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Dolls and guys: What it takes to be a Lagos Area Girl

27 August 10 13:44 GMT

By Steve Bradshaw
Editor, Life on the Edge

Oninye, Bisayo and Gift are Area Girls in Lagos, Nigeria.

Everyone in Lagos knows what an Area Boy is - young men who play rough and dirty. Think Teddy Boys, Yardies, Posses, NYPD-Blue's "urban youths"… even if some do make it good.

But what on earth is an Area Girl?

Would you want to be an Area Girl? And can you be an Area Girl with a decent future?

We're in Ajegunle, one of the poorest and toughest neighbourhoods of Lagos, though even here there are smart cars and sharp dressers - in its chaotic way, Lagos is a booming city.

But like many big-city slums, Ajegunle would do badly if judged against Millennium Development Goal One, and its target to provide "full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people".

Oninye, Bisayo and Gift certainly have the grit and personality (key Area Girl qualities) to make it in their chosen careers - fashion, civic leadership, food retail - though right now, it's working out a little differently.

After all this is not an area where decent work is always easily available.

Catwalk dreams

In the daytime nothing much happens, Oninye says. "But around here in the evenings it is always very rowdy. People around here like life, like partying."

This morning 18-year-old Oninye is not at home. She dreams of being a model. She's strutting the catwalk, and contacting model agencies. Trouble is, right now the catwalk is her backyard, her audience are her sisters, and she's e-mailing from a pay-by-the-hour cybercafé.

"I'm an Area Girl for now, I'm not an area girl because I choose, but…" and she shrugs.

Some Area Girls "do runs" (paid errands) some "meet up" with men in hotels, some steal... and some work long hours in the market.

Area Girls like ours stay on the right side of the law, but there are others who are "rough and tough" says Oninye.

"They like anything trouble… They like the bottle, the knife and the… they just love that kind of life."

Oninye qualifies as an Area Girl partly because she doesn't have a job. She relies for now on cash from her current beau.

"It affects my self-esteem, so that's why I am looking for something I can engage myself with that's legit and responsible… that I could do to help my family.

"I've always wanted to be a model, I think I have this talent towards it and I can do it."

Area mama

Many Area Girls live in the shadow of Area Boys, but not all.

Bisayo is a 25-year-old graduate of history and international relations who says she just likes life as an Area Girl.

In fact, she's become Oninye's Area Mother - a position of influence.

"I see myself as a star in my area," she says with breezy, smiling, self-aware confidence.

After all, "acting up" round here is kind of the point - coming on like an Area Girl is what you do to survive.

Oninye says: "On the streets, you know you have to give them this mean impression, like you're scary… Because if you act like a 'botty' (born with butter in your mouth), they will 'climb you' (rip you off)."

Bisayo and her posse of young men are here to make sure people in their Area don't get "climbed".

During the day, they play games of chance like Lotto and Ludo, like characters from a feminist Nigerian Guys and Dolls.

"When I graduated, I searched for a job. I couldn't get one so I play lotto to make my daily need. I win, I don't win, it's OK by me." Bisayo says,

"When you are Area Mama in your 'house', or in your territory, people will respect you and they will respect your persona," Bisayo says.

Immediately she says it, she turns to her male acolytes: "My guys am I lying?"

"It's true mama," they say.

And her ambitions now?

"I believe I am being respected in the society and I can become a leader in the future. My destiny is to help the society."

Dodging trouble

Three years younger than Bisayo, Gift is selling akara, or bean cakes.

She's an entrepreneur, who started hawking while walking - selling food from a basket on the top of her head.

Back then she was at risk from the more predatory Area Boys. "They'd meet you on the road and rape you, all those kind of things. That's why I stopped hawking and found a place to sell my akara."

She's graduated to selling in the market. But even here you need Area Girl qualities.

"What makes me an Area Girl is the way I live… Don't look for my trouble, 'cos I will give it back."

But the Area Girl life is too harsh for Gift. "I've seen plenty at Boundary Market, and if it kicks off, I don't like to stand around and watch. If you ask what's going on they could stab you. I don't need those kind of things again."

Gift's near-term ambition is to have a permanent stall. Longer term, she wants to be out of the Area Girl world altogether. She needs cash, and a proper retail career, to help support her mother and family.

"You feeling me?" she asks us, with a tired smile. "It's not easy."

We went back to Oninye - for a final Area Girl verdict. Would Millennium Development Goal One jeopardise a way of life that may seem, at least to some outsiders, to have a gritty appeal.

"The only thing you should know," she explains, "is that it's not funny, it's not nice at all. Most of us go through a lot of things in here that we are not proud of. So if we are given the opportunity, the chance to change too, we will change."

Since we met the three Area Girls, all have completed a course on life skills, IT and leadership. Oninye is enrolling with a fashion school, Gift is finding the backing for her stall, and Bisayo is learning leadership skills…

Or make that even more leadership skills. If sometimes slightly different ones…

Life on the Edge is broadcast on BBC World News on Saturdays at 0030 BST, 0730 and 1930 and Sundays at 1330.

A selection of your comments:

Although, Bisayo tries to play out her area girl role as one undertaken by choice, I wish to note that these girls are "area girls" by virtue of the harsh economic and social environment in Lagos. Its a jungle out there and survival of the fittest strategies are often adopted.I am sure that most of these girls will jump at any opportunity to live a more 'decent' life.
Oniya Okatahi, Abuja, Nigeria

I believe that everyone in the country is an area boy or girl in one way or the other because we all try our best to defend ourself and our family and our neighbourhood. We don't look for trouble but when they come we don't run. I am an area boy and am proud of it.
bayo, ojodu/lagos

With 80% of Nigerians living below the poverty line and very high rate of unemployed youths, it should not surprise anyone that these young individuals have found an innovative way to survive the harsh realities of Nigeria. Being an Area girl is a facade for covering the failings of Nigerian people by successive governments.
Joel, United Kingdom

Reading this I am reminded of Peruvian economist's Hernando de Soto's analysis of the wealth of the poor which goes unrecognized by the state. Smartness, ambition and initiative which should be furthered by public institutions are instead frustrated. I can only imagine how many bribes would be required to legitimize a roadside stall, which would surely strengthen the entire neighbourhood.
Jude Kirkham, Vancouver Canada

Imagine an area girl in Mogadishu. Think of a pugilist girl in slums of Nairobi. It is rough in Africa; it is tough for our sisters surviving in the lands dominated by African men. I wish them good luck. They have got to fight like Cleopatra - with force and tricks added together. After all, all of them are our beautiful queens.
Gedewon Bussery, San Jose, USA

It's really saddening to see how we as a nation are frittering away our God-given resources - human and material. It's excruciating when you feel so helpless and cannot do anything to positively affect your station in life. I so much feel for these ladies who could have been an asset for this nation of ours, but instead their talent and potential are being wasted because those we call our leaders really don't care about us. Like I said, it is really saddening.
'Biyi, Lagos, Nigeria

The fact remains that majority of these so-called "Area Girls" are a product of the unfortunate survival of the fittest mentality that is predominant among the poor in Nigeria due to having no other choice. It would be interesting to see how decent and smart these same girls would prove to be if their situations were reversed. In almost all the situations, I'm sure none of the girls ever had a choice.
Dele Saliu, Toronto, Canada

I would like every reader of this piece to know that this represents just a little portion of urban Nigeria. Every country, even the most developed, still has its share of this kind of thing.

Wale Oyediran, Lagos, Nigeria

These so-called "Area Girls" merely present a superficial account of just how grim life can be on the Nigerian street. It is little short of hell. Our politicians are so greedy, selfish and insensitive that it beggars belief. God will help us achieve good governance one day.
Diala Anthony C., Okija, Anambra, Nigeria

It is tragic to hear about these women who have to fend for themselves instead of being able to get a decent job and a higher education. It makes me sad to think of so many girls growing up who cannot live a life where they can get good jobs and be protected in society. Obviously, Nigeria is not treating its daughters right.
Luci, Copenhagen, Denmark

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