By Rafiq Raji, PhD
The odds that you would happen on a female Uber driver in Lagos are slim. Still, Nigeria is not Saudi Arabia; women are free to do whatever they like here. Well, mostly. And if you make the error of thinking they could not drive any better than their male counterparts, kindly try fighting for right of way with a woman in Lagos traffic. Needless to say, you may hesitate to do so next time. There are probably as many women as there are men on Lagos roads. Women at the wheel of public transport vehicles are not as many. It is not the norm. So even as there are many of them driving all sorts of vehicles in their private capacity, from those with little engines to the ubiquitous sport utility vehicles (SUVs), it is still a novelty to find female chauffeurs. If there are, they would certainly be reluctant to work for men. And their fellow women are not likely to hire them. Wives would certainly shudder at the thought in these parts. And even Uber itself found out all too quickly how difficult it was to secure cars from “partners” (car owners) for their few female drivers. That is, when the firm used to facilitate the connection. Now, it does not. At least, that is what Blessing Onuh, one of the ride-sharing firm’s first female drivers in Lagos says.
“I was actually the first female Uber [driver] that went for the exams…there were more than hundred guys and I was the only lady…they actually thought I was one of the officials.” A few years ago, having just arrived from Abuja, after being let go at a government job over there, Blessing took an interest in being an Uber driver after taking a ride with one. She applied, did the training and eventually got a car. That last bit did not come about easily. Many of the car owners she approached turned her down for no other reason than she was a woman. “Women have issues”, was the typical refrain. As Blessing herself admits, many potential riders would cancel their trips the moment they see her picture. When asked how she knew this, she says since she is able to tell from the app if she is the only driver in an area, if a potential rider cancels a trip persistently, there could be only one reason why. Turns out a couple of those who did choose to take a ride with her sometimes did so for mischievous reasons. One was “laughing and touching my lap” during a trip, she vouchsafes. Even as she stood firm against his advances, he persisted. Eventually, she stopped the car and confronted him. He got the message. Even then, the male rider was furious. He wondered how she could be indifferent to the “dollars” he was flashing, his long custom that day already and so on. “If you don’t want it, you say you don’t want it”, was his final remonstration. Turns out male drivers also get sexually harrassed. Some female riders, upon reaching their destinations, would instead of paying the fare, offer to pay in kind, Blessing reveals, confirming views from an earlier interview with one of her male colleagues, who says he never took anyone of them up on the offer.
But surely she must have liked some of the riders who made advances at her, and perhaps dated one? After a while, she admits to having dated one. He was not like the others who would say “come to my house!” at the slightest chance, she says with a chuckle. “That ‘come to my house’ is so annoying”, she adds. Let us just say she thought this one was a gentleman and was vindicated afterwards by how he treated her; going on interesting dates and so on. It did not last, though. What happened? “I did not have time for that relationship” On a date one time, while watching a movie at the cinema, Blessing glanced at her phone and understandably, perused an ongoing chat in the Uber group (there are many) on Whatsapp she was a member of. Something caught her attention: a driver announced he had just made a huge sum from a trip. She stood up and left for the door. “I just told him I’m coming I want to use the restroom”. She did not go to the bathroom. Blessing went back to work. Of course, she lost the gentleman. Like her male colleagues, she has mouths to feed, school fees to pay for siblings and so on. And like everybody else, her fixation on her economic goals have come at a personal cost. But how safe is it for a female Uber driver in Lagos? Has she been attacked before? “I have been harrassed, they blocked me. But they didn’t take anything because I fought back. I lost a fingernail…We got to Yaba, an isolated area, so I told him the price, 2000 something, he was like ‘give me your phone,’ I laughed, I thought maybe now, maybe he is trying to crack me up or scare me”. No, he was not. Her friends told her she should give up her phone next time. Blessing insists “anything that has to do with my money, I have to fight for it.”
Apart from driving for Uber, Blessing also drives clients to locations outside Lagos. Asked if she is ever worried about the risks. She takes precautions, working only with people she has known for a while or referred to by trusted acquaintances. And at the destination, she lodges at a different hotel from the client. As many females would admit, most men in Lagos would make advances at women they find attractive; especially one whose details they already have via the Uber app. Harassment is rare, however. But with their phone numbers in hand, Blessing and the other few female drivers get a barrage of calls. Solution? She keeps two phones. And for the business line, she blocks the errant male callers. Ironically, it is the female riders that tend to be more problematic. “I don’t talk to drivers”, goes one. And when making requests, some do so at the top of their voice, barely hiding their disdain. “Transferred aggression” is what Blessing calls it. Cash in hand afterwards, Blessing could care less. It is a hustle. It must be a lucrative venture, then. Not as much as before, she admits. Uber used to take a lower cut of their earnings before. But yes, it still pays the bills. In a good week, she could earn as much as 100 thousand naira. A bad week is when she earns half as much. Out of that amount, she makes a weekly payment of 30 thousand naira to fulfil her hire purchase agreement obligations. The car would be hers after she completes the payments.
Any future plans? Wouldn’t she rather do something else? Does she not want to settle down? And clearly there are not many Nigerian men, if any, that would allow her continue as an Uber driver after taking their vows. Most female Uber drivers are single or divorced with kids. She would not mind being a housewife if she finds a good husband, Blessing admits. As the retail business interests her, a supermarket might be something she would try her hands on. She could also buy cars for drivers to make payments to her, become a “partner”, that is. Does Uber provide any support for its female drivers? There is a “Woman week”, Blessing says. But she believes they could do much more.
An edited version was published by New African magazine in December 2018