What She Said: The Secret Life Of A Nigerian Tailor

July 1, 2020

Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.


How market now?

My sister I day o. Market isn’t booming right now but in all things we thank God.

How bad is it?

Things have even started to pick up now. But you see that March and April, it was a real struggle.  Those were the hardest months I’ve had in many years. Even people that had already dropped their cloth with me were not calling me anymore. I was the one chasing people to come and collect their cloth so I can collect my balance, but they weren’t answering me. I’ll call and call from morning till night they won’t pick their calls. The ones that managed to pick, told me to hold their cloth till further notice, that where are they wearing it to. 

Sounds like tables turned?

But you know me now, I’m not that kind of tailor.  See I can’t lie to you, everyone lies, but in this life, I can never ignore you. It’s very bad for business. A customer cannot be calling me from morning to night and I won’t pick their calls. It’s even risky. It’s that type of thing that used to make people come to your shop with police. And I don’t like wahala.

When you say everyone lies…

I used to lie because customers don’t like to hear the truth. I’ll tell you that the cloth you want to sew will take two weeks, you’ll tell me you want to wear it in two days. When you know that no one can sew that kind of cloth in two days. Then I’ll tell you what you want to hear that the cloth will be ready in two days.  So that one I can confess to you, I usually lie, even you sef you know. But it’s still better for you to lie than to ignore the person completely. At least you will know that I’m working on the cloth and I haven’t run away with your money. 

I’m curious, what’s the worst lie you’ve ever told a customer? Do you remember?

There was one that I did last year, that I had to call the customer’s sister to help me beg her. See what happened. She brought one style that people usually use crepe to sew for me to sew with lace. As she brought it I told her sister they don’t use lace for this thing. She now started getting angry that if I don’t want to sew for her, I should give her her cloth let her be going. In this life that’s one thing you must never do, it’s like throwing money away. 

Do everything to keep your customers coming back. So when I collected the cloth, I thought to myself, I can still use trial and error to get the style. Only for her to call me two days later that the lace is 70,000 naira and I should make sure I don’t waste it. My sister, I didn’t cut the cloth again o. Anytime I want to cut the cloth I’ll remember I don’t have 70,000 naira to give anybody. But I couldn’t just call her to come and collect her cloth, so I started posting her. The bad thing I now did was that I’ll be telling her it’s almost ready. Until she came to carry her material back. 

But how does that help you keep a customer? 

It’s better for the customer to think I didn’t have time to sew her cloth than for her to think I don’t know how to sew. If I had cut the cloth and sewn rubbish in this life, she’ll never come back to me again. But as I didn’t sew it, she’ll see my number on her phone one day when she’s looking for a tailor and remember that she hasn’t tried me yet and then bring cloth for me to sew. It had happened many times. This particular customer I’m talking about, she still came back almost a year after. She’s a regular customer now. 

How did you start sewing?

I came to Lagos as a house girl in 2008. My madam, may her soul rest in perfect peace, asked my elder sister for someone to help her clean. By that time my elder sister was already in Lagos working with another madam, so she sent for me. When I entered Lagos, we negotiated salary she told me she would either give me 5,000 Naira a month or give me 2,500 Naira and put me somewhere to be learning trade or to be going to school. So I told her she should give me the 2,500 that I want to learn to sew. It’s not as if I even had an interest in sewing before then, it was my madam that really took out time to explain all the things I can learn and I chose to sew. So she took me to her tailor to learn. Her tailor wasn’t one of those pangolo tailors, she was a big madam with plenty machines. I learned how to do everything there up to embroidery. I stayed with my madam and the woman for 7 years until I met my husband.

What came next?

By that time I had already finished learning work. I went to my madam and I told her that I wanted to marry and I didn’t want to keep doing house girl work inside the marriage. She told me she understands that she won’t even let me. Then I now told her that I even wanted to do freedom from my sewing madam and start my own shop. My madam carried this thing on her head, she helped me do freedom party and was even the one that helped me pay half of the money for my first shop in Pako. After I left all her daughters cloth, she’ll be bringing them for me to sew. Before she died, I had started sewing her own cloth too. 

What has been your biggest challenge with your business over the years?

I’ve not had many stumbling blocks in life. God has been good to me, always sending me a helper at every turn. The only stumbling block I’ve had in life was my husband. Two years after I got married, he started displaying madness. I was going up and down looking for customers for my sewing business. Looking for money to expand my shop and he was telling me to sit at home. I told him I can’t sit at home, that it was not as if he was even making enough money to take care of both of us. That was how he started telling everyone that I’m a useless woman, that I was disrespecting him in his own house. House that I even paid the rent for the year he threw me out. 

Before then if I came back late from work he will lock the door and tell me to go back to where I was coming from. I’ll start trekking from Bariga back to my shop in Pako to sleep. Sometimes I’ll sleep before I wake up he would have taken all the money that was inside my bag. So I started hiding my money in the shop. One day we had a very serious argument, and I really gave it to him hot. He threw all my things out on the road, but even if he didn’t throw me out, me sef I’ll have left that day. I was tired. I slept in my shop for four months before I got one small self-con. 

That must have been very hard

It was very hard, I will arrange all the material inside the shop on one bench to sleep. Till today I thank God that he didn’t give me any child inside that marriage because my suffering would have been double. 

Did you want children?

I did o. We tried and tried, but I wasn’t getting pregnant. That was one of the things that used to contribute to our fights. He said I was preventing myself from getting pregnant because I wanted to focus on my business. 

Are you still at the shop at Pako?

Ah I’ve left there since it’s entering 5 years this year. I now have another shop in Sabo it’s three times the size of the Pako shop. I only had one machine in Pako. That time, if I wanted to do embroidery, I’ll leave my shop. If I wanted to do hemming, I’ll leave my shop. There were even some materials that if I used my machine to sew, it would spoil them. Let’s just thank God for God. I have one small land in Ikorodu that I’ve put foundation on so they won’t steal it. When I finish building it, I’ll rent it out, because I can’t move there. My business is here. 

What’s next for you? 

I want to continue expanding my shop. I have two girls that are helping me now. When they came they didn’t even know the difference between chiffon and silk. Now they can almost sew as well as me. So I want to get a bigger shop where I’ll be doing proper training for people that want to learn to sew. This my shop is too small for that. 

And your personal life?

I’m happy with my life like this o. Since I left my husband I’ve not faced man at all, I don’t have the energy. When I want to play with children, I collect my sister’s children. If God wants to drop husband in my life, my hand is open but I’m not going to look for. 

Toketemu Ohwovoriole

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