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The Nigerian fish market where gods and commerce meet | Global development

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Folasade Ojikutu wears a traditional white lace dress for her work at the lagoon dock behind Oluwo market in Epe. The small town is home to one of the largest and most popular fish markets in Lagos – and almost all 300 traders are women. Many are from families who have sold fish here for generations, and Ojikutu, 47, is their “Iya Alaje”, meaning the mother or carrier of wealth.

As she strides past a small waterfront shrine, dozens of women fishing waist-deep in the water chant and hail her, calling out “Aje”- in part a reference to the Yoruba goddess of wealth. Every day, hundreds of people travel, sometimes for hours, to buy fish at Epe market, as it is commonly known, where the spiritual and commercial merge. And the mainly women traders look to Ojikutu– who acts as an intercessor, praying for good fortune, alongside managing affairs at the market.

“It was the Ifá [Yoruba priest] that chose me, in 2016. He is the one that chooses the Iya Alaje,” Ojikutu says. Most markets in Lagos have an Iya Alaje, she explains, a market leader that is in some cases chosen by a priest, according to Yoruba tradition. “The day the Ifa came, I wasn’t here but he told them my name, my appearance, then they came and found me. I was panicking, weeping. I didn’t want it, I saw it as a burden. But the women insisted and here I am.”

In Nigeria’s complex religious landscape, blends of indigenous religions with Islam and Christianity are often demonised by mainstream clerics. Yet the enduring importance of traditional religious beliefs are seen in markets like Epe. For Ojikutu, a Christian in belief, and a Muslim by marriage who keeps two shrines in the market, there is harmony in her prayers to God and to Aje.

Folasade Ojikuti pointing out her ‘shrine’ at the back of the market, on the dock of the lagoon
Folasade Ojikuti at one of two shrines that she keeps at the market. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

“The Bible says your faith will make you whole. When I get to the Aje, I pray for good favour for the women. When I get to the mosque, I pray to God that our prayers will be answered. We call God here. We call God at the mosque, too. So we don’t need to criticise this at all, it’s our heritage.”

Bola Ajakorin, 57, is putting tilapia into ice bags. “This morning, [Ojikutu] prayed for us. That we will sell, that we will make enough to eat, to drink, to spend, to progress,” she says. “She will pray, and then we will shout, ‘ajeee oooooh’.” The women around echo her chant.

Bola Ajakorin has worked at Epe Market for 30 years, coming from a family of fishermen and women
Bola Ajakorin has worked at Epe Market for 30 years, coming from a family of fishermen and women. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

Ajakorin has sold fish at Epe for 30 years, taking over from her mother, whose parents were fishers, too. “It’s in our family to be here,” she says.

Like many of the women, she is the main breadwinner, supporting seven children and her retired husband.

“The women that you see here, they do it all. When we sell, we eat, we feed our children. Those of us that have mothers, fathers, we’re feeding them. Our siblings. That’s what we do.

“This job has been great for us, but it’s hard,” she says, describing how Africa’s largest economy has suffered in recent years.

Two recessions since 2016, rising food prices and the cost of living have pushed millions of Nigerians into poverty. “Things that people bought for 10,000 naira [£18] in Lagos are now 20,000 or 30,000 naira. Everything is expensive, so people have less money for fish than before,” says Ajakorin.

Most men are fishers, so the women have the role of selling their catch
Most men are fishers, so the women have the role of selling their catch. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

Mrs Abdullahi, 54, wears a green T-shirt and yellow wrapper and displays a fish almost as big as herself on her chopping board. “This one is even small,” she laughs.

Along the aisles, women cut and carry, some sitting high on top of freezers, peering down on their trays of fish and shrimp. They talk about how working at the market is in their blood.

“Since the time that I’ve been in school, I’ve been here, following my mother to the market,” says Abdullahi. “We’ve sent our kids to school, to university. And the little [money] that’s left, we’ve used for our car, our food, our home. You know the situation of the country. But we manage and we thank God.”

Mrs Abdullahi holds a large ‘Barakuta’ fish. She followed her mother into working at the market
Mrs Abdullahi holds a barracuda. She followed her mother into working at the market. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

Abdullahi says women have become the dominant traders because men demean the work, seeing fishing as more respectable.

“Men go and kill the fish, even women go and kill, too, but mainly men. But it’s the women that buy it from them. Men look at it like it’s dirty work, but for us, it’s not dirty work.

“If I get my fish, I can sell it here. I can drive my car and take it to Ijora [a settlement in Lagos], call my customers and tell them what’s on the ground – orange fish, yellowtail, catfish, tilapia. I have that freedom to go here and go there.”

The hundreds of market women with deep roots to the area form a support network, says 50-year-old Lawal Bolanle, who has sold fish at Epe since she was 15. “We do many things,” she says, including ‘ajo’ – a communal saving system, where people put a monthly sum into a shared pot, and one person receives that amount on rotation. “We join hands and help each other in different ways.

Oluwakemi Sanwo (left) and Lawal Bolanle
Oluwakemi Sanwo (left) and Lawal Bolanle. Sanwo’s husband died five years ago. Her job at Epe market enables her to provide for her seven children. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

“Among us, there are some who have other businesses. Let’s say a shop. They’ll open their shop. Then come here and sell fish, then go back, close their shop and go home. But most women in the market, we work and we don’t have anything else.

“Some have a baby but no husband. Or a husband who is sick or has died. But then you’ll come here, God will perform wonders, you’ll find food to eat, go home and attend to your children,” says Bolanle.

“We support each other. When an elder sister here comes to us and says she has a situation that is pressing, we will quickly call each other and say, look, we don’t want this situation to pull her to the grave. You can find money and say to a woman, here, take a bit, source fish to sell, to help yourself,” she says

Oluwakemi Sanwo, 45, has a modest display on wooden trays. She has cared for her seven children alone since her husband died of heart problems five years ago. “I don’t have parents, my mother has died, my father has died. My husband’s family stopped coming after he died. For my children, it’s me that is the mother, it’s me that is the father.”

The market women have been a strength, she says. “For example, my friend here, when she sells a lot, they will give me 4,000 naira, 5,000 naira. I’ll feed my children and keep some to buy fish to sell. Gradually, things are improving.”

The Oluwo Fish Market is popularly called “Epe market”
The Oluwo Fish Market is popularly called “Epe market”. In Yoruba belief, the market is a spiritual place. Photograph: Grace Ekpu/The Guardian

Islamic prayer beads, bibles open to psalms, candles wrapped with palm leaves, are laid on top of freezers and tucked in corners, behind trays or buckets of live seafood across the market. While at a shrine kept at the quieter far end of the market, a sacrifice is made in a small ceramic pot as Ojikutu kneels on a mat to pray.

“Of course, many pastors, imams, will say this is an evil practice,” Ojikutu says. “It’s the same God that we are worshipping. Everyone has a spirit. For some, their spirits will match together. Those with clean hearts, that work together, it’s from that which good things happen. That’s what we believe.”

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The Groucho

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