Just before the lockdown in 2020, Bunmi Oyebamiji-Ojo was trudging across Solomon Lar Way towards Sandralia Hotel in Utako, Abuja to resume work as usual when her phone rang.
Bunmi, 48, sensed trouble when the caller turned out to be her supervisor. Earlier that morning, she had a premonition after her morning prayer but was unsure what it was about. At the time, she worked as a cook in Sandralia Hotel, Abuja. She had noticed the guest count dropping on the white board in the kitchen, briefly after her supervisor had joked about a strange disease sweeping away customers.
With just a primary school certificate, Bunmi’s knowledge about the pandemic was made up from titbits of conversations with colleagues. From the little she gathered, she knew the virus’ outbreak could mean trouble but she had no idea about the context since her colleagues compared it with the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which Nigeria had nibbed in the bud fast.
She helplessly watched things change in a flurry of events that culminated in a nationwide lockdown. Nigeria recorded its first case on Feb. 27, 2020 and by March 29, the cases had risen to 97. In April 2020, the country entered a full lockdown alongside other countries. Bunmi was not immediately aware that the pandemic could affect her source of livelihood, until that morning.
Ending the phone call, she stood motionless. “Only for a short time,” her supervisor had promised. Like many Nigerians, Bunmi sensed that things would never remain the same.
Bunmi’s shock soon transformed into panic when the lockdown restrictions were lifted and she still wasn’t called back to work. She told HumAngle that at first, she had no serious fears since she was good at her job and her supervisor had promised that things would go back to normal. Life with the job was not very pleasant but the N26,500 salary she earned for a morning to night shift, went a long way for the single mother of two. With it, she squeezed resources for herself and her son, Mayowa, an undergraduate at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomosho, Oyo State in Southwest Nigeria.
Due to the lockdown, Mayowa could not leave school and was stuck. Bunmi’s inability to send him support allowances and provide for her 80-year-old father broke her heart even more. Soon, she exhausted her meagre savings and decided to cut down on food, eating only tuwo shinkafa (a traditional staple made from rice in Northern Nigeria) without soup. Soon, Bunmi had to move out of her house because of her inability to pay rent. She then moved into an uncompleted building, which the owner graciously let her have.
Just before the pandemic, Nigeria was struggling with massive debt burdens, under-funded health systems, conflict, food insecurity, inflation, and gender-based violence. Pre-covid era also saw global oil prices plummet to all-time lows, and then the country lowered its daily crude oil production, resulting in an economic fallout. The situation, exacerbated by the pandemic, threw millions of Nigerians out of work.
By the second quarter of 2020, about 21.7 million Nigerians were unemployed, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in a report released in August 2020, two years after its last data on unemployment rate in 2018. Unemployment rate rose to 27.1 per cent, up from the 23.1 per cent recorded in the third quarter of 2018. Bunmi was one of the 12.2 million out-of-job women.
“I was at my lowest point in life. Hunger was biting hard. There was nobody to turn to. Despite my terrible condition, my siblings, both young and old, kept asking for help from me without knowing what I was passing through. Mama Abuja, give us this and that. That was all they usually say,” she told HumAngle.
After waiting five months without hearing from her former employers, Bunmi went in search of menial jobs. She got a part-time job as a construction labourer. For N1,500 daily, she would lift up concrete casts on a scraggy bamboo ladder, and carry steel beams to and fro. On weekends, she would run laundries and house cleaning for other people to shore up the little money she got from construction labour.
In her lone moments, she would wonder if she was doomed to be one of those people who spend their lives trying things. “From being a young photographer to cooking, then labourer and house cleaning, I have suffered a great deal,” Bunmi said, reminiscing on her journey.
She became a single mother at 18 and had to figure out ways to care for her children, leaving her thriving photography business behind. From passing time cooking for her children, she took up a culinary skill. It later earned her a place at the Sandralia hotel kitchen. Bunmi had come to Abuja 12 years ago with hopes of reconciling with the father of her children but found out that he had married someone else.
Menial labour and now, vendor
It was the engineer at the site Bunmi worked that urged her to start a food business to serve the workers. The construction work was becoming too stressful for her and it did not seem sustainable. She sought help from a church member and in Feb. 2021, she set up her food stand. This is nearly a year after she was laid off due to COVID-19.
A United Nations report in September 2020 on the economic toll of COVID-19 on women, notes that “the impacts of crises are never gender-neutral.” The report says women have been disproportionately affected, financially, by the pandemic. It finds that industries that predominantly employ women have been worst-affected; women’s paid labour and women-run businesses are hardest hit, and the gender poverty gap is projected to widen.
Bunmi’s new place – the uncompleted building – is only available till August after which she is expected to move. She currently makes N18,000 a month from her business and plans to start putting money aside for a new accommodation. Filled with hope that she can navigate this new normal, she told HumAngle that she has decided to choose happiness.