“Reserved for men?” Aisha Umar, a single young mother-of-two from Mubi Local Government Area in Adamawa State and Abuja’s renowned pioneer female taxi driver queried in disagreement when asked why she decided to explore opportunity in a job known to be common with men in Nigeria.
“I am a taxi driver and I’m loving it,” she said. “Some people believe that driving a taxi is a trade exclusively reserved for men and people of low life, but it is a wrong perception. I prefer to earn a decent living through this means than to sit down and beg for money.”
In Abuja where Umar is the first female taxi driver and one of three plying the streets of the cosmopolitan city, there is no mistaken of her identity.
She conveyed the character of a modest hardworking young woman as she disclosed to THISDAY that she sees every challenge as an opportunity. Often referred to as Hajia by her male colleagues on the job, she spoke of how necessity drove her into competing for space in the business dominated by men.
Accidental Taxi Driver
But Umar didn’t start out as a taxi driver. The challenge she faced in her first business prompted her.
She said: “I did not really plan to go into a taxi business, it just happened. Before I became a taxi driver, I was into trading of clothes but I had no shop, so I go around hawking and as you may know, such business is quite volatile. In most cases people owe you so much money that you may not be able to recover them in the end.”
She continued: One fateful day, a customer of mine promised to pay up her debt after owing me for about two months. I got to her house but I was told she was absent, though she was indoor because her grand daughter confirmed that to me, I couldn’t do anything to change the situation. So I walked out of her compound dejected and disappointed and as I was driving away from there reluctantly and wondering what to do thereafter, because I was so broke and without enough fuel in my car to take me further, suddenly, I saw someone waving at me to stop and I did. The person later apologised, when he got to me, saying he thought I was a cab operator. I said no problem, but I also needed money to buy fuel into my car. So he agreed that I should carry him to Asokoro for N350. when I dropped him off, a number of teenagers stopped me a few meters away from where I dropped him and I also took them to Banex in Wuse 2, and when I dropped them at Banex, I picked a couple of passengers who were going to Wuse market but hadn’t got vehicles to drop them. In the course of moving from one location to another, picking and dropping off passengers I met a cab driver who gave me a few advices and also helped to show me directions and bus-stops along the way. That was how I got money to fill my tank and had N1,700 left to go home with at the end of the day.”
A Proudly Taxi Driver
Like someone that tasted a pudding with the urge to ask for more, Umar was tempted to go back on the routine the following day after she had concluded her domestic chores and she didn’t escape falling for the temptation.
She said: “The following day, after my daily chores, I decided to try it again and I worked throughout that day. I started enjoying the business because it was paying my bills. At least I made money to take care of my needs and I did that for a period of nine months but stopped after I made some money to continue my previous business which was not good at all. That was in 2007.”
Yes, she went back into her first business, but Umar would once more return to the streets of Abuja as a taxi driver.
“The trade in clothing wouldn’t just work. So I sold my former car and bought a better one with which I officially registered to become a formal taxi driver in Abuja,” she enthused.
She disclosed that a lot of people, especially those closer to her had mixed feelings about her being a taxi driver, but she refused to budge an inch. She succeeded.
“People had laughed at my plan when I shared it with them but some others really encouraged me, especially my mother who stood by me. One of my brothers really didn’t want me to do it, because he had a belief that the job was for people of low life. I remember him saying, haba, Aisha it has not got to this level.
“That was how I started and my mother who supported me back then is so proud of what I am making of the trade, although my younger siblings are not so comfortable with it, I really don’t care about what they think for as long as I am doing the right thing. I have inspired a lot of young ladies who come across me,” she affirmed.
Raising the Children
She talked about how she manages the work with raising two children alone. “It is really not easy combining the job and bringing up my children and I must admit that I don’t give them the kind of time I would want to give to them but it is really not my fault. I have no choice but to fend for them. Despite all that, I think I am doing well because of my strong faith in the ability of God to take care of my destiny. God has been faithful to me and sincerely He treats us the way we take him. He’s always with me and I am sure about that,” Umar explained.
Coping with Discrimination
When asked if she had ever faced any form of harassment from her male colleagues based on her sex, Umar insisted that whatever form of challenge she had encountered on the job is counted as part of the hazards of the job and should be overlooked.
She said: “I got rough handled for instance recently by men. Those guys don’t usually come to Wuse market and it has been months since they came last. So on that day, a lady flagged me down and I stopped to pick her while my engine was on the run but I noticed this guy running faster towards me and suddenly he held my hands, he wanted to take off my keys from the ignition point but I refused, I really couldn’t compare my strength with his and he pushed hard to take my key but I resisted until he signalled to his guys to come and clamp my car.
“I was there for hours after they had clamped my car making me to lose money despite my pleas to their supervisor.”
When pressed to disclose her average daily earning in a full day runs, Umar said: “Well, the work is not like before, you can see that Wuse market has changed now. My car is painted green-white-green cab which means that I am restricted to drive in a lot of places.
For example the authorities don’t allow us to get close to the market anymore but thank God, with time, everything is normalising now and I am able to make at least N5000 after all expenses, but sometimes you get lucky and get tips from passengers that increase your take-home in a day.”
Talking about her daily routine, she explained: “I get up at 4am or 5am to say my prayers first. I relax for about 30 minutes after the prayer before preparing food for my children, depending on what I have to make for breakfast but I have a househelp to do the domestic chores.
By 8am I should be in Wuse market and from that time I work until 5pm when I return home to meet with my children who are aged 7 and 5 for dinner together after saying my prayers and having a shower.
Working with other Female Taxi Drivers
While admitting that she may have been the first to become a taxi driver, she also stated that there are now additional two female taxi drivers in the city.
“We are about three doing this in Abuja. A young fair Igbo lady joined me lately and I think she’s like eight months as a driver. We share experiences and relate well because she drives an unpainted cab and has access to some of the places I don’t have access to.
“There is another lady with us who was riding “keke NAPEP”(tricycle) before now but has crossed over to become a taxi driver. When you see a woman do this in the midst of men, you just have to know that she is strong-willed with dignity.
“The last lady that joined came to Wuse market to look for me and when we met, she sincerely hugged me and told me how much she has been inspired by my story.
“The guys think that I am stubborn and when the new lady came, they were making fun of me that I now have a competitor who is not stubborn like me but that again forms part of the trade.
“I get the respect that is due to me from the men in the business because I show respect to all. For me being a woman and having the kind of space I have in their midst gives me some level of confidence. I have respect for everybody and expect to get same from people, because this taxi business is another world entirely and we have to be careful what we do and say.
A School Dropout
She told THISDAY that she had dropped out of school but has now gone back to earn a degree with which she would navigate the future
“I dropped out from the university in my second year, but now I am back to school. I am attending the College of Education at Zuba in Niger State, where I am studying English and French Languages. It has been four months since I started there. I decided to go back to school because I need knowledge and I see a brighter future for myself but I can’t achieve my plans without education. Now that I am back to school, I work from Monday to Thursday and go to school from Friday to Sunday.
While explaining her exit plan to THISDAY, Umar noted that running a taxi business in Abuja was becoming so challenging with various control measures frequently initiated by the government.
She explained that the increasing volatility of the trade and her other plans would mean that she has to exit the business very soon.
She said: “I won’t do this for the rest of my life, because it is a stepping stone to something bigger. It is not that I am not grateful with what I get from this business but I have plans that I must also pursue, so I plan to stop the business for something else so that I can have time for my children.
Advice to Young Ladies
“I would advise young ladies who are jobless to pick up whatever good trade they can lay their hands on than just sitting down and waiting for help from somebody. You have to be content and hardworking in life; it gives me great pleasure to spend from my sweat and not having to beg and compromise.
I tell you, there is no job that is specifically reserved for the menfolk, pride should be taken out from our dictionary because this life is too short to begin to do whatever you like, you have to be positive and do the right things; you have to believe in yourself first before expecting others to believe in you,” Umar said.