Carrying burden for money: World of Alabarus

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Being a porter in the market could be a frustrating and tiring job, but most of those engaged in it have no option. SHEHU BELLO probed into the unenviable world of these people popularly called alabaru in the South West, concluding that it is indeed a hard life for them.

LAGOS, with its more than 20 million people definitely requires a lot of markets to accommodate the teeming residents’ daily domestic and household needs. This simple fact explains the numerous buying and selling points that dot its landscape, ranging from the elitist one-stop shopping malls to lock-up shops as well as other informal gathering points for goods and services to exchange hands.

While all the merchandising attention will likely be on the buyers and sellers at any market, there is also an important group in the chain that isn’t always paid its due but whose services are very crucial to successful trading. This group is known as alabaru, the porters who help with the movement of goods within markets.

Apart from helping customers to move their wares to parking points and bus stops, the traders also rely on them to move their goods into their shops after delivery. For regular market goers, these service providers, who are always likely to be dirty in outlook with scant education and at times, communication difficulties, are an indispensable part of shopping.

Sunday Tribune welcomes you to the world of the Alabaru, the wall-to-wall porters at markets such as Mile 12, Balogun, Idumota and other major busy markets around Lagos serving visitors who them.

These ubiquitous people are scattered everywhere with the young, middle-aged and older ones among them engaging in conveying goods on their heads, rushing to meet set daily targets as they move from one area to another looking for customers and also moving with goods on their heads.

The Mile 12 market, the largest perishable goods market in sub-Saharan Africa, seems to be their headquarters as they can be seen in large numbers with both sexes from different ethnic groups besieging the market to engage in the alabaru business.

Though it appears to be degrading and monetary gain is little, coupled with the effect of having to daily carry goods on the head, one still finds people rushing and wanting to engage in it even as those already in it do not seem to be ready for retirement, despite the complaints by the practitioners concerning the job’s effect on their bodies.

Sunday Tribune observed some haggard looking women overworked by hours of transporting goods on their heads for the owners, from short to long distance. They also appear to be well acquainted with all routes, from years of servicing both the traders and shoppers.

On a good day, before the recession, the alabaru could make between N2000 to N3000, but with the economic downturn and rise in prices of goods and services, many now make between N500 and N1500 daily depending on volume of business.

During Sunday Tribune’s visit, about five women were seen under the Mile 12 Bridge looking downcast, expecting customers. When approached they initially refused to share their stories, but after much prodding and persuasion, they backed down, but refused to have their pictures taken.

They spoke about the pains of carrying loads all day long, but they had no option than to continue as their family depend on them for everything including school fees.

Mary John, the first porter who was willing to talk to Sunday Tribune said she never intended to do job but the economic recession left her with no option. Mary who became emotional in the course of the interview said her husband lost her job, thus she had to find a means of earning money, even if it is carrying of loads.

“I started doing this business last year November. I thought it was easy, but since I started it hasn’t been easy and the economic recession has affected me badly as the money I was making last year when I started is not what I get now,” she said.

Mrs Bukola Isiaka who also does the same job told Sunday Tribune that she has been working as an alabaru since 2012.

According to her, “when I first started, business was good; we made up to N3000 per day. At times we would go home with N2,500 or sometimes N2,000; but since the recession started, people rarely come to market and even if they come they tend not to require our service unlike before when we usually had more than six customers a day.”

Another woman who gave her name as Iya Lekan said: “The work is demanding, stressful, and it also weighs you down if you don’t buy needed drugs to keep you moving and strong.

“I would be willing to leave this job if I get a better job, but as it is now, I can’t as I have a family at home waiting for me to bring something home.”

The story of Aminu Umar, an indigene of Kebbi State, who spoke to Sunday Tribune in Hausa language was touching. He said the state of the country forced him to migrate to Lagos for a greener pasture, but never envisaged that he would end up being an alabaru.

“I am from Kebbi State and I came to Lagos two years ago. Though this was not what I had in mind but after spending two months without doing anything, I decided to engage myself as an alabaru, even though (for me) it is demeaning and not that rewarding, but I had to do it as I need to send money home to my parents and my wife,” he said.

Yakubu Amdala, a native of Zamfara State used to carry loads on his head, but now from the money he made he now uses a wheelbarrow.

“My brother, it has not been easy but I give thanks to God that I am alive and I still make money from conveying goods. When I started as an alabaru, it was easy as I was making money and I was able to get regular customers. It was from there I got the money to buy the wheelbarrow but since the beginning of this year it hasn’t been easy for me as we have more people coming into the alabaru business but we have limited shoppers and traders,” he said.

Sherifat (not real name) used to ply her trade at Balogun Market in Lagos. She came to Lagos some years ago from her village in Kwara State in search of greener pastures. A friend who had earlier left for Lagos from her village had returned telling of exciting stories of glamour and fun in the city and how she was making lots of money. Against her parents’ wishes she left, seeking a piece of the Lagos action. On getting to Lagos with her friend she was disappointed. Instead of the glamour and fun, what she entered into was a life of struggle.

She had nowhere to sleep except under market stalls and no job was waiting except to carry loads for people in the market. What she was making on a daily basis was not enough to sustain her. Soon she got involved with one of the Area Boys who hang around the market where she worked as a load carrier.

Before long she got pregnant and the boy disappeared into thin air. Nothing could compare with the gloomy and hopeless situation that currently faces her. Having to work while being pregnant, she cuts a pitiable figure, living from hand to mouth.

In Ibadan, Oyo State, the story is similar. At the popular Bodija Market, a pregnant teenage girl observed by Sunday Tribune got only N50 for her efforts. A 30-year-old nursing mother of three, Serifat, said she just came into the porter business about two weeks ago. Her husband, a farmer, could no longer cater for the needs of the family, so she had to do something.

“I used to make about N600, on the average, in a day but yesterday (Wednesday) was a bad day at work as I only made N300 of which I had to pay N50 for the head pan I rented to convey goods. We do not have bargaining power at all; our pay depends solely on what those who patronize us give to us. Even if they pay less than what we expect, we do not have the power to fight them. I can’t save or do any contribution from what I get.  The proceeds I get are used for catering for my family needs.

“Presently, I’m unable send my two children to school but they do attend daily lesson.  I’m not a lazy woman, if I get financial help from government in the region of N50,000 and N100,000, I will use that to start up a business that will enable me to fund my children’s education and cater for our needs,” she said.

Another alabaru, Bose Abiloye, is in her early 40s. She is a widow and a mother of five. Prior to her husband’s death she used to sell beverages, but wasn’t able to continue. She could no longer send all the children to school at once as some had to go into apprenticeship. Sometimes she had to make do with whatever she is offered as fees for her efforts.

“When faced with disappointment as to what they (our customers) offer us, we do not have a choice but to let it go because we can’t fight our customers. I am optimistic that I will stop this work in the nearest future, but with the help of government and well-meaningful persons in the society I can go back to my former trade,” Bose told Sunday Tribune.

During years of constantly carrying loads on their heads, do alabarus run the risk of physical issues? Probably so.

According to a medical practitioner, Dr Victor Adeyefa except for vertebral column and scalp damages, there is no known serious ailment that is common to alabarus.

“For protection against scalp problems, many of them use caps or scarves before loads are mounted on their heads. The pain they immediately feel are dulled by pain relievers. Some of them, especially males, also use marijuana or other drugs. The first thing that one notices, however, is that they age fast because the job is considered laborious, a hard and energy-sapping job.

“But whether they carry loads on their heads or backs, jthe side effects are the same-they feel pain and they abuse pain relievers a lot. For the latter, their backs are usually bent,” he said.

—Additional reports by Tade Makinde And Daniel Akeju



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