At 10 o’clock in the evening, most of the trucks have parked inside the gates to Eko Atlantic’s huge construction site. Under the light of street lamps, a number of Muslim drivers are praying, while others have rolled out thin mats directly on the ground and pulled a blanket over their heads.
Matthew Ude is getting ready to go to sleep. Just like every other day, he has driven his Volvo FMX to the stone quarry 150 kilometre north east of Lagos to collect blocks of granite for the eight-kilometre protective wall that separates Eko Atlantic from the sea.
“We never drive at night, it’s too dangerous. The risk of being stopped by robbers on the road is far too great,” says Matthew.
Eko Atlantic is destined to become the Lagos of the future. Business and residential districts will be gathered together on a ten-square-kilometre artificial peninsula that is being built immediately adjacent to the area known as Victoria Island. The protective wall has been tested to ensure that it is able to withstand the worst storms ever and the area inside the wall is being filled with sand dredged from the sea.
The name “Eko” comes from the local language, Yoruba, and means “people from Lagos Island” – the people who originally lived there. However, Matthew does not come from here. He is a member of the ethnic group known as the Igbo and he has been driving trucks back and forth in Nigeria since 1978. His job has become his hobby.
“I learned to drive trucks for a French company that had Renault trucks. This is the first Volvo truck I have driven and I like it. It has a good braking system, the steering is perfect and its balance is excellent, even when I am carrying a heavy load,” he says.
Every morning, six days a week, Matthew leaves the Eko Atlantic site at 4 am. He is accompanied by his assistant, known locally as a motorboy, 24-year-old Gift Mwaele, who helps him during the day. Gift washes the truck, directs Matthew when he reverses in tight spaces and acts as the extra pair of eyes that is needed when driving in the intensive traffic. Every day, as many as 200 trucks travel from different stone quarries to Eko Atlantic.
As the roads are poor, the traffic is our greatest problem. Leaving the truck to mend a puncture can actually be dangerous.
The first stop for the day is the haulage company’s office and workshop in Ibadan, where Matthew and Gift pick up their loading order. The road there is regarded as one of the country’s main roads, but the asphalt has been patched up and is in poor condition and, even if the traffic is light in the morning, it takes them more than two hours to reach their destination.
When they have been given their loading order, Matthew leaves the main road and turns onto a smaller road, which eventually turns into a gravel road leading to the quarry.
“As the roads are poor, the traffic is our greatest problem. Leaving the truck to mend a puncture can actually be dangerous,” says Matthew.
The gravel road leading to the quarry is lined by dense vegetation. Here and there, yam plants, cassava and the odd banana tree can be seen. The truck leaves a fine cloud of dust behind it and a few yellow butterflies flutter past the windscreen.
Suddenly, the quarry appears in the middle of the forest. White trucks with yellow hauler flat bodies drive behind one another to pick up their loads. There is a sound of banging and deafening noise as granite blocks are loaded onto the trucks and, as he waits for his turn, Matthew takes the opportunity to chat to the other drivers.
The granite blocks that are destined for the “Great Wall of Lagos” are as large as 1.5 metres in diameter and the trucks can carry loads of up to 30 cubic metres. So it is not the weight that determines the amount of stone that can be transported to the wall on each journey but the space on the hauler flat bed.
When Matthew and Gift have finished loading, they weigh their truck on the way out and it is then time to drive back to Lagos. It is now 2.30 pm and the traffic is much heavier. It normally takes four hours to drive back to Eko Atlantic and Matthew knows that it will be dark before he arrives. Stopping to eat is out of the question.
“We can’t keep stopping, otherwise we’ll never arrive,” he says.
Matthew and Gift spend basically the whole of their working day in the truck. They bring food with them and eat it as they drive and, when things get slow, Matthew turns on the CD player. Between two well-thumbed bibles, are music compilations by Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and the country star, Skeeter Davis.
“And, of course, I also have some Nigerian music,” says Matthew and laughs.
He comes from what was previously known as Biafra and is now the state of Enugu in south-eastern Nigeria. His father was a trader at the market, but the family was short of money, so Matthew had to leave school after one year at secondary school.
“There were five children in my family. I was the only son and I was forced to take care of myself at an early age. Becoming a truck driver was actually my only opportunity, as I had no money to invest in a company of my own and my family didn’t have enough land to keep us all.”
However, driving in Nigeria could be quite unpredictable. Matthew points to a river that overflows in heavy rain. The traffic then comes to a halt and transport has to wait until the waters subside.
Becoming a truck driver was actually my only opportunity, as I had no money to invest in a company of my own and my family didn’t have enough land to keep us all.
We pass a tanker that overturned in the opposite direction during the morning. The locals quickly removed its contents. Everything went well on this occasion, but it sometimes happens that a spark causes the flammable fuel to catch fire – with a number of casualties or even fatalities as a result.
The truck and a couple of other crash-damaged vehicles at the side of the road clearly illustrate Matthew’s description of the traffic climate in a country where no traffic rules appear to apply.
But Matthew drives calmly and safely. Back home in Lagos, he has a wife and four children – but he only sees them on Sundays.
“We work long hours and I can’t get home in the evening. The traffic in Lagos is far too chaotic. But, on Saturday evening, after work, I go home and spend Sunday with my family. We usually go to church.”
The daytime in Nigeria quickly turns to night and, when Matthew drives into the Eko Atlantic site, it is already dark. A long line of trucks has driven onto the quay to dump their cargo where the protective wall meets the sea.
Matthew waits under the floodlight until it is his turn to drive up, turn on the narrow pier and then reverse and dump the granite blocks into the sea. The waves beat rhythmically against the wall and, even if the temperature has dropped, the air is still warm, salty and damp. From the shore, all that can be seen are a few pale lights from Lagos.
The working day is over. Behind his seat, Matthew has a rolled-up bundle which he takes out in the evening and spreads over the two seats in the cab where he sleeps.
At four in the morning, he is once again ready to start the day. That is when the first trucks leave Eko Atlantic and head north.
Volvo FMX 6×4, tractor designed for heavy loads; hauler flat body from Meiller-Kipper; D13 Euro 3 engine with an output of 400 bhp.
Because of the inferior roads, the maximum speed of the Volvo trucks that are delivered to Nigeria is limited to 75 km/h.
Transport assignment: 50 trucks have so far been delivered to transport granite blocks to the large protective wall in Lagos that is being built round Eko Atlantic.