The subject of today’s What She Said is a 61-year-old woman who moved to Lagos at 15 to become a caterer. She talks about being her father’s favourite out of his 18 children, surrounding herself with her family, choosing to not get married or have children, retiring at fifty and looking forward to the rest of her life.
What’s your earliest memory of your childhood?
It’s of my father using his bicycle to take me to school. Whenever my elder brother and I had a misunderstanding and he wanted to beat me, my father would put me on his bicycle and take me to school. That didn’t stop my brother from beating me after school closed because my dad was at the farm.
So, you grew up a daddy’s pet?
Yes, I did. Two weeks after I was born, I had an operation. They said it was because I had abnormal growth on my back. In fact, that operation caused another problem. It was carried out in my village in 1960. The technology wasn’t that great, so I don’t think it was completely their fault. One of the wires used to stitch the wound was forgotten. I was just two weeks old, but I was in so much pain. I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. I just cried for days. Apparently, when my mother was massaging my back, she felt something there and pulled the wire out. That was when I slept properly for the first time in days.
But that was not the only reason I was my father’s favourite. His grandmother, whom he was very close to, died before I was born. She also had the same abnormal growth in her body. Before she died, she made my father promise that they would operate on her dead body and find out what was causing the growth. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around when she died, so he couldn’t fulfil his promise. Then I was born.
The only thing I hated about being my dad’s pet was that he never let me leave the house. Luckily, one of my brother’s came to take me to Lagos when I was 15.
Was it the same brother that used to beat you?
No, it wasn’t him. I had 17 siblings, so I have a lot of brothers. This one lived in Lagos, and he came to pick me because I had just finished primary school. I had nothing else to do and was just at home taking care of my sick mother. He and my father wanted me to do something else with my life. I decided I wanted to learn catering, and that’s how I came to Lagos.
Wait, primary school at 15?
Yes. Back then, you could only enter primary school when you could put your left hand over your head and touch your right ear. Short children or children with short arms or big heads had to start school late.
That method is so funny. Wow. Anyways, how did you feel leaving the village?
I was excited. Coming to Lagos was the first time I entered a plane in my life. It was a Benin to Lagos flight, and it cost ₦30. I got on the plane with rubber slippers because my sister took the shoes I wanted to wear. She told me, “Shebi you dey go Lagos. Dem get everything for there.”
Lagos was full of life, and it had things I had never seen in the village. The first time I went to a supermarket, I went with one of my relatives. I saw people putting things in their baskets and thought it was because the things were free. So, I put things in my basket. When we got to the counter, they calculated the things and told me to pay.
LMAO. That is wild.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time something like that happened. When I went to another village to see a family member, I ate in a bukka for the first time. When I was done, I told the woman thank you for the food and wanted to go wash the plate they gave me to eat with. She looked so confused.
I am dying. But it got better?
Yes, it did. Before I started catering school, I took time to get accustomed to a few things. I could only speak Esan and a bit of English, so I had to polish my English and learn Yoruba as well.
Why did you want to study catering?
I like making and experimenting with food. Catering school was great and I enjoyed every moment of it.
When I finished catering school, I went for industrial attachment. Which is when they send you to different companies to work there for about three months.
After my industrial attachment, I went to work for a woman making snacks, then worked for a hotel. I also worked at two other hotels and some companies as their senior caterer. I also did events.
So, all your jobs were food-related?
Well, not all. After my third job, I went to Kano for a while to assist my sister who lived there. She used to buy and sell clothes, and I helped her buy the goods. I would go from Kano to Lagos by road and then return to Kano by air to avoid customs.
Avoid customs, why?
Well, at that time, the government was trying to stop the importation of Hollandies and Ankara, so customs sometimes searched people on the road. To avoid that, I would go by air.
There was a time during my usual movement to Lagos, I had to stop at Benin to deliver a message to my other sister. There were no phones then, so the message had to be delivered in person. While in the cab, some of the men there were 419.
Because I was going to buy things I was always moving around with a lot of money. My sister tied the money and put it inside the sack with pepper and beans. I am sure when the men heard I was coming from Kano to Benin, they suspected I had some money. That’s when they started doing jazz. They spat into their palms and something came out and they did all sorts in the car. I became scared and made them stop the vehicle. I pointed to a random woman on the streets and said that was my sister waiting for me. They threw me and my property out of the vehicle and rained insults on me.
When I got home, I told my sister. We threw the sack on the floor and searched for the money. We had to be sure they didn’t use their jazz to magnet the money from the bag, Luckily, the money was still intact. It was a terrible experience.
So, did that make you stop?
No, it didn’t. I just decided to not go to Benin anymore. I still helped my sister with her buying and selling, until I decided to leave Kano.
Why did you leave?
I decided to relocate to Lagos because that’s where I had the bulk of my family members. I didn’t find it very easy to make friends in Kano.
So, what were you doing after Kano?
Well, I catered events and also started selling foodstuff. Now, I am retired.
That’s nice. When did you retire?
I retired when I was fifty. I realised with my arthritis, eye problems and age, I could not keep up with how stressful the catering industry is. I decided to open a provisions store instead. I needed to rest.
A provisions store doesn’t seem like you’re resting o
Well, rest but I also wanted to be surrounded by my family. Also, the idea of just sitting down and doing nothing seems very boring. I still have strength left, why not use it?
When you say family, your kids?
No. I never had children. I also never got married. Initially, I did want to get married but the men were never faithful to me. They were disappointments and I just decided not to get involved with them anymore. I am very happy with my decision. I have my family around me and they take care of me. They always make me feel welcome. Marriage and children are not tickets to heaven, so they aren’t necessary.
What do you look forward to now?
Retirement phase two. Maybe I will finally rest and get around to see all my siblings and their children — the people I want to see. In general, I am looking forward to the rest of my life.
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