In Common - Dele Adeyemo - The Black Infrastructural Life of Sedimentary Circulations

The Black Infrastructural Life of Sedimentary Circulations

Dele Adeyemo

On Mr Koja’s flyboat on Lagos Lagoon with the mainland in the distance. Still from the film Wey Dey Move (2022) directed by Dele Adeyemo from the installation Wey Dey Move: Imagining New Worlds Through Dance and Masquerade exhibited at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Image courtesy of author.

In Common
June 2023


Lagos is a megacity of twenty-four million people, where the legacies of slavery and colonialism have set in motion a great migration of an estimated two thousand people daily from across West Africa. As infrastructures of extraction—from the slave factory to the mega port—intensify development along the coastline, more and more people are drawn across a threshold of no return.

The rapid expansion of Lagos and the role that sand and sediments play in constructing its infrastructures and social lifeworlds highlights what writer Amitav Ghosh calls the “great derangement,” the global trend to intensify colonial patterns of urbanization on coastlines, even as they are eroded by climate change.1 After water, sand is the world’s most consumed natural resource. And as urban planning scholar Nehal El-Hadi declares, sand builds our worlds, yet our demand for it is destroying the world.2 Its apparent abundance is abstracted from the unthought crisis of its extraction. Repeated all over the city, this process is most spectacularly exemplified by the private development of Eko Atlantic City: a billion-dollar luxury real estate development that reclaimed over ten square kilometers of land from the ocean. Built where the now-legendary Bar Beach evaporated into the sea, the waterfront used to be one of the very few public spaces in the sprawling city. Providing a natural civic space, it has now been eroded by the depleting presence of the colonial port.3 Through changing sedimentary circulations, colonial infrastructures continue to compound catastrophe upon catastrophe.

The entrance channel to Lagos deep water harbour, constructed by the British Colonial administration in 1911. In the distance, Eko Atlantic City is under construction on sand dredged from the ocean floor at the former site of Bar Beach. Still from the film Wey Dey Move (2022) directed by Dele Adeyemo from the installation Wey Dey Move: Imagining New Worlds Through Dance and Masquerade exhibited at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Image courtesy of author.

In Lagos, as this pattern of urban expansion unfolds, shorelines disappear, riverbeds are devoured, and ecosystems are destroyed, making indigenous livelihoods unviable all in the voracious consumption and circulation of alluvial sediments. Yet even as the terraforming projects of real estate ensue, the rapid expansion of the urban remains dependent on hidden, multi-scalar assemblages of everyday social, ecological, and climatic lifeworlds that I call Black infrastructural life.

On any given night, well after sunset, when the day’s heat begins to radiate from the ground, a fleet of sand divers set sail from Sandbeach in the community of Oworonshoki on Lagos lagoon. In the black of night, thirty to forty vessels each operated by a crew of two or three men are carried by a light breeze and subtle currents. Allowing themselves to drift, they float on the waters of the lagoon until they arrive at a sandy shoal close enough to the surface for a diver to reach on a single breath. Here, they drop anchor and rest for the night with their boats braced together and huddled under their sails as blankets. At dawn, these crews will begin diving for sand, descending up to four meters below the surface with rusty metal buckets to gather sediment. They dive naked to avoid the weight of wet clothes, plunging over and over with little pause for rest, until their flat-bottomed barge is so laden with sand that the gunwales barely reach above the waterline.

This is risky, arduous work. Collecting sand from the seabed stirs up clouds of sediment that hide threats such as large fish with razor-sharp teeth, poison jellyfish, and flotsam from marine wreckages. Braving these dangers, the divers make up to fifteen dollars a day—or more if the wind allows a second trip. In Lagos, sand is categorized and regulated as a mineral, making these men subaquatic miners. Yet there is no protective union or industry regulation, and so the divers are self-employed laborers who cover all their own overheads. By relying on the wind, and using sails made from sewn-together rice sacks, the sand divers reduce their energy consumption and costs.

A crew of artisanal sand divers sailing back to Sanbeach with a full load in Oworonshoki, Lagos after a successful morning diving for sand on the lagoon. Still from the film Wey Dey Move (2022) directed by Dele Adeyemo from the installation Wey Dey Move: Imagining New Worlds Through Dance and Masquerade exhibited at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Image courtesy of author.

Commercial sand dredgers follow the divers like vultures, scavenging the most easily accessed sedimentary deposits for their machines to suck and pump the sand back to shore. This is a process that the anthropologist Anna Tsing describes as “salvage capitalism”—one where wealth is extracted from natural and human processes occurring outside the conditions that capitalism controls.4

As the fleet of sand divers returns to shore, sails on the horizon echo the ghosts of much larger galleons that loomed over the Atlantic coastline for more than four hundred years, spiriting away those who would soon become the unthought life that was central to the infrastructure of an emergent global capitalism. Today, as the divers’ sailing boats return to land laden with a cargo of fine alluvial sands that pour into the lagoon from the ocean and via multiple tributaries, the pattern of foreign infrastructural development repeats. Once the sand reaches the shore, the load enters the market as filling sand for land reclamation, or to be combined with cement to form cinder blocks and concrete for the city’s expanding settlements.

More than just the hidden labor of capital, the sedimentary circulations of the lagoon reveal the entangled forms of unthought life that underpin infrastructural development. Sedimentary extraction repeats the exploitation of Black infrastructural lives upon which infrastructural processes have always depended.

The process of sand being mechanically dredged from the lagoon to create new land in Oworonshoki, Lagos. In the foreground is the infrastructure of pipes for pumping the sand to the land. In the distance the traditional fish traps are visible. Still from the film Wey Dey Move (2022) directed by Dele Adeyemo from the installation Wey Dey Move: Imagining New Worlds Through Dance and Masquerade exhibited at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Image courtesy of author.


Lagos Lagoon is the product of thousands of years of shifting sedimentation. As riptides move thousands of tons of sand, depositing it in temporary banks, the eroding process of tides forms gullies, creating deeper depressions and more powerful waves. Sandbanks accumulate silt and debris. Mangroves and other vegetation begin to grow through this natural process of land formation.5 Through heavy surf and a continuous longshore drift, the shoreline is molded into a sandbar. Separate from the ocean, a liminal space emerges as a shallow body of water in the form of a shoal.

The lagoon as a shoal, as Tiffany Lethabo-King highlights, is a geological formation that compels our awareness of our contingent relation to nature. Like Black thought, it is “a place where momentum and velocity as normal vectors are impeded. It is a place where adjustment needs to be made … the shoal requires new footing, chords of embodied rhythms, and new conceptual tools to navigate its terrain.”6 How, then, might the lagoon’s hidden lifeworlds, with the mysticism, ecologies, and social histories that constitute Black infrastructural life, open up the possibility for new assemblages and conceptions of the human?

It is the morning after the night before. The last day of Slum Party, a festival organized by my collaborator Valu and his team that’s held at the place they call Power Base in lower Oworonshoki. I arrive shortly after dawn to meet Mr. Koja. Valu has arranged for me to travel with him on his canoe-like flyboat in order to record him fishing with the traditional method of the Akaja, a technique used throughout the Bight of Benin. Mrs. Koja, who has practically adopted me while I’ve been filming, is again feeding me freshly fried young tilapia with garri, mixed with water and sugar, and teaching me phrases in Yoruba, laughing at my pronunciation. Mr. Koja tells me he has been fishing these waters for over sixty years, and there isn’t a single spot on the 6,500 square kilometers of lagoon that he doesn’t know how to fish.

Jumie, Valu’s chief assistant for Slum Party as well as the children’s dance group organizer and leader of the mothers’ exercise club, is on hand to translate. Because Jumie is coming along on today’s trip, Mr. Koja’s daughters Koyin and Janet want to come too. And because they are bored and can no longer sleep, Valu’s assistants Wisdom and Isaac also decide to tag along. Before I know it, they are lugging a huge boom box into the fishing boat. As we leave our corner of Oworonshoki, the Afrobeat of Adindu Victor’s track “Confession” kicks in:

My darleeen, would you fly with me, inta-nash-an-al

You go dey with me for flight7

As we entered an unmarked watery highway, our boat taxis along an invisible track. Our perspective of the shore reveals not a slum but a series of villages on the lagoon, slowly awakening to the day.

The manual process of unloading sand from the boats at Sandbeach in Oworonshoki, where the sand is traded. Still from the film Wey Dey Move (2022) directed by Dele Adeyemo from the installation Wey Dey Move: Imagining New Worlds Through Dance and Masquerade exhibited at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Image courtesy of author.

It’s the beginning of Harmattan season, when for three months the trade winds blow desert sands from the Sahara over the city. In Lagos, Harmattan is not as dramatic as it is in the Sahel, but the light dusty fog fills the sky enough to dim the sun and dry out the air, providing a break from the relentless humidity.

As we leave Oworonshoki behind and the rest of the city melts into the distance, the lagoon begins to shift our consciousness. We are moving north, away from the choppier waters of the lagoon that exchange with the ocean. Stretching before us like a great silently murmuring intelligence is an impossibly still boundless liquid plain. In this moment, the entangled relations of the spiritual, ecological, and social clarify, and slowly, the lifeworlds of the lagoon reveal themselves.

The unthought assemblages of the lagoon lifeworlds open a portal into how we might imagine the world otherwise through a “radical reconstruction and decolonization of what it means to be human.”8 Assemblages of Black infrastructural life encompass radically open-ended relations alongside indeterminate conceptions of the human—where the more-than-human, in the form of ancestors and spiritual possession, and the other-than-human, in the form of natural processes, coexist. More than the flesh and greater than a single being, the assemblages of Black infrastructural life reveal what it means to consent to exist in relation.

Revellers dance on newly reclaimed land from the lagoon at the popular hangout spot DHArbor in Oworonshoki. Still from the film Wey Dey Move (2022) directed by Dele Adeyemo from the installation Wey Dey Move: Imagining New Worlds Through Dance and Masquerade exhibited at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Image courtesy of author.


Linking us to an ontological totality, the assemblages of Black infrastructural life can be found everywhere in the life-sustaining spaces formed in the face of unbearable odds.9 Black infrastructural life is in the everyday fugitive acts of the undercommons,10 and the beautiful experiments of wayward lives.11

It’s in the slum—anywhere you find a DJ and a sound system and bodies letting rip, dancing with the youthful, frenetic energy that comes with living life on the edge of catastrophe. Rhythmic, virtuosic outbursts of accumulated tension that help to, as the Oworo based artist Wayde raps, “make I dey far away from sapa… make I no be friend to suffer.”12 Charged with the spirits of their ancestors, their limbs invent the future, create new movements, queer movements, satirical movements, political movements, and loving movements, in an infrastructural web of care. Here in the “Trenches,” as Saidiya Hartman describes, is “an urban commons where the poor assemble, improvise the forms of life, experiment with freedom, and refuse the menial existence scripted for them.”13

The water spirits of the lagoon take possession over the bodies of the revellers dancing on the land newly reclaimed from the lifeworld of the lagoon. Still from the film Wey Dey Move (2022) directed by Dele Adeyemo from the installation Wey Dey Move: Imagining New Worlds Through Dance and Masquerade exhibited at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Image courtesy of author.

The Black infrastructural life of existence in the “Trenches” not only describes people as infrastructure, but also the ways in which its assemblages of agents and bodies exceed that infrastructure.14 The way that they/we/dey move is always already greater than the self.15 As a social body emanating from uninhabitable spaces, in rhythms of endurance on demonic grounds, it is these spaces that form the movements that carry young people into the streets protesting against corruption and police brutality.16 When the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the public murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020 opened a portal to connect Black diasporic struggles, it was in these spaces that the protests of Nigerian youths, both in that country and across the world, gained momentum. It was in these spaces—after the lockdowns that starved more than they saved, and after the brutality, intimidation, and extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the arm of Nigerian law enforcement known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squads (sars) was piled on top of all the intergenerational indignities of living lives in the wake—that the energy of youthful protesters gathered at Lekki Tollgate and shook the Nigerian establishment to its core.

In the face of such a dynamic coalition of local and diasporic actors calling for change, an element of Nigeria’s ruling class calculated that extreme measures were necessary to stop the movement in its tracks. On October 20, 2020, at least twelve people were killed at Lekki Tollgate when officers of the Nigerian Army opened fire on a peaceful protest, quelling the #EndSars movement.17 A subsequent independent judicial investigation concluded that “the manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre.”18 But the state’s recourse to this spectacular violence—a violence so shameless and callous as to recall bygone military regimes—only highlighted the fact that a new antagonistic consciousness has awakened: a precarious urban youth whose vital infrastructural power can no longer be hidden from them.

“I no dey move dat way. Don’t make me move dat way …” sang Reekado Banks to commemorate the peaceful protesters who were shot to death by the government because they dared to block one infrastructure for profit with an infrastructure for another world.19 Wey!… Wey dey move, the people exclaim as they skilfully navigate ever unfolding daily crises. Wey dey move is a Nigerian pidgin term meaning things change and constantly evolve. It underscores the way communities have learned to move through improvised, anticipatory, and provisional relations that underpin the assemblages of hidden infrastructural lives. Wey dey move describes what it is to be a body in constant motion consciously moving, traversing, and troubling thresholds as we carry within us the knowledge to imagine other worlds. Wey dey move calls forth the way we must all learn to move, on increasingly uncertain and shifting grounds.


Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 35–37.


Nehal El-Hadi, “Poetics, Politics, and Paradoxes of Sand,” Slow Factory, 2022, .


Mendelsohn, “Making the Urban Coast: A Geosocial Reading of Land, Sand, and Water in Lagos, Nigeria,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 3 (December 2018): 455–472.


Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2021), 63.


Kunle Akinsemoyin and Vaughan-Richards, Building Lagos (Jersey: Pengrail, 1977), 4.


tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 4.


Babyboy AV, “Confession,” Confession, 2021, MP3.


Alexander Ghedi Weheliye, Habeas Viscus (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 4.


Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 167–71; Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).


Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black StudyThe Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Autonomedia, 2013).


Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019)


Ijoba Wayde, “Hard Life,” 2022, MP3. See .


Hartman, 18.


A. M. Simone, “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg,” Public Culture 16, no. 3, (Fall 2004): 407-429; A. M. Simone, “Ritornello: ‘People as Infrastructure’,” Urban Geography 42, no. 9, (2021): 1341-1348.


In this context in Nigerian pidgin “dey” refers to “being.”


A. M. Simone, Improvised Lives: Rhythms of Endurance in an Urban South (New York: Wiley, 2018).


Stephanie Busari, Nima Elbagir, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Katie Polglase, and Barbara Arvanitidis, “Nigerian Judicial Panel Condemns 2020 Lekki Toll Gate Shooting as ‘a Massacre’,” CNN, November 16, 2021, ; Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry, “LASG JPI Report of Lekki Incident Investigation of 20th October 2020,” 13–14, .




Reekado Banks, “Ozumba Mbadiwe,” ORT Vol.2, 2021, MP3.

In Common is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture, the Chicago Architecture Biennial, UIC College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, and arc en rêve within the context of its exhibition “common, community driven architecture.”

Film, Urbanism, Architecture
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This text is an except from the book Borders, Human Itineraries, and All Our Relation by Dele Adeyemo, Natalie Diaz, Nadia Yala Kisukidi and Rinaldo Walcott published in 2022 by Penguin Random House (see ) and originally from the Alchemy Lecture presented at York University (see ).

The author would like to extend thanks to Nehal El-Hadi for her time and thoughtful feedback.

Dele Adeyemo is an architect and urban theorist conducting a Chase/AHRC funded PhD at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research intersects Black studies with urban studies to question how the rise of logistics is driving processes of urbanisation.


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