The shrill of a whistle and banging of gongs wakes him up, he sees his ‘roomies’ hurriedly jump up as a light is shone into the space they call home. A large bulking man with a torchlight approaches them as they all get up clutching their ‘belongings’ as the man begins what looks like an inspection. He is closely followed by more men brandishing different kinds of weapons and all looking very stern and menacing. The large man who appeared to be the leader of the group addressed them in Yoruba and informed them in a very stern high pitched voice that they were no longer welcome to sleep in the uncompleted building they had called home in the last 18 months.
According to him, some residents had begun to complain about the activities of some young men housed in the decrepit building and the residents association had decided they had to evacuate the building at first light. Alhaji Azeez (the large man) who was the leader of the OPC in the area informed them that anyone seen in the building after the time given for them to evacuate will be treated as a criminal and handed over to the Police.
As the bearers of bad news left them puzzling about their next moves, they slowly sat down in an unplanned huddle and began to interrogate what could have gone wrong in their relationship with their hosts with whom they had a cordial; if at arm’s – length relationship. For the last few years, the boys had been squatting in the house since the owner stopped working on the building; Okon (the building Caretaker) collected “rent” from the Occupants and kept everyone in line.
Everything was fine until Amuloko came with these new boys from his hometown and then started reports of break-ins and theft in and around the estate. There were accusations and counter-accusations and threats of a fight breaking out, but commonsense prevailed in the end. The Estate Association had given them till dawn to move out and not come back, any kind of brawl or disturbance will have meant they would all spend time in a police cell and what little they had on them would be used to secure their bail individually.
So at the break of dawn, Kazeem packed the few earthly belongings he had and headed to Cele bus stop to join his boss (the bus driver) so they could start the day. Kazeem is a bus conductor and as the rungs of the social ladder are concerned; he is just slightly above a street beggar in the hierarchy of unskilled labour in the city of Lagos. It was his responsibility to clean the Bus and make sure the internals were okay before the start of the day. Omoregie aka “Oga Omo”, the driver saw him approach with a small package in his hand, and instantly something was up.
Kazeem put the bag in the boot of the bus and proceeded to clean the inside of the bus. Pure water sachets, pep bottles, different kinds of wrappers, and papers are the sort of garbage often found in commercial buses. Omo checked the engine and paid the early morning dues at the park and Kazeem started calling out for passengers; “Oshodi oke, Oshodi oke”; Oshodi oke, Ketu Ojota Mile 12” and this was followed by the steady stream of early morning passengers mostly women aiming to take advantage of early morning bargains at Mile 12 market.
The bus, an old Nissan Civilian that had been in use in a previous life by one of the Federal Government Parastatals could seat 40 people comfortably with the middle (fold-up) seats in use. The women mostly had baskets and other bags they used for the goods they bought in the Market and their journey to the market was more tolerable in terms of arranging “the load” that was an inevitable part of the return journey from the market.
Apart from the women heading to the market, there was a sprinkling of blue-collar workers, Artisans, and other people making their way to earn a living in the bustling metropolis that was Lagos. It was Kazeem’s job to collect the fare from the passengers, ensure they pay the correct fare for the intended destination, and hand out the proper change; whilst ensuring he doesn’t miss any passengers. He had to deal with different kinds of passengers from those trying to evade paying the fare, to those hoping to scam him and collect change more than once.
Over time he has developed a memory that allows him to scan the bus and know where any new passengers are seated and who hasn’t paid the fare. It was also his job and side-benefit to determine how much passengers paid for “load”. The driver expected a part of the earnings from this side fee and Kazeem got to keep the rest of the money. The relationship between the bus driver and his conductor is a very fluid one with most hiring and firing conductors weekly because of issues like pilfering and outright stealing. Depending on the ownership of the bus, the first aim is to make returns to the owner of the bus and afterward ensure they make enough money for the driver, conductor, and the numerous stakeholders in the transport sector.
Kazeem came from one of the Southwest States to Lagos just after finishing his WAEC and as a means to earn a living and help his mother with the rest of his siblings. He had a dream and heading to Lagos ‘that city of dreams” was the surest way of achieving those dreams. He first started out with menial tasks around the Markets until he met Omo who took him on as a conductor.
The first few days were very difficult, he lost money and was dragged down by Police and LASTMA on 2 different occasions because he was not yet used to the signals from the other conductors. Now, 15 months after, he had become a sort of veteran and knew which Area Boy collected ‘tax” for which route and for which period during the day. The Agberos are the key component of the transport sector; they fix fares, negotiate rates with other stakeholders, and peace amongst them; equals peace in the entire sector.
On the surface, being a conductor appears to require more brute than brains; but as Kazeem has found out; it requires deft political maneuverings and knowledge. Kazeem acts as the face of the bus and interacts directly with passengers, LASTMA, FRSC, Police, and the Agberos who run the parks and bus stops all over Lagos. He needs to know how to conceal money on his person and when to hand over money to the driver when they hit targets. It’s a thankless job as the driver believes he is stealing and is driving and running a cursory eye over his activities, while the passengers and touts are trying to rob him blind.
He requires a magnetic memory for awkward moments like when the Bus has a fault and he has to refund the Passengers. He can’t rely on the goodwill of the average Lagosian, so he needs to know who gave him what originally and achieves this through a combination of bluster and coercion. He is most likely to be involved in physical fights with the Agberos at the bus stops and based on the hours of the job and no accompanying company identity cards; is also likely to get in trouble with the Police when he closes for the day. The Police are notorious for accosting people walking at night in the guise of wandering and those without any means of identification are most likely to be kept in detention and many have been known not to ever be seen again.
At the end of this particular work day, they drop off the last passengers at Cele bus stop and park in a corner of the park to count their earnings. Oga Omo hands over N3, 000 to him and sees the look of uncertainty in his eyes. He goes over to the OPC people in the immediate vicinity of the park and introduces Kazeem to them. He gives them some money and tells them he will be sleeping in the park for the next few days while he sorts out his accommodation issues. Kazeem is relieved as this gives him a window just before the Ileya celebration when he is due to travel home to see his mum and siblings. He has been saving his money in the Bank and was also involved in daily contributions called “ajo” and it what his turn to “pack” the money just before he traveled.
Like most people forced to do menial jobs, Kazeem had a plan and he knew he deserved more. Once accommodation is sorted, he was going to register and sit for the Nov/Dec SSCE. He was already reading on the Sundays that Oga Omo decides they should both rest and he planned to scale up his reading.
You see, life as a conductor in Lagos has thought him how to solve problems on his feet, manage conflict amongst diverse groups and people, and set projections whilst managing expectations on a daily basis.
So the next time you see that Lagos conductor, don’t pity him; be envious of him. Lagos has given him all the life skills that no school can provide him. He is a problem solver, a skilled negotiator, a battle-hardened soldier, and a survivor.
Pray, give him a degree, and watch him soar…
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