She escaped her father’s oppression in Togo to establish a booming salon in Nigeria. Read the inspiring story of Winifred Aderohunmu
The sun shines brightly in the lively market town of Vogan, the capital of the Vo prefecture, in the Maritime region of Togo. But the sun does not shine equally for everyone. Not for Winifred Afanpenoudji, a scruffy and malnourished girl of 14 and her three younger sisters. Because of their gender, Winifred’s father refused to send her or any of her sisters to school. Winifred wept whenever she saw her peers in the bright uniforms of the public elementary school.
She would watch the students and their teachers go out to the school gardens to learn the names of the different plants growing there and to understand how they were grown. She would smell the sweet aroma of the school lunches prepared with some of the leafy vegetables from those gardens. Winifred’s father had no male child. And so, he went to bring the son of his dead brother to live in his family. His nephew was the only person qualified for education in the Afanpenoudji household.
That was 37 years ago. Today, Winifred, sitting on top of a thriving hairdressing business in Lagos Nigeria, recalls her escape from Togo and her extraordinary adventure in the world of work and business. “My mother has four girls but my father’s nephew was also living with us and my father said he was the only one that would go to school because women education was useless” Winifred’s immediate younger sister was sent off by their father to work as a housemaid in Lagos. The other two were sent off to Ghana for the same purpose. Winifred was left to assist her mother in her small potatoes trade in Togo.
“I was the one doing buying and selling and hawking for her. But I was not relaxed in my spirit, I felt my life was worth more than what I was experiencing in the village”
Winifred made up her mind to escape. The obvious destination was Lagos, where she had some male cousins. But it wasn’t going to be an easy journey. Without her parents’ knowledge, Winifred got introduced to a trafficking ring who shipped young girls to Lagos, to work as domestic maids. With the little funds she saved up from her mother’s petty trade, she paid her way and was set for the journey into the unknown.
The trip to Lagos was hazardous. Winifred was warned to travel light, to avoid the scrutiny of customs and immigration officials. Traveling through bush paths and dirt roads, Winifred and her group crossed the border on the second day and arrived in Lagos on Saturday, March 14 1987. She had just turned 14. Winifred knew no word of English when she arrived in the vast metropolis of Lagos. But her cousins were waiting for her. “You will be fine” they assured her. “There is plenty of work in Lagos” Her cousins took her into their one room accommodation at Itire Ijesha. From there, they operated a small-time dry-cleaning business.
Winifred’s cousins found work for her as a maid in a Lagos household. But the job lasted one week. They soon found a better opportunity in the Northern city of Kano and quickly dispatched Winifred to the North. But back home in Togo, Winifred’s disappearance had generated a family crisis. Her mother’s family held her father responsible and got him arrested. He was accused of having sold Winifred into slavery and was mandated to produce her.
Winifred’s father traveled to Lagos in search of her lost daughter, but by the time he arrived, Winifred had left for Kano. He returned to Togo, a broken man. The Kano job was a domestic job in the home of a man she remembers as Baba Shola. It paid N60 per month. Winifred spent about nine months on the job, but was not paid a dime. When she asked for her pay, she was told the money had been sent to her cousins in Lagos, who made the arrangement. Somehow, Winifred found her way back to Lagos. The same cousins got her another job at the Ilasamaja suburb at N70 per month. Again, the employer agreed that the salary would be given to the relatives in trust for Winifred. Again, ten months passed and nothing came to her.
In her third job, Winifred had become wiser. This time, she was paid N90 and directly. It lasted four years. By the fifth year, she had garnered enough experience and courage to seek to acquire a skill. Her employer agreed to send her to train as a hairdresser, but there was a little snag. A family member must serve as guarantor. Winifred went to her cousin, the only family she knew. But she was turned down. “He said that hairdressing was a profession for prostitutes, and refused to sign as my guarantor. I was devastated” In desperation, Winifred went to her employer for help. Happily, the woman consented. “I had been in her home for four years, and she could vouch for me. She therefore signed as my guarantor. We agreed that I would continue to work for her, while training as a hairdresser” Winifred’s apprenticeship lasted two years. In agreement with her employer, she left to look for a job as a hair stylist. She found a job in a salon owned by a Senegalese woman in the Surulere area. The job paid N450 a month – a large sum for her. But she had no accommodation.
Once more, Winifred returned to her cousin and asked for living space. But her cousin had not forgiven her for going ahead with the hair dressing training, and flatly turned her down. There was an option. The salon owner would offer her accommodation, if she would take N250 as pay. Winifred accepted, and her new career began. It was while she was in this new job that Winifred got her break. Somebody who knew her background approached her and asked if she would be willing to return to the job of domestic maid for a salary of N950 per month. This was almost four times her present salary, and Winifred did not hesitate.
The new employer happened to be a Nigerian/British “half cast”, married to a Ghanaian from the prominent Osebudu family. After a thorough vetting, which included medical tests, Winifred was hired. It was a dream job for her. She frequently accompanied the family to England and generous allowances were given to her in foreign currencies. She saved up and gradually bought equipment for her salon. At some point Winifred spent three continuous years in England with this couple. But just before this trip, she met and fell in love with Mr. Oluwarotimi Aderohunmu, a man that would be her future husband.
“Our courtship started before I traveled. He was a very good man. Before the trip, he asked me to marry him when I return. I happily accepted” While in England, Winifred initially sent her savings to her cousin in Lagos. But she realized he was spending it. Then she turned to her fiancé. He was honest and kept every penny for her. “When I came back to Nigeria after 3 years with the equipment that I bought from England, I was ready to start my own business”
Winifred opened her first salon at the Surulere area of Lagos. She called it Rolex Salon. With the hair braiding skills she acquired from her Senegalese tutor, and her top – notch equipment from England, she hit the ground running. She soon found bigger space at the ever-busy Alhaji Masha area. It soon became a problem to cope with the surge of customers. “That time at Masha, customers used to book for hotel rooms around my shop area so that they can do their hair on time because of the crowd. At a point I had about 30 girls working with me. To get a chance to do your hair in my salon, you had to book for it and also sleep at Killo Hotel so as to be able to come early”
Shortly after her return from England, Winifred was ready to get married to her heart throb. But the suitor’s mother would have none of that. “No Togolese in my household” she declared. In vain did her son and her husband try to get her consent. Finally, however, a compromise was struck. “My mother-in-law gave a condition that I must be pregnant before our wedding. It was a huge psychological challenge, but I had no choice”
The wedding finally took place, when Winifred was three months pregnant. The venue was Christ the King Catholic Church Ilasamaja, which was then run by American Jesuits. It was a very emotional event for her.
“When I was still a house girl and my madam’s sister wanted to get married, so they brought this new Peugeot 505 car to carry her, the way they attended to her and put a veil on her, hmmmm, I went to the kitchen and I told God: please I want this type of wedding. One day, let me too marry and wear white gown and cover my face with veil.”
Winifred shed tears of joy, when this came to pass on her wedding day. The pre – wedding pregnancy was eventually lost and it would take another three years before the arrival of the couple’s first child. The child, a boy, has just graduated from the Babcock University. His younger sister is in the same University while the third child is in the Federal University of Technology at Akure.
Winifred’s husband died after 22 years of marriage. “I miss him every day. He was my backbone. But God loves him more” Now 51, Winifred is eagerly looking towards retirement. She has nothing but gratitude for the Osebudu family who initiated the process of her transformation. “When I arrived Nigeria, I couldn’t recognize any letter of the English alphabet. As a house girl, when my masters children were reciting their nursery rhymes and the Arithmetic Timetable, I would join them, reciting the part that I could catch. Later, my madam- the half-caste got me lesson teachers. That was how I learned how to read and write”
Winifred had to diversify during the Covid – 19 lockdowns, when salons were shut. She ventured into the food business and also made a huge success of it. But her greatest joy is in service to the community. ‘By the special grace of God, I have trained not less than 100 girls in Hairdressing and more than 60 of them are already on their own. The girls who passed through my hands in this business, they formed an Association for themselves and called it: “All Glory Association” because I give all glory to God. So, when you call them; “All Glory”, they answer; “Belongs to God” That’s my slogan as long as I live.’ Winifred has not forgotten her roots. Back in Togo, she is the chairperson of the Women’s Association in her hometown. And why not? She was after all the first woman in the town to own a motor – car!
“I have refused to be bitter against my cousin who served me so badly. I have trained his daughters in hairdressing and they are all doing well. I am happy he now knows that hairdressing is not for prostitutes”, Winifred added with a smile. Winfred travels to visit her father in Togo and has bought a plot of land for him. “Unfortunately, my father’s nephew on whom he lavished his attention, is now a drug addict who is always threatening to kill my father. My father married another wife and now has his own sons. I am
paying their school fees”
Winifred has gone to a Bible School and ministers in her local church in Lagos. She is a strong advocate of the rights of the girl child, especially, the educational rights.
“Everything goes wrong when you deny a girl her right to be educated. I managed to survive by the special grace of God. But no girl should be made to suffer the way I did.” Winifred is already showing others the way to go. Her only daughter is being educated at one of Nigeria’s best private universities.