BLOOD MONEY XIII: The architect who became a boatman

Last month, launched its Monthly Citizenship Dispatches, which explores in detail, the lives and realities of Nigerian citizens across the country.

This month, the dispatches come from the Niger Delta, where our reporters have spent weeks digging deep into a part of the country oft reported about and sadly still mis-understood.

These are the stories we will share with you daily over the next two weeks – for the voices, the issues, the realities that fellow citizens living in the Delta have dealt with, and continue to deal with every day.


Sylvester Adagbrasa waits at the Burutu Waterside park daily to ferry passengers from the Ogbe-Ijoh market in Warri to Burutu and back again. It is a 45-minute ride that costs NGN1,200 per person.

For the last five years this has been his routine; he has blended in so well with the other ferry operators that only a couple of them – and none of his passengers whatsoever – know that he began work with the most unusual of qualifications for such circumstances, a bachelor’s degree in Architecture.

“This is not the life I chose”, the 28-year-old says above the din of the boat engine coursing through water lilies encumbering the way to what is the headquarters of Burutu, one of the 25 local government council areas of Delta State. “Na condition cause am.”

Growing up in Warri, the oil-rich city, taught Adagbrasa and his four siblings all they needed to know about classism and the widening gap between rich and poor in the Nigerian society. In Warri, there were the oil company workers and the steel company workers, then the civil servants. At the bottom of the pyramid were the petty traders including his mother who fried yams, plantains and made akara to send her five children to school. Only Sylvester was privileged to attend university.

In 2010, he graduated from the University of Benin after spending one more than the required five years because he had the audacity to ‘criminally lust’ after a lecturer’s distant relative. Or so the lecturer said.

During his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme in Ebonyi State, Adabgrasa began to drive a taxicab, paying returns to its owner under a special hire purchase scheme. “I couldn’t finish paying so I had to give the taxi back to the owner”, he says. “Business was hard, everybody wanted to enter only keke NAPEP.”

After the NYSC, he returned home to find a job. It was 2011 and the amnesty programme instituted under the late Umaru Yar’adua was still underway for ex-militants and youths generally in the Niger Delta, so Adagbrasa and two of his siblings who had just graduated from the Delta State Polytechnic Ozoro combed the registration venues for a week.

“We registered but nobody got back to us because we didn’t have long leg or money to settle anybody so we are here. You know how Nigeria is.” Other job applications fell by the wayside and he kept doing odd jobs.

One day, while buying fish at the Burutu Waterside from his mother’s customer who had been selling to them for years, someone mistook him for a boatman and they all laughed about it. Until another boatman suggested that Adagbrasa actually join them; he could swim, he had strong muscles and it was good money. He could go back and forth about six times in total in one day and only needed to pay about N200 to the touts per trip.

“I swallowed my pride”, he remembers. “There were mouths to feed at home. My old mother is still frying akara at her age.”

Business has been good. Servicing the engine happens once every week and after a couple of levies to the waterways agencies, he makes a return of about N20,000 weekly on the average.

“Nobody waits for the government these days. I don’t owe government anything because they don’t support us. Youths like me take to crime because they have no other way to take care of their families. See at my age, I’m not even married. Too many responsibilities.”


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