In March 2018, Allyn Gaestel, a writer and journalist, published a story titled ‘Things Fall Apart’. She describes herself as a writer who explored human dignity and complexity “through narrative reportage on human rights, inequality, urbanity, gender, art and other topics.”
Gaestel’s story immediately grabbed the attention of several individuals and publications in Nigeria and around the world. It chronicled the deception and mismanagement that beset Makoko, one of the largest slum settlements in Lagos, Nigeria, located just beside the famous Third Mainland Bridge. It’s a story of high hopes and damaged dreams, of towering ambition and paralysing duplicity.
Kunlé Adeyemi, a young architect driven by ambition, decided to design a school that floats on the water so that the children in Makoko could broaden their minds and experience education in new, innovative ways. Adeyemi’s quest might have started out in nobility, but it quickly descended into a tale of greed and desperate cover-ups.
Ventures Africa spoke with Allyn Gaestel who told us more about how she picked up the story and her experience writing it.
Ventures Africa (VA): What prompted you to follow this story? Was there a particular event or news?
Allyn Gaestel (AG): I was fascinated by the dichotomy between the image of the school and the reality that I found on the ground for years before I wrote the piece. It was common knowledge among those with any intimacy with the school that it was dysfunctional, so I was fascinated by the gloss around it and I wondered how the projected image endured and grew.
Over the years I was thinking about the school I was also fascinated with public image, social media curation, etc more broadly and very unsettled by certain hypocrisies. I pitched the story before the collapse; but when the school fell down it seemed the narrative clicked into place and that is when I did most of the heavy reporting.
VA: Can you share specific instances of opposition you encountered while investigating the story?
AG: The opposition to my reporting is outlined in the piece because I think it is an important part of the story. Despite multiple attempts, the architect opted not to speak to me for the story, and a baale said the architect asked him not to let journalists near the collapsed school. While the architect had every right to choose not to comment, his refusal furthered some of the points I was making about control of the narrative, particularly given how very many interviews he gave about the school before its collapse.
What was your first big break in the story?
I suppose that living in Lagos and hearing about the collapse and being able to go directly there is a bit of a break. I don’t think in those terms, though, really. I am grateful to everyone who opened up to me and shared their truths, their feelings, their experiences and knowledge.
VA: In the story, you swing between past and present and between characters. What was the process of organising all these ideas like? Walk us through that.
AG: Narrative structure is something I have struggled with and tried to learn for years. I tend to report really wide and writing is about tightening and pulling everything into something coherent and rhythmic and hopefully beautiful. There is a LOT of rearranging in the process. I thought about the organization of the piece for the entire time I was reporting and writing it, outlined it twice, diagrammed it over and over, talked it over (and over and over) with some talented women writers I am lucky to have as friends, and I had a brilliant editor at The Atavist, Seyward Darby.
I knew there were moments that I wanted to bang, and others I wanted to muse. I knew I needed to fold in a lot of history and context for the piece to ring true and have substance. Moving between the different actors was the most challenging part. It also took a lot to figure out what to give away at top and what to hold back until the end, and how to make space for the people in the piece to evolve.
VA: Your article has been shared by big platforms like Longform and QZ. How has the reception made you feel?
AG: It has been gratifying to see the piece moving around the Internet. I’ve seen tweets in several languages about it, which is great because the story tussles with themes I have seen and thought about all over the world. It is a Nigerian story but it is more so a very human story. I like seeing how people are unsettled by it and pushed to keep thinking and questioning–that’s what I wanted to do.
Sebastian Junger once said that as a journalist “You’re not supposed to tell people what to think, you’re supposed to tell people what to think about” and I like that. The point is to elucidate the world in all of its messiness and contradiction and raise unsettling questions for people to wrestle with. Social change and growth in general are not easy and there are ethical inquiries that should be tussled with.
VA: What is your biggest takeaway from the experience of writing a story of this magnitude?
AG: I love it! I am obsessed with subtleties and layers and I love the kinds of essays and long form narratives that get at the complexity and depth of our human experience. There is always more, and I love a format that has space for all of it.
VA: What do you think the future holds for Makoko Floating School?
AG: I don’t know. I think if there were a meaningful public debate about its successes and failures there would be more of a chance to learn from it and evolve it’s concepts–preferably in a setting that does not put children at risk—but it depends on the players involved.