According to colour psychology, orange radiates warmth and happiness, combining the physical energy and stimulation of red with the cheerfulness of yellow. It can be optimistic, uplifting and even fun.
Shola might beg to differ. An ill-fitting bright orange uniform hung loosely off his short and slim frame, almost mirroring the incongruity of a Banking and Finance graduate sweeping the streets of Lagos. It is unlikely that seeing and wearing this costume everyday filled him with a sense of optimism. The scene before me certainly didn’t feel uplifting.
Yet, Shola stood out to me for one reason: a smile plastered across his face despite the back-breaking and often demeaning work he was doing. He wheeled a trolley partially filled with trash and stopped occasionally to pick up more dirt on the road. Cleaning up rubbish on the road isn’t exactly a pleasant thing to do. Yet, he did it with a smile. My interest was piqued.
Born and bred in Ogun state, he had always admired bankers and decided to become one. His course choice wasn’t a surprise to his parents when he applied to a nearby Polytechnic. With the myriad of banks in Nigeria today, he was pretty confident that he would be gainfully employed but life had other plans.
“I graduated with HND in Banking and Finance in Moshood Abiola Polytechnic MAPOLY in 2007. Since there was no job in Ogun state, I came to Lagos to find one.”
He searched endlessly for a job until he decided to work with Lagos State Waste Management Agency (LAWMA) to make ends meet.
“Initially, I was working in marine – those people that clean gutters – but it was very dirty and was making me fall sick. People shit in the gutter and canal and we have no choice than to be packing it every day. I left it and decided to work on the road.”
The marine job paid more than the road job but he preferred working on land and saving the money he spent on drugs and healthcare. I wondered how much he earned.
‘I was paid 15,000 Naira when I was in the marine department but now I am receiving 12,000 Naira.’
I mentally calculated house rent, feeding, and miscellaneous expenses and was really curious as to how he survived on such a meagre salary.
‘I don’t pay house rent. I live inside the garage inside the taxi of one of the drivers that know me around here because I clean this area. I can’t afford to pay house rent with my salary so I sleep there every night.’
He bathes behind the LAWMA office before daybreak and resumes work immediately afterwards when he has a morning shift. He saves a large part of his salary and has different side hustles within the waste industry for additional income.
‘I get 1,500 Naira packing waste for different households in a week so I use that to support myself.’
He is still optimistic about getting a better paying job than this and isn’t restricting himself to jobs in the banking sector. He yearns for a respectable job, a far cry from the daily insults and humiliation he often faces in his current role.
‘Sometimes I will be cleaning and people will insult me to move out of their way or throw dirt on the road I have cleaned when they can see the dust bin close by. In fact, the insult is much but there is nothing I can do. The job has to be done. If not, I won’t get paid.’
Still, on the list of occupational hazards, insults pale in comparison to other risks associated with working on busy roads.
‘This happened recently. You know those people that wear green; they are the ones that clean the highway. One of these public transport buses hit a woman working on the highway and threw her off the road. She died instantly. This is the reason why I can never work on the highway.’
These added risks do not translate into increased compensation for those who work on the highway. Shola said they all earn the same wages, except the marine workers whose pay was slightly higher. I then wondered why some people opted to work on the highway and face greater danger on a daily basis, with no financial incentive. It turns out they weren’t opting to do this in the first place – it was often a matter of luck, or the lack thereof.
‘It is where there is space to work that people will work, so if you want to work on the road but there is only a spot in highway, you will have to work there. You see, it is the situation of this country that makes people endanger their lives like this.’
In the course of working for LAWMA, Shola has experienced so many things that made him wish he could quit but he has to make a living and doesn’t want to resort to illegal means to do this, so he endures. He still has dreams that he wants to pursue and is not letting his present situation deter him from achieving them.
‘By God’s Grace, when I find a better job, I will resign from this one.’
They say it’s not what you wear, but how you wear it. The uniform might not have conveyed optimism and cheer, but the man definitely did. Shola wore it well, and wore it with a smile. Colour psychology wasn’t convincing on this occasion, but maybe this situation was uplifting after all.