Wale Adebanwi on Mama HID (9)


“I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; Ils have no weight, and tears no bitterness.

Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if thou abide with me.

—“Abide with Me” – Henry Francis Lyte (1847)


Opening her first proper shop IN Gbagi market, in what later became the Central Business District of Ibadan in the early 1950s was a result of intense and long-term negotiation between Hannah and her husband, who had become a minister and Leader of Government Business in the colonial Western Regional Government. Since his return from England, through doggedness and fiscal imagination, the business of Mama Segun (Segun’s Mum) – as her husband now called her – had expanded. She also diversified the business from buying food-stuff from the north of Nigeria into importing women hats, shoes and bags (which she had done in the past as a spinster), as well as dress-making and later importation of textile.

Gbagi market in the late 1940s and early 1950s Ibadan was one of the most dynamic markets in late colonial Nigeria. It grew out of the new European Business District as Ibadan entered the modern age in the 20th century. The first European-owned commercial house opened in Ibadan in 1900, and by 1901, Ibadan had become the hinterland terminus for the Lagos Railway. With the railway, other European-owned firms came to Ibadan from Lagos and were granted leasehold on land for an annual rent of five to eight pounds (5-8) per-acre. The area in which these new firms opened business was at that point the northwestern outskirts of the old city, near the Railway Station at Dugbe. When the Europeans started pegging out the boundaries of the new plots allocated to them, the people of Ibadan were struck by this unusual way of delineating land that they named the area Gbagi – which in the local language meant “to peg” or “pegging”. This area in the early 20th was a farmland. It grew to separate the “old and the new centres of social and economic life” in the city, that is, the eastern and western areas of the town. People from neighbouring Yoruba communities, the Ijebu (-Remo), Egba and Ijesha, settled at the western margins.

Eventually, Gbagi and its environs attracted “a constant stream of immigrants”. Thus, it became a modern central market for local and migrant Nigerian traders as well as the Lebanese and Europeans who sold wholesale to Nigerians. This Gbagi Street (renamed Lebanon Street in 1935) and the New Court Road formed the nucleus of the Gbagi Market, which was dominated by wholesale business owned by Leanese, Indian, and Syrian merchants like Chellaram’s, A.J. Tangalakis and Zard’s and European-owned businesses such as CFAO (Compagnie Francaise de I’Afrique Occidentale), John Holt, Ollivant’s, PZ (Paterson Zochonis), Russell’s UTC (United Trading Company), AETA (African and Eastern Trading Association), Gottchalk’s, Lagos Stores, Maclver’s, Miller Brothers, and the Niger Company, the last six of which merged into UAC (United Africa Company) in 1929. Together with the near-by Dugbe Market, founded in 1919, Gbagi in the Central Business District (CBD) became the commercial heart “which pumped the economic life into the body” of Ibadan from the 1920s on. By the late 1940s, the CBD had become a veritable money-spinner for anyone who did business there.

Mama Segun wanted to be part of the transformations in the city’s economic life.

The compromise reached between husband and wife when she wanted to rent a shop at Gbagi for her business was that she would hire an assistant to run the shop; she would manage the business from their home in Oke-Ado – the then middle-class area of Ibadan, the northernmost part of which was increasingly called Oke-Bola. The area had grown as a result of the arrival of railway at Ibadan in 1901. Even this compromise required a lot of persuasion because as he became a prominent lawyer, politician and even political office-holder, Obafemi Awolowo increasingly resisted his wife’s commitment to work, particularly trading. The kind of genteel, upper middle-class life he had envisioned for both of them and their children seemed to have been challenged by his wife’s obligation to contribute to the family’s income through her business. Yet, his protestations were restrained by his memories of how her enterprise and fiscal prudence had not only guaranteed that she and their four children lived decently while he was away in the UK, but also ensured that he received occasional financial support from her.

Though convinced that he was now in such a financially-strong and stable position to take absolute charge of provisioning for their home, Mama Segun’s insistence that she could not abandon her considerable network of customers and her aversion to inactivity meant that he had to agree to let her continue with her business. However, he could not countenance with wife of the Leader of Government Business and a lawyer of stature becoming a “market woman”. It was because of this that she agreed not to sit in a store to direct the business herself. She would recruit a lady who had been a housekeeper for her to be the “market woman” in Gbagi. She would be the brain behind the business and do all the transactions regarding importation and payment from home, while the lady would sell the wares to customers in Gbagi…

“He first opposed my trading”, H.I.D Awolowo tells me in her soft voice in the living room in their Ikenne home where we are surrounded by photographs that chronicle their many decades together. “He said when he was in the UK, he understood why I had to be trading, but since he returned and he was fine, I needed not bother… He was later happy that I was trading; that my business helped the family; that it also helped him to be able to do what we needed to do. He regretted that he was going to stop me from doing business….”

Obafemi Awolowo had first considered setting-up his law practice in Lagos, but the couple later settled for Ibadan where they already had a home and a city they both knew well. This was good news for Hannah for a number of reasons. One, she had become an important member of the Methodist Church, Agbeni. Given her devotion to a Christian life, she was happy that her husband will return fully to the Christian fold and perhaps never waver again. Throughout his time in the UK, he didn’t attend any church. It was only upon his return to Nigeria that his “oscillation between agnosticism and Christianity ended” because Hannah “stood immovably” for Christianity. As Awolowo latter confessed, Hannah’s constant admonitions and steadfastness did more than anything else roe strain me from going beyond the point of no return”.

From then on, they shared a strong belief in God and prayers formed the deepest basis of their mutual love and life. Also, she was happy about Ibadan because she could easily expand her business there. That he was doing so well in his law practice that he assumed that her business exertions were no longer needed did not bother her much. She knew she would overcome his objections in the fullness of time.

Obafemi Awolowo was called to the Bar in London on November 18, 1946, as member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. He returned to Nigeria the next year to the embrace of his wife and four children, Olusegun, Omotola, Oluwole and Ayodele, the last of which was born while he was away on December 29, 1944. Tokunbo, was born after his return on February 20, 1948. After Tokunbo, they lost a child owing to some problem. Hannah’s grandmother had insisted on one more child after Tokunbo. This was an age when, all things being equal, couples had an average of six children.

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