Written by by Jayne Augoye - Punch, Nigeria
Once denied and despised by society, sewage and waste water evacuators now live their lives to the fullest, Jayne Augoye writes
THIRTY-TWO years ago, when Gilbert Quansah had just ventured into sewage and waste waters disposal business, he was very shrewd in the way he managed information about the 'profession.' He was conscious of the fact that it was generally despised in the society, to the extent that the practitioners were popularly called 'agbepo' or shit bowl carrier.
One of the things he did was to keep the move secret from his family and in-laws in his home country, Ghana. It was when things began to look up for him and he had something to show for the dirt he carried that he showed his true colour at home.
He recalls, "I was too scared to tell my wife. Even when some members of my family discovered, they were mad at me. But when my wife came to join me in Nigeria and saw that I was living fine, she immediately embraced my job. Today, my in-laws are very proud of me."
He adds that in Ghana, the business is more lucrative because it is still considered to be a dirty one and that way, the operators charge more. But here in Nigeria, because there are more trucks and more operators, competition is stiffer.
Yet, Quansah says he rakes in more money than he ever dreamt of, evacuating human waste and sewage from toilets and septic tanks. So engrossed has he become in the job that he does not find it difficult to evacuate sewage with his bare hands.
Today, Quansah is fulfilled. He is the chairman, National Union of Sewage and Waste Waters Disposal Association, Ojota - New-Garage, Odo Iya Alaro discharging unit in Lagos. He is a proud owner of three sewage evacuation trucks in Nigeria and Ghana. He has also built a home in Ghana and in a Lagos surburb. In addition, all his children are graduates from Ghanaian universities.
The 63-year-old, who only recently acquired a tipper truck, confidently brought out his business card and gave to our correspondent during their first meeting, while leaning slightly on his Mitsubishi Montero Sport SUV.
Boldly inscribed on the rather colourful and well printed card is the inscription, 'Your Mess is our Job'.
His first truck
Quansah started out accompanying sewage trucks owned by a popular business merchant in Oshodi at the time. He gave the man's name simply as Dosummu.
He recalls his journey with a feeling of nostalgia, "After learning on the job for six months, I was able to buy my own truck for N900, 000 after winning N500,000 in the National Lottery in 1980. That was the same year I moved to Nigeria. I added the little savings I had made to the money."
Quansah says that because of his nationality, he was not allowed to drive the truck then. He would sit in the vehicle with the driver most of the time. As a 'first timer' in Lagos, he was afraid the driver could run away with the truck. Three decades after, the truck still stands and it is a constant reminder of how far he has come in the business. He attributes this to proper maintenance and love for a job that has accorded him the good things of life.
But Quansah's story is just one of out of many others told by hard working men who evacuate sewage from countless households and offices around the country. Although they have chosen to dabble into a business that many consider only fit for the never-do-well in the society, they continue to make cool cash.
A necessary evil
Long before the pit latrine gave way to flush toilets, otherwise called 'water system,' and its accessory the septic tank - in 1986, the night-soil man or agbepo held sway.
He might not have any other thing, he flaunted confidence and arrogance. Often clad in black trousers, tucked in rain boots and handkerchiefs tied around his mouth, he moved from house to house evacuating human waste. He enjoyed much freedom because his identity was largely unknown.
The agbepo was, however, often mocked by children who enjoyed singing behind him. Well, the kids paid dearly for their actions at times. The night-soil man would either pour the content of his bucket on them or drop his bucket full of excreta in front of their residence.
The story of the transformation of the sewage business will, however, be incomplete without acknowledging the contribution of the late founder of DMT Toilet, Otunba Isaac Durojaye. The man popularly called Otunba Gadafi, so much pursued the business with pride that he came up with the slogan, "Shit business is serious business."
But the President of the National Union of Sewage and Waste Waters Disposal Association, Lawrence Adebajo, says that was a long time ago. Today, theirs is no longer a profession to be ashamed off. It is now dignified.
He says, "We have risen beyond the stigma that was once attached to the profession. I must say this business can be very lucrative, depending on your skill and the condition of your evacuation truck. Moreover, the government now regulates the business.
"Before now, some operators carried the shit on their head and with their bare hands. But the Wastewater Management Office was created and it has succeeded in changing the face of the business as all sewage trucks have records and are inspected on a daily basis. Our union holds regular summits where scholars and other experts are invited to give talks."
He notes that the association boasts nearly 700 members, nationwide. The body was established in 2009.
Adebajo, who also owns a thriving transport business, adds that he was able to send his children overseas for higher education from the proceeds of his 'shit business'.
If you still doubt Adebajo's claims, you may then have to consider how much it takes to embark on the business as well as the returns. According to him, a fairly used five-ton German evacuation truck is the most recommended and it costs between N5m and N6m.
The brand new ones go for as much as N13m or N15m. Most of the trucks are imported from Germany, India and Brazil. Also, on the average, the operators usually charge between N15, 000 and N18,000, or more, to evacuate the sewage. But these fees are relative and largely determined by distance.
According to some operators, the business enjoys more patronage in water-logged areas. They add that patronage peaks during the rainy season with a truck making as much as eight or more trips in a day. During the dry season some trucks can make up to five trips.
Adebajo says that despite the potential promised by these figures, he is sometimes saddened by the attitude of some members of the public and adds that he is not folding his arms either.
"When some people want to pay us, they drop the money on the ground and then ask us to pick it because they don't want their hands to touch our own. They need to remember that we all can't be lawyers, doctors or engineers and without our services, the society will be unbearable for us all to live in.
"This is about to be a thing of the past because change we will soon be introduced. We will soon launch a new uniform, boots, vests and hand gloves for our members. The supervisory ministry has also given us chemicals to help kill stench during evacuation," he reveals.
Our story has changed
When our correspondent arrived at the Mile 2 garage and headquarters of the Sewage and Waste Waters Disposal Association where she had a chat with Adebajo, she was taken aback at the relative affluence that some of the operators presented.
It was impossible not to observe the level of affluence and influence some of them wielded, judging from their outward appearances. For one, choice SUV vehicles belonging to some of them were neatly parked within the premises.
Some could also be seen relaxing in small groups and seated on several benches counting the returns for the day. Others simply chatted away or listened to music playing from a portable radio.
Adebajo says, "Many years some of us covered our faces, because we were ashamed of what we were doing. Today, our story has changed. With just one or two jobs in a week we are okay. Other times, we are unable to handle requests. I always advise green horns to learn on the job. If they don't acquire certain skills, the tank may burst when they drive it because of the pressure and heat inherent inside it."
I can get any woman I want
Josiah Dosa, who left the Nigeria Police Force as a corporal 22 years ago to join the sewage evacuation business, is enjoying every bit of the job. After all, it accords him a very important privilege.
"People working in the Central Bank and oil companies cannot match me in terms of the kind of girlfriends I roll with. I can have any woman I want because anyone I approach accepts my offer immediately, so much that I now have to caution myself. I have so many babes – not 'Tokumbo', but young girls and whenever they request for money, I double the amount they ask for," he boasts.
Dosa is really having fun as he adds, "When I tell you that this job is sweet, you have to believe me and, mind you, people's mess is my wealth. Before now, they called us akogbe - shit carriers. But we are no longer akogbes. We are now millionaires. Many people now resign from their 'office' jobs to join us because they have realised that there is much money to make from this our business."
He adds that they have well-educated operators among them and his children are all university graduates.
"I have built a house in my village while many friends who enjoyed mocking me in the past have joined the business. Nobody knew me when I was in the village, but today, the kabiyesi (king) sends for me. I have my jeep and chieftaincy title to show for my years of packing people's shit," he says.
Even graduates too...
Salihu Abdulahi is a Linguistic graduate of the University of Ilorin, Kwara State and a member of the association. During our correspondent's first encounter with him, she could not but marvel at his eloquence. It was, however, difficult to situate him in the shit business. But he is quick to correct this impression and her opinion of him as a misconception.
He also considers himself better off than he would ever have been if he had taken up a teaching career.
"I saw myself through the university with proceeds from his sewage evacuation business. My friends never knew the kind of job I was doing back in the university and this was simply because I felt it was better off being kept as a secret. I evacuated sewage for over 10 years before I went back to school. I have no regrets and I love the job because it is not stressful. You can make cool cash with hard work. More so, the job affords one enough time to relax," says Abdulahi, who bought his first truck last year.
Between Victoria Island faeces and Bariga shit
Although this might sound like an Alibaba or Basket Mouth joke, in reality, it is not. Owing to the years of experience on the job, some operators now claim to possess the wit to distinguish between human waste from a high brow area and the one from a slum. According to Quansah, this can only be achieved by simply putting their sense of smell and sight to the test.
He lectures the journalist, "Bariga, Mushin and Ajegunle shit is similar because many residents eat the same types of food. Theirs is black or brown and very smelly.
"Victoria Island, Lekki, Ikoyi and VGC shit, on the other hand, is usually watery and light with a tolerable odour.
"I think the latter smells that way because most homes in these areas pour chemicals and disinfectant into their toilet system before, during and after use. We always pray to get more business from such areas because they pay more and don't stress us much."
While the operators admit to becoming rich on the job, they say they still feel embarrassed over certain events.
Although Dosa says he experiences an embarrassing moment almost every day on the job, one remains fresh in his mind.
He says, "There was a day I went to work in Abule-Ado, and the occupants of the house locked all their doors and began scampering. I had to ask myself if I was the person responsible for their smelly soak-away.
"Suddenly, out of nowhere, one man who rushed out to pack his clothes felt I had touched them with my bare hands and so began challenging me. I got so annoyed that I packed the excreta with my bare hands and poured it on him. I am sure that God decided to bless me because of events such like this."
Quansah notes that humility is an important virtue in his profession. In fact, he says, it is the reason behind the money he has acquired through the years.
He also recalls a particular incident saying, "In 2001, I went to evacuate sewage somewhere at the Mafoluku, Osodi area of Lagos and my client said he would not pay me unless I cleared the excreta in his toilet bowl, which was filled to the brim.
"No doubt, it was a tough call, but I swallowed the humble pie, cleaned it, using my bare hands and packer to scoop it. Afterwards the man paid me N2000. It was big money then. There was nothing to protect my hands but after I finished I used Izal to wash them. I did it because I needed the money.
"Sometimes the excreta can pour on my body. It usually happens when the septic tank is filled to the brim or when items such as condoms or sanitary pads block our evacuation pump."
If anything, Quansah is of the opinion that 'Owo igbe kii run' meaning, money made from baring faeces does not smell.
On the flip side, some operators have decried extortion and intimidation of its members by people they call area boys (urchins) in the state. According to them, despite the clampdown on the urchins, their activities persist in areas like Lagos Island, Badia, Amukoko, Orile Iganmu and Ajegunle.