As early as possible, they defy the warm comfort of their beds and endure the pangs of the frosty mornings to hit the road with their tricycles. For these women of ancient Ibadan city, the will to survive is paramount. They shared stories of their struggle, challenges and aspirations with our correspondent, Taiwo Adebulu.
In her mid 60s, Mrs. Olayinka Onabanjo does not need a special map to manoeuvre her ways through the dusty roads, heaps of refuse and unrestrained traders. For the past thirty-one years, she has plied the tiny corridors, the tortuous pavement and the bustling broad lanes of the one-time abode of warlords with ecstatic rigour, whilst her popularity has soared.
Following several futile attempts to speak with her, this reporter finally tracked her down at Yemetu rendezvous. Decked in blue beret, she walked briskly towards her vehicle radiating an aura of confidence and strength akin to that of a young school girl.
“No rolling tyre, no food”
Onabanjo started her career as a teacher at Molete High School, Ibadan, Oyo State in 1982. She taught Introductory Technology and Physics in the junior and senior classes respectively until she could no longer cope with the meagre salary she was being paid. At a time when other women dared not tread the tough path traditionally bequeathed to men, she braved the odds. In 1985, she got a vehicle for commercial transit, to ply major roads within the sprawling city.
Then came one of the toughest decisions of her life, to quit or not to quit her teaching job. Finally, she succumbed to pressure and opted for voluntary retirement to face a new world.
This marked a new life for her as she became its first female commercial driver. She bought a bus and transported sandals from the popular Ogunpa Market to Benin City and Onitsha, the commercial hub of Anambra State. This went on until the introduction of tricycles into commercial transportation in the country. The three-wheeler was further popularised in 2002, as part of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP). Again, Olayinka took the lead, setting the pace for other women to join in the new vocation. Today, they have a slogan, “No rolling tyre, no food.”
Struggle for survival
From Idi-Arere to Idi-Ishin, Oke-Mapo to Oke-Ado, you would see them swerve menacingly, yet dexterously to pick passengers at every junction. They yell at the top of their voices to invite passengers, even as they intermittently hurl insults at the unruly ones. Their rich repository of biting epithets and sarcastic proverbs, which can sometimes induce tears from the toughest being, is indeed their weapon, with which they ward off the intimidation from their male counterparts and women alike. You also get the impression that they have lost their feminine tenderness to the toil. While some swagger with masculine gait, some speak in deep male baritones while others appear in mannish clothes.
They wake up as early as 4am in the morning to attend to domestic chores and hit the road by 5am. Most of them work till 8pm, after which they go home to attend to their family. Call them queens of the road and you may not be wrong; yet they maintain that they do not neglect their wifely duties.
For Mrs. Oluwaseun Kotilo, popularly called Sheymama among her peers, the struggle to survive is non-negotiable even as it comes at a price. Once upon a time, things went amiss and the responsibility of taking care of her children fell on her shoulders. She braced up herself and took up the challenge. Her husband objected, but she was resolute. When the heat became unbearable, she opted for a divorce.
“He was always demanding, yet couldn’t take care of the home. So, I was left with no choice. Now, I take care of my children, two of whom are waiting for admission into tertiary institutions. I’ve built a house. As a matter of fact, I can drive a lorry or any heavy-duty vehicle in as much it would fetch me money. Not even the multiple accidents I’ve had on the road can deter me from working. See, I drive with bandages, I can’t let hunger kill me.” She said showing the stitches on her hands. “
The story isn’t much different with young Mrs. Yetunde Adebayo, who said she once had a close shave with death while ascending the expansive Molete flyover. That day, she was hit by an impatient hit and run driver, who left her in the pool of her blood. She was rescued by passers-by. But rather than take to any other vocation, Adebayo went back to her tricycle business.
On another occasion, she was beaten by hoodlums for not ‘settling’ them, yet she remains undeterred.
Face-to-face with extortion and harassment
“As a commercial driver in Ibadan, if you are afraid of breaking traffic rules, you cannot make enough money.” Adeola, a National Diploma holder of the International School of Aviation told this reporter.
“There are no designated bus stops. So, you can park anywhere along the road to pick or drop passengers as long as you are fortunate not to be harassed by the police. The day I was arrested by policemen from Agodi police station, my tyres were deflated and my tricycle ‘slept’ in their station for two days.” She said.
Adeola painted a grim picture of the habitual extortion by the police. “You would hardly find a fixed public bus stop in the whole of Ibadan, save those built by private companies, yet the police and the Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) exploit the situation. Once your tricycle is confiscated, you pay as much as N10,000 as fine.
“If you don’t have the money and your tricycle sleeps overnight in their office, you pay addition fine for each day.”
One of the women, who spoke anonymously for fear of further harassment, alleged that the policemen mostly arrest women who do not yield to their sexual overtures, over ridiculous offences.
She also cited the obstacle of extortionist officers of the transport union, who collect N50 per every two kilometre drive.
Glad to be adding value
According to Onabanjo, the money she makes from her tricycle business goes a long way in the upkeep and growth of her family. “My husband is very happy about the job because I help to ease the burden, while my children believe it will prevent me from ageing fast.”
Idowu Adebayo, Yetunde’s husband, who is also a tricyclist, testified to Yetunde’s contributions. “I must confess, what she’s doing is not a woman’s job. But when the need arose, she rose up to the occasion. I taught her to drive the tricycle, so we can work together to raise our children. Most of the time, she makes more money than I. Whenever I travel, she’d take care of the home and pay the children’s school fees. Yet she rarely allows me to help in the kitchen.”
Said Mrs. Adeola Lawson, “My husband travelled when I started this job. When he came back and got wind of the news, he was very angry. He ordered me to stop immediately but I explained to him that I needed to support him and pull resources together to send our children to good schools.”
If there is one thing these women collectively acknowledged, it is the fact that the job is highly profitable. As stated by Kotilo, they make about N3000 in a day, sometimes, more. And they work virtually every day, raking in as much as N21,000 in a week. With that, they are able maintain their families and help themselves.
Towards a promising future
To create a strong bond towards their development, the women meet weekly to discuss issues affecting their work and lives. They see themselves as sisters who must share their problems together. In one of their meetings under the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Ibadan South-East, which was attended by this reporter, proceedings were conducted in English Language, although sometimes, Yoruba. After addressing some of the week’s challenges and how to tackle them, their leader, Mrs. Deborah Ahmed, encouraged the women to consider furthering their education, stressing that it is their only way of realising their visions. She spoke of her willingness to return to the university to study transport management, in order to position herself for opportunities in her line of work.
She also spoke on the proposed rebranding of the job to make it more attractive to young female graduates who are unemployed.
Speaking to this reporter at the end of the programme, Ahmed expatiated on the need for rebranding. “There are so many young ladies out there who are graduates and unemployed but ashamed to walk our path. Already, we have some undergraduates and fresh graduates doing well on the job, but we’ll be starting with a sensitisation outreach for women. We want to empower them to be self-reliant and contribute to their families. We have done one in neighbouring Iwo Town, Osun State and we are planning a big rally here in Ibadan. Very soon, we will start looking cooperate in branded clothes.”