Overcoming a Labour Trap: Aissetou's Struggle to Settle

This scrolling story traces the journey of a migrant named Aissetou as she follows her dream to build a good life in Lagos.

"I am from Bassila, Benin Republic. I wasn’t doing anything in Bassila. Many people in Bassila were coming to Nigeria. I met someone who promised that they could find me a job in Lagos, and I followed them in 2002."

Looking for Greener Pastures

Aissetou is from the town of Bassila in Benin Republic, close to the Togolese border. She was not able to continue her education after primary school and began hawking food as a way to help her parents and siblings. Because Bassila is close to a border, Aissetou had experience as a cross-border trader from a very young age. She was not satisfied with her earnings in Bassila and felt that she could have better prospects elsewhere.

Aissetou heard that there were many job opportunities in Lagos. While hawking food one day, she met someone who promised her a job as a sales girl in Lagos if she paid the cost of her journey herself. She decided to join them. With the little savings from hawking and the contribution of family members, she hired a car along with other migrants to travel from Bassila to Lagos.

To Cotonou by Car

Within a short drive from Bassila, Aissetou's car crossed through Cotonou, Benin’s largest city.

Crossing the Border Without a Passport

From Cotonou, the group of migrants took a car to the Seme-Krake border between Benin Republic and Nigeria. They intended to cross the border even though none of the travelers had passports. At Seme, they crossed the informal border by foot and by okada. Aissetou had to pay a fee when she got to the other side because she didn’t have any form of identification. The fee was meant to cover the cost of a laissez-passez – an entry ticket (not to be confused with the United Nations document), given by touts who make money off cross-border migrants and petty traders who take informal pathways. She didn’t specify how much she paid in 2002.

Without a passport, entry and exit is difficult. Passport and identification checks have become stricter in recent years and people without passports often have to pay more money to transporters and officials in order to cross. According to Aissetou, entering or leaving Nigeria is difficult if you don’t have money because of the many checkpoints between the border, at Badagry and Mile 2. Since the first time she arrived in 2002, Aissetou has found that crossing the border has become increasingly complicated...

"Immigration people disturb us all the time. If you have money to give to them, they will let you go."

Arriving in Lagos to Broken Promises

"The first time I came to Lagos, I did not know anybody."

From Seme, Aissetou took a danfo (public transport bus) to the Oshodi local government area, one of the major business and transportation hubs in Lagos. There, she found short-term accommodation. In Bassila, Aissetou was promised a job as a sales person in a shop, but when she arrived in Oshodi, her contact promised instead to take her to a construction company called Sematech where he knew someone who could find her a job. Work in Sematech did not materialize. Instead, she was placed in a house to work as a maid, and she never found a job as a sales girl in a shop or any work in Sematech.

Because she was new to Lagos and had no employment history, Aissetou was forced to work as a housekeeper for a long time. It was a difficult experience because she had never worked as a maid before and was not prepared. The job was hard and paid poorly. Aissetou was unhappy.

"I was a housekeeper, and I also used to hawk small things too. I was earning 150 Naira per day."

For many years, Aissetou was based in Oshodi where she found other positions as a maid in different areas of Lagos.

Finding a Way Out

Aissetou worked as a maid for over ten years. When she had saved enough money, she started selling food items at Obada Market (also known as Ipodo Market), an informal market in Ikeja, the capital of Lagos State. She was hawking food on her head because she could not afford a stall at the time. She bought food items like vegetables and fruits from Benin Republic and Mile 2 and sold them at the market.

"I am just managing in Lagos. When I came, I didn’t understand the languages or know anybody, so it was hard; so I stay for a year and go back to Benin to visit."

Settling in Lagos

Aissetou slowly started to understand English and Pidgin and acclimatize to life in Lagos. She also started traveling to Benin more frequently to see her family. After approximately 10 years of living in Lagos, she married a Ghanaian who also lived in Lagos. They now have three children, all of whom were born in Lagos. Aissetou and her husband now co-own a stall in Obada Market.

Aissetou’s family members, friends and people in the community started approaching her about finding jobs in Lagos. Eventually, she became a recruiter of Beninois workers moving from Bassila to Lagos. Many people have come to Lagos because of her.

"I acted as a supplier of workers from Benin to people here in Lagos and if I need workers, I hire people who were just like me. I have been doing this since I came here. Because I became someone who had space to accommodate others, many people come to look for me for work. I can’t count how many people have come to me for jobs. Both men and women [who] come from Bassila. Coming from a small village and not knowing people is difficult and knowing someone in the city makes things bearable. People know me as someone who brings people. I have a motor now and people come along with me any time I travel. If you say you want to work as a housemaid or sell things, I help."

Aissetou and her family settled in Opebi, a residential area in Ikeja. Her housing situation was temporary and makeshift, which made her experience of settling in Lagos difficult. The cost of living in Lagos was quite high making it a challenge to find better accommodation.

"This place I am staying now belongs to someone else and very soon the person will come to use their land, and everyone here will have to find their way. When that happens, I will be forced to go to Benin, unless there is another place to stay."

Finding Community in Opebi

The Beninoise community in Opebi is one of the reasons why Aissetou made her home in Lagos. According to Aissetou, the Beninois community in Lagos helps each other. They have meetings every Sunday and if someone attends regularly, the community gets to know them, and will provide assistance wherever they may need help. However, even though people are welcoming in the city, Aissetou still could get into disagreements with people at the market and was sometimes reminded that she was a foreigner.

Things have changed since she moved to Lagos in 2002, and not for good.

"You can carry things to sell in the market from morning to evening and they will pay you only 500 Naira. If you work for someone and the boss is a good boss, he will give you food but if he is not good, he won’t, and you will have to spend from the 500 Naira to eat. If your child falls sick, it is from that money you will spend to treat them."

Despite all the challenges of migration, settling and integration, Aissetou still wanted to stay in Lagos because this is what her family had come to know as home.

Press the play button to hear an interview with Aissetou

"My plate is not full yet. There are still things I need to achieve. To succeed in Lagos, I want to buy land and build my own house and send my children to school. Alaafia na Pataki (Yoruba to English: peace is essential)."