MamaG stands for Mother General, she is the mother of all at the Flyover Market. MamaG is Ibibio, born in the rural Etinan and moved to Port Harcourt after marriage in search for better life opportunities. For more than a decade, from Sunday to Sunday, she sets up her stall at 7am and doesn’t stop for a second. Clients are constantly coming to buy drinks and to make deposits in the money pool she manages. Every transaction is carefully accounted by hand in her small notebook. They call this type of collective loan/savings system akao. It’s a business model based on trust among peers, which allows people to access larger sums of money than they would otherwise be able to. It’s apparent that MamaG is incredibly respected and trusted to have this responsibility. She is a real business woman, an akao-woman.

By the end of the day, MamaG closes her stall and pays night watchers to take care of her belongings. She used to share business responsibilities with her husband, but now she needs to operate on her own, with her son stopping by at times. As she heads to the bus stop, flyers pasted to pillars with the likeness of Harry Bassey, a.k.a. PapaG, share details of his upcoming funeral. The posters remind the market that MamaG is newly widowed, although the grieving is hard to spot in this tough woman.

Back to her home, in the pitch black of night, MamaG prepares to sleep with the help of a battery-powered lamp. She lives with her son in a small room in a crowded tenement shared with about 10 other families. She moved there in 2009, after her house at a waterfront community was brutally demolished at an eviction. Their water-based home was humble, but it was a home of their own.

Years of her family’s investment shattered in front of her eyes. Now she has to cope with the loss of a life-long partner. MamaG will manage, as she always does, with assertiveness and composure. She is a woman of few words but with many names: MamaG in business, Ediye among her husband’s family, Bakara at her father’s village, Imaobong at her mom’s. She calls herself Love.

Port Harcourt - Nigeria

The history of Port Harcourt is a history of brutal extraction. The city of 1.86 million inhabitants (2016) was founded in 1913 by British colonizers as the port to transport coal found in Enugu, taking over the land from Ijaw, Ikwerre and Ogoni peoples. Port Harcourt’s deep waters and many creeks provided the ideal conditions to transport minerals by train from inland to the Atlantic.

Today Port Harcourt is still a key port in the country, and it’s main economic activity derives from crude oil and natural gas. Since the discovery of oil in the region in the late 1950’s, the city has been the oil capital of Nigeria, hosting headquarters of the main multinational companies. The money attracts migrants from all parts of Nigeria, leading to an urban population growth of 5.8% per year as of 2010. But the reality found in this Eldorado is a harsh one.

In Port Harcourt misery is blatant and ubiquitous. The wealth generated from oil extraction stays concentrated in the hands of very few while the rest survive in subhuman conditions. There is no middle ground. It’s even difficult to spot inequality there. The wealthy — many of them foreigners — stay in a couple fenced urban islands while the rest of Port Harcourt remains in the throes of chaos. A corrupt and inefficient government offers no alternatives to its people other than informal jobs and slum housing. It’s estimated that 65% of Port Harcourt lives in squatter settlements. Another good chunk, that lives in so-called “formal” parts of town, are in equally precarious conditions in crowded tenements with no running water, no sewage and intermittent electricity. Diesel generators are the most reliable source of power there.

The waterfronts of Port Harcourt’s creeks are crammed with self-built neighborhoods. The muddy ground is filled with debris, and from there the tiny houses are erected with scavenged materials. Needless to say, without sewerage and running water, the creeks are completely polluted with waste, creating all sorts of health and environmental issues. It’s common to see in the communities’ food markets people selling periwinkle collected a few meters away in those same creeks. Their shells are also used in construction, and this cycle establishes a vernacular of the area, with intelligent simplicity derived from necessity. However its ultimate impact is precarious, putting people at risk of sanitary disease and structural collapse.

Another constant threat, the most destructive one, comes from the government. Policies of demolition of squatter populations deteriorates a situation that is already at its limit. Without warning, people lose their homes with no viable relocation alternative. To these totally marginalized communities, there’s no other option but to rebuild themselves from scratch somewhere else.

In a constant loop of destruction and rebuilding, Port Harcourt is an incredibly resilient city. Streets and markets are teeming with people coming and going, non-stop, busy inventing their own way to exist. Always proper in their colorfully tailored clothes, it is so beautiful that it hurts.

The Mile One Market

The Mile One Market goes as far as the eye can see. The colorful umbrellas hide the train tracks connecting Port Harcourt to Aba.

Markets are an intrinsic part of Nigerian culture, and the demand for more market areas is as urgent as the demand for housing. The Mile One Market is a nodal point to generate employment and provide supplies to people not only from Port Harcourt, but also to surrounding villages. Many local idioms can be heard at the market, chatting, yelling and bargaining.

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