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Inside the lives of teenagers running mobile car wash business in Lagos traffic

Ezekiel Oluranti’s head was buried in his lap when he heard a whisper, “Let’s go and wash the cars,” the voice said. It was the voice of his friend, informing him a dirty vehicle has been seen in the nearby gridlock and it was time to get to work. Ezekiel, 15, lifts his head, quickly grabs his work tools –a bucket and a foam brush– and disappears into the afternoon gridlock.

Ezekiel is one of the numerous teenagers who run a mobile car wash business in the daily, gruelling traffic along the Lagos-Badagry expressway.

“It’s been a while since I got here,” Ezekiel told Campus Reporter when he returned from one of his cleaning rounds.

“Whichever money I make, I send to my mummy and I make about N2,500 in a day.”

Opportunities in gridlock

The Lagos-Badagry expressway is home to one of the worst traffic gridlocks in Nigeria. A 10-kilometre drive between the Trade Fair end of the expressway and Okokomaiko could last up to three hours.

It is in the grips of this traffic that Ezekiel and his colleagues work to support their families.

During rush hour, a two-kilometre drive from the Lagos State University (LASU) Gate to Iyana-Iba in the morning, or the opposite direction in the evening, can last over an hour. Ezekiel and his group take an average of ten minutes to wash one car in the traffic.

The third child in a family of five, and the only male, Ezekiel was born in Ibadan but moved to Lagos to work as an apprentice in a bakery near his uncle’s home at Ajangbadi. But, he soon fell out with his uncle’s wife and absconded from their home. He ended up at Iyana-Iba, about nine kilometres away, where he saw young people washing cars in the gridlock.

He bought the needed materials for the business –a bucket, jerrycan, and detergent– and joined in.

For Hassan Kazeem, another teenager, the meagre sales from hawking sachet water drove him into the business of washing cars in traffic.

“My mother is not employed, so she said I should go and hawk ‘pure water’ (sachet water),” said Hassan, in Yoruba, as he admitted he does not understand English.

“I was very young when my parents fought and separated. Now I stay with my mummy and I am the last born of ten children. My mummy had five of us for my father and five for another man.”

A typical work day for the boys starts at 7 am when those who are out of school arrive and wait, patiently, for the morning gridlock.

Within one hour, the traffic will come to a standstill, especially between Iyana-Iba and Volks, and that is when the boys get to work.

Fawas Kareem, 14, who is in Junior Secondary School, form two, joins the group later in the day for the evening task. After school, he resumes at Iyana-Iba, and if the traffic has not grounded to a halt, he moves to Police Corner, about three kilometres away from Volks. He goes home at 10 pm to do his homework.

“I used to sell ‘pure water’ but it was not moving, so my friend introduced me to this,” said Fawas, the third of five children.

“Sometimes, I make about N3,500 on weekdays and N5,000 on weekends. I give the money to my mummy which she uses to do ‘Ajo’ (a contributory saving scheme), and when she collects hers, she uses it to cater for us.”

Young and mobile

At 11, Monday Obi has already become financially independent. The youngest in the group, Monday, who is in Basic Two, joins the mobile car wash team after school hours. During the holidays, he works from 10 am to 6 pm.

Prevailed upon to speak to Campus Reporter by his older colleagues, Monday said he also switched from hawking sachet water in the traffic to washing cars.

“My mother said I should find money and buy my school things,” said Monday, who added that he takes home N1,500 every day.

For 15-year-old Ibrahim Dare, however, his boss at the tailoring shop where he worked as an apprentice, pushed him into the business.

“I do tailoring. Because my mummy has not paid my vocational skills acquisition fees, my boss talks to me anyhow and threatens to send me away for not paying,” said Ibrahim, the first of five children.

“So I left myself to look for money to pay him and continue.”

He said he had already raised the N15,000 needed to pay his boss and will return to his apprenticeship “soon.”

Fawas admitted that the job is not without its challenges.

While the boys need to keep their attention on the cars they are washing, they also have to watch out for the careless commercial motorcyclists who meander dangerously in between the rows of vehicles.

“Sometimes, while washing the cars, and we mistakenly pour water on a motorcyclist, he might alight and slap us. Or the driver of the car might alight and break our buckets.”

Ibrahim said a driver had once emerged from his car and gave them a chase. Another wound down his window and spat on them.

But the boys say they are undeterred by such behaviours, even though they, particularly the ones out of school, say they would love to return to the classroom if given the opportunity.

Emmanuel Jeffrey is among those who dropped out of school. He sings as a hobby and said he is always saddened that he cannot write down his lyrics whenever they come to his head.

“Sometimes I might sing and I will be asked to sing it again but I won’t be able to recall it,” he said.

For Ezekiel, who dropped out of school in JS 3, although he is saddened by his inability to continue his education, the realization that he can send money to his mother back home lifts his spirits.

He said he sleeps inside a make-shift shop at the Alaba-Rago area, near Okokomaiko, and has an “Egbon” (senior brother) from Ibadan with whom he keeps his daily earnings.

He said he would have loved to finish his education before thinking of what the future holds for him.

“I want to acquire a [skill], I used to learn ‘tailoring’ while going to school.”

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