By Toni Kan and Kaine AgaryFarafina Magazine, Issue Nine
Under the Third Mainland Bridge, in the crook of sand that nestles between the reclaimed land and the sea, lies what is in many ways a billion-naira business run almost entirely by barely literate women who cannot tell the difference between gross and net profits. These women do not hold Bachelor's or Master's Degrees in Economics. They have not obtained MBAs from fancy schools with names like INSEAD, LBS or LSE. What these women have is business acumen, grit and what renowned business consultant Paul Stoltz has called Adversity Quotient (AQ), that ability to survive no matter the odds. These women are gin merchants. They receive the commodity in blue plastic barrels hauled across the seas from far-flung parts of Delta and Ondo states. They then retail them to traders who throng the market every Wednesday morning from as early as 6 am to purchase the colourless but potent alcoholic beverage, which comes in handy on cold nights and as a solute for the extracts in local herbal medications. This market is unlike many other markets. For one, there is no signboard announcing that this is a market where you can buy the most potent alcoholic beverage on sale in Nigeria. Is this absence of a sign board a relic of the past, a hangover from a time when the brew that is retailed in this locale was labeled illicit? And then there is the very marked absence of stalls like you would find in other markets. What you have here are waist-high boards and the ubiquitous blue barrels of ogogoro that demarcate each seller’s space. When you alight from the car and walk the 50 meters from the road to the market which is recognized officially as Idumagbo Jetty, you will see blue plastic barrels stretching across the expanse of white sand that is the market. Women dressed mostly in the traditional two-piece iro and buba sit around and chatter, waiting for customers or the boats which berth once a week to offload their cargo. To hear the habitués of this other world tell it, this market has been in existence for over forty years. In fact, forty years is a time line that keeps coming up each time you ask one of the traders how long he or she has been plying their trade in the crook of sand. Anna Dafio, an Ijaw woman from Ilaje in Ondo state is the only one who doesn’t invoke the magical forty years. She tells us that she has been trading at the market for over 34 years. “When I start to dey come this market, I be small girl. Na my mama I dey follow come and e don pass thirty-four years since wey I start to dey come here,” she says in lilting pidgin, her weathered face beaming. The women here want to talk. They are eager to draw close to the recorder the way Nigerians long-starved of access to telephones were eager to obtain cell phones at the dawn of GSM. The main commodities on sale at this market are gin and crayfish. Most of the women sell crayfish to pass the time. The commodity of choice is actually the translucent spirit that goes by as many monikers as there are drinkers. The names by which this drink is called include kai-kai, ogogoro, sapele water, push-me-I-push-you, holy water, akpavin, agaba, ogofi etc. But no matter by what it is called, those who imbibe are unanimous in their verdict that ogogoro is not child’s play. Made from palm wine, ogogoro emerges from fermented palm wine which is then put through a refining process that involves time spent on the fire before the fine spirit is distilled through a pipe connected to a boiling cauldron. What results is a highly concentrated and potent alcoholic beverage, which scared the living daylights out of the colonial administrators who put a stamp of odium upon it calling it Illicit Gin. But like in Prohibition-era America, the ban only made the spirit more desirable. “When I started selling this drink with my mother over forty years ago, things were not easy. You couldn’t sell it in the open like this and if you did, they would place a handcuff on you,” Iya Kike, a tall woman with a slight stoop says through an interpreter, a dark-skinned young Igbo man who is part of the crew. Here in the ogogoro market, Iya Kike is a legend of sorts. Sitting majestically on one of the windows of her boat, a sixty-foot vessel that makes the weekly three-day trip from Ilaje in Ondo state to Lagos laden with blue barrels filled with ogogoro, plantains, dried fish and other items, she oversees activities as goods are offloaded, traded, and moved. She doesn’t leave her boat; she doesn’t need to. Anyone who wants to see her walks the plank across from the water’s edge to the boat. She has been in the business for forty years. Iya Kike and her boats are the very important link between the producers and the market. “I started with my parents but they didn’t own ships. I have had four ships since I started building them. Two are retired now, but two are still active, this one and another in Port Harcourt which is operated by my child.” She says it takes three days to make the journey from Ilaje to Lagos and they pick up merchandise as they move through the creeks which the captain says has its fair share of pirates and robbers. “God protects his own,” Iya Kike says when asked whether she has ever been attacked by bandits. Asked if her late husband was in the same business Iya Kike says he wasn’t and that he had no reservations regarding the kind of work she had chosen to do. “When he met me, I was already doing this business with my parents,” she says with a laugh, then adds, “He came into it with his eyes wide open.” Despite the comfort, relative wealth and acclaim this shipping business has brought Iya Kike, she says she didn’t encourage her children to join in the trade except for the child running the Port Harcourt side of things. “I want my children to go to school. I don’t want all of us to be packed here in the same business like sardines. I want them to go to school and be able to drive limos and Hummer jeeps,” Iya Kike says with a glint in her eyes. In fact most of the women, when asked about their children, are uncompromising about their education, allowing that the children only help out with the business when they are on holiday from school. The market did not always look like it does now, with women marking their spaces with blue gin-filled plastic barrels; it used to have stalls but they were destroyed a few years ago. “Who destroyed the stalls?” “Na Tinubu,” Iya Kike says in pidgin before our interpreter can relay the question. “Why?” “I no sabi,” she says with a gesture of resignation. Even without formal structures, the Ogogoro market is organized in its own informal way. There is, as one is bound to find in any market worth its salt in Western Nigeria, a Baba Oja as well as an Iya l’oja. The Baba Oja is a well-fed man with a pleasant face and questioning stare. His office is set apart from the general populace by tightly-packed plastic barrels set under one of the low-hanging concrete structures holding up the Third Mainland Bridge. The structure is so thick and reinforced that you do not even hear the cars moving at speeds of 100kmph and more overhead. His name is Chief Phillip Jide and he says he is the chairman of the Idumagbo Jetty market which we take to be the official name for this unusual market. His unshod foot is on the table on which a small transistor radio is blaring out music of an indeterminate origin. He removes the toothpick from between his lips and fixes us with that questioning look. We want to know why a man is chairman of a market run almost entirely by women.Chief Jide laughs. “This is not a woman’s market o. There are men too,” he says pointing to a group of young men straining as they roll the barrels across the sand to the 'stalls' scattered around the vast expanse. “But you know how markets are, markets are comprised mostly of women,” he adds before telling us that the Idumagbo jetty is the headquarters of the trade in local gin. Further investigation reveals that the women are the final link in the supply chain. The men tap the palm wine, process it to make ogogoro, package it, and the women sell it. The women give the final grades to the product, testing samples collected with little bottles tied with string, which are dipped into the barrels of ogogoro. Different things such as the amount of bubbles created when the sample bottle is shaken tell the quality of the ogogoro and determine the grade under which it will be classified, Grade 1 being of highest quality, of course. “We have so many jetties but this one is the headquarters,” Chief Jide says, then adds, “Before you can trade here, you have to obtain a liquor licence. Then you can start trading.” He is one of the three men involved fully and officially in the day-to-day running of the market according to what Chief Mrs. Roseline Vince Oyakhilome who introduces herself as First Iya l’oja, tells us. “Una be press people,” she asks after we’ve introduced ourselves and when we say yes, she fires off another question. “Na which magazine una go put this tori?” Satisfied that our story will indeed get published, she gives us a round-up of what happens in the market. “I don dey sell market for here for over forty years,” she begins. “I small like this when I begin dey follow my mama dem come sell for here. When I still dey young dem dey wake me up make I come make puff-puff for the oyibo Julius Berger people wey build this Third mainland bridge.” Moving over to the barrels she uncaps one of them and let’s drop a small white bottle tied to a string into the barrel of gin. When she pulls out the bottle, its three-quarters full. The Iya l’oja then shakes the bottle before she takes a sip then holds it out to us. “This one na Grade 1,” she says smacking her lips and scrunching up her face. “If you wan sabi the one wey be Grade 1, you go put this tester inside,” she says referring to the small bottle. “After you don put am inside you go come shake the bottle. If e foam, then e no be Grade 1. If e no foam, na im be say na Grade 1 be dat,’’ she says with the mien of a teacher educating a headstrong child. The Iya l’Oja goes on to explain that there a wide price deferential between the Grade 1 and Grade 2. “If you wan buy Grade 2, dem fit sell to you for N12, 000. But if you wan buy Grade 1, you go pay N23, 000.” A quick calculation puts the amount of gin being offloaded that morning from the ships and rolled across the sand at about N2.4m if you calculate all of them to be Grade 2 or N4.6m if they are all Grade 1. Mama Kike is perched by the window of her boat, her wrapper tucked between her legs. As we approach her ship, she raises a hand to ward off the sun. The boat is bare inside, all of its cargo already offloaded. There is a mat, a ragged window blind and about seven small generators. “The generators are for light when we travel,” a member of the crew tells us. But why so many of them, we want to know. “If one no good, we go use the other one and sometimes water go enter ship and we go use the generator take pump the water comot,” another pipes up and then to impress us jumps out of the window and lands with a plop in the water below. Outside, by the gangway through which we have entered Mama Kike’s boat, six bare-chested men are struggling to get a long metallic object into the ship. We look closely and find that it is a propeller which had fallen off as they dropped anchor. As the men toil and grunt to get the obviously heavy marine component unto the boat, Iya Kike sits and stares off into the distance, seemingly oblivious to the commotion going on around her. After they have gotten the propeller in position without any incident, a man in a faded white tee shirt walks up the gangway and sits on a bench a few feet away from Iya Kike who barely acknowledges his greeting. One of the men on the ship tells us that he is an NDLEA agent. “We are stationed here because sometimes, they will smuggle drugs through this place,” he explains, then shakes his head when we ask if he has ever caught any one at the Idumagbo jetty. “No. But we have to make sure that the cargo is what they say they are supposed to be carrying.” Seeing how chummy he is with the crew, we ask whether he would really be able to make an arrest if one of them was found to be smuggling drugs. The agent smiles and gives a non-committal answer. “If I discover something, I will radio headquarters. Then they will take action.” A 4-litre jerry can of Grade 1 ogogoro sets us back by about three hundred naira only and three to four kilometers outside the ogogoro market a group of policemen stop us for a routine search. “Wetin dey inside this bottle? One of the policemen asks, pointing to the sealed keg of pure ogogoro. “Holy water,” we answer. “Una dey come from church?” he asks and we nod. “Go on, “ he orders, and we drive off with our jerry can of pure, grade 1 ogogoro, a.k.a. Holy Water.