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Keke Queens: Pains, Gains And Future

Life at Canoe bus stop in Ajao Estate, Lagos state is like most parts of Lagos city. People hurry to their destinations; cars struggle in the bumpy ride on the potholed road and there are people who haggle prices at the mini-market situated close to the road.

On the other side of the busy road is a filling station and yellow and black coated tricycles (popularly known as keke all over Nigeria and in Lagos, Keke Marwa after the former military governor, Mohammed Buba Marwa who was also the first to introduce the tricycle in the 90s) arranged in an orderly manner with each tricycle driver, sitting and waiting for his turn to “load”.

Despite the chaos, the atmosphere surrounding the keke park is calm save for the unending burst of Lagosians hurrying to board the tricycles.

Since the ban on motorcycles in different parts of the country, keke has become for many Nigerians, one of the easiest means of transportation because of its ability to manoeuvre the tiniest of spaces on the busy roads and the limited number of people it requires.

Public transportation is a male-dominated business in Nigeria and Keke, the latest favourite of Nigerians is not left out.

Like the other means of transportation, Keke business maintains its coordination through a union, several meetings and the payment of levies. In the business, there is a need to be well versed in street smarts and a little fierceness is needed to stand up to whoever intends to intimidate you. This, perhaps, is the reason the number of women found in the business is a handful.

Yet, Canoe park is overseen by Mrs Dupe Odumuyiwa, the organising secretary, Canoe section, Ejigbo branch of Transaco Operator Owner Association of Nigeria. The registered nurse, who is responsible for the establishment of the park, has an interesting story.

“Although I was not a member of the Union, I was the one who went to the Commissioner for Works. I informed him that the population of people living here was high and there was a need for commercial transportation[to connect other parts of Lagos], even if it was just going to be Keke Marwa drivers.

Mrs Dupe Odumuyiwa

“We cleared the bush (the present location of the keke). Then, they sent a LASMA officer who came to run a feasibility test. So, they approved the running of keke park here in Canoe.”

However, this new victory was met with stiff opposition from the union.

“With this new development, they (members of the union) felt that I was running things for them. So, they attacked me and got me arrested.”

It was only after the intervention of the State chairman of the Union for all commercial transporters, Mr Tajudeen Agbede and Mc Oluomo that the case was settled. Since then, she has gone on to create five parks: Canoe to Ikotun; Jakande gate to Canoe; NNPC to Canoe; Iyano Ejigbo to Canoe and Canoe to Five star.

Her efforts are what led to the State Chairman’s insistence that she be given the position she currently occupies and a promised position as the only woman on the board at the state level.

This promise would make her a part of the 11.7% of women occupying a board position in Nigeria. However, this promise was never fulfilled because of her gender.

With countries such as Rwanda closing in over 80% of the Global Gender Gap Index and occupying the number four position, Nigeria ranks as 122 out of 144 on the list.

“Sometimes, when men see women in a competition with them, they like to cut them off. Even these women that are driving keke, some of them don’t want them to drive, if not for God and I must say, good leaders too. I have a lot of challenges here, sometimes, the people I bring will try to take the job away from me. But I always stand my ground.”

Little wonder that she holds the title, Yeye Oge (fashionable and strong woman) of Ogere Remo.

Fishing In The Pond

Amid all the beautiful chaos is Lilian Jeresa known as Ebony, the Canoe park development fee collector. A single mother of four, Ebony resumes for work by 6 am at the already bustling bus stop. Ebony was introduced to the “tough work” about five years ago and has carried on with it, creating a strong-willed persona for herself along the line.

Lilian Jeresa aka Ebony

“One of my godmothers who is also a Chairlady introduced me to this business. When she took me to the head of all the chairmen, Jeje, he looked at me and was touched because a woman wanted to do union work. He said I should start here and it has been five years now.”

For Ebony, the Nigerian economic downturn led her into the business. “I used to sell plastics before but getting loans from microfinance banks has been my major source of discouragement.”

“Sometimes when you borrow money to start business, you return the money every week and at the end of the day, the money will finish. I don’t want such things. I don’t have the power and mind to do that so I decided to go for this and I have been using it to train my children.”

Although she says that there are people who look down on her, she is unashamed as her means of livelihood is sufficient to cater for her needs and her children. She also admits that there are times when her gender has helped her. “Sometimes when a keke driver picks up a quarrel, some of his colleagues come in and warn (caution) the driver for fighting with a woman”.

Regardless, this does not stop her from dispensing her duties right.

Comfort Olowo aka Madam Yori Yori

The story of Comfort Olowu is not very different from that of Ebony.

Popularly known as Madam Yori Yori, Comfort, who plies the Toyota-five star route in the park is one of the drivers Ebony collects the daily fee of N200 from.

Yori Yori ventured into the business four years and 10 months ago after trying out a few other businesses. The single mother of three children says that it was during her sick state that she made up her mind to be a tricyclist. This decision was, however, met with discouragement from people close to her.

“Apart from the initial fear of being crushed by trucks, people told me that spirits drive keke at night to make me afraid. Even some Ladipo boys that we carry say that they don’t want to enter a woman’s keke because their charm will spoil while some are happy when they see us because they believe that their day will be great.”

She admits that with a daily income of five thousand naira on a bad day and nine thousand naira on a good day, this is a better business than all the ones she has been engaged in. Not only does it pay her children’s fees on time, she is able to feed and pay her house rent from the money. This is asides the tips she gets from strangers as a form of encouragement when they see her in service.

Yori Yori says she is not exempted from the daily struggle with her fellow cyclists.

However, this business has had a negative effect on her children.

“My children’s classmates use it to make fun of my children. One day, they came back home to ask me why I am doing this business. I told them that I am doing it for them and since then, they have stopped asking me.”

Despite the pain she experiences almost daily, Madam Yori Yori finds comfort in being able to provide for her children.

“Once I train my children finish, I will leave the work.”

For now, these women say they will continue to ply the trade that helps them live content lives.

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