A Week in the Life of an Apprentice Tailor

October 4, 2022

“A Week in the Life is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.


18-year-old Susan* is learning to sew to keep herself busy during the ASUU strike. But in Nigeria, apprentices are at the mercy of their bosses. And Susan’s typical week is full of more downs than ups. Find out why tailors lie and how she’s making the best of the ASUU strike in this week in her life.

Graphic design with image of a sewing machine for an apprentice tailor

MONDAY

I like Mondays because they’re the most chilled days of my week. People have collected their dresses during the weekend, and even though sometimes, we receive clothes on Monday, it’s not plenty like that. I was looking forward to a chill day as usual, but my day started badly when I was harassed by street boys.

My dad asked me to help him cash a cheque on my way to work. The bank isn’t far from my house, so I decided to trek. On my way, I saw some men loitering around and thought it was the regular street boys that’ll leave you be as long as you mind your business. But these ones started catcalling me. It wasn’t my first time being catcalled — that one is normal in Lagos — but these guys were very aggressive to the point of touching me. I managed to break away.

I thought I’d be able to shake off the experience, but by the time I got to work, I was still shaken and I felt dirty. I hoped to just get through the day. 

Things were going fine until a woman brought in curtains and my madam assigned the work to me. I started on it, but there was a part that was very tricky. 

The thing about sewing is that it’s better to leave something alone than to redo it after making a mistake because mistakes only make the material worse. I’m still an apprentice so I decided to show my madam that part, but she was talking with the person that brought the curtain outside and I didn’t want to interrupt them. So I waited for her to be done with their conversation. 

But when madam stepped into the shop and saw me idle, she started shouting at me — she didn’t even give me space to explain myself. I was so embarrassed.

My day went from bad to worse. When I got home and showered, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about how if there was no strike and I was in school, something like this wouldn’t happen to me. It’s not like school isn’t easy but it’s just easier for me to blame it on ASUU.

TUESDAY

I’ve not recovered from yesterday’s incident and I didn’t even sleep well. But work continues, abi? So I went to work. 

Tuesdays are only slightly busier at the shop sha, because that’s the time people come with their materials and take measurements and we start working. So since I didn’t have much to do today, I had a lot of time to think about my life.

Even though I like fashion, I didn’t plan to learn the trade this soon. I’m only doing it because ASUU has been striking for more than six months now, and we don’t even know when it’ll end. 

I like fashion, but I wish I didn’t have to learn under these conditions. The former place I used to learn was worse than this. The complete trenches. I went there to learn fashion but would find myself in my madam’s house, washing her clothes, taking her children to school, cooking for her husband, and plenty more things. I stayed there for three months before I complained to my mum,, she pulled me out of there, but she’d already paid the apprenticeship fee.

This place I’m currently doing apprenticeship isn’t perfect, but it’s better. It’s closer to my hous,e and I don’t have to worry about the stress of entering danfo. But I’m tired, to be honest. I can’t wait for ASUU to call off strike. 

Everybody is like, don’t waste this time. Learn something new. But learning something new doesn’t change the fact that I’m stagnant. My mates in private universities are already in 400 level and me, I’m still in my second year. If there was no strike and this was just a normal holiday, I’d be more excited about learning a trade, But right now, I’m doing it because I don’t have a choice. I just have to do it, if not, I’d be idle. Maybe that’s what makes it feel less interesting.

WEDNESDAY

Wednesday is when the real work starts. The official closing time is 5 p.m, and on Monday and Tuesday, we close around that time. But from Wednesday onwards, it’s 6:30 we leave because there’s always so much work. 

It’s not like I can’t leave at 5 o, I’m just not comfortable leaving unfinished work. But no matter what, I’ll never stay beyond 6:30 because of security issues. 

Today, I learnt how to make peplums. My mum has a lot of peplum dresses and I’ve always loved them. used to think they were difficult to make. But today, when madam tailor was showing me how to make it, it didn’t even take her more than two minutes. After cutting the material, you just need to put a stale on the peplum, sew round it, and then iron the cloth.

Image source: Mynativefashion 

I made my first peplum, and it came out well. I was so happy because my week started so badly.

Every day I learn something new, and it makes my time here more bearable. By the time I got home, I had so much fun telling my parents and just knew I’d sleep well.

THURSDAY

Thursdays are extra busy because people want to get their dresses on Friday. Customers call non-stop to ask if their clothes are ready. It’s also when we lie the most because even if the clothes are not ready, we’ll tell the customers we’re done. We do this just so they’ll stop calling us every five minutes.

We’re all on edge on Thursdays because of the building tension that a customer can come at any time. It’s the day I make the most mistakes because I’m still learning to manage the pressure.

It’s also on Thursday that madam tailor shouts at her apprentices the most. I understand her concern, but sometimes, I think there are better ways to correct inexperienced apprentices sha.  It gets ugly when she starts laying her hands on people.

Like today, I was working on a child’s dress and was almost done — it was just remaining the hand. The problem is, I’ve not really mastered how to cut the hands of dresses yet, so usually, when I get to the hands, I ask a more senior colleague to help me out. I don’t have a personal sewing machine at home, so I fear I’m not learning as fast as I should. The tailor doesn’t allow apprentices to bring their own stuff to sew at the shop. So, other apprentices who have machines usually go home to practice.

But today, everyone else that could help me was neck-deep in work. I could have waited o, but I was trying to be useful. I said to myself that since I’ve seen people cut dress hands before, I could try it. I finished the dress and moved on to other tasks.

Around 6:15 p.m., when I was preparing to go home, I heard “KPAIII” on my back. I was already so stressed from the hectic day, so it took me some moments to gather myself. Then the tailor showed me the dress and started shouting at me. She told me it wasn’t her fault I don’t have a machine at home and called me all sorts of names. She kept beating me with that her hand that’s very painful. Me that they don’t beat at home. 

Shey I’d have left the unfinished dress for someone else. Me that was trying to be useful. Ah, ASUU, see what you people have caused. Please free me, let me go back to school.

FRIDAY

When I woke up this morning, my ears were ringing. Then I realised I still have to go to work today after the nonsense that happened yesterday. 

I wanted to tell my parents, but no. It’s not the first time and my parents are very vocal people. What usually happens is, after my parents call the woman to complain, she’ll apologise to them, promise to do better, and then turn around to badmouth me to other staff and apprentices in the shop. It’s funny because you’d expect them to empathise with me. Shey all of us are suffering the same thing? But no, they’ll join to badmouth me. 

There’s a kind of stigma that comes with being the one who snitches to their parents — they stop assisting me or sharing knowledge. And me, I’m at a disadvantage because I don’t have a sewing machine. When I look at all the problems that come with reporting, I wonder: at what cost? I’ll just bear it, learn my thing and go. 

The previous place I paid ₦70k for, the money entered bush. I don’t know how much my parents paid for this one I’m currently doing, but it’s probably even more expensive. And it’s not like my parents can terminate the contract and collect a refund. That’s why I endure.

Fridays are chaotic as hell. By the time we closed today, I’d put all the events of the week behind me but was too tired to trek home. So I took a danfo. I can’t wait for the weekend abeg. My family will be at home and now that the season has ended, we’ll watch BBN recaps and highlights.


Check back for new A Week in the Life stories every first Tuesday of the month at 9 a.m. If you’d like to be featured on the series, or you know anyone interesting who fits the profile, fill out this form.

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