What She Said — I Wish I Did More for Myself

January 12, 2022

This week’s What She Said is Small Pepper, a 53-year-old Nigerian woman. She talks about moving to Lagos to make it in the 90s, the realities of supporting six younger siblings in 1992 as the first daughter and her transition into the money lending business to survive and become her own person.

So, Small Pepper?

Haha! My mama nicknamed me after my height and personality — I knew how to make trouble. I started helping her with sales and debt collection when I was 13 because I used to flare up like pepper, so she would tell me to help her harass customers owing her money for soft drinks. My father was always away because of his job as a police officer, so as the first daughter of eight children, I had to support my mum. I knew exactly how to harass her debtors into paying immediately. That’s how “Small Pepper” stuck.

Did you ever have to hold anybody’s knicker to fight?

I was too short to fight anybody oh. It was my mouth people always wanted to avoid. I remember a man that borrowed ₦50,000 from my mum and kept dodging her each time she went to his compound to look for him. She reported the matter to me and one morning, I strolled to his store where he sold palm wine. I waited till he went to the back of his shop, then seized the kegs of palm wine lined up in front of his shop. He obviously got the message because he turned up a few days later with the initial loan and profit for my mum. 

Mad oh! Did this experience as “Small Pepper” play any role in your life as an adult?

I worked at my mothers shop until I got admission into the University of Benin at 17. So that was five years of helping her manage the business and learning the art of buying and selling. These skills wass how I survived the madness of Lagos in 1992 without my family. 

What happened in Lagos?

I finished my NYSC at 23 and after my service in 1991, my family moved from Lagos when my father decided to retire from his job as a police officer. We moved to our hometown called Agbor, in Delta state and I hated it there. I was at home most of the time because there was little to do, but I needed to find a way to earn money to support my older brother and  six younger siblings. Naturally, I moved to Lagos to “make it big.”

The Lagos Dream. How did that go?

I was 24 and living without depending on my family for the first time. You had to be mad to survive. It was a place one could easily get lost, especially as a Johnny Just Come (JJC) like me. I remember entering the wrong bus going to Orile from Ojuelegba, misplacing my money and having to beg. In Lagos, everybody must beg a bus driver at least once. I once fell down on the road to weep after someone had emptied my bag on my way to Orile. I cried until people dashed my money. Knowing Lagos now, the thief could have been among the people dashing me money. 

LOL.  Did you have a plan on how to make it big though? 

I just knew I wanted to work. There was no big plan in my head besides getting to Lagos and getting a job — even as a secretary. So making it started out with squatting at my cousin’s house in Ajegunle. The same week I arrived, I went to look for my dad’s old colleague that had lived with us at the Police barracks in Ikeja years back. He was recently promoted to inspector general of police, so I hoped he would remember me and help me get a job.

Did it work out?

Yes. He connected me to a friend who owned a fruit drink company in Mushin, and I worked as his accountant. I didn’t know how much I was going to get paid, but I believed it was better than nothing. It was great until I got the first cheque for my salary: ₦5,000. Excitement for the job cleared from my eyes. As the first daughter, I had to support my retired parents. They never said it, but I knew they expected me to live up to the same responsibilities as my elder brother who also supported them. My mother’s business wasn’t even bringing in enough money to support sending my younger siblings to school at that point. So who could I support with ₦5,000? It just felt like an insult plus joke. I dropped the cheque on my desk and quit the job.

Ah. I’m curious about what ₦5k could have gotten you in Lagos in 1992.

It cost me at least ₦300 to get to Mushin from Ajegunle and back each day for the month. Then I would buy lunch for about ₦100 from Iya Bunmi. So that was about ₦400 everyday to just get to the office and eat for a month. If I had only myself to think of, maybe I could have managed it somehow. But I had six younger siblings that needed to go to school and my elder brother was also barely making it as a lawyer in Lagos. Even after sending money home, I still had to add in ₦1000 each month, at my cousin’s house. So I can’t relate to the jokes about how you could have survived with ₦100 in the 90’s, when there were people like me weighed down by the support they needed to give their families. So don’t always believe those ₦100 tales, ₦5k could have been just as little for a lot of my peers in the 90’s.

Interesting. What did you do next?

I decided to focus on what I knew I understood perfectly — being Small Pepper. I bought bras and pants from Obalende to resell to my working class friends. I can’t lie; it was difficult to accept the reality of selling underwear just to survive. I thought I was going to get one of those white collar jobs in the fancy offices my friends talked about in school, but it had to be done. I even got a Coca-Cola license to buy

and sell drinks like my mama, but I just gave it to a friend that needed it more who had a shop already. 

What was the hardest part about trying to get a job then?

I kept reaching out to my father’s contacts to assist me with getting jobs in Lagos. In the 90s, success really depended on who your father knew and the calibre of men you mingled with. Surviving revolved a lot around the willingness of a man to help you. Any job I had back then involved depending on an uncle, distant male cousin or brother. It wasn’t the best feeling having to depend on people. I’ll never forget the way one of my dad’s contacts from the police force stared at me. I just knew it was better to be on the streets than go any further with my request. 

So what did you do?

Many things. It took almost five years for things to get better. A neighbour who also worked as a broker became my friend when I moved to Ojodu Berger in 1995. After he found out we were from the same tribe, he was interested in helping me learn to buy shares; I bought 500 units each from First Bank and Wema Bank. That’s how I started to understand how to run things in Lagos: you have to earn outside your 9-5 to have money to spend.
I really started scaling through when I got into the banking sector in 1997. A friend connected me to a marketing position at International Trust Bank (now EcoBank). I got into the business of loaning money to individuals. I noticed some people came into the bank with ideas they needed to fund, but processing the loans took too long. So I decided to use the opportunity to set up a business that loaned money to the customers that couldn’t wait for the whole process. I offered a higher monthly interest rate, but people were willing to pay because it was a faster process. When the bank decided to retrench workers, I lost my job, but I kept all the customers I had and set up a proper loaning business in 2001. All my “Small Pepper” skills came to play here.

LOL. You stole the bank’s customers?! 

Look, every moment is a business potential and women are smart enough to see it. It’s just difficult to be bold about it sometimes. I couldn’t afford to desperately need anyone in the 90s. So that’s a moment in my life I would never change.

Through all of this, what are you most proud of achieving?

Being able to support my family as the first daughter. I had an older brother who came to Lagos as well and we both had to find our way so our six younger siblings didn’t have to struggle the way we did. Half of them are out of the country now, so I’d say those nights I could only afford a digestive biscuit to eat paid off.

Do you have any regrets?

I just wish I did more for myself even through the struggles of being in Lagos on my own. The goal was to never have to work again at some point. And that’s where I am right now. From depending on the men in my life to get jobs, to creating my own source of income loaning money to people like my mother back then. I’d say I did okay and I have no regrets leaving everything behind to come back to Lagos in 1992. I could’ve gotten myself more bags though. I wasn’t into make up or hair back then, but handbags? I loved them.

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