“It is only when tires don’t roll on the road, that’s when we don’t make any money,” Oriyomi tells me.
We are in an alley of Lagos Island standing on the remains of an abandoned building that was intended to be a bungalow.
Iron bars, straight and bent, stick out of the building’s foundation. There is nowhere to sit.
I have taken a long walk across Lagos Island, on a baking Saturday afternoon, to find Oriyomi.
In the days before there have been unseasonable rain showers. Now the sun is vengefully reclaiming its place in the sky. The rain has left puddles that have not yet dried up, and the roads, less asphalt and more mud as I near Tinubu Square, are tricky to navigate.
Car tires are quickly wrapped in pasty globs of brown. After an hour of walking, the soles of my sneakers, heavy with clay, peel off.
The roads are lined with street traders, selling everything from tomatoes to camera lenses. The row of traders is interrupted at intervals by cars double-parked on either side of the road; the people in them are arriving to buy or sell something or else to pay a visit to the two- and three-story buildings along the road. The buildings are very similar, and they could all do with a fresh coat of paint.
All the while, there are at least a hundred people walking and sweating in any given direction.
On my way to meet Oriyomi I notice a few men—some with scars, chipped teeth, all menacing—milling about on each street or alley. In one palm are neatly folded bundles of naira. When these men see bikes or tricycles coming, they rush into the middle of the road and stand in front of them. The vehicles roll to a stop. The men stretch out their palms, beckoning. Sometimes they don’t say anything at all. The bikes and tricycles give over varying amounts in silent but visibly reluctant agreement. They have been expecting this.
These collectors are popularly known as “area boys,” or agberos, an indelible strand of Lagos’s DNA.
They are typically at bus stops and motor parks, the lots where buses begin their routes, and sometimes in front of shops and construction sites. They are often demanding money. Those at bus stops and in lots are often employees of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), a private association that collects tolls by any means necessary from all public transporters—and which is maligned by all. NURTW did not respond to a request for an interview by deadline.
One day while I was in a half-full danfo—black and yellow bus—waiting for new passengers, the conductor refused to pay the agbero’s requested due. The agbero responded with a question. He gruffly asked the conductor which car part he wished to lose: the side mirror or the cover of his fuel tank. He did not wait for an answer. He moved to the side of the bus, ready to dismember it. The conductor quickly jumped out and gave him what he wanted. An exposed fuel tank would have surely put the bus and everyone in it at great risk.
Oriyomi used to be an agbero. Today he is in gymwear: a gray tank top and blue sweatpants and matching sneakers. He is a businessman now; he sells clothes.
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*Featured Photo Credit: Tom Saater, as part of ‘Area Boy’ photo series.