LAGOS, Nigeria — Ojuelegba, one of the city’s major crossroads, never sleeps. At 5 a.m. the beer parlors are still open, even as hawkers begin clogging the sidewalks with their wares — mobile phones, roast chicken, tropical fruits like mango, banana, pawpaw, African pear. People were everywhere as I joined the rushing commuters fighting for space on the ubiquitous Volkswagen Kombi buses, known as danfos.
I generally work from home, so the trip was a novelty for me, a chance to get a feel for this restless city of some 18 million people — more than Greater London and New York combined, but with fewer roads and hardly any rail or water transportation. Everything here moves by road, including the oil tankers and trucks that roll ceaselessly out of West Africa’s largest port.
Though the state runs the Bus Rapid Transport system, routes are restricted. Danfos, owned by small-time operators and staffed by a driver and conductor, go everywhere. They’re designed to seat between 12 and 16 people depending on the model. Getting in and out involves much treading on toes. You might tear your shirt if you don’t watch out, or lose your wallet. The word danfo in Yoruba roughly translates as “everyone for himself” or “you’re on your own.”
But it isn’t necessarily so. Though danfos are robbed at gunpoint from time to time, usually at night on less-traveled roads, they do offer moments when people unite in a common cause. Once when I was taking a taxi at 10 in the morning, we passed a silent crowd and a few policemen converged around a burning bus. The passengers had overpowered the armed robbers, beat them senseless and set the danfo on fire, with the bandits still inside.
On this day, however, my fellow passengers were unfailingly polite, even solicitous. I too was a bit of a novelty. I am a Nigerian with white skin, despite my mixed-race ancestry, and in Nigeria white men don’t jump buses, they travel in chauffeur-driven jeeps. Ergo, I was taken as a foreigner, and Nigerians themselves are hospitable to foreigners. (It’s one another they don’t like.)
When I was uncertain how to get where I was going, people would take it upon themselves to make sure I was put right. More than a few would call me “oyibo” (“white man”) to my face and grin broadly. And, it had to be said, I saw no other oyibo the whole day.
I was heading for Sango Ota, over 20 kilometers away. A conductor showed me where I could get the first of two danfos that would take me there. I squeezed into the back, all of us cheek-by-jowl on the hard wooden seats. Just before we left, a middle-aged woman asked me to give her the fare. That’s not unusual in this poverty- stricken country. I was approached twice more in the course of the day.
As in other buses, the problem of change dogged us. We no longer use coins in Nigeria and there are not enough low-denomination notes. “Conductor, my change,” is almost a mantra on danfos, but on this trip there was a young man who wasn’t taking chances.
“If you think you can cheat me you are joking,” he told the conductor, adding those two ominous, strictly rhetorical words, “my friend.”
The conductor ignored him.
“See this monkey,” the passenger said, loudly. “These people come from the village and think they can cheat me in Lagos. Let me tell you something, you’re a big joker, you hear me?’
Image credit: Devesh Uba