 packages of dry food and water.

Six days a week, by midday long queues stretch into empty streets, each person standing along chalked markings on the road, with police standing by enforcing social distancing.

“We’ve been humbled by the donations,” Nwakwesi says. “We have a long-term goal to combat specifically food insecurity in our local communities.”

Other groups like the Lagos Food Bank existed before the lockdown started, building on existing systems, donations and partnerships.

Fast food and manufacturing companies have donated food packages and face masks. The group provides sanitisers and additional help targeted at mothers.

Cardboard packages and plastic bags are delivered in vans all blazoned with the Lagos Food Bank Initiative green-and-white logo. A medical team at locations where help is distributed provides check-ups for locals.

The Coalition Against Covid-19 (CACovid) is the most high-profile private sector initiative to emerge in recent weeks. The group, led by three Nigerian billionaires, has pledged 23 billion naira ($59m) to provide food aid for 10 million Nigerians.

Yet help has also been highly individual.

Fighting restlessness amid the hours under lockdown, multimedia artist Taiye Idahor dug out sewing instruments that she’d long abandoned in storage. For a few hours a day, she started sowing masks from scraps of fabric, then handing them out to those who needed them on her street.

“It’s just my little way to help where I can, I barely see people wearing them here in my neighbourhood”, she says. “People should support who and where you can. Nothing is too small.”


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