The Nigerian Hustle

By: O. Dada

 

Artwork by Klara Kalu

For a couple of years now, "The Nigerian Hustle" has been my passion project, taking form (for the time being) as a podcast operating from a distance. I've had the fortune of a steadfast partner on the ground, Adeoye Shobakin, a vital presence without whom the pulse of the project would not beat as strongly. Together, we've stitched a narrative quilt from the stories of countless Nigerians, connecting through the magic of the internet. But last summer, I took a step closer to the heartbeat of my endeavor – I traveled down to Nigeria, not as a visitor or a returning son, but as a seeker of stories, looking to profile the protagonists of my tales in person.

 

 

As a child, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I could never give a straight answer, perhaps because choosing just one job from the endless possibilities seemed like too big a commitment. I was endlessly fascinated by the intricacies of various jobs as I grew up in a neighborhood full of them – carpenters, tailors, fishmongers, barbers, photographers, vulcanizers, cobblers, preachers, teachers, coffin makers, etc. I'd spend hours observing workers, imagining the lives unfurling beyond their shifts – lives filled with dreams, responsibilities, and perhaps, secret aspirations. Riding the bus, for example, I'd look at the driver and wonder, spinning tales about his life from the slender threads of my curiosity. These questions and stories clung to me through adolescence and followed me even after I left Nigeria after college. In time, the answer to my quandary blossomed into an idea, simple yet profound – I could simply ask the workers themselves. And so, "The Nigerian Hustle" was conceived, a project to uncover the human stories woven into the fabric of the country's vibrant economic landscape.

For a couple of years now, "The Nigerian Hustle" has been my passion project, taking form (for the time being) as a podcast operating from a distance. I've had the fortune of a steadfast partner on the ground, Adeoye Shobakin, a vital presence without whom the pulse of the project would not beat as strongly. Together, we've stitched a narrative quilt from the stories of countless Nigerians, connecting through the magic of the internet. But last summer, I took a step closer to the heartbeat of my endeavor – I traveled down to Nigeria, not as a visitor or a returning son, but as a seeker of stories, looking to profile the protagonists of my tales in person.

Each person I met added depth and color to the understanding of what work means in the context of a country with so much potential and individual output, yet very little collective success. 

Three of those individuals – Atuma Chidi, an educator and entrepreneur in Lambe, Ogun State; Roseleen Labazacchy, a visual artist and artisan in Ibadan; and Kasim Taiwo Victoria, affectionately known as "Prosper Alaga," a wedding emcee who brings life to traditional matrimonial ceremonies – are each a microcosm of the Nigerian hustle.
 

Atuma Chidi

In the community of Lambe, Ogun State, I reconnected with the earnest struggles of educators (my mother was a teacher) through Atuma Chidi. I’ve spoken with educators on “The Nigerian Hustle” before, but his tutoring center, a haven for the children of the locality, exuded a sense of purpose that resonated with my own childhood memories. Chidi, with his warm, welcoming demeanor, personified the resilience that I remembered. The challenges he faces – unpredictable income (in the form of tuition remittance), relentless bills, the weight of responsibility – echo the refrain I’ve heard about working in Nigeria: it’s like Sisyphus rolling that boulder to the top but knowing he’s going to be picking it up again at the bottom soon. It’s a life of relentless dedication in the face of guaranteed setbacks.
 
Ibadan welcomed me back with its hustle and bustle – one I wasn’t familiar with when I went to college there in the mid 2000s – leading me to the creative sanctum of Roseleen Labazacchy, where art meets commerce, with bead jewelry that adorn the space like stars in a clear night sky.
 
I learned of the meticulous effort behind each piece of jewelry on display, all painstakingly made by her hands. The beads came alive under her touch, each a pixel in the larger picture of modern aesthetics. The intricate designs were not just accessories; they were narratives of culture, carefully curated by Roseleen's artisanal brilliance.

Roseleen Labazacchy

Yet, beneath the surface of this vibrant craft lay the complex world of entrepreneurship. Roseleen spoke candidly of the tightrope walk in pricing her creations—a delicate balancing act where sustaining her livelihood meant setting prices that reflected the hours of labor and the love poured into each piece while remaining accessible to her clientele. Profitability had to be measured against practicality, and every price tag was a silent testament to this ongoing challenge.

The journey to this equilibrium was not without its scars, she confided. Past dealings with family and friends, in a society that values communal sacrifice, sometimes over individual comfort, had imparted hard-earned lessons in the ruthlessness often necessary in business. There were moments when relationships had to be weighed against the survival of her enterprise, leading to decisions that sharpened her business acumen but were not always easy on the heart. Yet, these experiences carved out a Roseleen who was not only an artist but a shrewd businesswoman, adept at navigating the tides of a competitive market.
 
In the swirl of celebratory hues and infectious rhythms at a traditional wedding ceremony in Lagos, I was introduced to the pivotal maestro of the day, Kasim Taiwo Victoria, popularly known as "Prosper Alaga." She was a vibrant force, commanding the attention and hearts of all present with her masterful blend of charm, wit, and authority.
 

Prosper Alaga

To understand what her job is, imagine a wedding where the joining of families is not just a formal ceremony but a quasi-theatrical event with offers, counteroffers, familial introductions, celebration, etc. Among the Yoruba people, this pivotal role is taken on by a figure known as the Alaga. The Alaga is much more than a master of ceremonies. They are a blend of facilitator, entertainer, cultural custodian, and mediator. This person is usually a woman, and there are actually two types: 'Alaga Ijoko' who represents the bride's family, and 'Alaga Iduro,' representing the groom's family. Their responsibilities require a deep understanding of Yoruba customs, oratory prowess, and an engaging personality. Their duties include leading the ceremony, engaging the audience with chants, songs, and prayers, and orchestrating the traditional rites. They guide the couple through the rituals, such as prostrations and blessings, and often engage in humorous banter to entertain the guests. The Alaga also facilitates the 'bride price' negotiations, an important symbolic exchange between the families.
 
Alaga is not a title she bears lightly; she sees her role as a revered profession. Despite the common misconception of her vocation as a mere hobby or a casual side hustle, she treats it with the gravity and professionalism of any high-caliber occupation. Her clients are billed with the understanding that they are investing in an experience that is pivotal to the success and memory of their most cherished occasion. Thus, her fees are a reflection of her expertise, and her clients understand that with Prosper Alaga, they are enlisting a seasoned professional who guarantees a ceremony imbued with the right mix of tradition, festivity, and seamless execution.
 
Beyond her role at weddings, Prosper Alaga is a mentor, helping to shape the future of this time-honored profession. She runs a comprehensive training and apprenticeship program tailored for young women who aspire to carve out a niche for themselves in the business. Her program is no informal mentorship; it is a structured curriculum that combines the theoretical corpus of Yoruba traditions with the practical skills of crowd management, negotiation, and oratory prowess required to excel as an Alaga.
 
It is within this multifaceted role that Prosper Alaga finds her true calling, and her impact extends far beyond any single event. She is a torchbearer for a tradition, an educator cultivating a new generation, and an entrepreneur redefining the boundaries of what is often misunderstood as a mere pastime. Her life and work embody the very essence of "The Nigerian Hustle," where passion and profession dance in harmony, and where every action is a step toward transforming a cultural craft into a celebrated and viable career.

From Atuma Chidi's educational outfit, Roseleen Labazacchy's artistry in commerce, to Prosper Alaga's cultural symphony at weddings, each calls back to the livelihoods I used to ponder in my childhood, each extending beyond their visible work into lives of determination and ambition. Maybe the commitment I feared as a child is not in choosing one job over another, but in the dedication to understanding and appreciating the collective struggle and triumph woven into the fabric of every endeavor. And so, "The Nigerian Hustle" continues, a mosaic of human endeavor, each piece echoing the endless fascination of a child now grown.

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O. Dada is a 2020 fellow with the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center and a 2021 MFA graduate in Fiction. He is currently working on a novel based on his childhood experiences in southwest Nigeria in the 1990s. His short story, The Bar Beach Show, won a Pushcart Prize in 2018.