This is the second part of the “Changing Lenses” series. After writing about my experience and lessons from being a conductor for 1 day, I got so much feedback as well as a few additional questions, some of which I didn’t have the answers to. Therefore, I decided to go a second time in order to answer those questions.
Before I continue, a disclaimer:
Starting out, I really wanted to make this article a short one. However, the experience turned out to be such that in trying to sufficiently tell the story, the article had to be longer than I initially intended. If you’re not in the mood for a long piece, you can skip to the end for a list of the questions and their answers. However, if the context, the experience, and the story behind the answers interest you, read on.
It was past 3 pm when she left. Nnenna, my friend from school, had come to seek my help with an application. As she left, my initial plan was to buy chicken from Aguda market for the pot of stew I wanted to make. However, as I was putting on my Crocs to leave the house, I remembered that I was yet to complete my conductor assignment and figured that conductors at Aguda market bus stop were no different from conductors anywhere else.
I took off my blue jean shorts and army green T-shirt, I remembered my first lesson from the last time, and changed into my ‘farm outfit’ — a pair of faded purple trousers and an old blue Chelsea jersey I wear anytime I visit my friend’s farm and decide to join in the farm chores. The pair of trousers had maybe 10 different shades of purple from age and hard washing and, while the colour of the jersey, the white stripes on the shoulders and Adidas crest on the right breast were still intact, the SAMSUNG written across the chest had almost completely peeled off and the Chelsea badge on the left breast was beginning to tear off as well. I put on my Crocs, armed myself with my deliberately unkempt hair and the list of questions, then set out.
The list was quite long and varied; there was no way I could answer all those questions simply by hopping on a bus and going from bus stop to bus stop. I needed a plan. Luckily, I’d had some time to think and figure it out. The first step of the plan was to set out in the evening, just before the end-of-work rush hour. It was a 5 minute walk to Aguda market bus stop. When I got there, there were 2 buses loading.
I waited for some minutes for them to leave, and waited for an additional minute before approaching the 2 ‘agberos’ standing by the bus stop. “Bros, una well done o. Good evening”, I greeted. “Yea, evening” one of them replied dismissively (I’ll call him Tunji) as they continued their conversation. “Abeg no vex o. E get wetin I need ask una”, I continued. “Wetin be that?” He asked, a scowl beginning to form on his face. “Abeg, if person wan become conductor, how him go do am?” I asked. That was step 2 of the plan. I knew I couldn’t get the answers I needed simply by being a conductor and if I asked the questions as a researcher, I would get biased answers. Therefore, my best chance of getting legitimately accurate answers was to convince them that I wanted to become a conductor. Turned out it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing.
The scowl had left his face. He seemed taken aback for a fleeting moment before settling on a poker face. “You wan become conductor?” He asked. “Yes” I replied. “Who you be?” The second guy (I’ll call him Segun) spoke for the first time. I was momentarily stunned. I hadn’t expected him to talk or expected the question. “Who you be?” He asked again. “My name na Emeka.” I replied.
I have no idea why I made up a name. After a brief period of silence, I continued, “I dey stay off Brown road.” “And you wan become conductor?” He asked. “Yes.” I replied once more. How many times did they need to hear me say, ‘Yes’, I was thinking to myself and internally rolling my eyes when his voice jolted me out of my thoughts “Go bring 50k.” I didn’t expect that. However, I’ve completed a course on Negotiation from Yale university and read books such as, ‘Never split the difference’ by Chris Voss and ‘How to make friends and influence people’ by Dale Carnegie. I could hold my own. I burst out laughing. “50k?” I asked through my laughter. I continued, “If say I get 50k why I go wan become conductor?” “You never ready be that na.” Tunji replied. The scowl had returned to his face as he went to collect 50 naira from the conductor of a bus that had just stopped.
When he came back, I had started telling Segun my carefully prepared story: I was a sales boy for a perfume dealer in Trade Fair. About 2 months ago, my oga brought in a very pretty sales girl. I could see that he was lusting after her and I’m sure she could tell too because she was always proud and rude, even though I was technically her superior. Because of her, my oga always found little reasons to scold me.
This ultimately culminated in him sacking me. It was so impromptu that I hadn’t saved any money. I knew he would come back to his senses very soon and hire me back but I needed a way to make ends meet until then. That was why I wanted the conductor job and why I didn’t have 50,000 or indeed 500 Naira to pay for the chance to become one.
The story must have hit the right notes, or so I thought, for they agreed to help. The time was already almost 4 pm. They handed over the 50 naira collections to a younger boy who I hadn’t noticed earlier and went to get some food before rush hour began in earnest. I tagged along.
As we were headed to the ‘mama put’, they stopped to buy De Rok, a brand of cheap rum sold in sachets, from a street vendor. They both took a sip each and handed it to me for a sip. I declined the offer, lying that I didn’t drink. They laughed at me “You never ready for this job o. You go just die ni. You better start to dey drink o.” When we got to the restaurant, they ordered Kings’ meals. I looked at the ‘obstacles’ in their soup and wondered what percentage of their wages had gone into the purchase of meat alone.
As they settled to eat, I started with my questions. Side note: I have found that one of the best times to get information from people is when they are eating or drinking (even soft drinks work well, especially if the person is very thirsty or a non-alcohol drinker).
“So how I go start?” I started. “Guy, calm down na. Why your blood dey hot?” Tunji responded. Segun hadn’t even looked up from his plate. Undeterred, I pressed on, “No be so o. Na just say I wan know if e get anything wey I need to do first.” Segun finally looked up from his food, “Shebi we don tell you say make you no worry? No worry” After a brief pause, Tunji added “Normal normal, na your driver go carry you come, or make them don know you for here. But as him don tell you say make you no worry, no worry. Na we go use our hand carry you give driver. If them born am well make him no collect.” The first hurdle scaled in flying colours!
After eating, as we were strolling back to the bus stop, Tunji turned to Segun, “Egbon, make him first tamo (perch at the entrance)for like 2 trips, make him see as e dey be, say e no easy.” Segun nodded in approval, “Na True.” Little did they know how experienced I was.
When we got to the bus stop, there was a bus there. The bus quickly filled up and just before it left, another bus arrived. Rush hour was upon us. As the bus slowed to a stop, the conductor jumped down shouting “Ojuelegba, Masha, Shitta”. Tunji joined him as they called for passengers in unison while Segun went to talk to the driver. After discussing for a while, Segun motioned for me.
“Him don gree make you follow them go like 2 trips. Just use this one learn the bus stops and make you dey help am shadow passengers o.” “Okay,” I replied, even though I knew all the bus stops along the route. “Nobody go pay you for this one o.” He continued, “Na make you use am learn work ni.” “Ok, no wahala.” I got on the bus and we left for Ojuelegba.
The conductor, Kingsley, did everything. He collected the fare, disbursed change and announced bus stops. I just looked on, taking mental notes of everything, except for when I called out the occasional “Ojuelegba?” to anyone who seemed to be waiting for a bus. I was deliberately pulling below my weight; it would give me an insight into performance evaluation by the drivers. When we got to Masha, the driver had a brief argument with a lout before handing him 30 Naira; at Shitta, 50 Naira; before we left Ojuelegba on the return trip, another 50 Naira. It seemed like at almost every major bus stop, a lout was waiting to demand 50 Naira from us. “Na every time we go dey give all these agberos money like this?” I asked Kingsley. “Yes o,” he replied, “Na only all these ones wey dey road (the bus stops along the road) you fit use agidi for but for bus stop (Aguda market and Ojuelegba in this case), you must pay before loading.”
On our way back from the second trip, Kingsley and his driver had an altercation. Some passengers stopped along the road but hadn’t collected their ‘change’ and it took him some time to fully settle them. After waiting for about 2 minutes, the driver angrily scolded from the front, “No come dey waste my time because you and customer dey drag change o! I don tell you before make you dey give them change on time; if you no get ask me. I go just leave you comot o.”
About a minute later, Kingsley fully settled them and we were on our way again. I did one more return trip with them. As we arrived at Aguda market, I overheard the driver saying to Segun, “You just carry another Kunle give me”. I later found out that Kunle was once a conductor along that route who was notorious for his laziness. At a point, no driver wanted to work with him until he eventually had to leave.
The time was 7.30pm. I was standing with Tunji, tired, when Segun joined us and told Tunji he was going to buy Agbo (a local herbal drink said to have many medicinal properties) from Iya Ai. We went with him. I later found out that Iya Ai was short for Iya Aisha (meaning Aisha’s mother). When we got there, there were several other young men standing around, sipping their Agbo.
She asked me if I wanted with water or ‘hot’ (alcohol), I chose water. I figured it would be a less risky option. She poured out a cup for each of us; Tunji and Segun were having theirs with hot. As I took the first sip, it was all I could do not to throw it back up. It was easily the most bitter thing I had ever tasted, and I’ve chewed bitter leaf raw. I gulped the rest down as quickly as I could while they were sipping gradually on theirs like it was a cup of coffee.
They had 1 extra cup each before we left. While we were there, Kunle started, “So tomorrow, you go come out early o so that we go fit help you find driver. Just come around that kind 6.30, 7” “So I go dey road from 6.30 reach night?” I asked. “Wetin dey there?” He replied, laughing. “For afternoon, if hunger dey catch you, you go chop or you buy gala chop na.” After a brief pause, he continued, “Na 2k you go dey give us everyday o” Turns out my story wasn’t as good as I thought. “2k?! But I explain to you wetin happen na!” I exclaimed. He looked at Segun, then back at me and asked, “You wan work abi you no want work?” “How much me I go dey see everyday?” I asked him. “Na you and your driver go agree that one o. But you suppose dey see reach almost 500 Naira per trip” “That one na if you no go fuck up o” Segun interjected.
“Them tell me say you dey do sme-sme (acting sluggishly) today. Say you no sabi bus stop and you no fit shadow passenger. Ma lo go o (don’t mess up)” He continued. “No wahala. I no go fuck up” I replied. Knowing that I didn’t have much time to get all my questions in, I pressed on, “But na this same road we go dey follow every time?” “Before nko?” he replied, surprised at my question. “What of if traffic dey? or if passengers no dey?” I continued. “If traffic dey, koro (short cuts) plenty na; Na your driver go know where him wan follow. And passengers dey always dey, unless na say una go chop, ehen. But everybody get their own route and this Aguda — Ojuelegba route, na im be our own route.”
That was when I finally confessed that I really wasn’t looking to be a conductor but was merely on a research project. Their anger was palpable. I gave them some money to allay their anger. We shook hands, and said our good nights. When I got home, all my joints were aching. This ‘conductor’ thing no be easy job o! I showered, changed my clothes and went to a nearby bar to watch on in frustration as Chelsea was hammered 0–3 by Bournemouth at Stamford bridge. I don’t know how I had the energy to endure that game; maybe it was the Agbo at work.
Below, is the list of the questions that necessitated this revisit and their answers:
How do they get started?
Either your driver brings you to work with him or, as in my case, you’re introduced by one of the louts
How is money shared?
This varies case by case and depends on the individual driver/conductor but generally, it is a percentage per trip where the conductor may make up to 35% of the total trip value
What percentage do the ‘agberos’ collect? What frequency?
Again, this varies based on the stubbornness of the driver but on average, ‘agberos’ collect 50% of 1 person’s fare at least 2 times per trip (at the starting and ending bus stop).
What are the considerations for making a trip if any?
Generally, they just make to-fro trips continuously. They may take alternate routes if there is traffic on the regular route and may take lunch breaks at some points during the off-peak periods
Is there any sort of customer preference?
No. Passengers just enter the next available bus. Cases of having a preferred conductor or driver are the exception rather than the norm.
How do they sustain the energy?
De Rok (a cheap rum sold in sachets), Agbo (a local herbal drink), and very large helpings of food help them continually perform a job that demands so much energy
Is their performance evaluated by the drivers? How?
Yes. However, their evaluation framework can be summed up as “no do sme-sme”,(Don’t be sluggish). Essentially, drivers want conductors that proactively call passengers, collect fare and disburse ‘change’ efficiently, and know the bus stops along the route.
Do they take breaks?
Yes. They take lunch breaks during off-peak periods.
Do they take vacations? How do they plan them?
Drivers often don’t have permanent conductors and may change conductors day to day. Therefore, taking a vacation is relatively easy as the conductor can simply join the next available bus to conduct for upon his return.
All the names in this piece have been changed and are not the real.