In Search of Alimotu Pelewura
By Femi Olugbile
A few days ago, on the 15th of November 2023, the public presentation of the book PELEWURA took place at the auditorium of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, Lagos.
It was also the culmination of a process that stretched over many years.
As a child, you lived a cloistered life. Movement consisted of school at All Saints School, Yaba, and Church at Holy Trinity in Ilasamaja on Sundays. On school days, you set out eagerly to walk to distance, preferring to keep your bus fare to buy fried dundu and coco with a splash of hot pepper sauce from the aganyi women near the school’s perimeter fence. On the way, you would pass by De Facto bakery, the highpoint of culinary delicacy in your child’s eye. The cup cakes and other pastries were beyond your reach, and you could only gawk and dream of a day when you would be able to afford such luxury.
Idiaraba was a poor community with a rich multicultural diversity that perpetually excited your child’s eye. There was a heavy preponderance of people from the northern region. Mallam Ilu who liked to play prank with the children, regaling everyone with laughter with his rotten Yoruba language. Mr Obela the fresh-faced Iboman who lived in one of the back rooms of the face-me-I-face-you house, liked to dress nice and sharp, and was a favourite with the ladies.
The real highpoint of life was when your mother came home from her travels. All the rules of living were relaxed, and you could not only exhale but savour almost every moment. She traded in household goods which she bought in Lagos and sold in Brazzaville, in the Congo. It sounded colourful and smacked of adventure, but the market women who plied that route, most of whom gravitated around her, lived a hard life, spending days buying their goods at Dosunmu market, bundling them up, and transporting them to the airport in Ikeja. The flights to the Congo and other francophone countries were irregular and unpredictable, and sometimes the women would spend days sleeping rough on the corridors at the airport, using their bundled goods as pillows.
When she was home hordes of relatives would descend from Lagos and Abeokuta. Mealtime for her consisted of eating food from a large platter. As people came, they would simply wash their hands and join in. You thought this was a privilege that should be reserved for her children. Every one of the visitors always seemed to have some money issue, and she would go into her room and come out with something for them. You told her grumpily that she was being exploited.
‘Is it your money?’ she would ask. And that was the end of the discussion.
You learnt over time that she was the go-to person for everyone in her orbit, whether they were family, or neighbours, or friends from Church. It was not just about money – they liked to be in her warm presence, to be advised and guided, or just to talk.
When you got to know Alhaja Abibatu Mogaji, she was already in her twilight years, and in frail health. She would greet everyone cheerfully as they came in, offering prayers liberally in Islamic and Christian mode. She was very up to date on matters in larger society, though she hardly ever left her room. When it was time to leave, she would reach under her pillow and hand almost every visitor an envelope. She liked to give, and because she would be offended if they declined, the visitors took the money. You could see how the market women who were always in attendance in her large compound venerated her. If your mind was inclined to wander sometimes how she had conversed with President Babangida and moved effortlessly in the corridors of power in Nigeria over the years, when she could barely speak English, the quiet authority she preserved in her mien answered your questions. She inhabited power. Language was merely a tool.
When you got to know Pelewura, it seemed only logical that the book you would write about her be dedicated to these two women.
The need-to-know Pelewura became an obsession because her name kept cropping up everywhere you looked. In the Pelewura market, at Isale Eko. In academic papers by sociologists writing on female activism and unionism in Nigeria, and homing in on the Lagos Market Women’s Association, and the battles against female taxation and the Pullen regulations to control the price and supply of gari in Lagos. The thread of a Herbert Macaulay connection which you uncovered along the way brought you face to face with one of the most colourful and complicated men you ever met – the son of a reverend gentleman and grandson of the first Nigerian Anglican Bishop who was also a Babalawo. He was at once bosom friend and gadfly to colonial officers. He was defender of Esugbayi Eleko and arrowhead of two epic, expensive legal battles in which the people of Lagos triumphed over the colonial government of Nigeria at the Privy Council, the highest court in the British Empire, with much of the war-chest in each case coming from market women.
Conversations with Historians, including the venerated PD Cole. A conversation with a living relative who really did not know much about his illustrious forebear. Rifling through documents at Lagos State Records and Archives Bureau (LASRAB), and perusing grey hand-written papers copied from the Colonial Archives in London.
The ‘Dateline Lagos’ series in this column were written as signposts on that journey – the Gunpowder Conspiracy, the devastating public animosity between two Lagos Big Boys – Herbert Macaulay and Henry Carr; the encounter at Balogun market between Pelewura at the head of thousands of market women, and a departing Governor Bernard Bourdillon, who got down from his car to shake her hand.
On Wednesday 15th November, the ship finally berthed, and the PELEWURA story was unveiled.