They come from the same town in Eastern Nigeria, do the same business on the same road in Lagos within a whistling distance of one another, dispensing exotic flowers whose scent entice customers by the dozen. Michael Jimoh sniffed out the four sisters of Adekunle Fajuyi Street recently…
You don’t have to wander lonely as a cloud to be dazzled by a host of flowers fluttering and dancing in the breeze. You don’t have to be the narrator in Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” to be easily enchanted by a colourful crowd of gardenias and fuchsias, golden palms and yellow ficus and Izaras.
Rather than floating far and above the golden daffodils, this reporter was here on earth, smack in the middle of a long stretch of flowers along Adekunle Fajuyi Road, one of the most popular streets in GRA, Ikeja. The man who the street is named after was the first military governor of Western Region.
A veteran of the Congo peace mission in the nineteen sixties, Fajuyi was, in the parlance of the day, a no-nonsense military officer what, in modern times, can be likened to an officer and a gentleman. Appointed by General Aguinyi Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military head of state, Fajuyi ruled for only six months from January 1966 to July of the same year. In the counter coup of July 1966, Aguinyi Ironsi was a guest of Fajuyi at the state house in Ibadan when a detachment of northern officers led by Theophilus Danjuma and Shehu Yar’Adua tracked down Ironsi and killed him.
According to historians of the time, the soldiers spared Fajuyi. He would, they assured him, not be killed along with Ironsi. Myth has it that Fajuyi politely declined, insisting that there was no way his guest would die in his house while he would be alive. The mutineers granted him his wish and so killed him along with his guest.
Adekunle Fajuyi Street in a reserved and exclusive part of Lagos is meant to honour a gallant officer who was supposedly even more gallant in death. Stretching from Leventis Bus stop along Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way past three famous pubs down to Ladipo Bus stop on Abeokuta/ Agege Motor Road and then terminating at Ladipo Bateye Street, Adekunle Fajuyi is one of the longest within GRA. It is also one of the busiest because of its very location.
Hoping to bypass the perennial gridlock at Oshodi, drivers of transport companies such as God is Good Motors ply it as a shortcut to their terminus at Iyana Ipaja. There is a swish, fresh-coated private nursery/ cum primary school along the road as well as a rundown public primary school.
The street also boasts Femi Falana Chambers, Properties and Human Rights offices. There are unremarkable offices and residential buildings along the street, also. Most of the structures are gated thus depriving any looker – or criminal – access to the main compound. But what strikes the first timer most are the rows and rows of flowers occupying a good part of the thoroughfare, stretching from around Oduduwa Way/ Adekunle Fajuyi junction to Ladipo Bus stop. You cannot miss them, their sprightly dance on any breezy afternoon, beneath ancient and mighty almond or mango trees, stretching in a never-ending line not along the bay but a canal.
There are a dozen species of palms in their nursery or already potted ready for buyers. There are even more of hedge plants like Maraya, some in their nursery plastic cover and others grown to more than a foot readymade for fences. Elsewhere, some are already budding with pinkish or reddish flowers just waiting to blossom.
The flowers’ most important nutrient (rain) has been in abundance these past months so the deep green plants and their budding flowers is understandable. Walking the length of the flower beds, it is impossible not to take a second glance however much you dislike flowers. Even a blind person going by might be tempted to twitch his nose in appreciation of the pleasant smell, though it is sometimes mixed with the putrid stench from the canal which nurtures the flowers during dry season. Still, it is a sight as delightful as Wordsworth’s daffodils and just as they inspire that “bliss of solitude,” Gaguin would have been bowled over by the flowers at Adekunle Fajuyi as he was by the tropical brilliance of those in Tahiti.
I have never been a flower person myself. My knowledge of flowers is limited to hibiscus and one or two others we studied in biology practical and a stunted aloe vera somewhere in a decrepit vase where I now live in Oregun. But once I saw the neatly arranged beds on Adekunle Fajuyi and their horticulturists forever nursing the shoots until maturity, I was interested. My interest naturally grew when I was told all the women come from the same town of Nkporo in Abia State. Some had even attended the same school but gone their separate ways thereafter only to reunite in Lagos.
Today, they do the same business and on the same street! Sisters Act First of the four sisters is Joy Iheanacho, a fiftyish handsome woman with near Oriental features. She is fleshy and big-boned like an average Igbo woman who takes her nutrition seriously. But what she has devoted her life to mostly these past years is grooming a variety of flowers for the never-ending line of customers who patronize her daily. Though not the first of the Nkporo sisters to begin nursing and selling flowers at Adekunle Fajuyi, she has shown as much commitment as a seasoned florist in any pricey boutique around. Joy knew nothing about flowers in the beginning. She was a fruit vendor at Oba Akinjobi Street in the same GRA. That was in 1992. Next to her was a florist or horticulturist.
Though Joy sold pawpaws and pineapples and oranges and apples, the sight of the nursery beds were simply irresistible. “I liked the assortment of flowers and the way they were arranged,” Joys says, on how she was drawn into the business. “That was what attracted me. I didn’t know the names but I learned on the job and was catching up little by little.” Little by little, Joy started her flower business in the same place where she dispensed fruits. From the first few seedlings, her nursery grew to more than a hundred and then after sometime, she was tending over a thousand potted plants. By 2001, she had to relocate to where she currently is because of space constraints and then her business just went boom. Like the rest of her colleagues on the street, her knowledge of flowers increased with time. And then, she studied agricultural science in school.
In her words, there is no magic to tending flowers. “It is the same process that farmers use in cultivating plants/ food crops that we use in planting our flowers,” Joy reasons. You get the seedlings or stalk, plant or graft and tend till maturity. The only difference however is that horticulturists have a harder time of the job. They are almost always busy. “There is no time for rest for us from nursery till maturity,” Joy admits. Her colleagues agree with her. Joy Mba is not only her namesake but does the same business with her. Her garden is a glancing distance away. She is also from Etiti Ama in Nkporo. There are almost about the same species of flowers in her garden. What she has in abundance are maraya flowers used specifically for hedges. She arrived at Adekunle Fajuyi in 2008 and that was when she started selling flowers with her husband, Steve, a horticulturist whose ambition is to one day further his education.
For now, though, he is always beneath an almond tree in her wife’s garden watering or weeding, planting or trimming, in short giving his wife the best possible hand in the business. Once in a while, they get landscaping jobs. To landscape is to plant flowers in a house or just by the fence, usually with maraya. “Marayas are more in demand because they are used for hedges,” says Joy. For N30 to N50, you can buy budding maraya plants in a nylon sac.
Golden palms go for N300, N350. However, prices are determined by the state of the flowers and sometimes by their sizes. The bigger the more expensive. A young shoot of cyca, for example, can fetch N1, 000 or N2, 000. Imported from Greece, a mature cyca which looks like a queen palm but statelier with a thicker stem, costs anything from N50, 000. Steve concedes that some of the cycas are smuggled from Ghana.
“Only the very rich can afford it, too, because of the cost.” How much does he and his wife average in a month? Never less than N30, 000 and sometimes more, he admits. So, how does he manage with his children? Steve has his wife to thank because “she is not profligate and she manages the house very well.” So, what challenges are there in the business? All the four flower sisters admit it is water.
Though water is not much of a problem during the raining season but too much of it has a disadvantage. Steve recalls the last heavy rain that fell about three weeks ago. The canal overflowed thereby washing away some of the humus soil and manure they use innurturing the plants. Some potted plants were also insultingly washed away by the flood. There is no respite for the flower sellers during the dry season. The canal literally dries up, leaving a putrid smell that hovers in the air within a respectable radius of the gardens. “I drink agbo if I feel sick,” Steve says.
But from time to time, he and his family do go for medical check at the family doctor’s. To be a successful flower seller, Steve insists that “patience, hard work and commitment are the qualities you need. That exactly is what Martha Ike demonstrates as she squats daily by whichever flower catches her attention. She is from Ozua Abam a few kilometers from Nkporo.
She is a trained seamstress but took to tending flowers and moved close to her ‘sisters’ iin Adekunle Fajuyi in 2010. Her flowers occupy a corridor of land by the street – there are dozens of them in different shades and hues. There is Cameroon tree, crown of tongue, cyca, lipstick, mother-inlaw tongue (a tall green, fleshy flower rimmed with yellow.) Though Martha’s husband started the business, she now runs it with a little help from her daughter, Chidinma, 14, and son, Chinonso, 9, both in primary school. They only help their mum during holidays. Indeed, it was Chidinma who told The Union the accurate names of the flowers, pointing at each and mentioning their names. Asked which she prefers, sewing or tending flowers, Martha’s children answered for her and jointly. “We want her to sew.” But Martha says she likes both because “both give me money.”
Also making out well from tending flowers is the last but not the least of the Nkporo sisters, Chinyere Mark. Like Joy Iheanacho, she also schooled at Girls Secondary School, Nkporo but finished at Nkporo Comprehensive Mixed School in the same town. For her, the business is good “because it does not require much money to start. You can begin by cutting and grafting,” Chinyere allows. Around her in her garden under a leafy almond there are potted plants, hundreds of seedlings, full-grown lukwana and cyca. The Greece import seems to be a favourite with the flower sellers. Chinyere know too well that the maturing stage of the flowers depend on the species of flowers.
Lilies, for instance, don’t take as much time to grow as cycas. She also knows that weeding with a hand trowel leaves the tender plants undamaged. Apart from the hand trowel, the sisters also use garden shears, scissors and spades to cultivate the plants. And manure, cow dung in this case. The four sisters insist that you don’t apply manure to growing seedlings. You only do after the flowers are bigger, after the stem has become stronger. Fringing one side of the road, there are no shelters apart from the natural awnings by way of shady trees. So, where do they go for cover when it rains heavily? Martha and her wards seek shelter in FourSquare Gospel Church directly opposite her garden while Steve and Joy Mba repair to a building nearby.
Joy Iheanacho once built a proper shelter but it was demolished by officials of Kick Against Indiscipline. She has not rebuilt it ever since. But the most problem for the sellers is thieves who come after dark to steal their flowers. As recently as three weeks ago, thieves visited Joy Mba’s garden and made off with 29 pieces of maraya. They were all in their nursery stage when they were purloined. Left unsecured, the flowers on Adekunle Fajuyi are a tempting target for any daring thief. Baring that, the four flower sisters from Nkporo seem to be having a good time. They also decorate homes in and around GRA where most of their customers live. For those passing by, it is hard not to remember Wordsworth’s paean to daffodils: “They stretched in a neverending line/ Along the margin of a bay/ Ten thousand saw I at a glance/ Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance.”