In her struggle, Sarah Oguntolu, a single mother of six shines with hope.
From a dingy one room shop at Abesan Estate, Ipaja Lagos, Sarah Oguntolu smiles broadly as she struggles to walk across a gutter in her front yard. The tiny store serves as home and workshop for Sarah and her six children and one grandchild.
Sarah has been here with her family for about five years now. Severe as it is, it is a vast improvement from the open and dangerous uncompleted building which they used to inhabit at the Abule Egba suburb.
Sarah is a hairdresser, but her world of work begins before dawn each day, when she sets off for her hand weeding jobs in lawns and gardens in her neighborhood. She comes back, sweaty and panting, just in time to prepare her younger children for school.
After her own breakfast of dense white bread and water, she settles at the entrance of her store to wait for her first customer.
Sarah is very thankful for her hair braiding skills which she had learnt back in her teenage years at Oyo. She never knew her own father, and her mother being overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising four kids, sent Sarah off to work as a housemaid at the age of twelve.
“Thank God for my handwork” she said with a sigh. “I learnt how to make hair while working as a house girl. That is what is keeping me and my children alive”
Sarah ended in Lagos a couple of years later, and soon found love. She was only 18. The suitor was an immigrant from Cotonou who quickly made a marriage promise. Within a year, Sarah was pregnant with her first child. But marriage never happened.
The suitor instead relocated to Umuahia in the south east with his employer, leaving Sarah without any form of support. He was to return three years later when he was out of job and was sustained by Sarah’s income from petty trade and hairdressing.
Five more children followed in quick succession. “I endured every form of abuse. My husband did no work. He beat me at will, and abused me with his mouth. It was a very bad experience. I was too young and did not understand anything then”
After his constant threats to desert them, Sarah’s “husband” finally left her and the children in March 2016. Sarah had been surprised at the relief she felt. She had always dreaded the prospect of his leaving, in spite of all the abuses she endured.
“I was afraid of the shame. But now, I feel that I am free”
Now 42, and alone with the children, she firmly resolved to move on and survive. Her single room salon has become family business. All her children, including the four boys have learnt the trade.
With the income from the joint labour, feeding is assured and school fees are paid. “It has been very tough, but we have not missed a meal”
The surge of customers happens in the evening when the children are back from school. Weekends are especially busy.
“Our high quality and low prices attract the customers. We do all styles and we do them well. All-back, Bob Marley, Twisting, Ghana-weaving, melon, and all. We take half of what the established salons charge and that is why they keep trooping in”
Sarah and her children have lofty dreams in spite of their lowly status. Her eldest son Victor, has just finished high school and did exceptionally well in NECO. “He wants to join the Nigerian Air Force” Sarah said with a distinct glint of pride.
But it is not all rosy about the children. Her first daughter got pregnant for a man at the age of 21 and was abandoned by the man. The child is now part of Sarah’s family. This is particularly distressing for Sarah.
“It is a sad reminder of my own mistake. The last thing I want is for my daughter to suffer the way I did. I cried all night the day I discovered she was pregnant. And the man has disappeared”
Sarah lives for her children.
“They give me the reason to live. I wake up thinking about them and go to bed thinking about them. Sometimes my friends say I worry too much”, she added with a smile.
What about their fugitive father?
“I am beyond caring, I never told him to run away but if his eyes are cleared, and he wants to come back to his children, can I stop him?”
Sarah is sustained by her faith in God. A member of the Pentecostal flock, she is an active member of a worship community and even joins in evangelization and outreach programs whenever she can.
“I suffer greatly, but my faith in God keeps me. All I pray is the grace to do His will”
How about leisure?
“I barely have any time to rest or relax”, she said laughing. “But you know how it is with hairdressers and their customers. Lots of stories, jokes and gossip. May be, that is my own form of relaxation!”
Sarah’s most pressing need is accommodation. The single room shop cum home is a health hazard for her and the seven children. Finding food and water is still a daily struggle.
“Every penny we make goes to feeding, healthcare and education. We need more space for our home. That is not affordable for now. But we continue to work, hope and pray”
Sarah’s sense of hope is indeed infectious. In her eyes, only a bright future can be seen.
A future that lies in wait for this dogged Supermom!