By Josfyn Uba
I was happy to embark on this trip. I finally got the appointment after several postponements. It was on a day declared, as the Biafra Day in Eastern Nigeria.
Expectedly, Onitsha was a ghost city. Everywhere was deserted. People had obeyed the sit-at-home-order. Except for lunatics whose daily business, is roaming the streets, endlessly.
Of course, the Biafra Day was lunatics’ day in Onitsha.
With hiccups associated with such trips, I arrived at Otukpo about 5.30pm. My guide’s mobile phone had run out of battery. It had become increasingly difficult to reach anyone. Locating Mrs. Mammy Ochefu’s office wasn’t difficult but our meeting was very dramatic. While I paced through the line of buildings according to the description, I saw two women, sitting in the corridor. I greeted them politely.
My pace was brisk and fast. My idea was to find her as fast as I could before nightfall since I was a first timer in town. I didn’t bother to make inquiries from any of them. I was more determined to locate her office. Until my guide emerged from somewhere nearby and walked me towards the women, I didn’t know that the dark complexioned and matronly woman was Mrs. Mammy Ochefu, my hostess, an unassuming but delightful personality. She, too, was surprised at the encounter.
Now, what’s in a name? One would ask. People usually say that one name is as good as another. But for Mammy Ochefu, fate had a role to play in hers.
Born in Jericho-Ugboju in the present Otukpo Local Government Area of Benue State, Mrs. Ochefu, recalls in an interview with Daily Sun recently, in her GRA, Otukpo residence that the original name given to her by her father was Ene, which means ‘my mother’ in her native dialect.
When she was born, a stranger and an acquaintance to her father had inquired about the new born. While the old man had explained to his friend that the meaning of Ene, in their dialect was my mother, his friend also translated mother as mammy in his own dialect too.
As he kept on saying mammy, the baby’s father nodded in approval and excitement since he couldn’t go on with the slight argument and it meant the same thing for both of them. He couldn’t correct his friend, anymore.
They both agreed on the name, mammy. From then, it became the new baby’s name. Yet, she says: “It is not our traditional name but it stuck on me. Mammy is not a family name, at all.”
Incidentally, Mammy has become a household name, not only in the military barracks but all over the country. And she is, no doubt a legend today. Mrs. Mammy Ochefu, is the widow of the late Colonel Anthony Aboki Ochefu, who was one-time Military Administrator of former East Central State.
She spoke on how she initiated and established the popular Mammy market, known all over the barracks in Nigeria today.
Her husband, the late Col. Ochefu, a young non commissioned officer, had been posted to Enugu from Abeokuta. They were quartered at the Army Barracks, Abakpa, Enugu.
To beat idleness and, perhaps, earn some money to support her young family, Mrs. Mammy Ochefu established a soft drinks business. She prepared gruel, which is called umu or enyi in Idoma, or kunu in Hausa, for sale to soldiers. She soon became popular with her stuff, as soldiers trooped to her house to buy enyi. Some of her best customers were officers, who always sent their batmen to buy some of the gruel for them, Monday through Friday. “We are not given to laziness in my family. I couldn’t stay without doing anything. So, when we got the barracks, I intimated my husband of my plans to engage in something. He was happy and supported me with two shillings while my father also sent me the sum of five shillings. I started the business with seven shillings, which was a big capital base. People would say, ‘let me go to Mammy market and drink kunu; that was how Mammy market evolved.”
In a funny twist, one of the non-commissioned officers, the RSM, did not flow with the enthusiasm, which Mammy’s gruel generated among other military men in the barracks. He complained that the stuff was attracting flies into the barracks and ordered Mrs. Ochefu to stop its production and sale.
For weeks, Mrs. Ochefu agonised over the fate of her business, just as officers and men of the Nigerian Army who enjoyed her enyi because of its freshness and nutritional value lamented the situation.
After a time, reprieve came the young woman’s way when Hassan Kastina said she could start again. Her joy knew no bounds.
Few days after, a section of the barracks was given to her. She built a small shop and soon, her business began to boom. Most of her customers booked for their shares in advance. Before noon, she would have finished selling the available enyi for the day.
“ I was happy to come back to my business again,” she said.
Soon, other women in the barracks keyed into her fortune and started selling other items. It was not long before that portion of the barracks became known as Mammy Market. It also became a policy to establish markets inside or near military barracks in the country, initially for the exclusive use of officers and men.
“When we got to Lagos, I registered the business formally; some money was loaned to me by the late Mrs. HID Awolowo when I couldn’t raise the fund.”
After the coup that overthrew General Yakubu Gowon, Anthony Aboki Ochefu, then a Colonel, was posted to East Central State, as Military Governor. So, Mrs. Mammy Ochefu and her husband returned to Enugu, as the First Family. On how she continued in the familiar terrain on her second coming to Enugu, she said: “Of course, it was a different ball game, as a governor’s wife but I sometimes visited the place.”
Upon retirement, however, Colonel Ochefu and his wife incorporated a company, Mammy Markets, which was into haulage and trading. “When he retired, things were hard and I had just lost my father. My friend advised me to start all over again. I wondered how to start because there was no money then. I said even if it amounted to selling my jewelries, I would. And I did sell my jewelries to start again. That was how we got back again. It was a great risk but it paid off eventually,” she noted.
And for initiatives like hers, there’s always a reward; either it comes in cash or in kind. This time for her, it was in kind. She shared a wonderful experience. It was her encounter with one of the modern day operators of the mammy market in Zaria.
“Some time ago, I traveled to Zaria, in company with some of my friends. It was for a friend’s mother’s burial ceremony. While we waited for the event to kick off, we were hungry, so we went in search of food. We went to the Mammy market and somehow, the lady who served us food kept looking at me. Curiously, she asked if I was Mrs. Mammy. Then I wondered why she asked and I responded in the affirmative. She knew me so well and had recognised me, as the woman who handed over the shop to her mother. She gave us the food free.”
For the Mammy market initiator, that simple gesture and recognition would remain indelible in her heart. “Everywhere I go to, people recognise me and give me great respect. That alone gives me satisfaction. I am fulfilled in life.”
Twice, the Ochefus were in Enugu. First time, her husband was a non-commissioned military officer and later, as military administrator. For this reason, the Igbo had a coinage from the name, kedu ife ochefu.
In translation, they jokingly ask of what they (the Ochefus) forgot in Enugu to have necessitated them returning the second time to the state, because, in Igbo language, ochefu means to have forgotten something.
Reacting cheerfully to this funny coinage, the woman, who knew it all simply laughs it off. She disclosed that Ochefu means my father’s wealth in their language.
“While they said that, we would also say thus, anyi echefunai, meaning we didn’t forget you. That’s why we came back. But in all, we had a good relationship with the people.”
But how did she meet her husband? I probed.
“We met when I was in the primary school in a village called Adoka. I was a pupil of St. Charles Primary School, Adoka. At that time, one of my husband’s brothers was my class teacher. He saw me as a girl of good character and said he would marry me. The man taught me in Primaries 1 and 2 but I think I met my husband when I was in Primary 3.”
Besides his brother, young Mammy was also a close friend to one of her future sister-in-law. Betrothal was easy with that kind of connection. “They indicated their interest in me. They introduced us and that was how my journey into marriage with my late Anthony started.”
Talking about her father’s approach to marriage, generally, Mrs. Ochefu revealed that it wasn’t all about money. It was more about the man’s ability to take care of you and your subservience to him. After all, a man’s daughter is not for sale. “At that time, the dowry was two shillings in my place but mine was one pound.
Having enjoyed the bliss of matrimony for 41 years, she and her husband had become more like Siamese twins. She fondly remembers him, as a man who never raised a finger on her. “My husband was a great guy. He loved his family so much and was always there for me.”
Talking about life as a soldier’s wife, the mother of five disclosed that life in the barracks was a different thing altogether. “Many women preferred to remain as complete housewives whose primary functions ended with producing children. I found out that you must be busy and plan well to support your family, otherwise, you would be fighting every day. My advice to every woman is to learn to understand your man. Fighting a man never pays.”
She suggests that women should not stay idle. No matter the man’s socio-economic status, they must be engaged in something to, at least, keep them busy.
On the secret of her marriage of about four decades, Mrs. Ochefu stressed that “nothing compares to good food for a man. It has always been the secret to every man’s heart. For me, provision of good food was my own secret and juju.”
However, things would later take a different turn in her life. On one fateful day, precisely, 17 years ago, Mammy lost her husband to the cold hands of death. Col. Ochefu, who didn’t lose his life in the battlefield for all his years in the military, sadly, was gunned down by some armed robbers at a filling station in his native Otukpo town. Since then, life has never been the same for her.
“I miss him so much. Sometimes, I stay in this big house alone. All my kids have gone away. Although, I have people living with me, I give myself to God.
“You know, he died unexpectedly. I felt like dying too. It was tough to comprehend the whole thing. That’s why up till today, I have come to realise that some things people say are not true.
“I used to hear people say that if you don’t eat in a day or so, you will die but I spent 10 days without food when my husband died and I survived it.”
Going down memory lane on the happenstances of that fateful day, Mrs. Ochefu said: “That morning, on my way back from the early morning Mass, I had driven into the filling station and filled the car. Then, he took the second car on a trip to Markudi.”
The news that came to her a few hours later wasn’t the least she expected. She wasn’t prepared for it, either. Her husband had died.
“I was shocked when the news came to me that robbers had shot and killed him there because he had no reason to be there in the first place but it was at the supermarket located within the station.”
Up till now, the murder has remained unresolved by the security operatives. She has learnt to live with the agony and loss of the man, who stole her heart when she was just 14.
“You know, the authorities would tell you that they had arrested five suspects today, three tomorrow and it went on and on.” For the old widow, “I am not interested in all that because nothing can bring back my husband again.”