Photograph — Hadassah Egbedi

How would you describe a typical bus conductor or driver?

“Hustler”, said Precious, a DJ.

“They are very annoying”, said Funmi, a sales rep at a beauty shop.

“Disrespectful, rude, very useless people”, Mrs Rebecca, an elderly passenger who sat next to me in a bus en route Ikeja, told me.

Elliot, a bus driver I met through church told me that bus drivers are “smart and hardworking.”

Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital and a city of just under 20 million people is famous for its bright yellow Danfo buses and of course their notorious drivers and conductors.

They play an essential role in the lives of millions of Lagosians, myself included, but most of us consider them rude, aggressive and, as Funmi noted, simply annoying. The consistency in descriptions of their behaviour could lead one to the conclusion that these characteristics are actually the criteria to become a bus driver or conductor in Africa’s most populous city. However, there is a certain element of performance to their work. Cast as the villains of the city, blamed for everything from traffic jams to rubbish on our streets, it’s easy to set them apart from the “common citizen,” but scratch beneath the surface and it is not so hard to see that they are just like everyone else. Many of them did not think they would end up as bus conductor or drivers, but as some of them have said, life happens.

When 15-year-old Obinna Efediora came to Lagos for the first time in August of 1995, he was filled with the hope of a bright future. His uncle had promised to put him through school, but once Obinna arrived in Lagos, he was sent to become an apprentice in the automobile spare parts trade. After six years of work, when he turned 21,  he should have been “settled” by his master, or given a sum of money to set up his own operation, as is the tradition of the trade, but that never happened. “I was pushed into business. After business six years, there was no settlement,” he told me.

Without the necessary capital, Obinna could not do much; he could not set up a spare parts business of his own, or any other business for that matter. But with the help of a friend he met during his apprenticeship, Obinna set up a caravan shop along the road by Computer Village (Ikeja) where he sold phones and laptops. As his business grew, he was able to find a place of his own and study computer science for six months at Lagos State Polytechnic. He also got married, and welcomed his first child, David. “I achieved a lot of things,” he told me. But this only lasted a while. His thriving business shut down when the government ordered the demolition of roadside stalls and kiosks. “My shop was destroyed, the condition given was that they didn’t want any roadside business, they wanted buildings.”

With very little cash at hand and two children to feed, Obinna began selling kerosene on his street but he was eventually forced to close up shop by a union of kerosene traders in his area. “They said I need to join the union. And to join, I’ll have to pay a registration fee of N150,000, before I’ll be allowed to sell Kerosene. This was what led me to go into bus conducting, because I needed to raise money.”

After church service one Sunday, he asked his friend IK who owned a bus if he could be his conductor. “He said yes I can join him.” On his first day as a conductor, he made N3500 plying the Ojodu-Berger, Ikeja route. Obinna was determined not just to make ends meet, but also to make a comfortable living for his family, and to save enough to start a business of his own. Now, after two years of working as a conductor, he has made enough to purchase a car for the taxi business he intends to run.

According to Obinna, bus conducting is a lucrative job. “When you know what you are doing- I can pay my children’s school fees, I can feed my family, and I don’t have to ask anyone for money,” he told me. He says the amount a conductor makes in a day depends on how revenue is split with the driver. “Some drivers are very greedy,” he said. Unlike fixed white-collar jobs, with a monthly salary, the bus conductor earns a daily income, and is free to switch drivers, especially if the driver doesn’t stick to the usual 60 percent to 40 percent revenue share. If the bus develops a fault and cannot be on the road, the conductor can find a new bus. Though a flexible job, bus conducting is not easy work, Obinna explained to me. To become a conductor, one has to learn the tricks of the trade; “knowing the route, how to approach your passengers, how to avoid getting in trouble with LASTMA [Lagos State Traffic Management Authority], and how to deal with agberos – bus touts.”

Credit: Hadassah Egbedi

Because of the generally negative opinions about bus conductors, Obinna’s decision to enter the trade cause mixed reactions amongst family members. “At first, my wife encouraged me when there was no money. But at a point, she got pissed off, said I should stop, as friends were mocking her,” he said. One of his sisters wasn’t pleased either, “She stopped calling me on the phone. To her, all hope was lost.” His other sister encouraged him. She called often to pray with him and share bible passages. His mother was indifferent.

Obinna is not embarrassed by his job. As a successful bus conductor he believes he has inspired other people to become bus conductors. “When they see that this guy is making it there, they joined bus conducting.” He is also able to give friends and acquaintances free rides on his bus. He describes conductors as “normal human beings. They have families, responsibilities and a target. They actually think the same way you think, and feel the same way you feel.” He explains that while certain conductors are rude and vicious, it is wrong for people to assume that all conductors are the same, and treat them with disrespect.

As faces differ, so do stories. Elliot is a bus driver who has worked with quite a number of conductors. When Elliot’s mother and sister heard that he had become a bus driver in Lagos, they reported him to the family elder’s and called a family meeting. They were not pleased that their son, a graduate of the University of Lagos, had chosen such a ‘demeaning job’. “They asked me to stop, said if I needed money to start a business, they’ll put something together for me,” Elliot told me.

But he was not ready to stop driving his Danfo because being a bus driver gave him the income upgrade he desired. “I needed to change things, and that was just the available means,” he told me. By things, he meant, his house (he lived in a one room apartment in a not-so-great area), his account balance, money for business, and overall independence. Elliot graduated from the University of Lagos in 2007 at 24 years old. By mid-2009, he completed his NYSC “Youth Service” as an insurance marketer at Zenith insurance, a subsidiary of Zenith Bank.

After his Youth Service, he founded a small trading business. “I started getting stuffs (clothes and jewelleries) from people that travel out, and bring in stuffs,” He told me. His prior marketing experience helped him a great deal in his new line of business, “I collect fashionable stuffs and go to these people in the banks, and sell to them.” Elliot soon got tired of “making money for people” and wanted to start making money for himself. “Marketing, for me, is a gift. I help people sell their goods for even more than they would have sold it. So, I asked myself, why can’t I raise money for myself and start my own business. That was what pushed me into becoming a bus driver,” he said.

Credit: Hadassah Egbedi

But unlike Obinna who sought work as a conductor, Elliot did not consider the idea of becoming a bus driver until his friend, Happy, suggested it. “I said why not? Beautiful idea. At that time, I didn’t care about people’s reaction as I desperately needed an upgrade,” Elliot told me. He started driving a bus, with his friend Happy as the conductor. They approached business differently by dressing neatly, speaking politely, and treating customers with respect. “Once you enter my bus, you will just know that this guy is different, not the regular bus driver,” Elliot said.

Bus driving or conducting is not for the faint hearted. According to Elliot, the first three months were a struggle. He and Happy had trouble with LASTMA, fights with bus touts and drama with passengers. Things were so rough that Happy dropped out of the business. “My friend who brought the idea, stopped. We prepared for possible bumps, but we just didn’t know how hard it would be,” Elliot explained. He credits his ability to stay in the business to God, “I’m different, you know. I have the Holy Spirit.”

Elliot did not earn much at the start. This he says was a result of naivety. “I didn’t understand the game,” he said smiling. The game is to so le – to pick people along the road, instead of waiting at the garage, something considered illegal in the union of bus drivers. In the business of driving and conducting, more passengers equals more money. The number of trips taken back and forth also determines the amount of money made in a day. Once a driver reaches the end of the route, there is a garage where he is supposed to queue up with other buses, and load passengers by turns. Drivers often complain about the amount of time wasted in these queues and often suggest that it is easier, faster, and wiser to so le and at the end of your route make a U-turn instead of joining the long queue and start picking up passengers along the way. This way, drivers can make more trips, and that means more money.

Just like most businesses, driving and conducting have ‘down-days’, where cash flow is slow. On public holidays for example, “we don’t make much because people stay indoors,” Elliot said. Also, during festive periods, like Christmas, bus drivers and conductors do not record much income, because “people travel out of the city, so there aren’t many passengers.” On a good day, Elliot makes five trips, and between N18,000 and N20,000 weekly for himself after paying his conductor, and ‘settling’ the bus owner. That results in an income of about N80,000 each month.

Elliot says that the negative characterizations of bus drivers and conductors is unfair. “It’s not their fault. Most times, the passengers are responsible for the sort of character displayed by conductors,” he told me. He recounted an experience with a female passenger who spoke rudely to his conductor. The lady instructed the conductor to clean her seat, but because she spoke in a condescending manner, the conductor felt humiliated and refused to clean the seat. To diffuse the situation, Elliot cleaned the seat himself, but he maintains that the lady was quite rude. “Sometimes, passengers will enter the bus without money. When the conductor starts collecting money and someone is refusing to pay, he gets angry and puts up a fight,” Elliot said. This leads to the perception that drivers are aggressive. For Elliot, the passengers are as guilty as the conductors when it comes down to improper display of character, “it’s a 50/50 thing,” he said.

Like Obinna, Elliot has made enough money to upgrade his standard of living. He no longer drives a bus and has moved into a better house. He currently works a contract job as a WAEC and NECO supervisor. Once his contract is up, he plans to start his business of selling clothes and jewelleries. He achieved all of this after about 18 months as a bus driver. For him, there came a time when the money was no longer the motivation behind driving a bus, but the impact he made on the lives of people he met – his passengers. Before he started the business, his pastor had counselled him; she praised him for his humility and asked that he think of bus driving as an avenue to affect lives. “I get into conversations with my passengers. I share God’s word, and play Godly messages in my stereo. Every day, someone tells me how blessed they are to have entered my bus.”

Elliot describes himself as hardworking, honest, and optimistic. When asked if driving a bus had changed his life in anyway, he said, “they say gold can’t be beautiful until it’s refined through fire. Driving a bus has made me a refined man. It built me.”

While the stories of these two men are inspiring, not all bus conductors and drivers are like Obinna, and Elliot. Obinna said he knows a lot of bus drivers who are not as successful. “You’ll just see them in small groups in the garage, or inside one bus, lamenting. Some of them have been in the business for 20 years, with nothing to show.”

Obinna wants to be an oil magnate; he has already registered his business name. Elliot said he will one day make his story into a movie; he’s currently taking film editing lessons alongside his contract job, paid for by a former passenger.

In Lagos’s bustling economy, the fast pace of daily living sometimes clouds the many different stories that make up a growing and changing city. Obinna and Elliot speak to the common desire to get ahead in a complex economic environment that turns accountants into bus drivers and might just turn bus conductors into oil magnates.

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