Working Just To Pay Medical Bills? This #NairaLife Is About That


March 2, 2020

Today’s story counts the costs of what life is like living with illnesses like fibromyalgia and Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.

#Nairalife stories require a lot of time to make. It’s why partnerships like ours with Barter means a lot to us. Barter makes it ridiculously easy to pay bills, send and receive money to people you care about, and help you create Virtual Cards. Where you’re Android or iOS, you’re invited to the Barter party.

Where would you like us to start? 

It would have to be when I was a kid and my dad died. You know this thing when you’re a teenager and they don’t want you to know what’s going on? Yeah. 

Things got so hard, and there was no greater evidence of it than that time my mum sent my older sister to the market to go buy stuff.

My sister came back with ₦10 change, and my mum collected it from her. That was when I knew. 

Ahhh, I get this.

Man, things were rough after popsy died. I remember getting ₦600 to take to shop for school and use as pocket money. I just bought garri, sugar and milk. This was in the year 2000, and I just started SS3.

This was also around the time that everyone started to sell their jewellery – my sister and my mum – just to fund hospital bills.  

What was your dad’s cause of death? 

Headache – that’s all the hospitals said everywhere we went. The tricky part was that my mum had to leave her business to take care of him. That meant that she couldn’t earn. Then after he died, she couldn’t work for a while, so more money problems. We were living in a government house – my dad was a civil servant – but when he died, we had to move. 

How did you fund that?

Someone bought us a house. I think it cost 10 million at the time. 

Mad o!

Yeah. Brother-in-law. It was in an estate. One of our family friends bought his a few years later at 14 million. When he sold it less than 3 years ago, it went for 70 million. 

It’s a duplex with 5 bedrooms and boys quarters. But yeah, my mum still had to hustle to put food inside the house. We didn’t have to worry about rent forever, but at least, we needed money, so the grind continued. 

Did this push you to want to start making money? 

That feels like the natural thing right? But not for my mum. University wasn’t an option. I tried to gain admission – I wrote the hell out of JAMB – but I was home for like two years. 

All the time I spent at home, I was helping her with her fabric business. I mean, she paid me once in a while, but she mostly paid me with “AM I NOT FEEDING YOU?”

I eventually got into University in 2004. Now, an interesting skill I’d already picked up while I was in secondary school was sewing. 

Tell me about that. 

I wanted to start sewing for people, but my mum didn’t want me working, so all I did in 100-level was sew for myself on the weekends. But people wanted it. Do you know what I wasn’t giving? 

What?

Value for my work, hahaha. People might compliment me and instead of me to charge them, I dashed them. I just knew I knew how to sew, I just didn’t know how to charge for it. I sewed a shirt for my boyfriend at the time.

Did he pay? 

Nope. But he made all his friends pay. Then I started charging like ₦2,500 per piece and people were paying. That’s how I started making money. Then I started getting more gigs, like bulk gigs and making more. 

There’s this job I did then, but I can’t remember what it’s called. 

Try. 

You know those events that they organise, where you bring people from other schools abroad and do a big ass event? 

Like a student fair? 

Yes! That. My memory is a mess. Anyway, I might not remember what it was called, but ₦10k a day for being an usher? I can’t forget those days. I used to eat at Mr Biggs’ every time I had those gigs. 

What else fetched you money when you were in uni?

I was the last born, so I used to do the rounds with my older siblings, and then I’d skip the stingy ones. You know, all that “oya bros send me money na”

I left uni in 2009 and got a job at a fashion house.

How much did it pay? 

₦25k. But then I got another one-month contract with another fashion house, then I called my boyfriend to tell him about it. I told him I was going to ask for 50k. 

What did he say? 

“Ask for ₦120k.”

That’s how I asked for ₦120k, and we settled at ₦100k. I was like, wow someone is confident enough to give me 100k for my work. All I did was sit in a room and design. So I started juggling this gig with the other one.

What happened? 

As soon as my 1-month, 100k contract ended, my main employer added 10k to my salary, and I started earning 35k. 

I think most importantly, that 100k gave me the confidence to go and start my own business. I was going to pour everything I’d learned from working in fashion into it. 

By the end of 2010, I took the jump. 

How did you fund it? 

My mum sold her car for ₦258k. Then I took my ₦100k and poured everything into buying machines and materials. Well, not everything. 

I’m listening.

The plan was to stock up on materials and hire tailors. That’s how when it was time to buy materials, my mum said: “I don’t have money to be spending please!”

I was like wooooow. I thought you said it was for the business! My dreams! Hahaha. 

When I think about it now, I think I might have been too entitled. 

Anyway, I started with about 7 machines and set up at the house. 

What’s your day like running a clothing business? 

If your business is mostly bespoke like mine, you’re going to have to go to the market a lot. You’re going to have to collect measurements and listen to what they want. Because my business is run from the house, I also have to deal with my mum every day. 

And my tailors. Ahhhhh. 

Ahhhhhhh. 

Hahaha. Because I wanted to keep people happy in the beginning, I was designing a new dress for every customer that came. 

I think I might have made up to 100 dresses in 2011. I can’t remember – the only reason I remember the business is 10 years old is that I had to make a dress for my friend’s wedding and her bridesmaids. 

How did you find customers? 

I’m shy af, so word of mouth did it for me. My happy customers told their friends, and that’s what has kept my business alive. 

Not to brag, but I know I do great work. It just doesn’t feel as important to me as it feels for most people. I got nominated for one award. I was supposed to reply a message confirming my nomination – I didn’t respond, hahaha. 

Tell me about how money moved when you started. 

Imagine earning ₦25k a month, then becoming a person that was making dresses and earning ₦25k. In one day. Hahaha. Do you feel me? I was never a rich kid, so seeing money like that burst my brain. 

What’s the highest amount of money you’ve invoiced in a day? 

600-something-k. This was a few years ago. Around that time, I also started to fall sick a lot. 

Why? 

Stress. The demand increased, fashion was changing, and my customer base was growing. Also, my business never really had a structure, so I failed on the business end of things a lot. I think it was around this time that I first started feeling symptoms of fibromyalgia. 

What’s that? 

Imagine spending eight hours in traffic. Do you know how tired you’ll be? Then imagine you have malaria. Then imagine that before you got in that car to get into traffic, you got beat up by the police. Also, someone had a cold, and sneezes, so you catch that cold. And then you so much anxiety. And then, you’re sad. 

That’s what fibromyalgia is. It’s perpetual pain in your heart, mind and soul, and body hahaha. It’s also eating at my memory. 

 I think I spent over a million naira on medical bills in 2019 – tests, admissions, consultations. Then there’s also PCOS to worry about. 

What’s that? 

I first realised that something was wrong was in my secondary school. My friend saw her period but I didn’t. I think it’s different for people, but for me, it mostly manifests in my period cycles. I menstruated thrice in 2019. 

Then I’m treating Gastritis. Started in 2019. You know what, let me you all the things I’ve treated since the beginning of 2019. 

First of all, what and what have you treated in the past year? 

Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome. Fibromyalgia. Possibly asthma – a doctor called it intermittent asthma or something. Gastritis. General allergies. Sinusitis – fluid builds up in my sinus and my face starts to hurt, allergies trigger it. I’ve treated all kinds of other things like malaria, typhoid, stomach infections, UTIs, throat and chest infections, migraines. And all of this is because Fibromyalgia has weakened my immune system.

Let’s play a number game. How much do you think you’ve spent on these in the past year. 

Let’s say out of 12 months, I was sick during 10. The lowest money I’ve ever paid at any hospital ever was ₦12k. I was shocked, ehn? Only ₦12k. I normally spend nothing less than ₦30k to ₦50k per visit. 

One day, I walked into my room and there were papers everywhere. Receipts. Receipts from medical bills. Pharmacy receipts. Consultations. Everything. It felt like I had so many papers that didn’t feel productive. It upset me. 

So I packed everything and tore it all up. I did this December 2019, but it wasn’t even the first time I’d done such. 

When was the first time? 

I was sick a lot in 2014, the stress came from everywhere – relationship, work. It was a lot. I think that’s when it really started. 

Do you think your Fibromyalgia started then? 

I don’t know, because if you ask me what happened in 2013, I don’t remember it. Anyway, those receipts piled up in 2015. My sister paid for me to go get checked in the middle east. I went, nothing. By the time I got back, I had so many receipts that I was bagging them. I didn’t get a diagnosis then. 

When did you eventually get a diagnosis? 

Mid-2017. In the US. I was on my a family member’s Insurance. Now, it’s either I’m spending my money on a medical bill or saving up for the next medical bill. 

Let’s talk about last month, how much did you spend, and on what? 

I put myself on a ₦200k salary. I spent ₦120k on my car’s gearbox, then I spent the remaining on my medical bills. I actually started tracking properly in 2020. 

Let’s break it down. 

From mid-January till mid-February, I was visiting the hospital – went at least six times. Treated Malaria, Sinus infection, some asthma, UTI. I’ve also spent ₦133,180 altogether. 

Woah. Why haven’t you considered health insurance?

Isn’t it run by the government? I have no trust in those people. I can’t be dealing with my stress, and then have them add their own to it. 

No no, there are a lot run by private companies. 

Ah, I always thought it was run by the government. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve never had a structured 9-5. I’m definitely going to look into it. 

Back to you, what do you honestly wish you were better at? 

Saving. But how can I be saving when I need the money to do something. I need a Glucose Guardian. Write it there please. Give them my number.

What do you imagine life is like 5 years from now? 

I don’t have any plans. I just want to be happy. I don’t want to be sick anymore. Because my immune system is so weak, every visit to the hospital feels like a last. I honestly can’t even plan long term because what really is the point?

It’s my only fear about Coronavirus – my immune system is a mess. 

This question is a formality, but how would you rate your financial happiness? 

Hahahaha. It does not exist. 

Okay, let me be an adult. There are things I need and things I want, and I’ve learned to know the difference. My needs aren’t a lot. I just want food, I need to communicate, so data. I want to be able to pay my bills when I fall sick. 

I make noise about wanting $3 billion, but I honestly don’t know what I’ll do with it. I’ll probably buy a house where the oxygen is different from all of you’s oxygen. 

So, that’s it. 

What’s something you bought recently that improved the quality of your life? 

Diclofenac, hahaha. That shit is good. That’s one drug I don’t want to abuse so that it never stops working. The weed used to help with pain, but not anymore. It just helps with my mind. 

The weed? 

Ah yes, I smoke weed to help with the pain. 

So how much did you spend on weed in say, December 2019? 

I’ve bought ₦70k weed since. Basically, my dealer sells 2 rolled up blunts for ₦2,500

Aren’t your painkiller cheaper? 

It’s cheaper, but then painkillers don’t kill the pain in your mind. Last year, I realised I wasn’t using weed as a painkiller but as a mind-numbing device. The amount required to help with the pain has increased over time. So now, it’s my fuck-it drug. It’s safe to say I’m addicted. 

I don’t think it’s easy to be a drug user in Nigeria without being addicted. The stress will send you running back to it, every time. 

This question is not about money, but why do you show up every day? 

I love making nice dresses. I really do. Also, I have (medical) bills to pay. 

Check back every Monday at 9 am (WAT) for a peek into the Naira Life of everyday people.
But, if you want to get the next story before everyone else, with extra sauce and ‘deleted scenes’, subscribe below. It only takes a minute.

Every story in this series can be found here.

Find Zikoko
wherever you are

Zikoko amplifies African youth culture by curating and creating smart and joyful content for young Africans and the world.