by Lola Akinmade
A day in the life of Lagos, Nigeria.
“You this idiot man!” Seyi yells at Samson. “Why are you listening to Fashola?”
Samson is leaning in close to a parked car, listening to the governor’s latest decree about motorcycle taxis called okadas. The governor’s voice blasts from the radio through the driver’s open window, the driver himself fast asleep on his reclined car seat.
“When he talks, you better listen to him o!” Samson retorts with a belly laugh soon following. I sense his mild tang of sarcasm. The air is pregnant with hot African humidity. Two failed generators later and after a few days without electrical power, we came to Idumagbon market in search of a replacement generator. That warm summer afternoon found me seeking shelter from the choking heat underneath their soiled tarp which was protecting generators stacked atop each other.
My mother had been haggling for the last twenty minutes with one of their business partners. From his knife-in-the-stomach reaction to her initial offer, I knew they were going to be going at it for a while. Weaving in the fact that she’d bought the second generator to blow up in one week from this very shop, their haggling session was more reprimanding than bartering.
I’d slipped into the African daze to wait out their transaction—mentally checked out, yet subconsciously aware of the bustle around me.
“Why should I listen? Do Fashola and I have business together?!” Seyi’s anger seems a little excessive.
“I guess someone doesn’t like him,” I jokingly chime in.
“Can you imagine what he did?” Seyi prepares to unload. “He is building a walkway on that cross street over there for bankers and pedestrians!”
His reasoning seemed to escape me. A walkway seemed pretty harmless, if not long overdue. “He chased the traders all away, pushing them away from the street!”
Their sole source of sustenance, he points out.
I’d visited Lagos the year before, and this time around, the city seemed different: cleaner it seemed. The stuffy non-lines at the airport immigration desks had been replaced with queues guided by dividers. The street hawkers who wove in and out of oncoming traffic selling fried plantain chips and other snacks seemed few and far between. Women wearing orange uniforms and sometimes yellow vests over long African attire called ankaras were sweeping the streets with wooden brooms as motorcycles and passenger buses whizzed by within inches. Patches of land where makeshift markets once stood had been cleared.
“Thank God for Fashola!” people seemed to cry at every street corner. Something else was reeking all over the city besides the stench of garbage: a certain sense of hope that some order could be brought into one of the most chaotic cities in the world.
The governor’s brushstroke of change could be seen all over the city—dabbed here and there to enhance the city’s beauty, and his shovel excavating improvised communities here and there to bring in some zoning.
Seyi’s rants seemed borderline blasphemous.
“Ha! Mommy!” Our conversation is instantly broken when their business partner yells. Vendors usually refer to patrons older than themselves by “mommy” or “daddy.” If patrons were about the same age, then it was “my sister” or “my brother.”
She’d cut into their negotiated price yet again. I wondered why he kept going. He’d already sold her a flawed generator once. Maybe he was trying to get rid of more flawed generators, disguising their unreliability with dramatic flares of disbelief at prices she was quoting.
Samson leaves the side of the car to join us. “Do you know what I have to do this evening?” he chimes in. I know it’s not a question. “I have to go help this Alhaji sell his car to feed his family!”
I come to find out that the Alhaji—a term used for Muslim men who’ve taken the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca—used to be one of said street vendors. After his displacement, he hadn’t been able to bounce back. Six months later, Samson was going to help him sell his car.
The haggling in the background becomes a low, muffled, semi-heated exchange, their business partner defending his products, my mother refuting his recommendations while she tries to purchase a new one. The verbal tango of logic they dance remains our background entertainment.
“He chased all the market people away from that street,” Samson adds, referring to the governor as he points. “And he said they have to rent shops to sell their goods. The shops cost 1.5 million naira to rent.”
Seyi takes over from Samson and continues to school me. There are millions of small traders in Lagos who live off the streets, who scrounge their daily living from passers-by. According to him, there were barely a thousand banks in the entire city. Walkways like the planned one all over the city were clearing the way for a few hundred bankers on their way to work, while millions of small traders became displaced. Despite his mild exaggerations, I know he has a point.
The government is moving traders to make the streets cleaner and the city more organized, yet some traders feel they aren’t being provided with more affordable alternatives. So those traders view the massive cleanups filled with good intentions as a way of making life a whole lot easier for the rich.
Lagos is a city riddled with half-solutions. Half completed houses. Half painted buildings. Complete follow-through remains that ever elusive goal—at least to Samson and Seyi as they argue beneath the tarp of their generator shop that afternoon.
I watch their eyebrows arch angrily, sweat rolling down their faces, arguing passionately about their cause of the hour. Earlier on, they’d been pondering why cars were driving in both directions on the one-way street in front of their shop.
They do have a point. The government is building a walkway that some of those traders have never seen or used in their lives. Something they’ll probably never use since they have no need to go to the offices, Seyi notes.
Their business partner thanks my mother in Yoruba and I know an agreement of some sort has been reached. He runs off to go find a light bulb, an electrician, and some diesel. Seyi and Samson join other men lounging beneath the tarp to help lift the generator out unto the paved street. My mother demanded they test the generator right there and then before buying it.
We finally buy the generator at a relatively meager price two hours later once we are sure it will work as advertised, and delivery is arranged.
We walk back to our car, dodging motorcycles and street vendors that swarm the sides of the street and at that moment, they seem quite a nuisance. We walk past a lady sitting at a corner selling sweet yeasty buns known as poff poff displayed in a heated glass box, probably selling them at 10 naira per bun.
I stare over my shoulder back at her.
There was no way she could rent a 1.5 million naira stall to sell her poff poff.