Mama of Festac Town
The Mama of Festac Town is not one of those be-jewelled, over-dressed, over-painted preening faces you see hugging the steering wheels of sharp SUVs and doing all they can to be noticed. A grandmother and longtime resident, people call her Mama for just one reason. Working Moms found her where she dispenses her unique readymade snacks. Emjay reports…
Ask for Mama anywhere on 111 Road in Festac Town and you’ll be taken to not just any woman but a matronly 54-year-old from Sabongida Ora in Owan local government area of Edo state. Sit with her for close to an hour and you’ll get to know why she is the most famous woman around. She has one of the most enterprising and busiest roadside eateries in that part of Festac.
Dark, corpulent with an intelligent forehead and narrow piercing eyes, she is an embodiment of a working mother who has weathered all the storms that women face in life. She lost her husband when she needed him most, lost some of her children too. All through for more than three decades, she’d be there at her roadside fire, ensuring early arrivals had hot akara, yam, potatoes and fish to eat when she opened for business in the mornings. Years of exposure to searing heat, smoke, soot and ash from burning firewood have left their mark on her visage.
A few other women sell almost the same eatables as she does nearby. They bring out their wares and light the fire only in the evenings. But Mama is there all the time – morning, noon and night – known to neighbours and others who patronize her.
The only other place that possibly pulls as much of a crowd is Tantalisers Fast Food up the road on I Close along 21 Road. But then, where diners have a choice of pastries to select from at Tantalisers, you still can’t have balls of sizzling bean cakes or slices of scalding fried yam fresh from the frying pan handed over the counter. To buy those, people know where to go.
Every morning except Saturdays and Sundays, people troop to Mama’s shop like no other, buying ready-to-eat light meals of akara, yam and potatoes, different species and sizes of deep-fried fish, and chicken. Whatever you choose to snack on, and at whatever time of the day, Mama is ever ready to fill you up.
Students lead the way as early as seven in the morning to buy and nibble on their way to school or as lunch packs. Parents follow in their wake, snapping up balls of akara or yam with dollops of peppered stew for breakfast. Workers in shops and offices nearby come for their packages, too. Motorbike riders are never far behind – all of them coming to ask for what Mama knows best to do.
On the day we met and spoke with her, more than a dozen customers had come on foot. Most were young women, some of who might be university hopefuls, hair stylists or shop attendants.
Daramola Oriyomi, a 28-year-old accounting student of Rufus Giwa Polytechnic, Owo in Ondo state, not only stopped by but made short work of a moderate mound of yam and akara. He lives at Ketu but was in Festac Town on business that day and so decided, on a whim, to try out Mama’s snacks. Satisfied, Rufus did not forget to go with a take-away pack, either for colleagues at work, younger ones at home or to devour later.
Others came in smart cars and SUVs, taking deliveries through wound-down windows, women drivers showing courtesy by first greeting “Good afternoon Mama” to a food vendor they’ve known over the years. Late in the evening and up until past 10, Mama is still there tending to all sorts of buyers from within and outside Festac Town.
The houses on 111 road are not much different from the blocks of flats and shops scattered around the satellite community. But it is a popular road, made so by the number of pubs there. The pubs are packed full most evenings by young men resident in the area or those who come to visit.
Those who can’t afford to cook resort to Mama’s readymade meals. Those who can’t afford plates of chicken, fish or goat meat pepper soup sold in the watering holes also go to Mama’s to fill up after plying their stomachs with alcohol. And yet, most customers don’t even know her by name. To them, she is just Mama.
Born in 1946 to an Anglican family in the northern part of Edo state collectively called Afemai, Comfort Omonigho Gabriel met and married her husband (from the same town) in Lagos. Both lived in Ajegunle first, and then relocated to Festac Town about 1977/78 after bidding for and winning Flat 3, Block 6 on 202 Road.
“I start to de fry akara and yam for Ajegunle where me and my husband live before,” Comfort says in that ever so fluent pidgin common with indigenes of Delta and Edo states. Hubby worked with ICI, a pharmaceutical company in Apapa. Not just content being a homemaker, she kept herself busy by selling fried yam and bean cakes.
Being far younger then, Mama remembers waking up at about 4.30 or 5 every morning to go to Ketu/Mile 12 market to buy foodstuff like beans, yam and potatoes. By 7-7:30am she would’ve returned to prepare breakfast for her husband. By the time he leaves for work, Comfort would be almost ready to start selling to customers. By late afternoon when she is sold out, she’d be ready, yet again, for a different set of customers but this time women – to plait their hair.
Thus was she engaged five days a week all through their stay in Ajegunle, yo-yoing from one household chore with the feminine grace and vitality the female sex are naturally built for.
What seemed a lucky break for the couple came when they won the apartment in Festac. By then, Comfort had had her first child, a boy. Several more were born. Altogether she and her husband had 10 children, all of them boys. Once in Festac, she expanded her business by commandeering a space in her backyard on 202 road and quickly established herself as the number one ‘Iya Alakara’ in the neighbourhood.
“I even de sell rice join the yam and akara dat time,” Comfort adds. Her husband continued with his work. For the Gabriels, life could not have been better and the future brighter.
According to Comfort, she had a most understanding spouse who assisted with domestic chores everytime she was heavy with child or had just given birth. “My husband de wash napkins, cook for me, even de pound yam for me sef.”
The head of the family did all that without as much as a murmured complaint until his wife felt strong again to carry on as the homemaker, usually three months after giving birth.
But then, a string of calamities followed in quick succession. Her husband died. Mama was just 36. She was not long from mourning when one of her sons died. Two more passed on – one in an accident, Mama recalls with misty eyes, years after.
Where was she going to start from without her husband? How was she going to take care of the remaining seven children all alone with a business that didn’t amount to so much?
A lifeline came by way of benevolent neighbours and friends of her deceased spouse, particularly those who worked with the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) in Festac Town. To continue her business, they allocated to her two shops where she presently still is. They were not given for free though, and Mama says she is up to date with the rent.
Compared to the apartment in 202, the shops on 111 are much bigger and more centrally located. Along with bean cakes and yams, Mama sold fruits to students in the morning, which she hawked in their schools. In the evening, she would be ready with fried yam, potatoes and bean cakes. She sold fruits by the side. Little by little, her business grew and little by little, her reputation grew, too.
“If you come to this part of Festac and you say you’re looking for Mama,” a goateed male helper boasted, “they will bring you here.”
“I have known her in this business for as long as I have lived in Festac,” says Otis, a clearing and forwarding agent resident in 111 and once a regular at Mama’s akara joint before he got married three years ago.
“I don take dis akara weh I de fry train all my pikin,” Comfort continues, some up to university level. The last child, Lucky, is an accounting student of Lagos State University. Most of her children are married with their own children. Now and then, the boys come to assist her – wash, peel or slice the tubers. Still, two beefy, male assistants (Alex from Oguta in Imo state and Abdulrazak from Auchi in Edo state) work with Mama full time.
From one corner in a canopied plastic chair, she oversees preparation and sale of the items, collecting money and handing over change. From a bucketful of kneaded flour, she cuts round pieces of puff puff into a large frying pan already hissing with oil. After that, it could be yam or akara or potatoes, depending on how fast they’re snapped up. Behind her is a 25 kg gas cylinder, a sure improvement on choking firewood.
Speaking extempore with Working Moms, her attention is almost everywhere at once. Now, she tells Abdulrazak to mind the already browned puff puff in the pan. Next she rebukes Alex for making the yam slices too large. All the while, customers are coming and going. In between, she counts out the exact change, never short-changing herself or buyers.
There are no laid down rules obviously, but everyone seems to know what to do, from the granny employer to those who work for her. Mama prefers working with men because, according to her, “women no easy to work with, you no fit control them.” She remembers her first assistant, also a boy. He was so dedicated and close to her that those who didn’t know took him for her son. But after a year or thereabouts, he left, just like that.
Items on sale are affordable, from N10 upwards. But prices for the fish vary, from N50, N100 and N150 to as much as N200. N500 worth of sizable tubers can last for six weeks, Mama says. Some other items like pepper and onions are delivered right to her in the shop. Having been long in the business, frying akara and yam is almost second nature to Comfort but she admits that de-husking the beans and peeling yams give her no comfort at all.
These days, Abdulrazak and Alex handle such chores, leaving Mama to carry on in a supervisory role in a roadside business she started way, way back all alone in Ajegunle.
Give or take, Comfort hopes to stay two or three more years. At the moment, she is headhunting for somebody – since her children or their wives are not keen – to groom to take over from her. And by the time she eventually retires, the most famous Mama in Festac Town will be gone from her duty post, but her akara and yam will surely remain.