The world of Abuja street cleaners
By FRED ITUA and FAITH JAMES
They are the first to rise, while the rest of the world still snores. Under the sun or in the rain, they seldom default. They defy the sometime ugly glances of passersby to keep Abuja, the nation’s capital clean.
Like road traffic wardens, Abuja street sweepers are rarely celebrated. Road users and pedestrians only see clean streets. They hardly pay attention to those who ensure that empty cans thrown through the glasses of a moving car, sachet water nylons flung while walking and other disposables indiscriminately scattered on the streets are removed.
Everyday, they face the risk of being hit by careless and drunk drivers while sweeping the streets. They are neither given head helmets to protect them from hit-and-run motorists or given adequate sun-resistant fabric to fence off the biting sun. Under the rain, they are not provided with the necessary tools.
Worst still is the non-provision of caution signs by employers of these sweet sweepers to warn coming and speeding vehicles. Since their jobs are informal, they have no health or death insurance packages to fall back on whenever they suffer hazards during work hours.
A 27-year-old widow, Rebecca Felix, is one of the street sweepers in Abuja. Prior to her new job, she was a petty trader struggling to make ends meet. She told Daily Sun that she was relying on the meager income realized from her petty business to take care of her children.
Today, she has become one of the street sweepers in Abuja. She combines both the gains she realizes from her petty trade with her salary to take care of her children. It, however, appears that there is no difference, as the salary she earns as a street sweeper is next to nothing.
Although she is grateful to have got the job, she is disturbed by the challenges that accompany it. According to her, risks associated with the job far outweigh the stipends she earns as her salary. When she started the job, she was optimistic that it would meet her demands. But, as it stands now, she is completely confused.
“When my friend introduced me to it, she told me that as a street sweeper, I will be able to cater for my needs and that of my family. She said I could attend to some pressing needs without necessarily going into debt, but the story is different now.
“If I could find a better job apart from sweeping the streets, this would have been my last option. I needed to cater for my family. Since my husband died five years ago, it has not been easy. Getting this job was a miracle for me. At least, I have something to give back to my family.”
A motorist, Abdul, made a case for these sweepers: “The fact remains that it is very difficult to ignore the efforts of an average street sweeper in Abuja by the present administration. They defy the dangers involved to keep the city clean. They work so hard, often in difficult and high risk areas. The question is, do they earn wages commensurate to the risk they take?”
Another street sweeper, Ms Nneka Anosike, spotted on the Kubwa Expressway said her job seems easy but it is back breaking. She complained that many Nigerians are not environmentally-conscious and that they lack ethics of public responsibility:
“It is disheartening having cleaned the gutters, picking water sachets, tins and cans, swept the street, a person comes after you and litters right where you had already cleaned. Some throw things from the windows of their cars and this is so heartless. People need to change their attitude towards waste disposal.
“More so because when our supervisors come to inspect our work, they order us to start afresh no matter how much we explain that the litter was actually disposed after we had cleaned. Another major challenge is that after having swept and loaded waste into refuse bags pending collection by refuse trucks, some people empty the bags and take them away.
“This sets us back as our supervisors would come and instruct us to start from scratch, particularly because you often find that the emptied waste has been scattered by wind all over the place. The companies which collect recyclable waste in the city centre are creating problem for us. Some of the recyclables such as plastics are scattered all over the place as the trucks manoeuvre around the city.
“This calls for us, street sweepers, to pick up that waste and it is an unnecessary waste of time and energy. It would be nice for everyone who does business in the city to do so responsibly. The recycling companies should ensure that their trucks are well covered.”
Kate Ijeoma, a graduate of the University of Abuja, said doing such a job is dehumanizing, but she can do the job if she travels out of Nigeria to Europe. She stated that street sweepers abroad are treated with some level of professionalism and they are well paid.
Justina from Mabushi area in Abuja is married and has a child. She is a cleaner at Banex Plaza. There are four other women engaged in cleaning the place with her. She told her story:
“There is no way one will make efforts and achieve everything at a go. It requires perseverance and commitment though times. This job is stressful. A lazy person cannot engage him or herself without complaining and I also have to manage because it’s my only source of livelihood.
“I come here everyday from my place by 5:00am then we finish by 8:00am. After that, we gather the refuse bin and take it to the refuse dump where we normally dispose it. From there, we return to our various homes. At times, when we are doing our job, some drivers throw caution to the winds by driving recklessly and splashing water on us.
“My supervisor is a good woman. She always provides whatever we demand for though there are times when she replies with an impolite tone before she makes provision for your need. Whenever our salary is due for payment, she pays the exact day without wasting time.
“She always commends our good work. Not only that, customers also appreciate the fact that the premises are always clean when they come into the plaza. One thing with human beings is that they can never be satisfied no matter the length you go. At times she (supervisor) complains, but we are left with no other choice than to endure and comply. I am not really enjoying the job, but the fact that I am not educated, I have to do it rather than being idle.
“My husband supports and advises me all the time. His words are the only source of encouragement I have. He always tells me to put more effort in the job that there will definitely be light at the end of of the tunnel. Whenever I am not strong enough to come to work, I plead with my younger sister to assist me because my colleagues cannot leave their work to assist me. On a last note, I think people need to change their attitude towards waste disposal.”
Twenty two-year-old Happiness Ifeanyi from Area 1, works with a first generation bank as a sweeper. She comes to work by 6:00am everyday:
“We face challenges especially when customers mess up the place. Our boss is disciplined and hates excuses so she expects one to keep the premises clean. To me, the job is not stressful just that the pay is not enough for my up keep and I support my siblings with what I get from the this job.
“Our supervisor who happens to be my colleague has this ego because she sees herself as being privileged to be picked out among the rest. She often replies her colleagues in a rude manner.”