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Q&A with Chioma Okereke - Water Baby

By Mo Kendall

We are delighted to welcome Chioma Okereke to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Water Baby, released on the 11th April 2024.

On the cusp of adulthood, Baby’s future stretches out ahead of her — although will it be one that she chooses, or her father?

Life on the floating slum community of Makoko is vibrant, but sometimes dangerous, and Baby has already known painful loss. Opportunities for starting a new life away from the lagoon are scarce, the threat of the authorities dismantling the settlement always looming. Particularly because Makoko is undocumented, unmapped, and so almost unknown.

When a drone-mapping project promises visibility for Makoko, Baby yearns to be involved and jumps when the chance finally arrives.

But not everyone views the project positively. A video of Baby working with the drones goes viral, and sparks events at home and beyond that could steer the course of her life.

Chioma Okereke’s poetic language and vivid sensory details immerse us in a community shaped by geography and climate. Cultural traditions, new technologies, social pressures, changing friendships, domestic challenges, lack of amenities, and blossoming romance all intersect in Baby’s daily life on the water. Will she say yes when offered an escape from the slum, further than everything she has ever known? Or has what she’s truly wanting been in Makako along?

Hi Chioma, welcome to The Reading Corner! Thank you for making time to talk with us about

Water Baby. I really loved joining Baby at this exciting point in her life — as well as in the day-to- day routines, joys, and challenges of life on the water — and I’m sure that our members will love the book too.

Thank you so much!

Water Baby brings us a beautifully-told, imagined story set in a real but unique place. How did your idea for the book come about?

Funnily enough, I was watching a show on YouTube when I got the idea for the book. The episode of the food programme was taking place in Makoko and I realised how I’d never seen the community up close. I was blown away by the place, the life I saw unfolding on the water, and also ashamed of my own ignorance about the settlement. My mind wandered during a scene and my protagonist appeared so boldly in my brain. I saw Baby as clearly as if she was on the screen in front of me.

I rattled off a quick scenario about a young girl to my partner and he dared me to write the story, so I accepted the challenge. Although having said that, I ended up with a very different book to the one I had anticipated writing.

Although Baby narrates the book, and it centres on her story, I was quickly intrigued by the other characters and each of their journeys, too. (Especially Baby’s group of close friends). When you started writing Water Baby, did you know where each person’s story would lead?

I have no idea where anyone’s story will lead when I’m writing. Baby’s first words when they

appeared in my head were literally ‘what now?’ So I’m always surprised by the lives of my

characters or the directions their stories go in. The only thing I did with real intention was ensure that I’d touched on some universal themes because the setting of Water Baby was so unique. I imagined it would be unfamiliar to many people, but while the surroundings or lifestyle might be alien — Makoko is the largest floating slum in the world — I wanted there to be things that were very relatable, and so Baby questioning her life purpose, surrounded by her core group of besties and facing the typical challenges attributed with standing on the precipice of childhood and adulthood was a really powerful anchor within the book.

I think that a lot of people will find the book’s personal themes of coming of age, teen friendships, and young love/first love very relatable. Baby’s story also connects to broader themes such as climate change, poverty, technology, and social media use. Did you always plan to give these topics a spotlight in Water Baby, or did they weave themselves into the story as it evolved?

Thank you for the first part of your question, because it means I achieved my primary goal in

terms of those personal themes. The broader themes actually presented themselves with the

research I did on the community. The deeper I went in my research about the settlement, predictably, the more my concerned citizen gene was activated and those issues plagued me, in terms of contemplating the reality of living with the challenges they face. So it felt natural when a larger tale addressing the issues started to weave itself around the personal stories.

You divide your own time between London, Lagos, and rural France. Do you write when you’re in all these places? Does your writing process have any particular differences, or consistencies, depending on where you are geographically?

I tend to get ideas and write wherever I am and inevitably, my imagination can be fed by my

immediate surroundings, which can filter into the creation, but it really depends on what I’m

working on. My process is very much the same wherever I go but my only writing desk is in France, so in the other locations, it’s more a matter of finding other stimuli in the place I’m hot desking. I’m not a ‘write in a coffee shop’ type of person. I prefer solitary confinement with distractions that I can control (music, candles, desk snacks, cats on the keyboard).

Although the floating community of Makoko is different to anywhere that many readers will have experienced, you make it very vivid with your rich descriptions of its sights, sounds, and smells. Food also features strongly throughout the book, bringing us the tastes of Baby’s world. Do you enjoy cooking, and have a favourite cuisine?

It’s like you know me! I often say that cooking is my love language. But I absolutely adore it, and I do consider it a language because it’s truly how so many people across many cultures

communicate. I also believe it takes perhaps the same parts of the brain (the selection of

ingredients, attention to detail, the awareness of your senses, the focus on and mastery of your taste) to cook as it does to write, or to make music or do art etc. By cook, I don’t mean putting some things in a pan and ingesting the meal as if it’s fuel, but getting to that place where cooking is a craft that you take daily enjoyment in, from which you learn and grow, and you continue to desire to improve your skills.

It’s far too hard to pick a favourite cuisine. I love Nigerian food, but I equally appreciate Asian and Italian food, and other cuisines are climbing the chart. Please don’t make me choose!

I was so interested to learn about the Makoko Pearls project that you’ve set up, and how it

connects Baby’s story to the real-life Makoko. It gives your readers and followers a direct, tangible way to make a difference to the community we’ve been immersed in. Can you tell us more about your hopes for the project?

All I can say is that I was so affected during my first visit to the informal settlement that my spirit wouldn’t rest until I figured out a way to help, other than shedding light on the community through the book.

I set up Makoko Pearls with clear objectives, which include advancing education by providing

financial aid, learning materials, and support to local schools in order to ensure that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic background, have access to quality education. Working closely with the community and alongside local organisations, Makoko Pearls is committed to the relief of poverty in Makoko through sustainable development projects and the provision of basic needs, as well as facilitating access to opportunities and resources that will empower residents to improve their living conditions.

The organisation also aims to enhance the capacity and skills of Makoko's socially and

economically disadvantaged members. This empowerment strategy is designed to enable the

community to identify and meet their needs independently, fostering greater participation in

society. Our fundraiser is now live:

You’re accomplished in a variety of writing forms: this is your second novel, and you also write short stories and poetry. Do you have any future creative plans that you can share with us?

I love short stories but I often think it’s easier for me to craft an entire novel than it is to write a good short story; they’re such a special skillset. Right now, I’m working on another Lagos novel in a very different setting. My protagonist is another young woman, though slightly older, and a recent graduate who finds few options in the job market and is forced to make some very difficult choices as a result of her circumstances.

Are there any particular books, or any other authors, that you would recommend to readers who enjoy your work?

There are so many great books out there right now, that again it’s hard to choose. But I’d

recommend books by Chika Unigwe, Abi Ishola-Ayodeji, Damilare Kuku, Vanessa Walters and the upcoming book by Foluso Agbaje; all very different works set in Nigeria.

I’m also looking forward to reading We Were Girls Once by Aiwanose Odafen and Akwaeke

Emezi’s new Little Rot, coming out in a few months.

Thanks so much again for taking the time to answer these questions, Chioma. Finally, where can members of The Reading Corner community get themselves a copy of Water Baby?

Water Baby can be found in hardback in bookshops and is available online in all formats (Amazon, Foyles etc.) (

Chioma Okereke was born in Nigeria, grew up in London, and started out her literary career as a performance poet. Her debut novel Bitter Leaf was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her short story Trompette de la Mort was a Costa Short Story Award first runner-up. Her work has also been shortlisted in Bookforce UK and Daily Telegraph competitions.

Chioma currently divides her time between London, Lagos, and rural France. You can find out more about Chioma and her work via her website, her Facebook, and her Instagram.


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