The itinerant tailor: Changing face of ‘Obioma’ business in Lagos
Gloria Samuel, a housewife, stood looking out from her veranda. She had just heard the familiar sound made by itinerant tailors and was out right on time to beckon on one of them.
The tailor, who was from northern Nigerian, approached the gate and Gloria let him in.
“Sit down there,” Gloria said, pointing at a seat close to the gate. “Let me get the clothes.”
The tailor settled beside the gate while Gloria dashed into the house to fetch the clothes. She soon reappeared with some which she heaped in front of the tailor.
After bargaining, the tailor got down to work, with Gloria watching to see if he was getting it right and calling his attention to areas that he ignored.
Done sewing, money exchanged hands after which the tailor took his leave.
Back on the street, he announced his presence to everyone by hitting his scissors repeatedly on the sewing machine balanced on his shoulders.
The itinerant or mobile tailors are a familiar sight in many parts of Lagos. Popularly referred to as ‘Obioma’, which literally means ‘Good heart’ in Igbo language, the mobile tailoring business gained prominence shortly after the Nigerian Civil War in 1970. It was dominated by the Igbo.
In a bid to survive after the war, some Igbo people made a living mending clothes. They moved from one place to another with portable sewing machines firmly balanced on their shoulders.
In those days, the ‘Obiomas’ were warmly welcomed into the homes of those they go to mend their clothes. They were not only granted access to the living rooms, but sometimes their customers shared their meals with them.
However, due to the high level of insecurity in the country, that access is now denied. These days, the mobile tailors are only allowed to perch on the corridors or around the gates of those who desire their services.
Ibiam Aruo, a 58-year-old tailor in Tejuosho market, Yaba, was one of those who worked as a mobile tailor in Lagos in the 1980s.
Dressed in combat jeans trousers, a T-shirt and a cap, Aruo, who said he was way older than all the tailors in the market, attended cheerfully to his teeming customers who trooped in to mend their clothes.
“I learnt how to sew in Aba and in 1984, I came to Lagos. Sewing was the only skill I had. I had no money to rent a shop,” Aruo said.
“Anyone I sewed for would ask me why I was carrying the sewing machine around and that I should go and look for shop. Seven years later, I rented a shop at Tejuosho market,” he narrated.
Time has, however, taken a toll on the mobile tailoring business. The Igbo who started the business have abandoned it and the Northerners who are now common sights around streets in Lagos have taken up the business.
Aruo said most of the Igbo who were previously engaged in the business took a bow when they rented shops, just like him, while others were forced to leave.
“I stopped mobile tailoring when I got a shop, but some people stopped when the Hausa people joined the business. The new entrants accept any amount of money handed to them. The customers would heap clothes for you but there was no money in it. The business became very cheap and discouraging,” he said, inserting a thread through the eye of a needle.
“It is very rare to see an Igbo mobile tailor today. Some have shops rented by them or their children who could not afford to see their father walking around. Some people have also left the business for another trade,” he said.
“This is where the ‘Obiomas’ are now. When people come here, we take our time and mend the clothes to their taste. Customers are sure of excellent services,” he said, smiling.
On why the mobile tailors were called ‘Obioma’, Aruo said it was due to their high level of patience.
“We are easygoing and we always take our time while sewing clothes to ensure that we satisfy our customers,” he said, attending to a customer who had come to mend clothes.
“We liked it whenever we were called ‘Obioma’. Sometimes, when the customer called us by that name even from the top floor of a building, we would climb up to meet them there,” Aruo said.
A lucrative business
At the Tejuosho market, Aruo said he makes up to N10,000 mending clothes, but sometimes it could be more.
“I charge between N200 and N300 to mend a cloth, but if it’s home service, the price is N500 per cloth. The customer will transport me and my machine to and fro his house,” he said as he handed a customer a cloth he had just mended.
“Some people prefer sewing clothes from the scratch but I don’t. While they are cutting the material, I would have mended five clothes and by the time they are done sewing, I would have mended 20 clothes or more,” he said.
Aruo got married and the marriage was blessed with three daughters. Unfortunately, his wife died in 2000. Again, when Tejuosho market was gutted by fire, his shop was one of those affected.
Rather than rent another shop, Aruo chose to pitch his tent under a tree by the railway at the market where he paid a token.
“I needed all the money I could get to train my girls to be the best they can be in life,” he said.
With the proceeds from the tailoring business, Aruo was able to singlehandedly train his daughters.
“My first two daughters graduated from University of Lagos. My first daughter studied Estate Management. She is married with two boys and resides with her husband in London,” he said.
“My second daughter studied Economics. Her result was impressive and she was able to secure a good job here in Lagos,” he told BDSUNDAY.
His third daughter, however, decided to toe his footsteps.
“My third daughter said she desired to be a tailor. She is doing well and owns her own tailoring shop here in Lagos,” he said.
Aruo said his children built him a house in the village and whenever he decided to quit the business, he would retire to his village.
“I am doing this job to keep myself busy because my children are always there for me. When I leave Lagos, I will go with this machine back to my village and to my church to testify of the Lord’s goodness in my life. For now, I enjoy what I do,” he said.
At 4pm, someone came in to collect N300 from each of the over 30 tailors in the cluster. The tailors paid happily, having made enough money for the day.
“We used to pay N700 as tax before but after we protested, it was cut down to N300,” Aruo said. “The touts representing the Lagos State government always come for the tax daily and since we all make enough money, we have no problem paying.”
Influx of mobile tailors from the North
Due to rising unemployment in the country, many people, driven by the need to feed themselves and their immediate families rather than passion, have embraced mobile tailoring.
Many of them, mostly from northern Nigeria, are coming into Lagos in droves and are being sheltered by their relatives or friends who work as security guards in the state.
When they move around, the noise they make when they hit their scissors on their machines announces to potential customers that they are passing by.
One of such people is Garuba Musa, a 35-year-old man from Kano, who ditched his job as a cobbler for mobile tailoring.
The father of two daughters, who lost his wife four years ago, said he is driven by the need to fend for his family.
“I left my children with my mother in Kano. When I make money, I send to my mother in the village to take care of herself and my two daughters,” Musa said.
“I learnt this job in Kano. I have done this job in Kano, Akwa Ibom, Port Harcourt, Calabar, and now in Lagos. I decided to stay in Lagos because the patronage here is encouraging when compared to other states,” he said.
Musa, who resides in Apapa, complained that patronage has been dropping in recent times. Pricing too, he said, has been poor.
“I sleep in an office in Apapa, where majority of people from my state stay. My customers used to work in companies but the companies have closed down. People don’t have work like before,” Musa said.
“A work of N500, someone will be bargaining for N300. A cloth I used to mend for N100, they price for N50. At the end of the day, I make about N1,000. If I am lucky, I make N2,000,” he said.
Musa said the mobile tailoring business was lucrative until recently.
“I was working as a cobbler in 2002 and in 2008, I started work as a tailor. Before, I was making money from the work but this Buhari time, it’s very difficult. If I see another job or business that pays more, I will quit mobile tailoring,” he said.
Kabiru, 31, is another person who joined mobile tailoring to keep body and soul together.
The father one learnt how to sew in Kaduna and then came to Lagos in search of greener pastures.
“I am one week old in Lagos, but I have been doing this job in Kaduna. It’s not about when you started but what you can do,” Kabiru told BDSUNDAY.
“My brother who is a security guard invited me to come live with him. I want to help my family through this business,” he said.
Ibrahim Sani from Kebbi State is also driven by survival instincts.
“I have been doing this job in Lagos for five years, not because I like it but that is what is available,” said 28-year-old Sani, who resides close to a mosque in Mafoluku, Oshodi.
“I live with my village people in the mosque. We are plenty there and this is what we do for a living,” Sani said. “Before, I used to make above N1,500 a day but these days, I struggle to make up to N1,000.”
All the mobile tailors who spoke to BDSUNDAY said they would love to own shops like other tailors but the economic situation of the country has not made that easy for them.
“When I make enough money, I will rent a shop and buy sewing machines but since I don’t have that kind of money yet, I will make do with what I have,” said Musa. “Because we move around, most people don’t take us seriously and they price us cheaply. Since we have no choice, we have to accept it.”
For Kabiru, some of them that walk around with machines sew better than those that have shops, but it is the bad state of the economy that has compelled them to remain itinerant.
Mixed reactions from Lagosians
Some Lagosians said they still patronize mobile tailors, while others said they are not pleased with the services of mobile tailors and prefer to take their clothes elsewhere.
Austin Ibegbulam, a security guard who has lived in Lagos for 40 years, said he patronizes mobile tailors very often because they come cheaper and are more convenient.
Ibegbulam said he has a steady mobile tailor, a Northerner, who does minor stitches on his clothes and that the tailor has always impressed him with his sewing.
“One of my clothes had a tear. I asked my mobile tailor if he could fix it and he said he could. He did a perfect job on it and that was the cloth I wore for a wedding ceremony on Saturday,” Ibegbulam said.
“Some of them are very good. They can do the work just the way other tailors do it, but you have to be there to direct them,” he said.
Laide Owolabi, a petty trader, said she engages the services of mobile tailors because their price is right.
“I call them once in a while to amend my children’s clothes. Some of them can sew while others will use your cloth to learn,” said Owolabi. “I always monitor them when they are sewing to ensure they get it right but their prices are very cheap.”
Chinedu Obiegbu, a computer scientist, said the mobile tailors sometimes come as a saving grace.
“On Sunday morning while preparing for church, I discovered a button was missing from one of the clothes I planned to wear to church. Apart from the button, the collar was torn. I was just thinking of what to do because tailors do not open for business on Sunday,” said Obiegbu. “Then, I heard the sound from a mobile tailor and rushed outside to call him and he fixed the shirt so well.”
“I don’t give my clothes to them to sew anymore because they are always in a hurry to move to another place and this reflects in the kind of work they do,” said Ebere Agwu, who sells clothes in a Lagos market. “My uncle was a mobile tailor and he built a house with the proceeds before he died because he took the job seriously, which the tailors of today do not do.”
Yinka Olayeye, a banker, said she quit using mobile tailors when they almost condemned one of her choice clothes.
“I was busy in the kitchen. So, I showed this guy what I wanted him to do. When he was done, I was furious because what he did was entirely different from my instructions. I ended up taking the cloth to a professional tailor who managed the damage,” Olayeye said.
BDSUNDAY findings showed that the snag with the mobile tailors from the North, sometimes, is language barrier. Many of them can hardly communicate even in Pidgin English and would gladly tell you, “English na small small” (“I understand only a bit of English language”). This may be responsible for the situation where they sometimes do the exact opposite of what a customer has requested them to do.
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