The Rise of the Merchant Princess

Dec 08, 2016

Ìyá Álaàfiá, aka Josephine Olaitan Thomas (nee Koya), was born March 29th, 1907 to one of the ruling families in Ìjebu Ódé.

Mama, Olori Josephine Olaitan Thomas aka Ìyá Álaàfiá. Date Unknown

I had always had the desire to write a book about my fraternal grandmother, as such whenever I go back home to Lagos, I would try to capture a bit of her story. During my 2013 trip home, I found her niece, Mrs. Candida Ebun Osho’s obituary. Her mother, the late Mrs. Augusta Aderibigbe Osilaja, aka Màmà Ajasa, was my grandmother’s older sister. She, in turn, was married to the great Chief Ignatio Washington Osiyemi Osilaja. Guessing from his name, he must have either been a Brazilian returnee, or descended from one. Ignatio was from Ìtá Ntebo, Ìjebu Ódé. He owned Ifeolu Printing Works, Kakawa Street, Lagos, one of the first wholly indigenous Nigerian presses which was located in Popo Aguda (Brazilian Quarters), on the same street as the famed Water House.

I grew up in Lagos as the granddaughter of Ìyá Álaàfiá. Ìyá Álaàfiá, aka Josephine Olaitan Thomas (nee Koya), was born March 29th, 1907 to one of the ruling families in Ìjebu Ódé. Her parents had four daughters of which she was the second. By the time she became my grandmother, she lived on number 6 Ogunmokun Street in the heart of Awolowo Market. The following is a conversation between my father and me on the subject of his mother. I hope you enjoy it.

Omoju: What was her business? Mó gbó pé she was the one that introduced Lipton tea si Nigeria?
Daddy: Lipton tea came to Nigeria, she was one of the most prominent distributors of Lipton’s tea. Because of that, because of her prominence, when they merged, when they did the indigenization, they sold more shares to her than any other person in Lipton.
Omoju: Ok, so who sold the shares? Unilever?
Daddy: Eh, Lipton’s
Omoju: Lipton’s
Daddy: Yes, Lipton’s, then, later on, Lipton’s merged with Unilever in the UK, and they thereby merged them together in Nigeria, she too became one of the big share holders of Unilever.
Omoju: Was she one of the biggest distributors of their products in west Africa, or just Nigeria?
Daddy: I wouldn’t say West Africa, but I know she was in the UAC, Lipton’s was eventually one of the subsidiaries of the United African Company (UAC), which is Unilever, sort of Lever Brothers, they published a magazine, and I remember once they featured her as the Merchant Princess
Omoju: I remember, awón oyínbó kan, I remember when we were growing up, there was this picture of her, pèlu awón oyínbó kan? Awón oyínbó yen, Ìbò ní won tí wá? Did she go over there? Tabí awón ni wón was s’ibí ba yíi?
Daddy: I mean, Lipton’s had an office at Apapa, then as sort of em, promoting their products, their trade, they invited her to come and visit them in England. That is where that picture was taken.
Omoju: oh ohhh
Daddy: She visited the home office of Lipton, in England, and she took a photograph with the managers of Lipton’s in England.
Omoju: Also, I remember, nì gba tí a kere, em, St Paul’s church came to interview her. And they wrote her up in the church magazine.
Daddy: Yes, because she was very religious. You know. Because, because of her connection, you know, she believes in the Anglican church’s preaching and their preachers, the Reverend, so she was very active in the church, and chaired it for so many years. She was the chairman of the harvest committee, you know, raising money, a lot of money for the church, the annual harvest, and for so many years she was a member of the parish council.
Omoju: So, at the time of her death, how much do you think, roughly, in today’s money, her estate was worth?
Daddy: Hmmm, [long pause], half a billion (Naira as of 2013)

Mama, Olori Josephine Olaitan Thomas aka Ìyá Álaàfiá. Date Unknown

Omoju: Half a billion naira, because she had many homes, lots of stock
Daddy: Yes, yes
Omoju: Her story is quite unique ó, te ba ró. For her to have amassed all that over the years.
Daddy: Hhén, because
Omoju: As a woman
Daddy: Yes
Omoju: For that era, or was it commonplace?
Daddy: No, listen carefully. I told you about how she came to Lagos.
Omoju: Omo Ìyáwo, for a wedding, for her sister’s wedding.
Daddy: Yes. Then she married her husband.
Omoju: Her sister? which one?
Daddy: Mr. and Mrs. Osilaja, Màmà Ajasa, you know, after coming to Lagos as omo-Ìyáwo for her sister, then she eventually fell in love with my Dad, and got married to him. And in those days, they were trading, importing goods from Europe, England to be precise. Importing things like sugar, all sorts of things, you know. It was so. They were so successful, that the first steam ship that came to Lagos, because she was one of the people that usually ordered goods, that came in through that shipping line they gave her a special ticket, which entitled her, entitled my father, inviting them to visit the steam ship.
Omoju: Oh ohhh, the very first one that ever came to Nigeria
Daddy: Yeah, because it was such a unique something, and then, later on, of course, my father being the King, got married to another woman, and then, that woman was supposed to join my mother in the trade. My mother was told to take in the new wife and continue trading with her, selling this, selling that, selling imported goods and on. But em, of course, being a legal this thing, Màmà wasn’t favorably disposed. She got annoyed, reported to her brother-in-law, are you with me, the Chief Osilaja, who advised her that, okay, if you can’t trade with the woman, trading for the family business, you know, then start your own. So he gave her the princely sum of two and six, which was a lot of money.
Omoju: Two pounds, six shillings?
Daddy: Two and six pence. Two shillings and six pence. Something like 25 kobo.
Omoju: Hmmmm, hḿń
Daddy: But it was a lot of money in those days. Are you with me? Omoju:Hmmm, And this would have been around 1940?
Daddy: Ah
Omoju: No, no, 1950?
Daddy: NOOOO!!!!! This must be around 1938, 39, 40, around there. Are you with me?
Omoju: Hmmmm, hḿń
Daddy: And she started trading. Dealing in textile at one stage, then, later on, switched to trading with the United African Company (UAC), selling all sorts of imported goods like stout, beer, soap, coffee, tea, etc., milk and so on and so forth. UAC, they’ve got this thing, UAC general goods. They import, you know, so many things, later on, it included cigarettes, you know, and there was em, she became the Ìyá Ègbé, for the oní sigá, (chair woman of the cigarette sellers association).
Omoju: For the oní sigá

Mama, in the middle flanked by the ègbé ní sigá on her 70th birthday. Date 1977

Daddy: Yes
Omoju: In Oké Arin?
Daddy: Yes
Omoju: Daddy, was there a market on water, ní Ékó?
Daddy: Market on water? How can a market be on the water?
Omoju: Ah han now, because those em water logged areas, bi iru Ìkosí yen ni ìsi yín, that they build all those canoes.
Daddy: Eh, hen. No, no, no, no. All Ìkosí, ehh Ìjedé, Ejìrín, would have their port. Where people would buy fish, sell, that is a constant part of the rural life.
Omoju: Hmmmm
Daddy: So, you know. And then, you see, it was while, later on, after trading for so many years, you know and them, she became so rich, she built so many houses, and so many blocks of flats, through her hard work, thus, emmmm.
Omoju: So she branched out into real estate?
Daddy: Pardon
Omoju: So she branched out to real estate
Daddy: Noo oo
Omoju: She diversified?
Daddy: No, it just, it’s a natural progression, for instance: when I came [broken off-trail of thought], she built her first building in Lagos at Ogunmokun, Mushin
Omoju: That was the first one? [with some surprise]
Daddy: Yes, of her own personal house
Omoju: Her own personal house, tí wón kó, with her own money
Daddy: Yes
Omoju: In her own name
Daddy: Yes, in her own name. Later on, she built one also at Ìjebú Òde, you’ve been there before.
Omoju: Yes, Hmmmm, hḿń
Daddy: Which we sold now, any way. Then when I came back from England, she hated the idea of me staying with Lai’s apartment given to her, se o ye é?
Omoju: The apartment given by the hospital?
Daddy: Hospital, so she quickly rushed and built Ikate, where I used to stay
Omoju: be ní sir
Daddy: You too stayed with us there
Omoju: Wait, wait, which Ikate? The one Mummy Shop’s shop, or the one Ikate, Ìyá Bayo’s, where they used to stay?
Daddy: Where Ìyá Bayo used to stay
Omoju: And that was the same street ti awón Fela nàa wah? (The great Afro beat Pioneer, Fela Anikulapo Kuti)
Daddy: Yes, Fela was opposite us.
Omoju: Okay
Daddy: Then from there now, she built another one across, next to the church.
Omoju: Yes, that became Mummy Shop’s shop.
Daddy: Then, later on, she had a house she bought, she didn’t build, she bought it from one building construction company. One Timber Company of Nigeria. Those are the houses at Odejayi street. At em.

Mama, in the middle, on her 65th birthday. Date 1972

Omoju: So Màmà nàa n’ilé ní Odejayi?
Daddy: Of course!
Omoju: Mo ro pé Kábíyèsí ní kán ni?
Daddy: Eh Kábíyèsí nì ilè ni Odejayi, Màmà ni, ni gbá yen, a man built those houses and was selling them on hire purchase at 700 pounds. So, Màmà bought one. It was all bush then anyway. Later on, she pulled that house down and built it into a three-story edifice.
Omoju: Oh ooohh
Daddy: So you see, and because she’s got four children, she went and bought another whole building at Tapa Street. And pulled it down and built a modern four bedroom flat there. So on her death, in her will, each child got a house.
Omoju: So who got Ogunmokun?
Daddy: Nobody. It’s for her estate. Its supposed to be used by the estate to, emmmm, she built a big, huge, complex in my father’s town, Agbowa Ikosi. You know, and she built one in her own, home town, Ijebu Ode, which we’ve sold now anyway. The one in Agbowa Ikosi is still there.
Daddy: Any way, you know, so, after trading, it was easy when the Nigerian indigenization
Omoju: Indigenization…, and when did that come to be, the late 60s?
Daddy: Hmmm, early 70s, that you have so many of the companies in European countries, especially British who have been exporting to Nigeria through the UAC, Unilever, decided to come down and as such to manufacture locally, which gave rise to Nigerian breweries, Guinness Nigeria, Lipton’s, Lever Brothers, soap manufacturing, you know, there are so many of such companies, you know. That they now decided to have local distributors, that is how she opted out to go and start distributing tea. That is how she became a distributor of Lipton’s in Nigeria. Distributing tea, cocoa, I mean coffee, you know, Ovaltine, and some things like that. You know, and then she did this for so many years, eventually she retired, and handed over to her daughter. What else again?
Omoju: Oh I was going to say emm, that Ogunmokun, there was a market, on that same street
Daddy: In front of Ogunmokun, yes
Omoju: Did she own the land of that market too? Because Ì lè yén, ó da be’n pè, ì bé lo wá
Daddy: Ehh, ka nǹi, this is the market, this is Agege motor road, this is Ogunmokun here, if you are coming into Agege motor road, you turn into Ogunmokun, then you have the market, extending from here to here, ìbí yí, nì wò kò Ogunmokun si. Ohún lò ní be yén. Ìjobá lo ní ìyén.
Omoju: But I know pé, ngba tí a kèrè, the people in the market used to come everyday to see Màmà.
Daddy: Ehn awón tí wón tá’ja ni.
Omoju: And she would feed them, she would do everything, every weekday tí wón nì òjá ní be, she would always do that.
Omoju: Can you tell me about her siblings? First of all, how is she related to Mrs. Shonibare? What is the relationship?
Daddy: Ok, good. Mrs. Shonibare is the first daughter of Chief S.A. Olukoya. Who is a distant cousin of my father.
Omoju: Hmmmm, hḿń
Daddy: The father of Chief Olukoya, happens to be the late Orebadegun of Odogbolu, are you with me?
Omoju: Hmmmm, hḿń
Daddy: And my father is also from Agbowa, the Abowa of Agbowa Ikosi, because of that, even Chief Olukoya’s father, the late Orebadegun, when he was going to be installed as the Orebadegun, they came for him from Agbowa Ikosi and took him back to become the Orebadegun.

. . .

At this point our conversation meanders to a cousin who was once fabulously wealthy and now is broke.

Daddy: If you keep spending money
Omoju: And don’t generate anything, they should have at least bought tons of shares globally. If you are not going to do anything, you might as well invest your money. Before you spend everything, ki o to tan.
Daddy: [Laughs] That’s, well. Ah, don’t know.
Omoju: That often happens with children of wealthy people
Daddy: Hmm
Omoju: Because the drive that made the parents wealthy, the parents now rob that drive away from their children. Ǹko tí o màn selè ní yen
Daddy: But my parents weren’t poor!
Omoju: No, but they had common sense. They were not trying to become high society people, and all these things. They weren’t trying to prove to other people how rich they were by spending money, buying cars, and sending their kids here and there. There was an email circulated amongst Nigerians, saying the Nigerians are one of the few people in the world, that will fly their children first class. Other people do not do it. Because they feel it’s just completely nonsense. They will fly the kids in coach.
Daddy: No. Let me explain to you. Kemi (my brother) for so long was flying economy, later on, I said, after he had passed, I told him, okay, to reward you, you can fly home in first class.
Omoju: But he was an adult, he was not a child
Daddy: Even when he was in University, there was no question of first class. Hmm Nigeria, we show off in this sense that, well so somebody like me now, I don’t know, Kemi would hate to see me in coach
Omoju: Because it is not comfortable and you’ve worked hard enough if you decide you want to fly first it’s your prerogative.
Daddy: Nooo let me explain to you. The only reason that makes me take premium economy that is business class or first class is the leg room. Apart from the leg room, I mean, look, throughout Agbowa and all that, I didn’t even take any wine, so what are they going to give me? Champagne? [Makes a farting sound] not for me. Are you with me? But that I can sleep, oh yes, fine. You get my point. And with the training of children, Màmà Álaàfiá trained all of us, because she was that rich and my father, the usual you know, had so many children, by the time my father died, there were 23 surviving children, who survived him. And so my mother trained all 4 of us. And the, em, she made sure that we too, trained our own children. As a matter of fact, there is an incident, when Kemi came out of secondary school, and went to St Gregory’s and took A-levels and passed. He wanted to go to England to go and study, so I said no, you study in Nigeria. [pauses] My mother said “NO. If he wants to go to England, send him.” We started arguing, in the end, he agreed when I said if he passed year 1, you will go on holidays to abroad, year 2, you will go on holidays again, year 3, the same, and year 4, you know, I’ll buy you a car. Okay. so when it came to year 4 now, I had already bought shares in his name, to enable him, and he said Daddy, where is the car you promised? Then I said, “no, no, no, no.” Don’t worry, I am happy you are studying accountancy, you know a car is a wasting asset, where as …
Omoju: But you had promised?
Daddy: Have got shares for you, look all these shares, I have got in your name, I’ll hand them over to you. So, but if you insist, I can sell all the shares, and give you a car. Kemi said “Oh yes, sell the shares and give me the car.” So he signed, anyway, eventually got the car.
Omoju: Did you sell the shares?
Daddy: I was going to sell the shares, but Mrs. Akande gave it to a stock broker and told them, sell half of this one, half of that, not everything. So he still had shares.
Omoju: Hmm, hḿń
Daddy: But my Mum was still so loving, and so, as far as education was concerned, Kemi went to Ibadan to do his youth service corp, when he came back, said he wants to do accountancy, I said fine. So, he got enrolled with Pitt Marwick.
Omoju: Hmm, hḿń
Daddy: Then all of a sudden he changed that he wants to go to England to do accountancy, and came to me. So I said, “no, no, no, no, no, no.” He went to my Mum, and my Mum said don’t worry, you will go. So my mother came to my house, at Aba Johnston, was with me till around 10:30, then she drove home to her own house. The following morning, getting to work around 8, I saw her car in the yard, I said “hey? what is wrong with this woman? Is she sick? What?” I got worried. When I got into my office, ah my secretary told me, “she is in your room, in your office.” Then I saw her sleeping on the couch there. So I said “Màmà, what are you coming here to do?” She said, “Hmmm, don’t disturb me, just carry on with your workú.” I said “ah, you can’t sleep here,” she said, “hén is there any law which says a mother cannot visit her son in his office?” So I said, “hén but this is my office,” I said “Okay, what exactly do you want? Let’s talk.” She said, “don’t waste my time, Kemi wants to go to England, he is GOING!” Exasperated, I said, “Màmà, I have sorted this out last night, DON’T START IT AGAIN TODAY!” She said, “ehhén, carry on with your workú,” so she started sleeping.
Omoju: So she occupied your office?
Daddy: Then around 10:30, people started coming in, they can’t really come in, because they will see her there. And so, I said “Màámí, you can’t do that,” she said, “ehhén, go and call the police to come and drive me out.” Then around 11:30 I said “ok, you win, I will do it.” She said, “Don’t deceive me Ó!, are you sure?” I said yes. Then she got up, she sat down, I said, “What do you want?” She called my secretary, “Stella, come in. When he wants to travel, what do you do?” Stella says “oh yes we use to write em something and take it to the travel agent.” She said “go and bring the book. Go and write, Mr. Oluwakemi Thomas, Lagos-London-Lagos, to travel tonight.”
Daddy: EHHH, so after writing the thing, she said “what do you do?,” she said, “Oga will sign.” “Give it to him.” So I signed. Then she said, “don’t worry about him, he can’t sack you, let’s go there.” So she took my secretary in her car, they went to the travel agent, got the license for Kemi to TRAVEL, that NIGHT. And that is how Kemi went to London. She made sure I did it, so I had to arrange for Lai (our step Mom) to travel about the third or fourth day, to go and meet him in London, to settle him nicely. That is my Mom, Màmà Álaàfiá. You know. So she doesn’t joke with education, training.