Lagos, Area Boys

While Area Boys generally scrap for survival in the bus stops and markets, their female counterparts often work in hotels as prostitutes. Here, Patience negotiates with Area Boys—her customers—in the hotel where she works, Lion Junction, Oshodi. Photo by Samuel James

While Area Boys generally scrap for survival in the bus stops and markets, their female counterparts often work in hotels as prostitutes. Here, Patience negotiates with Area Boys—her customers—in the hotel where she works, Lion Junction, Oshodi. Photo by Samuel James

Samuel James is the recipient of the 2010 Alexandra Boulat Award for Photojournalism.  As part of the award, VII is proud to syndicate his winning project through our sales network.

Nigerians generally don’t believe in chance encounters. Omi ni leyan, as the Yoruba might say, people flow like water. Such is Lagos, with its 20 million converging souls, meeting, parting, flowing into and away from each other and back again. Such are these tales of passage into the Lagos dark waters—guided by its keepers, the Area Boys.

Born of the waste and animus contradiction of a society resting on a multi-billion dollar oil industry while the mass of its citizens live in extreme poverty, the story of Area Boys is an allegory for survival at the margins of the global economy. As the price of oil fell in the 1980s, inflation, structural adjustment and the mass plunder of public resources by successive military regimes pushed most Nigerians deep into poverty. Millions migrated to Lagos searching for a better future. With its skyrocketing population and eroding infrastructure, a swelling number of youth were effectively forced out of their homes and into the street.

Legendary Nigerian songwriter Fela Kuti described the ensuing chaos this way:

“I sing for one street for Lagos Dem call am Ojuelegba I take am compare how Nigeria be One crossroad for center town …Motor come from East Motor come from West Motor come from North Motor come from South …And policemen no dey for center Na confusion be dat o.”

Released in 1989, ‘C.B.B. (Confusion Break Bone)’ renders the Ojuelegba bus stop—one of the busiest transit points in Lagos—as a metaphor for a nation in distress. Vehicles from all directions coalesce in confusion, with nobody directing traffic. It was in this context that gangs of street youths organized themselves and began their conquest of the Lagos transport economy. Expansive and evolving systems were established, absorbing masses of lost and dispossessed youth—‘born troways’ (throwaways)—who society rejected. The Area Boys, as they are known today, emerged as the shape-shifting masters of the Lagos crossroads.

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