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Nigerians try to clean open sewers, haul away mountains of garbage; Lagos, a city struggling to save itself

By David WinderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The writer recently returned from Nigeria / February 24, 1984

When people speak of Lagos as the ultimate in urban nightmares, they're thinking of sprawling shantytowns like Ajegunle embedded in the teeming heartland of Africa's most congested city.

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In the musical language of West Africa, Ajegunle (pronounced aja-GUHN-lee) has a poetic ring to it, but there is nothing poetic about this teeming, pestilential place - a violent, lawless no man's land without roads, without water, without electricity, without planning, and, until recently, without sanitation or even hope.

The bright lights of Lagos beckon rural workers, turning Nigeria's capital into one of the world's fastest growing cities. The sad reality is often not higher paying jobs and better education, but the squalor, disease, and joblessness of places like Ajegunle - ''the jungle,'' as it is known locally.

But now Ajegunle, one of the most densely populated and worst-served areas of Lagos, has been targeted by the Lagos State government and the World Bank as part of a project to upgrade services, improve access roads, and bring in clean water.

Even now sanitation trucks, a new sight in this wasteland of overcrowded lean-tos, open sewers, and overflowing hills of refuse, are beginning a cleanup operation that had not existed before.

The operation is not without its risks. Ajegunle is so desperate that it lives on a knife edge. The air sizzles from tropical heat and pent-up emotion.

The slightest provocation - an arbitrary ruling by an orange-shirted traffic policeman or a trivial argument over the price of eggs - can rage into a riot. Any authority is immediately suspect in an area that feels it has been denied man's most basic needs.

A Nigerian traveling in a marked government car in Ajegunle sped away when the car was identified, and a hoarse and angry cry went up: ''There's the man who steals our money.''

Taxi drivers in dented cars, almost inured to Lagos's frequent traffic accidents and armed robberies, pale at the thought of Ajegunle. They won't drive there. Alternative transportation must be found, and those who visit don't travel alone.

The Western visitor must slink unobtrusively into the back seat of an official car to visit the shantytown. The black driver must not look like an official, otherwise he may be pulled from the vehicle.

Doors are locked. Windows must be tightly closed despite the suffocating heat. The car must not pause. The engine dare not cut out. A suggestion to mingle with the crowds is sternly rebuked.

''They would tear you limb from limb if the mood turned ugly,'' an official of the Lagos Waste Disposal Board says. ''They would take one look at you. They would see your wristwatch and your gold wedding band. And they would know you were rich. Those two items are worth more than several months of food to them.''

Even the most cursory visit obtained through a back-seat window is a riveting education into the human plight and degradation of life for men, women, and children who must cook and eat over open sewers - sewers so clogged by garbage and human refuse that black pools of stagnant water ferment and bubble in the hot sun.

Ajegunle could hardly be worse. Like Calcutta in India, the poor and dispossessed scour the garbage piles to retrieve items of value - a piece of sheet metal to shore up the rickety house or even a button to put on a shirt.

Ajegunle is not representative of all of Lagos but speaks to many of the city's problems. Even on Broad Street, the main thoroughfare, there are craters at busy intersections that are neither repaired nor cordoned off. They are large enough to swallow a jeep, broad enough for six people walking abreast to topple into. Below, as in most parts of Lagos, lurks the malodorous sewer that sometimes only shifts its cargo when the monsoons strike, spilling refuse and raw sewage across the streets.

Lagos was built on an open drainage system. The idea was that the outgoing tide in this coastal lagoon city would carry the effluent out to sea. Tidal gates would then seal the city in. But with tidal gates in disrepair, all the sludge that floated out comes back in on the next tide.