I recently came across the inspiring story of the floating school of Makoko in Lagos. Architect Kunlé Adeyemi found himself drawn to Makoko, a slum located in the coastal African city of Lagos where many of the buildings are erected on piers that reach to the bottom of the shallow littoral waters.  But unlike many of the other structures in Makoko, the school does not rest on the ocean floor. It rests on water.

“I visited Makoko and was very inspired by the environment…they created a lot almost out of nothing,” Adeyemi says.  After spending some time with community members, he then asked them what they wanted built. They said a school. “I decided to learn from the environment and also help improve the environment.” Adeyemi spent time speaking to carpenters in the community in order to figure out how to best approach a solution.

The school is more than a place for education, it’s a place for “convergence.” The top two floors of the school is where the actual schooling takes place, but the base floor is open (literally and figuratively) so that the public can meet for gaming, trade, and other events.

Kunlé Adeyemi states that although the floating school Started off as a personal/corporate responsibility project it soon became so much more. “It’s not just about building a school, it’s really about addressing a significant issue that we are beginning to see in coastal African cities,” namely urbanization and climate change.

Adeyemi’s efforts speak to the possibilities of working with a community vs. bringing a top down approach where the community does not have any agency whatsoever. It’s a common approach to development and investment: an organization comes in with good intentions, but does not put in the time to listen to what the community needs and how they envision carrying it out, and ends up implementing an uninformed outsider plan that does not actually help the local community.

I’m proud to say that at the U.N. Diplomatic Services Corp. we constantly strive to work with communities, instead of over them. We partner with local NGOs, volunteers, and missionaries to bring clean water, food, and much needed infrastructure to the people in the way that they need it. Seeing those like Kunlé Adeyemi carry out the same work inspires me to keep doing the work that I am doing and to do it better.