Opinion  :: Columns  :: Letter from Lagos

Lagosís Highway ĎRobbersí
Toun Aderele
Published: 27-NOV-06

They dart between fast-paced vehicles and scurry among slow-moving ones, holding on to wares as varied as toothpaste and hi-fi systems; snacks and vacuums; bootlegged CDs and complete Chinaware. Welcome to the world of Lagosís highway traders.

Lest you mistake them for those street traders you are likely to run into in any truly African city, this tribe of traders and their distinctive antics are a defining part of that peculiar, crazy and unpredictable mosaic of pied humanness that Lagos is. Lagosís highway traders have little in common with those gentler and more itinerant sub-species of peripatetic traders; those tireless hawkers of simple fruits and foods who are as much a part of Cairo as they are of Cape Town; those women and children who ply their trade trudging through neighbourhoods; those faces of Africa who give the continent its peculiar flavour.

Lagosís highway traders are mostly young men, though on slow-moving expressways the gender line blurs, who are either barely educated or unemployed graduates. They are mostly youths who have forsworn a life of crime for trading on the highway. Yet, trading on the highway is an offence in Lagos. Since the state government kicked off a programme to clean Lagos of its infamous filth, improve its grime-covered aesthetics and boost what an official described as its tourism potentials, the highway traders have been under siege. Half of the street savvy that they use in trading is now used to keep a wary eye on council officials who conduct regular raids to confiscate wares.

But experience has shown that governmentís efforts aimed at ridding Lagosí highways of its traders have never been successful. One, because enforcement is always half-hearted. Two, because these traders canít just be kept off the street. And the reasons why they canít be are not far to seek: there isnít just anything else to do.

Though reliable statistics are hard to come by in Nigeria, the legion of young, ablebodied men that hug street corners and saunter the streets during working hours are better unemployment indicators than any graph or figure. Sadly enough, some of these traders are students, secondary school students, who claim they needed trading to help their indigent families and to keep their places in school. These are mostly mobile windscreen washers, often armed with a bottle of soapy water, a roughly hewn long brush and a napkin-sized towel.

Without waiting to be invited, they would dash to a car caught in traffic or one that stops for the lights for a precious minute or two, spray its windscreen with the soapy solution and begin to scrub as if their lives depend on it. Sometimes, the driver would toss them a crumpled N10 note. Other times, he would size them up scornfully and shoo them away like flies, ďI never asked you to wash my windscreen,Ē and drive off. But even washing windscreens is becoming competitive.

So what do these boys get from a dayís toil? ďAt the end of the day, one makes up to N500 or more sometimes. On a very bad day, you can make less. But the trouble now is that many other children are getting into the business. You see small small boys of about seven, eight years doing the same work. I may soon quit or change location,Ē a national newspaper quoted a kid-trader as saying.

But the older ones who sell wares make much more.

While some have sworn that they have got some of their best and unexpected bargains on the road, the reality is that making a killing at any of Lagosís mobile mall is easier than a camel going through the eye of the needle. You may need more than your wits or better still take that old journalistic dictum to heart: when you are in doubt, skip it!

A visitor once said that itís possible to leave oneís house unwashed in the morning and brush, bath, get fragranced and even have a change of clothing while cruising on any of Lagosís major roads. Another said you could buy all you need for a three-course meal and much more, while you are on the road. Now that may seem an unusual stretch of imagination, but you never know with Lagos.

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