Lagos: Everyday they’re hustlin’

I’ve been in Nigeria for several days and I’m just now finding the mental space and time to offer a few brief reflections. 

At least half the time I’ve spent outside the place where I’m staying in Ikoyi has been in traffic, so naturally that will play a big role in the observations I make. And the most obvious observation in Lagos is that daytime finds the streets teeming with people, and it’s impossible to know what all of them are doing based on appearances.

It’s definitely the city of a thousand hustles. There are the mainstream economic activities based in the professional districts on the islands — the city is divided between more upscale islands and the “real Lagos” of the mainland. Here, you find banks, hotels, telecomm companies and other air-conditioned offices. On the mainland, many roads arec logged with semis moving to Lagos two ports, plenty of them loaded with oil tanks. The newspaper offices — with which I have become intimately familiar — are also on the mainland.

But more than anything, there are the hordes of people hawking things, from crowded, uninviting storefronts, from tiny makeshift markets, and from the ends of their arms, weaving in and out of the crawling traffic. Goods range from those that must be in relatively high demand, like newspapers and telephone cards, to things that it is nearly impossible to imagine someone buying at a stoplight, like clocks. The air is dirty and noisy, and it looks like exhausting work. 

I asked a taxi driver how much he thought such hawkers make. Not much, he said, but it’s better than being idle.

There are plenty of out-and-out idle people as well, especially young men called “area boys” who perform small tasks — hailing a cab for example — for a tip. (They are also rumored to engage in petty extortion, but I haven’t yet seen it myself.)

Other noticeable economic activities include driving okadas — motorcycle taxis — and fishing on small skiffs within spitting distance of the Third Mainland Bridge, West Africa’s longest. The okada drivers are plentiful and must form a big portion of Lagos’ employed workforce. One writer says they help address two of the city-state’s biggest problems,  unemployment and transportation. The fisherman aren’t so numerous, but it’s impossible to ignore their shanty-town of stilt-raised houses off the side of the bridge, or the scene of them cutting through calm waters in boats fitted with small sails — one of the few idyllic pictures one is likely to see in Lagos.

This is Lagos as seen from the window of a car, by a foreigner not yet accustomed to the country. Undoubtedly it is a limited picture, but it is also a true one: there are something like 15 million people in Lagos, and only a tiny proportion of them are employed by large revenue-generating industries. (Someone told me today that Nigeria’s oil sector — it is the sixth largest producer in the world — employees people numbering only in the thousands.) Most Lagosians, it seems, are just trying to get by.

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