A truck driver had been shot dead up ahead earlier that morning by armed robbers leaving the truck to block 3 lanes. We sat predominately still for almost 3 hours moving only a few metres every so often. (Thought I should kick the post off in a very dramatic Nigerian fashion).
Most people got out of their vehicles and stretched their legs, some walking up to 4 kms to meet their bus or car on the other side. Others sat sweating (from heat and fear) knowing full well that slow moving situations like this + lots of travellers + lots of luggage = the possibility of more armed robbers. I tried to play it cool and calmly hid my master card in my shoe, my phone in a seperate bag, my laptop under the seat and divided my cash up into 3 locations. Then I sat back, took out my locally brewed palm wine stashed in an old water bottle and dreamt of better days.
After 3 painful hours and a nights stop over in nearby town Owerri, we made it to Aba welcomed by my Father’s cousin who would be our charismatic navigation system through this bustling town. I was ready for action! I couldn’t wait to see the famous Bakassi and Power lane of Ariaria International market for myself and witness firsthand what I had been reading about for so long. Nigeria’s own little China where anything and everything could be replicated. Unfortunately fate would have it that I would fall sick with Gastro and not recover for 4 days. But hey, I lost a couple kgs and I had plenty of thinking time so I took that one in my stride.
When I finally made it to the famed Ariaria market, rain had swallowed up most of the roads (like it has done many rainy seasons before), but of course that didn’t stop anybody - everyone just swapped their thongs for gumboots, rolled up their pants and kept going. There were rows and rows and rows and rows of workshops and alleys upon alleys of more workshops dedicated to creating women and men's shoes, bags and belts. I saw every kind of shoe, knick knack, shiny embellishment, rope, heel, sole, lace, buckle, Nora sheet, lining, tassel and leather - I was in awe. I was overwhelmed. Versace, Zara and Nine West even made the occasional appearance and you couldn't tell the difference (until you peered in real close and noticed Zara’s logo looking a little suspect).
Aba is predominately home to people from the Igbo tribe and many are very proud of the heritage and history, (like most tribes across Nigeria). My father is from this tribe and I’ve always loved watching the banter and teasing that goes on between our people - not to mention the heated arguments followed by boisterous laughter. Us Igbos are known for our distinctive love of business and of course money, money, money - and this market was living proof of that innate hustle.
Most men in the market worked in suit pants and a wife beater with their fancy shirt hanging up on a hanger behind them for when it was time for them to shut up shop. They crafted bag upon bag and shoe upon shoe, from 2 inch - square toe conservative mum heels to hot pink 6 inch - let's hit the town pumps. The passion and dedication to their craft and can-do attitude is what got me the most. I sat and chatted for hours with some of the workers and was thrown into the economic, political and personal tales that took place while tunes from Flavor, Tekno and Wizkid played in the background and sweat built up on the brow. Everyone knew someone who could do what another couldn't and the familial vibes were real. Whatever I gave them to work on, they took it on with enthusiasm (and as per usual a little confusion towards my “weird” designs).
I was ideally hoping to see more women working in their own workshops there but it wasn’t so. Female shoes and bags are dominated by mens hands and apparently require a “heavier touch” with the comment made that women “weren’t able to do such things as shoe and bag making because their hands were too soft and they complained at the work.”
I took a sip of water, bit my tongue and decided how I would calmly and respectfully respond to these statements. I also thought about possible solutions and opportunities. I also looked down at my soft hands and realised I needed a manicure.
Without the help of some local heroes such as my Uncle Anthony and Max I wouldn’t have been able to navigate from A to B or even get up off that floor when my Gastro filled self was all kinds of sick, sad and sorry. Its people like this that you meet on journeys like this that remind you that your dream is real and important. I've been so thankful to witness these episodes of selflessness that show what being human and humble is really all about, truly bringing out the beauty of my journey.
This pit stop wasn’t an easy one, but it was necessary to see what manufacturing options were available to me and the brand and how an underrated abundance of talent is right at my fingertips in Nigeria. It was also necessary to see the high number of women who were absent from the industry which I was unaware of.
I’m hoping that Nigerians will continue to move towards supporting it’s locally manufactured goods and building up on this viable industry instead of opting for imported goods. I also hope the Government will look at investing more in this manufacturing economic hub which I’m sure generates a massive amount of revenue after Oil and alongside agriculture.
Until next time, back to Lagos I go.