Working Lives: The Porters of Lagos Markets
Another Working Lives series, same old story. We went to two markets in Lagos, the popular Mile 12 on the Mainland and Oniru Market on the Island to speak to porters, known as alabaru in Yoruba. Many of the porters have learnt one trade or the other but have been forced by circumstances to carry stuff -bags of rice, tubers of yams, baskets of tomatoes etc.- for shoppers at Lagos markets for as low as N100. For all the hard work, a stall in the market is all some of them have as rooms to sleep at night. Mostly from the North, some porters have wives and children back home.
Working Lives: The Market Porter Who Was A Butcher and Is Also a Washerman
My mom sold provisions. When daddy died, she started diverting capital from the business to feed the family. She soon ran out of cash and the business collapsed. We started feeding from hand to mouth. Church members brought food to the house and there was the occasional N5,000 from our uncles… as the oldest son, I had to find something to do. So I went to the market and I became a butcher. I had to drop almost all the money I made for us to eat at home. I decided to come to Lagos.
Where are you from?
I am from Ondo state.
What school did you attend and when did you leave school?
I attended a public school in Ondo state up until junior secondary school 3 before I left for Lagos. My dad died when I was still very young and things became very hard for the family.
When did you get to Lagos?
I came to Lagos in 2013 to join my cousin in Mushin after my dad died. My mom wanted me to stay back in Akure but I just had to leave to hustle in Lagos. I started to work as a butcher after leaving school in JSS1; I used the little change I had saved to relocate to Lagos.
Tell us about your family
My dad was working as a taxi driver before he died. He tried his best to provide for the family even if it was hardly enough. My mom sold provisions. When daddy died, she started diverting capital from the business to feed the family. She soon ran out of cash and the business collapsed. We started feeding from hand to mouth. Church members brought food to the house and there was the occasional N5,000 from our uncles. That was how we were living until I decided to come down to Lagos. I have five siblings.
Where do you live and how much is the rent?
I live in Ketu, and I pay N4,000 monthly for a room in a face-me-I-face-you building.
What were you doing before you started working as a porter?
When my dad died and things became very rough, as the oldest son, I had to find something to do. So I went to the market and I became a butcher. I had to drop almost all the money I made for us to eat at home. I decided to come to Lagos. I did some odd jobs, including hawking Gala. I also worked in a factory in Ikorodu called Metal and Steel.
How did you start working as a porter in this market?
The management of the factory just told us one morning that they had to lay some of us off because they couldn’t afford to pay our salaries. I was among the unlucky ones that were asked to leave. I could not find another job. Things were tough. I could not even send money back home. I decided to just look for anything that could bring me money. That was how I started working as a porter. It was weird at first, being the only Yoruba person among all the Hausa guys. But I adapted. I have other things I am doing alongside being a porter in this market now though. I wash clothes for people. I also help people wash their cars in an office in Ikorodu. These other gigs bring me extra cash. I am not taking chances anymore. I make N4,000 every week from washing cars and clothes. I sometimes make up to N6,000 when I get to wash more cars.
For how long have you been doing this job?
I started in 2015 after I lost my job at that factory. This was just two years after I got to Lagos.
What is your best day like?
I won’t say I had the best day. Let me just put it like this- I am always favoured. You know, being the only Yoruba guy among a lot of Northerners. Yoruba customers tend to call on me more to help them carry their groceries because I speak the language. Most of these old women that come to the market cannot speak even pidgin English. So, I tend to make more money than the other guys.
Have you had any shocking encounters with a customer before?
No, I have not. I always try to be on my best behavior and not mess things up.
How many hours do you work in a day?
Like I said earlier, I have other gigs I get apart from working as a porter in Mile 12 market. I sometimes wash people’s cars, wash their clothes on weekends or weekdays as the need arises. So on days when I have to deliver laundry to my customer, I do not get to work early or do not come at all. But on days when I come to work early, I work from about 7 a.m. -6 p.m.
Do you work on weekends too?
No, I do not work on weekends at all. I use my weekends to dry clean, rest and also spend time with my girlfriend.
How much are you paid when you carry groceries for your customers?
I sometimes get N200 but the standard amount we mostly charge here is N100, no matter the distance. The highest amount I have gotten from a customer is N500.
How much do you make in a day or week?
I believe you are asking me how much I make in a week from being a porter. Well, I make N3,000 mostly, N5,000 at most.
How much do you spend in a day?
I do not stay so far from here so I do not have to spend so much on transportation. The only thing I spend on is food-. about N400 or N500 at most daily.
What other things do you spend on?
I send money to my Mum and siblings back home in Akure every month. This is certain, it can’t be missed. It’s N15,000:00 every month, nothing changes it. And then I also occasionally give my girlfriend money to take care of herself. Thank God, I engage myself in other things that bring money in for me. The dry-cleaning business is doing well, even if it is on a small scale. I started by asking people in my neighborhood if I could wash clothes for them during the weekend then I started getting customers through word of mouth. People started recommending me to their friends. I charge N200 for a shirt and N500 for natives or any white clothing.
Have you ever opened a bank account?
I had to open a bank account when I was working with the factory back then. I was getting paid N45,000 monthly when I was still working at the factory.
Do you have savings and how much do you save in a month?
Normally saving should not be a problem for me. I should be able to save at least N10,000 conveniently in a month. But because I have to give money to family members, I only get to save whatever is left on me which is usually around N3,000 to N5,000. My brother being the eldest son is not easy o, especially when you come from a poor family. Everyone looks up to me at home. They just believe that I am in Lagos and everything is rosy for me.
Are you married or looking forward to getting married?
I have a girlfriend. Let me say she is my fiancé already. My mum and siblings met her already and I have also met with her people. We plan on getting married soon. I just need to gather enough money so I can move out of my current accommodation. I cannot raise a family in that environment.
Any other job or business you would like to venture into?
If I am able to get enough money, I would really like to venture fully into the dry-cleaning business. It started as a child’s play and now people in my area know me already. They patronize my service very well. Once there is s money, I would just buy two big washing machines to set up.