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If your bike was your home - Life and dignity in Lagos, Nigeria

Arise Nigeria Liaison, Sr Theresa Ani, reflects on her walks through Lagos at sunrise, observing the youth of the local ‘Okada’ (motorcycle taxi) industry.

Have you ever imagined living without the safety and dignity of a home - nowhere you can retreat to and rest?

This is the reality for many youths in Lagos State, Nigeria. Some are homeless until they are able to find an income and improve their life standards. Others are less fortunate, living on the streets until sickness steals them away.

Daily, during my walks through different areas of Lagos, I see hundreds of teenagers and young adults in the ‘Okada’ (motorcycle taxi) business, using their bike as their only home.

The bike as a bed

It takes only venturing out early in the morning, to understand their daily routine. Until 6am, these youths are seen, each on their motorcycle, wrapped up in their clothes like dead bodies ready to be laid to rest.

They are mostly gathered under the fly overs, sleeping balanced on their bikes. Perhaps this is to avoid the polluted ground or to protect their only home and income from thieves. To shift an inch in their sleep would mean crash landing on the floor that is so decorated by rubbish and dirty wrappings of ‘mama put’ (street food). As their necks are curved and their bodies submitting to the shape of the bike, one wonders what effect this will have on their spines as they grow older.

The daily routine

At early hours of the morning, some of these people are seen beginning their daily routine. Some are brushing their teeth, others are washing their faces, legs and bikes. How about taking a full bath in the morning? It is clear at a glance that these hustling youths, who deserve a bath more than anyone, go about life without the comfort of cleanliness.

But, when the day breaks, life and businesses move along as though all is well for them.

The Okada drivers work very hard and earn less than 5 euros per day. From that money, the owner of the motorcycle is paid a certain amount. If it is on hire purchase, the bike is fuelled and maintained; a day’s meal is also taken from it. How will such a person be able to rent a room?

Stagnant water

Once exposed, the Lagos State Government has done well to put pavements over the gutters. How people are able to detach them is a mystery, but today some of the the thick metal locks are missing. With youths making the corners of the street their home, the gutters serve as a dumping ground. Whenever it rains, the drains become blocked and a stinking smell exhumes from the stagnant water. It is an awful mess, polluting the air of the city. These places are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. No wonder malaria and typhoid are the talk of the day.

If this reality is an eye sore for a passerby, what is it for those who live and eat above the gutters? One wakes up each day wishing that it never existed.

An ill-fated escape

The youths are bent on leaving the country because of this dehumanising situation, and many are willing to risk precarious journeys and suspicious offers to do so. Sold for sex, enslaved for labour, they do not want to know what will happen to them on the other side.

Aspiring to dignity

A solution seems impossible. Having sanitation facilities and rubbish collectors would be a start, and a workers’ camp as a transit place for homeless youth to weather a few years. However, this is only a plaster over the wound.

The true answer lies in access and opportunity, which will only be achieved through a deeper shift. From the conviction of the equal worth of human lives comes our duty to target the root of exploitation and suffering.

There is a lot of work to be done, and fortunately, many people giving their lives to do it. Would you like to be one of the many hands that offer help? How would you want to do it?

- Sr Theresa Ani, Arise Nigeria Liaison

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