Voices and Visions of Nigeria: “Iya Seun”

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Nigeria's ongoing general elections have placed it in the news in recent weeks – a blend of hopeful and depressing news. Politics is a 'grand' theme, and generally partial to generalisations. Broad strokes are inevitable – Nigeria as a country divided into a “largely Muslim North and a largely Christian South”; Nigeria as a “rich country of poor people” and land ripped apart by “post-election violence.”

It occured to me to present a portrait of an ordinary Nigerian, one of the multitudes of people who have, in an unprecedented demonstration of optimism, been trooping out since the beginning of April to cast their votes in the hope that they will have a say in the shaping of their future.

This woman you're about to meet is not rich. She's a 'struggling' Nigerian (one of tens of millions), and a hardworking one. Most importantly, she is not a “victim” — i.e she will not inspire your pity — despite the seeming toughness of the kind of life she has to live. I met and interviewed her three years ago (April 2008). I have no idea what she's up to today, or if she still sells food at that spot. The only thing I can say for sure is that not much has changed in Nigeria's economic circumstances, between then and now.

The hope is that the politicians being elected at this time will seek to bring genuine transformation to the lives of people like Iya Seun, and make it easier for them to live comfortable lives in the country they call home.

***

Lagos is the Land where the Sun Never Sets on the Hungry Human Stomach. Every vacant spot in every business district cries out (successfully) for occupation by a woman – or band of women – armed with firewood, giant steel pots, and a talent for kidnapping the affections of human stomachs.

Iya Seun (“Seun's mother”) is one of them. She makes a living selling fried yam, fish and bean-cakes (akara) next to a wall at one end of Olosa Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. I imagine that the smoke from her “kitchen” mingles happily with that emerging from the luxurious kitchens of the nearby 5-star Eko Hotels – evidence perhaps of the classlessness that distinguishes smoke from the human existence.

Iya Seun 3

There are two questions on my mind as I speak with Iya Seun. I want to know why she doesn’t have a constructed stall (the standard makeshift affairs that dot the streets of Lagos, most commonly made from corrugated iron sheets, or wooden planks). And then I want to know why she operates a minimalist kitchen, offering “fast-food” instead of the more formidable local staples – Amala, Eba, Fufu – and even rice.

I soon discover that both questions have the same answer.

KAI.

“Kai!” is the Yoruba equivalent of “Don’t!” or “Stop it!” But in this instance it has far more forbidding implications. “KAI” is the abbreviation for the “Kick Against Indiscipline” Squad, the dreaded Lagos anti-vice squad known for harassing street traders and carting off their wares on a journey of no return.

It’s easier to run from KAI when all you have are a few easy-to-grab “fast-food” bowls – one sitting permanently on fire, for frying; others to hold the food items as they await frying. With proper food like Eba and Amala you would require expansive pots of soups and of assorted meats. There’s no fleeing anywhere with that.

Iya Seun’s customers are from all strata of society – office workers, drivers from the nearby taxi-park, commercial motorcyclists (who abound everywhere in Lagos), motor-mechanics. She doesn’t open for business until 11a.m. everyday. This is news to me, food vendors in Lagos usually have to rise well before dawn so they can be ready for the first batch of customers as they make their way to their offices. In her own case she says she has to go to the market every morning, to stock up for the day’s business. I ask why she can’t do her shopping less frequently. She says she’s got nowhere to store goods, so she has to make the Victoria Island–Mile 2 Market trip every day of the week. With the crazy Lagos traffic, it’s a daily ordeal.

‘Mile 12 to Ketu sometimes takes up to 2 hours,” she says. This is a journey that should normally not take more than five minutes. And, sadly, KAI, storage space and traffic are not her only challenges. She has to squat in Sandfill, a nearby Victoria Island settlement, for days at a time, since it is closer (to where she sets up shop) than her house, where her family resides.

In the midst of these challenges, how does she manage to be happy. Her greatest joy comes from the wellbeing of her family. “My children are my happiness,” she gushes. And of course, every day that passes by without KAI harassment is a further notch on the scale of joy. And then, she chooses not to work on weekends, instead spending the days resting, house-cleaning, taking care of her family, or attending the occasional owambe.

She has four children, all at school, and her husband works as a welder. He was the one who brought her to Lagos, from Abeokuta (the sleepy town about a hundred kilometers north of Lagos) where she grew up, about thirty years ago.

Her location was not the only thing that changed when she got married. Her church denomination changed too. She grew up a member of the Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim Church (C & S), but followed her husband into his Celestial Church of Christ, CCC (also a “white-garment church” like the C & S church) when they got married. She tells me that she likes her church because they are very caring and supportive. I surmise that this is what inspires her generous spirit – she says she doesn’t hesitate to give food to the boys who sometimes hang around her joint. Even customers who order food and then find that they don’t have enough money often get waivers. “My generosity doesn’t mean my business will end up in loss,” she declares. “It is God who blesses.” Her confidence is infectious.

She does have reason for that confidence. “Business booms in Lagos,” she says. “There’s money in Lagos.” And she’s got hard evidence. From the proceeds of her 8-year-old business she has built (and rented out) a house, a “face-me-I-face-you” in Sango, a mushrooming suburb in the neighbouring Ogun State; and she contributes regularly to the education of her children. When I ask her what she spends her profits on (apart from replenishing her food stocks), she replies “School fees.”

Iya Seun 2

I have one last question. I have saved it till last because of the saying that “A lady never tells her true age, and a true gentleman never asks.” I do not have the confidence to shed my gentlemanly toga until the end of our encounter. “How old are you?” I finally ask. She pauses for a moment. “Forty-five…” she says. “But don’t write forty-five. Write forty.”

Maybe she’s a fan of Oscar Wilde. He it was who quipped “One should never trust a woman who tells her real age. If she tells that, she'll tell anything.”

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