Inside the lives of teenagers running mobile car wash business in Lagos traffic

Underage kids washing cars at Mile 10, Ojo, LAgos.
Underage kids washing cars at Mile 10, Ojo, LAgos.

Ezekiel Oluranti’s head was buried in his laps when he heard a whisper.

“Let’s go and wash the cars.”

It was the voice of his friend, informing him a dirty vehicle has been sighted in the nearby gridlock.

Ezekiel, 15, lifted his head, quickly grabbed his work tools – a bucket and a foam brush – and disappeared into the afternoon’s gridlock.

Ezekiel is one of the numerous teenagers who run a mobile car wash business in the daily, gruelling traffic along the Lagos-Badagry expressway.

“It’s been a while I got here,” Ezekiel told a PREMIUM TIMES reporter when he returned from one of his cleaning rounds.

“Whichever money I make, I send to my mummy and I make about N2,500 in a day.”

Opportunities in gridlock

The Lagos-Badagry expressway is home to one of the worst traffic gridlocks in Nigeria. A 10-kilometre drive between the Trade Fair part of the expressway and Okokomaiko could last up to three hours.

It is in this traffic snarl that Ezekiel and his colleagues work to support their families.

During the rush hours, a two-kilometre drive from LASU (Lagos State University) Gate to Iyana-Iba – in the morning – or the opposite direction in the evening could last over an hour. Ezekiel and his group take an average of ten minutes to wash one car in the traffic.

The third child in a family of five, and the only male, Ezekiel was born in Ibadan but moved to Lagos to work as an apprentice in a bakery near his uncle’s home at Ajangbadi. But he soon fell out with his uncle’s wife and absconded from their home. He ended up at Iyana-Iba, about nine kilometres away, where he saw young people washing cars in the gridlock.

He bought the needed material – a bucket, jerrycan, and detergent – and joined.

For Hassan Kazeem, another teenager, the meagre sales from hawking sachet water drove him into washing cars in traffic.

“My mother is not employed, so she said I should go and hawk ‘pure water’ (sachet water),” said Hassan, in Yoruba, as he admitted he does not understand English.

“I was so young when my parents fought and separated. Now I stay with my mummy and I am the last born of ten children. My mummy had five of us for my father and five for another man.”

A typical work day for the boys starts at 7 a.m. when they (mostly those out of school) arrive and wait patiently for the morning gridlock.

Within one hour, the traffic will, most often than not, come to a standstill, especially between Iyana-Iba and Volks. And that is when the boys get to work.

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Fawas Kareem, 14, who is in Junior Secondary Two, joins the group later in the day for the evening task. After school, he resumes at Iyana-Iba, and if the traffic had not ground to a halt, he moves to Police Corner, around Volks (about three kilometres away). He goes home at 10 p.m. to do his homework.

“I used to sell ‘pure water’ but it was not moving, so my friend introduced me to this,” said Fawas, the third of five children.

“Sometimes, I make about N3,500 on weekdays and N5,000 on weekends. I give the money to my mummy which she uses to do ‘Ajo’ (a contributory saving scheme), and when she collects hers, she uses it to cater for us.”

Unlike the traditional car wash business, the mobile car wash does not require the permission of the car owner. A dirty car is all the permission needed. After the washing, the boys loiter around the car for some sort of appreciation from the vehicle owner for the unsolicited service. Sometimes, it comes in the form of N100, N200, N500, N1,000 or more. Other times, they are ignored.

“When a car is dusty, it is dirty. We wash cars and jeep,” Fawas said.

“We can’t do anything to the car driver when we don’t get paid, we just move onto the next car to wash again. It saddens my heart when I’m ignored.”

Young and mobile

At 11, Monday Obi has already become financially independent. The youngest in the group, Monday, who is in Basic Two, joins the mobile car wash team after school hours. During the holidays, he works 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Prevailed upon to speak to the PREMIUM TIMES reporter by his older colleagues, Monday said he also switched from hawking sachet water in the traffic to washing cars.

“My mother said I should find money and buy my school things,” said Monday who added that he takes home N1,500 every day.

But for 15-year-old Ibrahim Dare, his boss at the tailoring shop where he worked as an apprentice pushed him into the business.

“I do tailoring. Because my mummy has not paid my vocational skills acquisition, my boss talks to me anyhow and threatens to send me away for not paying,” said Ibrahim, the first of five children.

“So I left there myself to look for money to pay him and continue.”

He said he had already raised the N15,000 needed to pay his boss and would return to his apprenticeship “soon.”

While the boys need to keep their attention on the cars they are washing, they also have to watch out for the careless commercial motorcyclists who meander dangerously in between the rows of vehicles.

Fawas admitted that the job is not without its challenges.

“Sometimes, while washing the cars, and we mistakenly pour water on a motorcyclist, he might alight and slap us. Or the driver of the car might alight and break our buckets.

Ibrahim said a driver had once emerged from his car and given them a hot chase. Another had wound down and spat on them.

But the boys say they are undeterred by such behaviours, even though they, particularly the ones out of school, say they would love to return to the classroom if given the opportunity.

Emmanuel Jeffrey is among those who dropped out of school. He sings as a hobby and said he is always saddened that he could not write down his lyrics whenever it comes to his head.

“Sometimes I might sing and I will be asked to sing it again but I won’t be able to recall it,” he said.

For Ezekiel, who dropped out of school in JS 3, although he is saddened by his inability to continue his education, the realization that he could send money to his mother back home lifts his spirits.

He said he sleeps inside a make-shift shop at the Alaba-Rago area, near Okokomaiko, and has an “Egbon” (senior brother) from Ibadan whom he keeps his daily earnings with.

He said he would have loved to finish his education before thinking of what the future holds for him.

“I want to acquire a vocation, I used to learn tailoring while going to school.”

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