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Inside The Ancient Epe Fish Market Where Only Women Trade (Photos)

Posted by Samuel on Sun 16th Feb, 2020 -

This is a look into the ancient Epe fish market also known as Oluwo market where only women trade.

Epe fish market

The fish market

Epe, Lagos community, has a popular fish market known as Oluwo market. TOPE OMOGBOLAGUN writes about the market’s ancient tradition of having only women traders

The hustling and bustling of traders and sellers and buyers that early morning at Epe fish market noticeably exposed its popularity in the axis. Though known as fish or sea-food market among residents, it’s popularly called Oluwo market and tucked in Aiyetoro town in Epe; a town and council area in Lagos.

The market is some metres away from the town and located at the seashore. Its entrance is as busy as every other market with buyers and sellers strolling in and out of the place. Vehicles are always packed in front of the market gate and there’s a car park inside the open space.

Online sources put the population of Epe at 181,409 during the 2006 census.

It is one of the riverine areas in Lagos state and the major occupation for the indigenous people is fishing. The town is known notable festivals such as Kayo-kayo, Ebi day, Epe Day, among others.

Buying and selling resume for the day early and close at 6.30pm. The day usually starts with traders assembling at the riverbank awaiting fishermen to deliver goods to them.

The Secretary of Oluwo Market, Mrs Remi Olukolu, told Sunday PUNCH that the market became popular because of the different sea and land creatures on sale. The traders have fishermen who supply them fishes. The women traders arrive early in the morning to collect fishes from the fishermen.

She said, “The people who trade at the place are mostly women. The market is for women. It operates in such a way that it allows for division of labour. We have fishermen onshore that catch the fishes and boatmen often deliver them to us. The boat riders are like dispatch riders.

“They help bring the fishes from the fishermen on water to us on the land. The fishermen package the fishes and other seafood like crabs, shrimps, prawns and others and send with each person’s name written on their package. The traders come early in the morning to collect their packages. There are retailers from other markets who come to Oluwo market to buy from the traders.’’

Oluwo market is derived from the Oluwo family that reportedly sold the land to the government after the market construction. It was observed that no male trades in the market except two Hausas who sell dry pepper, onions, and ginger at an edge towards one of the exits in the market.

Some traders who spoke to our correspondents said the market had been in existence for long without being able to attach a year to its start, stating that the non-trading of men in the market was long-standing.

A mix of culture, trade and tourism

Olukolu said, “This market is about four centuries old. It’s passed from one generation to the other. Most of use inherited the fish-selling trade from our parents. For instance, in my case, I took over the business from my mother. I was born into the business. Whenever I returned from school then, I would join her in the market until after my secondary school when I started the business fully.

“We hardly have male traders in the market. They sell elsewhere but not in the market. In fact, when we didn’t have any men trading with us, the market association decided that we should appoint the late Baba oja (market leader) to head the market. He used to be a fisherman before the appointment. He wasn’t trading in the market; he was only involved in administrative duties like attending to visitors, managing the people among other things.”

Another fish-seller in the market, Mrs Afusat Hassan, who has been selling in the market for over 20 years, also inherited the business from her mother.

Hassan narrated, “I have been in the market for 25 years. I sell different kinds of fishes like Wesafu, shinning nose, barracuda, red snapper, pangasius (obokun) and the popular wedding fish, eja osan, popularly known as knife fish among Nigerians and different kinds of fishes.”

Eja osan is one of the fishes available at the market. It’s called the wedding fish because in some states in the South-West, especially in Ijebu, Ogun State, it’s usually part of the wedding list from the bride’s parents.

She added, “They don’t have to carry the whole fish to the brides’ parents. They usually cut them in pieces and often smoked before it is taken to the bride’s father. The prices often vary from one location to the other but it is one of the most expensive fishes in the market. The smallest costs N10,000 and the big ones are between N50,000, N70,000, N100,000 and N150,000.’’

Hassan who is in her mid-fifties said, “My mother was doing the business before I was born. I took over the business and I have been in it since then. Since we have been selling in the market, men don’t trade. I don’t think there is any taboo about it. The market was left to women considering the way it started.”

Supporting Olukolu’s claim, the fish trader said the market started long ago and her grandparents traded there.

She said, “It’s a market passed from one generation to generation. We can’t say the exact year it started but it has long been in existence many years ago.”

Mrs Toyin Oluwole, who has been a trading in the market for over 35 years, said it would be difficult to fix an exact date to when the market started. She stated that the market could be as old as Epe itself. “We met the market as we grew up and many of us took over trading from our parents,” she told our correspondent.

Oluwole stated, “There is no type of fish you want in the market that you wouldn’t get. I sell any kind of fish and I have been in the business for over 35 years. Since I was young, I always came to the market to meet my mother at the fish market. This wasn’t the location of the market then. It was moved in 1990 to its current location. It used to be at marine side until it could no longer contain the influx of traders and buyers. It kept expanding and that was when it was moved to its present location. We have never had men sell in the market. They only serve as fishermen who sell fishes and sold to customers.”

The market also provides opportunity to learn about the culture of the Yoruba. Another trader, Mrs Sakirat Adedayo, talked about obokun (silver catfish), which she said must not be taken out of water to be sold.

Adedayo said, “Obokun is best sold alive in water. Once you brought it out of water and it has a direct touch with sunlight, the fish will die early which will result into loss for traders. Also, once taken outside of its natural habitat, it wouldn’t survive for long, else the reason for selling it at the riverbank. Once it dies, people will not buy and it would be a great loss to us. We always leave them inside the water. People usually come to the riverbank to buy them.”

A basket containing 12 fishes is sold between N10,000 and N120,000 depending on the size. Some were as tall as a four-year-old child once lifted off the basket.

“Once our fishermen deliver them, we sort them according to the size inside the baskets and sell them at the riverbank. Our customers already know where they buy them. Although there are frozen ones, people prefer to buy them at the riverbank,”
she said.

Adedayo said she and her elder sister inherited the business from their mother. “My mother is still alive but she is too old to do running around.’’

Asked why females dominate the market, she said, “We met it that way and I don’t think anything is attached to it. It’s a market that evolved and passed down from generation to generation.

Also speaking, the Iya Alaje of Oluwo market, Mrs Folashade Ojikutu, told our correspondent that she was born into the trade.

She said, “I have been in the market since I was in primary school. The market has existed for years even before the birth of my mother and grandmother. My mother gave birth to two children in the market and I am her last child. There are different kinds of fish, bush meat, goat meat and cow meat sold in the market.”

A food vendor who had been patronising the market for over 10 years identified only as Mrs Tawakalitu, said she buys everything she uses for her food preparation at the market.

She said, “My mother introduced me to the market because she was the one doing the business before I took over. I am a food vendor and buy fishes, snails and other seas foods at the market. The edibles don’t have fixed prices; they depend on the availability. I have been patronising the market for over 10 years.’’

The network of division of labour

The market observes division of labour in that most fisherman husbands of the traders supply fishes to their wives who in turn sell them. The market is populated by people from different tribes ranging indigenes of Epe, Ijebu to Ondo especially Ilaje and others.

The Iya Alaje noted that the division of labour in the market prescribed men to fish and women to sell.

Many of the traders claimed that the market was about four-century old as the Jakande administration relocated it to its current site.  Though Sunday PUNCH couldn’t verify the traders’ claim of the market’s four-century existence, most of them inherited the business from their mothers and noted that it might be as old as the town itself.

She said, “Indeed, you will hardly find men in the market. The men usually fish for us. Once they bring the fishes, they give to their wives, customers and head home.

My grandmother was one of the influential people in the market. Back then, whenever the fishermen needed to start a business, they would look for someone to sponsor them; like buy them equipment for fishing. Whoever sponsored them was the person they supplied fish till they finished paying the money.

“We have few men selling in the market then. It was the market women who went to meet Baba oja to be our leader. He was a fisherman and we found him to be reliable. He handled the administrative duties well before his death some weeks ago. We have yet to get a new baba oja.”

One of the fish sellers, Mrs Abidemi Awokoya, is also a wife of a fisherman. She told our correspondent that her husband has another job he does but supplies her fishes.

She said, “I have been selling in the market for over 10 years. I supply fishes to customers in Lekki, Victoria Island, Ijebu, Bariga and other places. My husband goes out to fish in the early hours of the day and I sell the fishes he gets. We then share the profit.’’

Awokoya, like other traders in the market, inherited the business from her mother.

Sunday PUNCH encountered an elderly woman popularly referred to as Iya Epe at the seashore She doesn’t sell fishes but assists buyers in cutting and cleaning fishes at the market. She charges money based on the size and fish cost.

She stated that she had been working in the market for over 15 years, adding “What I do is to help the traders cut the fishes and clean them. The influx of people into the market doesn’t allow people who sell fish to cut and clean the fishes.’’

“We charge from N200. For instance, if you buy a fish for N1,500, we are likely to help you clean it for N400. Also, the type of fish we clean depends on the price we charge. Fish with scales will cost more than the ones without scales. I make about N20,000 daily.”

A woman identified as Iya Ilaje is also another person who helps customers to clean their fishes.

She said, “I am from Ilaje in Ondo State. That’s why the people call me Iya Ilaje. My husband is a fisherman but I don’t sell fishes. I help people to cut and clean their fishes. If you want to dry them, I could help you smoke them too.”

She noted that the traders were mainly women, saying the development was not based on taboo but an age-long culture.

Olukolu noted that the market had evolved beyond only the sale of fishes, some traders sell kitchen wares and clothing items.

She added, “We sell snakes, bush meat, crayfish, snail, alligators and tilapia, Wasafu, Owere, Kuta and Okodo. There is no fish you want at market that you won’t find.”

Some traders at the market sell animals like antelopes, grass cutters, crocodiles, grass cutters and porcupines.

Another trader identified only as Mrs Sade, said hunters also supplied them animals killed during hunting.

Sade noted, “We buy from hunters and we sell to restaurant owners. We also sell to individuals for home cooking. There are retailers who buy from us and sell in the market.’’

One of the retailers who identified herself as Toyin said she used to buy bush meat from the traders and resell at Ajah. She said, “Once I buy it, I clean roast and take it to town to sell. There are days I make N30,000.’’

Plea for facelift

Ojikutu, who described the market as the commercial capital of fish business/trading in Lagos, noted that it was not in good shape.

“People come from Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Ogun and other parts of the country to buy from the market. It’s built during the Lateef Jakande administration. The last time any renovation was done in the market was when a part of the market collapsed and the council chairman renovated it. We want the government to help us turn it into an ultramodern market. When people hear of Epe, this market is the real Epe.”

Ojikutu further said she assumed her current position after she was chosen by the oracle.

She stated, “I attribute my position as the Iyalaje of Oluwo market to God. There are people who are older than me, yet the oracle chose me. I was the only one picked by the oracle among the market executives. I am the youngest of them all. This is the fourth year I am holding the position. Leadership in the market is mostly by appointments. They look for competent people within the market and choose them.’’

Also, a customer, Mrs Sope Aina, told Sunday PUNCH that she was thrilled by the several edible creatures she saw at the market as a first-time visitor.

She said, “I saw some fishes I have not seen in my life before; it’s awesome. If the market is properly maintained, it will generate huge revenue for the government.’’

In his comment, Chairman, Epe Local Government, Mr Adedoyin Adesanya, stated that men don’t trade in the market for it had been widely accepted as a market for women by the community.

He said, “The Oluwo market is for women, men don’t sell there. The market is a fish market. It is mostly for fishes. The reason men don’t trade in the market is because of the distribution chain in the market. The men are fishermen. They go to the river to fish and bring home fishes for the women to sell. That is the why you won’t see men selling there. Men are like the wholesalers of fishes and women are the retailers.”

According to him, the market is in a poor state because the council hardly generates any income from there.

Our correspondent who visited the market on a weekday observed that it opened early and didn’t close until 6:30pm. But the council chairman said it usually opens noon and closes 2pm on weekends.

He said, “We are not getting much revenue from the market. The state of the market is not good like that of other markets in Epe because it is not a major market. The market opens around 12pm and traders return home by 2pm. It is only on weekends or whenever there is a huge catch by the fishermen that they stay long in the market. The sellers don’t go to the market on time and the majority of them don’t pay tax that is why much attention has not been paid there.’’


Source: Sunday Punch

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