By Vera Wisdom-Bassey
Anywhere you look in Lagos, you could see them meandering through lines of vehicles crawling in the traffic. They look for cars that catch their fancy, with determination to wash.
But they don’t really wash the cars; all they wash is the windscreen. And it does not matter whether you invite them or not. Sometimes, the owners do not allow them. Sometimes they do. Neither do the kid windscreen washers care whether they are paid or not. They depend more on mother luck and the benevolence of the motorists to earn their pay.
Aged between seven and 15, investigation has shown that many of them are children of beggars. Given the current economic crunch ravaging the country, some of them who find it difficult to make enough money from the art of begging are beginning to resort to such efforts. But not many motorists are convinced to give them the benefit of doubt or what they were looking for in the first place: money with which to eat.
Their case looks more like Catch 22: they need money to survive. But they are beginning to realise that they can’t get the money they need if they don’t work for it, if they continue to depend on begging alone to survive. Washing the windscreen of cars caught in traffic becomes the only way they know to make the money. This was the sight that caught the attention of our correspondent at one of the traffic lights in Ikeja GRA. Here, kids aged between eight and ten, and armed with plastic bottles, in which were foaming detergents, ran after slow-moving vehicles caught in the traffic. With the plastic bottles filled with soapy water and a brush to wash the car’s windscreen, dirty or not, they set about their duty with a jiffy. Meanwhile, their mothers sitting down under the trees watched with interest – and probably prayers in their hearts – that their children would come back with some money.
Survival tactics of kid-breadwinners
The same sight greeted our correspondent at Toyin Street. Ikeja. The kids here wash windscreens of cars waiting in traffic quite all right. But at the same time, they pantomime with their forefingers pointing at their lips to indicate that they need money to buy some food to eat. They found it difficult to communicate in English, not even the passable kind. But that ‘language’ is understood by both the beggar and the potential benefactor.
One of the drivers who ply the Ikeja to Yaba route said that from time to time, he gives the kid windscreen washers N50 or N100. “They are supposed to be in school. But seeing them going about washing cars and begging for money with which to eat, not even to go to school, fills me with pity.”
At Iyana-Iba, Lagos, you run into one of them called Qassim. His mother had five of them, he said, through an interpreter. Being the most senior of them, he had to do something to help his mother take care of his younger siblings. This was why he decided to go into traffic to wash the windscreens of vehicles. Sometimes, they wash the doors of the car if the traffic is slow.
In fact, it has become the norm these days to find some of the kids scurrying about and meandering through traffic to wash windscreens of cars and hoping to get paid thereafter for their little labour. But sometimes the motorists have pity and pay them; many times they don’t. Yet that does not make the kids give up hope of running into some benefactors. They give you the impression that they enjoy doing what they do, whether they are paid or not. But sometimes, some of them are rude if you don’t give them something. They harangue you if they think that doing so would make you drop something to escape their trouble.
Saturday Sun investigation shows that some other boys who think that there is something to gain from running about in traffic to wash cars have joined. But one of them called Tunde, a 12-year-old boy, said he only does that after school hours in order to find money with which to take care of some needs. He plies his trade between Volks Bus Stop and Okokomaiko. He said: “I used to sell bags. But because I was not making enough money I decided to join these boys in car washing. Sometimes, I make about N3, 000 on weekdays and N4, 000 on weekends. I give the money to my Mummy which she uses to do ‘Ajo’ (thrift) for me. Whenever she collects hers, she uses it to cater to us.”
Unlike the traditional car-washing business, the mobile ones do not require the kind permission of the owners. Tunde confirmed this fact when he said: “You don’t need to tell the driver that you want to wash his car in traffic. Once you see that it is dirty you start washing.” But in the rainy season when there is mud everywhere you could wash a car’s body only for it to get dirty again. In the dry season, the problem we have is dust.” After the washing, the boys would run for a while with the cars expecting the owners to give them something. Sometimes, they do; at other times, they look their way. At such times, you could hear discouraging comments from the car owner. “Did I ask you to wash my car,” he might ask the flustered kid.
But the kids, incurable optimists, are hardly deterred by such comments. Tunde sighed when asked how they feel at such times. He said: “We can’t do anything to the car owner. We just move on to the next car. I am not happy whenever I am not paid.” But through such dogged experience, Monday Obi, 11, said he has become financially independent. The youngest in the group, Monday, who is in Basic 2, like Tunde, said he joins the mobile car wash team after school hours. But during the holidays, such as the last one, he works from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The boy who was prevailed upon to speak to our correspondent, by his older colleagues, said that as some others did, he switched from hawking pure water in the traffic to washing cars. He revealed that he takes home, N1, 500 every day. He said: “My mother said I should find money and buy my school things.” Then he added: “I can wash cars waiting in ‘go-slow’ (traffic).”
It is not only at Iyana-Iba and Ikeja that you find them. You find them also at Igando, a Lagos suburb. There some young boys that take advantage of the long traffic that usually forms at Igando to earn a living for themselves. Sometimes, you could see some of them standing on the road and holding a plastic bucket and water and waiting for cars or buses to wash. One was seen with two buckets as he scrubbed the car’s body with a sponge. Whenever traffic begins to build up, he would run after the car to complete the exercise. Sometimes, he could be paid as much as N200, depending on how magnanimous his benefactor is.
So, what do the car owners think of the kids and their services? One of them who objected vehemently to having his name mentioned here said: “I witnessed a scene at Awolowo Way, Ikeja. Two young guys were washing the windscreen of the car in front of my car. They were very fast about it. I was so impressed that I gave the young boys some money. But unfortunately, the guy driving the car they were washing didn’t give them a dime. He just zoomed off.”
Some kid windscreen washers had become creative about the work they do. They now hang around motorists to plead for alms. Of course, some motorists who find the trick annoying would oftentimes shout at them to leave. But some kids won’t just go as the motorists had hoped; at such times, they start pleading to be given some money, adding that they are famished. A windscreen washer boy that our correspondent questioned on why he was engaged in what many might see as an ill-fated job given the hostile manner with which some motorists react to their services, noted that it was the only way he could eat.
Another car owner who gave his name as Sam David recalled: “There was a time we were held up in a traffic light around Isaac John in Ikeja GRA. This boy just came with his water and brush. I immediately stopped him. But he refused and insisted on washing my windscreen. In the process, I almost hit the car in front of me because I was arguing with him. That is what they have turned to. I believe government should do something about it.”
Other motorists gave various reasons they would not want their cars’ windscreens, which is what the boys always concentrate on washing, touched by these kids. While some insist that they wouldn’t want to incur scratches or damages on it, under the guise of having it washed by the kids, some, especially women, complained that it is not every time that they have money to give them, and would feel some guilt if they couldn’t pay for the unsolicited service the boys are rendering.
But one of them called Nkechi, a Naval Officer’s wife who our correspondent ran into at Alakija, Lagos, said she doesn’t want to set her eyes on any of them because they could spoil her car with detergent which she considers abrasive to her car’s windscreen. She said that the moment she sees them in front of her car, she would open her car’s door and come down and go after the kid. In most cases, they run for dear life the moment they sense danger in her unfriendly look. She explained the reason for her angry demeanour: “I don’t allow them to wash my car because the soap they mix in the bottle or bucket usually spoils or damages the windscreen. This is why I make sure they don’t come near my car at all.”
Funmilayo Adewole, a civil servant, said that the reason she is not interested in giving them money is that on many occasions she had seen them and their parents counting the money they made at the end of each day and what she saw tells her that on the average they make more money than she could be making from her legitimate job in her office.