Illustration by Ebunola Adenipekun; Text by Tolu Ogunlesi
It’s the archetypal business model: identify a need, and fill it. Every morning, an the car-parks of business-district Lagos are invaded by armies of young men, in search of one thing: shoes.
Ibrahim, 28, is one of the throng who make a living that way; “shining” the dirty shoes of their countrymen. They belong to the Nigerian “exconomy”, away from the radars of economists, bankers and B-school theorists.
Ibrahim left his family behind in far-away Jigawa State, in North-Central Nigeria, to colonise a portion of the “streets of gold” for which Lagos is famed.
His working day starts between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. everyday, when the first of the traders and office workers begin to arrive at their stalls and offices onLagosIsland. Many of them will have left home with yesterday’s dust still clinging to their shoes.
When you have to leave home well before daybreak, to beat the hellish Lagos traffic, cleaning your shoes is the last thing on your mind. Especially not when someone’s willing to do it better than you, at very little cost.
In Ibrahim’s words, his job is a “waka waka” (itinerant) one. His daily route – along the busy Marina, in the neighbourhood of the CMS bus-stop (one of Lagos’ most prominent public transport terminals) is not far from his Idumota abode.
I’m curious about his family. He’s married, he tells me, and when I ask how many wives he has (he is Muslim, and therefore permitted by his religion to take as many as four wives), he laughs.
He says he has only one wife. “I be small boy o,” he adds. He’s been married for about a year. Is his wife here in Lagos with him? She isn’t. She’s in his village, 800 or so kilometers away, expecting their first child. Lagos is too expensive a place to maintain a family in. He laments that a meal which used to cost between seventy and eighty naira, now goes for as much as a hundred and fifty (slightly over a dollar, in 2008 – see note below). “Everything na money for Lagos” he concludes, ruefully.
For one who is duty-bound to send money back home to his parents and wife, juggling his basic needs (food, clothing) with saving for family and future is hardly the easiest thing in the world. I have often wondered how Lagos’ shoe-shiners earn. He says he doesn’t make more than four to five hundred naira (approx $4 in 2008) daily.
I find that surprising – it’s on the low side. By my calculations, at twenty naira per pair of shoes (which is what I pay whenever I patronise them), that comes to twenty/twenty-five shoes per day. Surely he must polish more shoes than that daily, in the twelve or so hours that he works daily. He says it’s ‘covered’ shoes that are twenty naira. Slip-ons are half that price. Not only that, a sizeable number of shoe-owners pay only ten naira, claiming that’s all they can afford.
He tries to save as much as three hundred naira daily, and the last time he travelled home (a few weeks earlier, for the Moslem Sallah holiday), he gave his parents ten thousand naira.
Listening to him I get the impression he’d rather be back home, surrounded by family, and making a living as a farmer – feeding himself and his family and carting the rest of his produce away to nearby markets.
“Two or three months time I go travel” he says. He plans to spend as much as five months at home, resting and savouring life away from the harshness of Lagos. He hopes to be back after that holiday, while eagerly looking forward to the day he will return to Jigawa for good.
I imagine that as he returns home, finally, whenever that will be, there will be a handful of his kinsmen travelling in the opposite direction, headed to Lagos with the same hopes that brought him, a few years ago.
They will arrive in Lagos, acquire their own shoe-cleaning kits (a crudely-fashioned open-topped wooden box, containing tins of polish, a pair of slippers for customers to wear while their shoes are being cleaned), a couple of rags, and brushes of different sizes), and spend their working days strolling around crowded places, in search of people too time- and effort-challenged to clean their shoes themselves.
Hopefully by then Lagosians would have grown more appreciative of their services, and by implication, more generous.
“Lagos money lives permanently inLagos,” goes a popular local saying. Ibrahim, despite being a largely ignored member of the Lagos’ business community, is evidence that that is not always true.
Lagos money does travel – and far too – if it so desires.
I met and interviewed Ibrahim, and wrote the profile in April 2008. It is appearing in public for the first time. I have done some minor editing here and there (inevitable when you’re reading an article you wrote years ago, but most of it is preserved as originally written). I have no idea where Ibrahim is today, or what he’s up to.
The naira has depreciated slightly against the USD in the three years since then.
The illustration was commissioned and produced in April 2011. You may read another in the series of profiles of “ordinary Nigerians” (all of whom I interviewed around the same time), in 3 Quarks Daily: ‘Voices and Visions of Nigeria: “Iya Seun“‘
About the illustrator
Ebunola believes she must have been born with a pencil in her hand: her earliest childhood memories are of her writing short stories, poems or essays or drawing pictures from imagination or by observing everyday life. Not much has changed – whether it’s posting opinion pieces in her blog, reading books (and making notes in them), editing or proof reading for magazines and other publications, or composing a commissioned portrait or a collection of pieces for a self-appointed project, this University of Lincoln journalism graduate and Westminster post-graduate loves putting pen (or pencil) to paper.
Follow me on Twitter, here: @toluogunlesi