Alaja the Tarkwa Bay boat operator

I recently stumbled on this series of interviews I did more than five years ago (April 2008) in Lagos, commissioned for a book project that ended up taking a different shape. I interviewed about seven "Lagosians" - a high school student, a boat pilot, an ex-private security guard and musicstar-wannabe, an itinerant shoe-cleaner, a policeman, a street trader, and a white collar worker.

The idea was to get a sense of their lives and struggles and 'hustles' in Lagos.

I'm sharing one of the stories — my encounter with the 'boat pilot' — below. I wonder what where Alaja is these days; what he does for a living; if he's married and has children; if he's still a Man U fan? And how much are boat engines these days? Lots of questions.

Five years is a long time in a City like Lagos. At that time Governor Fashola was barely a year in office, okadas were still legal on all highways, traffic lights and zebra crossings weren't as plentiful as they are, and the Lekki-Epe Expressway and its tollgates and the Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge and its tollgates and the Eko Atlantic City were still on the fabled 'drawing boards'.

Five years is a long time in Lagos. And yet some things never change — from police harassments to the ups-and-downs of romantic relationships. And the never-say-die spirit of the Lagosian.


Alaja is a "son-of-the-soil" on Lagos Island, one of the privileged few who can claim their roots belong on the Island. For ten years now he has worked as a pilot – on water. He operates a boat service that carries tourists between Victoria Island and Tarkwa Bay (where he lives). Sailors also seek his services, seeking transport to and from their ships anchored on the high seas.

The twenty-eight year-old's working day starts at 7a.m. He cleans his boat, and joins the queue of boats, awaiting his turn. I am struck by how similar the boat transport system is to its land counterpart, where the drivers of the ubiquitous Lagos danfos queue up to "load" passengers.

The entire day consists of carrying his passengers, as well as enduring the harassments of marine police. Marine police? I’m curious, having no idea before now that police harassments were not limited to their countless checkpoints on the streets of Lagos. "Dem too dey disturb." Alaja laments. "Dem just dey make this our work tire person."

He goes on to tell me how the marine police haunt the high seas, seeking their daily bread, mainly by seizing cargoes of fuel and engine oil, and extorting fines and bribes from hapless boat pilots. Alaja tells me he parted with one thousand naira just the day before I met him.

Marine police are not the only problem. Misbehaving engines are also as exasperating. Happiness for Alaja is "if I go work come back, [and] my engine no get problem." Every time his engine develops a fault, his chances of meeting his "deliver" dwindle.

"Deliver" (also practised in the danfo and commercial motorcycle businesses) refers to the rent that a boat pilot remits to the boat owner at the end of every day's work. The model arises from the fact that many boat pilots are unable to afford their own boats and engines, and so strike up deals with persons who own boats, to operate the boats on their behalf, and deliver returns daily. The boat pilot is entitled to whatever is left after deducting fuel costs and the rent.

Alaja's "deliver" is two thousand naira daily. This is exclusive of the cost of fueling the boat. What of on days when, after deducting fuel costs, his revenue is less than the two thousand naira he will remit to his boss. "If I no make reach two thousand [naira], I find money for my pocket, use balance dat side, so I no go get problem to deliver."

With "deliver", there are no stories, no excuses. Thankfully, those loss-making days are not frequent. Alaja usually makes up to two thousand naira daily, for himself. On days when business is very good, he says he can make up to twice that amount.

He works Mondays to Saturdays. "Only Sunday I no dey work. I fit go beach with my friends, go and swim or enjoy myself." Some Sundays however, he decides to work, but is still bound by the law of "deliver."

Like every young person struggling to eke out a living, he is full of hopes. All of which revolve around money, a better job, a better life. He can surely do with more money. When I ask him if money is the reason why he's not ready to get married, he declares "Yes o!"

He is saving to buy his own engine. Owning an engine means that he can quit the business of renting, and become truly self-employed. He has savings of forty thousand naira, but still has a long way to go to the target of one hundred and twenty thousand naira ($750 in today's money) for a fairly-used engine, or four times that for a "tear-carton" (brand new) one.

But he has even bigger dreams than the boat business. "I go like work with construction company. I fit follow oil company work, or Berger. Money dey there." And the biggest dream of all — travelling abroad, in search of a job. He tells me that he'd make far more than he currently makes, if he were operating his boat "outside [the] country".

I wonder what else he’d like to do abroad, apart from the boat business. "I can do Engineer," is his response.

Dreams do come true. Life does get better. Before he started piloting a boat, Alaja made a living as a load-carrier, hauling luggages onto and off boats for passengers. Even though he was making good money, he stopped because "I don big pass dat."

One day he'll grow bigger than piloting boats, and employ people to run his boats and deliver to him. And then maybe travel out.

But till then, he'll find happiness in being a Manchester United (and specifically Wayne Rooney) fan. Finding happiness in the arms of his petty trader girlfriend may be on hold for the moment.

"I never understand the game wey she dey play with me," he says.

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