Today’s story is about a Septuagenarian. She’s done everything from secretarial work to hospitality, and trade. All of this with one goal; to give the best life possible for her kids. This conversation happened in Yoruba, and this is an attempt at translating it to English, all without losing the yorubaness.
Tell me about your first job.
I worked at the Health Department of the Lagos City Council. I started working there in 1969, and I was 20 at the time – that’s when I got married. My salary was £16 and we used to get a Danger Allowance, because of the department we worked in – another £2.
Yes, Nigeria still used the pounds back then, and it was the same value as the British pound. I worked there till 1971, and then I travelled to go and join my husband, who was in the UK at the time. In Britain, I got a secretarial job that I didn’t like very much. It kept me seated too much. So I took the City and Guilds Certificate, 1 and 2, in catering. A few years later, we returned to Nigeria in 1975, and it was a different country.
Yes. At this time, I already had three kids. Even the hand drive changed. I got a job as a Restaurant Supervisor at Eko Holiday Inn in 1975 – I was 26. You people now know it as Eko Hotel. I was expecting my 4th child at the time.
Yes. It was a joint venture by the government and some Americans. But we mostly worked with the Americans. My first salary was ₦375. To be honest, Jakande didn’t really care about the hotel business. A lot of his attention was on education and housing.
I had to be at Eko Hotel before 6 am. We were living on the Mainland but good thing was, in those days we had staff buses to pick us up and drop us off at our stops.
One funny thing that happened a lot in those days is this. My husband worked somewhere not too far from me. And he always wanted to come to pick me up, but then, sometimes, he’d have come and I’d have left with the staff bus. Can you imagine all that frustration was because we didn’t have phones that everyone has now?
By the time I resigned in 1981, my last salary was a little over ₦700.
Why did you resign?
My child was born prematurely. And there was the fear that if there wasn’t enough care, the child won’t survive. My husband used to say “If this child dies, it’s on you.”
You know, when I was leaving, the personnel manager did everything to keep me. In fact, they came to the house officially asking that I return. I didn’t.
But at the time, I’d already started doing some business on the side. I had a friend who travelled a lot, so she helped me buy things I could sell while I still worked at the Hotel restaurant. She had a shop at Tejuoso Market then, and she encouraged me to open one too.
So I opened my shop in Tejuoso Market in 1981.
How much did a shop cost at the time?
It cost less than ₦5,000 to set up. About ₦120 per month. Restocking used to cost me about ₦2,000, and how did I restock? Only from buying from abroad.
Setting up wasn’t difficult at the time. I remember I even got a car loan while I was still at that job – ₦1700. Ah, Nigeria ti bàjẹ́.
Back then, when you get the car loan, you could buy a Volks. A Volks didn’t even cost up to ₦1,000. A Toyota Corolla cost under ₦2,000 – my husband bought this one. It was pretty and had so much room.
I used my car loan to buy a pick-up truck. I was using it to carry canned drinks for supply. I’d go pick them up at Ota, and then deliver at Apongbon.
So you could even buy a car on your salary of two months?
Daada! Even all the gold we used to buy in those days, how much did they cost? Fashion wasn’t hard at the time. Gold bangles were going for ₦120.
What did you sell in your shop?
Baby wares. Children’s clothes. Those days, if you haven’t bought Mothercare products for your child, it’s like you haven’t given birth. There weren’t any diapers, only napkins.
But around the time I started, there was one Igbo man in my neighbourhood. He used to go to Brazil to get car spare parts. He was the first person that made me start selling Johnson and Johnson diapers. He’d stock up his own container with my goods, and bring them to my shop.
The blessing was that my children also wore good clothes – the boys wore suits, the girls wore the best dresses. My last child at the time would come to the shop, and once he saw a toy, he’d cry till he got it hahaha.
Business was really booming in those days.
It started with a house fire in 1983. The things we lost, I can’t even begin to value. The shop was something I started to fill up the time while I was planning to start my catering business. Part of my profits from running the shop went into buying things I needed when I was ready. I didn’t have a warehouse, so things I couldn’t keep in my shop, I stored at the house. Cartons on cartons on cartons.
They all got burnt.
We moved into a new place, and that cost ₦250/month in rent. It was a three-bedroom flat. Towards the end of the year, someone wanted to help me get a ₦25,000 loan that same year. That money was going to cover the capital to set up my catering business and pay two years rent. I was going to use my father’s properties as collateral, but my mother didn’t think it was a good idea. So I didn’t take the loan.
The drought hit us proper in 1985. My husband also didn’t pick a better time to marry a second wife. Before then, our kids’ school fees were paid by whoever had money first. I paid, he paid.
When the second wife came, everything thinned out. We barely saw him. Sometimes, we didn’t even see him for weeks. Before this period, work made him go away for months at a time, so I was already used to not having him around in a sense.
How did you cope?
Business never really went back to how it was before that fire, but we managed. That shop was literally how our family survived. My baby sister lived with me too at the time. We’d sell what we could sell, and buy food for the house for that day. The bulk shopping I used to do before became buy-as-you-have.
What was bulk shopping like in the good days?
I had another sister who was the Oga of bulk shopping, bless her soul. Once I gave her ₦200 in the early 80s, we were sorted. Do you know how many people were living with me? Three of my siblings and my own six children. My daily sales in those bulk shopping days used to be over ₦1000 on good days.
In fact, I used to be part of a club. You people only talk about Aṣo Ẹbí, but we used to buy a lot of Aso Egbe.
Nothing ma. So, back to Aso Egbe.
We called ourselves Club 8. We partied together and bought our clothes together. But by the mid to late 80s, I couldn’t keep up. I had kids to feed, and their suffering was too difficult for me to bear. My baby sister and first daughter got into tertiary school. You had to pay for their hostel rent, school fees, and you had to buy their hand-outs.
Whenever my daughter and baby sister came home and there wasn’t money, they’d take a few things from the shop and go sell in school to lecturers. That was how they survived. It got to a point, by the late 80s, where I could no longer continue selling baby wares. I had friends traveling, who’d help me buy shoes for adults, male and female, and I started going from office to office, selling them.
How did you pull off the school fees struggle?
At the biggest school fees stretch, I was paying the school fees of 7 people, my kids and my baby sister’s. When my last born came, I couldn’t afford private school for her, so she went to one of these under-the-tree schools in the neighborhood.
At some point, I could no longer afford private school for two of my older boys too, so I moved two of the kids out of private school, and took them to public school – Jakande made those free and that saved our lives.
All you had to do was buy books, uniform, and give them attention.
Where was he – your husband – all this while?
Oh, he said he was raised by his mother too. And so, I should raise my kids too. And it wasn’t just me. He did it to his second wife. If she wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to send her children abroad, she wouldn’t have survived. She faced the same struggles too. She was hustling to pay ₦150 school fees too.
So, all he was doing was having children. What was he using his money for?
I dunno for him o. To be honest, there was a time he quit the safety of a job and tried to start a company, and that was a tough period for him. In fact, it’s in between all of this he married his second wife, and everything just crumbled for him. He sold his two vehicles, a bus and a car.
Was this how they used to do, these men?
Most of them were like that. But there were some who were good homebuilders, despite being polygamous in some cases. They were present for their families. All the while, he blamed me for having all the kids.
Why didn’t your husband use birth control?
I even used at some point, but I’m just unfortunate with birth control. I used the coil but somehow got pregnant. When my child was born, he was holding the coil in his hand. The doctors at that time said I was 1 out of 100, and I was like, why me?
Why…why didn’t you leave?
The kids. I kept wanting them to be present in his life. And him in theirs.
The times are changing though.
Do women these days have time for nonsense? They would have flung the man away since. Nobody is waiting around for someone who won’t give them love and give the kids attention.
Okay, back to work.
I kept trying out things to sell and make a living, and by 1988, I started travelling to Aba.
Haha. Ariyariya. I used to go and buy cut-and-sew. We walked the length and breadth of the market in those days. The roads were good, and. How much did it cost from Lagos to Aba by bus? ₦120.
Bẹ̀ẹni! We didn’t have to worry about anything on the road. I used to travel with Emerald Motors at Jibowu. Then there was Young Shall Grow. Okechukwu.
The Young Really Grew.
Yes o. They didn’t have enough vehicles then. Emerald was the reigning one, but when the owner died, the business died too. Even Ojukwu had his own bus line then.
Aba was really pleasant. When I wanted to start that business, I didn’t even have up to ₦10,000.
Again, my husband was saying “Why are you risking your life and leaving these children at home.” As if we were even seeing him at home. Hahaha.
He was giving you trouble at the time?
You see, the way he switched when he married a second wife ehn? He just became bitter. So, I just focused on making sure that I could give the kids the best things possible.
What was the most popular order in Eko Hotel?
Jollof Rice and Chicken Peri-Peri. A plate went for ₦180. There were different restaurants – Kuramo, Summit Restaurant at the rooftop. We moved from restaurant to restaurant, but I worked at Kuramo as a Supervisor.
How stressful must it have been?
It was stressful, but it was good work. My health started to deteriorate shortly after I left. I started treating hypertension in 1983 at the age of 34. When I eventually got rushed to the hospital a few years later, the doctors said I was “very lucky”, because if I had delayed treatment, it would have killed me.
Something else came in 1996. One of the kids fell ill, so we went to the hospital. I was just lying down on a bench, exhausted, when this doctor came in and asked if I was okay. He randomly observed me for a few minutes. Then he asked me if I was hypertensive. I told him I was.
I think it was his instinct, but he asked to run some tests on me, and when it was done, he screamed.
What was it?
Diabetes. The doctor said ‘ah! 400!’ I didn’t even know what diabetes meant: there wasn’t that much awareness about diabetes at the time.
I told the doctor that the child I brought, I hadn’t even paid money. Where was I going to get money to pay for mine? Hahaha.
I was still travelling to Aba in all this time, while at the same time trying to arrange flight tickets for my son, who was going to the UK. I paid for all of it without his father. I think it was about ₦25,000 in the mid-90s. It could have been easier for us to arrange that travel because he was a British citizen.
What made it hard?
Abacha. There was some embargo on the Nigerian government, and British citizens could only fly from Ghana. That would have cost more money.
All that travelling and stress must have taken its toll on your health. When did you eventually stop working?
I stopped going to Aba in 1998. Do you know what I loved about Aba? Many of them were kind. When you become a regular customer, you can show up with the money for 5k worth of goods, and they’d tell you to take 10k’s worth. Because they knew you’d come back, and pay up. That helped a lot.
I dunno if it’s still possible today, but I hope your generation eventually gets it easy.
I travelled in 2002. At this time, two of my children were now in the UK. I really just wanted to go take a break, and see my daughter – I hadn’t seen her in four years. I needed to see how comfortable she was. She was still a teenager when she left. That was also tough for her.
I spent almost a year there, and when I came back, I was still trying to buy and sell things and chasing debtors.
Looks like debtors were stressful.
Yes, they were. People in offices, for example, would take things on credit and pay at the end of the month. And I don’t blame them because they also couldn’t afford to pay till the end of the month, but my children had to eat.
The food sellers in our neighbourhood were really understanding. They let the kids come and buy food and kept a tab open for me. So I paid when I had money.
That year, we moved into our own house. My husband had been building one. By the time we were moving out of the house we lived in, it cost ₦5,500 per month. A lot of it was still incomplete.
Do you want to know how much we bought the land? ₦25,000 in 1992. I contributed ₦8000.
With all of what you know and have experienced now, what would you do if you could travel back in time?
Hahaha. Let’s just be glad I survived. You know, when things happen, it’s impossible to tell outcomes. If I died, my children’s lives would have still continued somehow. They were courageous.
I’m really grateful.
How is old age?
Boring. I’m grateful that I have children who send me money for my welfare. I never have to worry about medicine. But the hardest part about being old for me is that all the places I could go, You can’t move around as much because your body is weak. Some of the things you did with ease when you were younger, now need an extra hand.
I’m treating Diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis. My meds are taken care of by my kids. I have no pension. No insurance.
My kids hahaha. They’re my pension and my insurance.
They send money, but, even that no longer feels enough. I’d love to talk to them. And my grandchildren. I can’t always do that now, and those times when I can’t hear from anyone, I feel lonely. It used to make me very bitter – the loneliness – but not anymore.
Their father talks about it now, about how much of a lucky man he is. And despite the fact that they remember everything, the children don’t hate him.
Are you happy now?
I used to be bitter a lot. All that suffering alone. Now I’m just thankful, the kids are doing fine.
Thank you for making me remember all of this. It’s so easy to forget
Originally published on Zikoko