Mrs. Mammy Maria Ochefu started Mammy market business which later spread to all military barracks in Nigeria.
She was married to a former governor of old Enugu State, late Colonel Anthony Ochefu.
In this interview in Otukpo, Benue State, she spoke on what prompted her into starting the business and other issues.
How was growing up?
My father gave birth to me on April 10, 1941 in Otukpo and named me Mammy. The meaning of Mammy in English is mother,(Enenu in Idoma). I grew up with my elder sister in the prison yards in Otukpo. When I became more mature, I gave myself English name Maria and when I got married, I began to be addressed as Mrs. Mammy Maria Ochefu .
Why did you drop out of school in primary four?
My father gave birth to 13 of us and my elder sister who took me from the village promising to take care of me refused to enrol me in any school until my elder brother, Igoche Ode, came to take me from her house. He took me to one reverend father who later took me to Adoka in Otukpo and I was there assisting the priest while in school.
How were you able to get married to a soldier who eventually became a military governor?
I got to know my husband through his elder brother who was my teacher in Adoka. His brother who was my teacher then introduced me to him. I never envisaged that my husband would one day become a military governor. He came home for his annual leave and he met me and his brother introduced me to him. Then, he was a corporal in the army. So, I did not get married to him on the basis that he would be governor some day. But because I was told that he was a nice person and very humble then, I agreed to be his wife.
When you got married to him at 14, was it with the consent of your parents?
My father was fully aware. Then it was rare to be about 14 without a prospective husband, then it meant there was something wrong somewhere; either from your family or your kind of person. But my father insisted that I shouldn’t marry from Ochefu family because his family was deeply involved in chieftaincy tussle. But my uncle, my father’s brother, insisted I must marry him, because the man was a nice person. My mother had no say and there was no resistance from her. So based on my uncle’s advice, my father finally agreed that I should marry my husband.
But at 14, you probably must be too young to understand what marriage was all about?
Hmmm. Honestly, I didn’t really know anything. During our time, as Idoma culture and tradition demand, the very year that you were getting married, your parents would hand you over to your husband. You would have no prior knowledge of what and how the marriage would be. I didn’t know what and what was involved in marriage when I got to my husband’s house as a housewife.
But when my husband was about taking me out of my father’s house to his place of abode, my father prevented him from taking me. His reason was that I was too young and that my husband should allow me stay back home and become more mature. Then one of his good friends sneaked me out of my house because my husband wanted to leave for his station that very day and he was desperate to go along with me. He was at Enugu State by then. So my husband and his friend made arrangement and smuggled me out of my house without my father’s knowledge. Because he had already married me legally just that I was too small, there was nothing my father could have done again but to be happy for me.
You said that you got married to your husband when he was just a corporal, when he was rising in the military, how did you do it that he didn’t think of getting married to an educated lady?
I was not afraid at all that my husband would take advantage of my educational deficiency and marry an educated lady when he became military governor. When we were in the barracks, men were around us everywhere; they kept watch on you, your steps, attitudes and behaviour towards everyone. Then, there were men that wanted to be close but my husband warned me sternly never to give attention to another man.
Again, my father trained all his female children in such a manner that you dare not go close to someone who is not your husband. He also warned us never to get involved with another man. So in my father’s house, it was a law that whether you were married or not, you would not allow any man touch you until you were pronounced husband and wife. So the way I took care of my husband made him not to think of taking another wife, either educated or not educated. I was taking care of him and he was taking care of me too, till we became too used to each other. The love between both of us practically made it impossible for him to think of another woman other than me. While he was rising in his military career, he was also rising in love with me and my love for him became undiluted, which was why we were able to live together throughout his military career. We loved, cherished and supported each other until God took him away from me.
People have always thought that mammy market started with military barracks, but you claim it is your name. How?
When I came to join my husband, I had nothing doing. Sometimes, I sat at home from morning till night idle. So one day, a thought came to me that I should start up something that would keep me busy and I started making gruel also known as ‘’Kunu’’. When I started preparing the ‘’kunu’’, then, we were living in a one bedroom apartment and each time I made it and kept it in front of my room, it usually attracted flies to the house and all my neighbours would be complaining and making trouble with me that I always attracted flies to the house. But each time I made it, I had to go round the barracks, hawking it and before 10am, I had already sold everything. If I returned home, my neighbours would still complain about the flies despite selling everything I took out. So, following the persistent complaints from my neighbours, I decided to rest for two weeks without preparing the gruel.
After two weeks, my customers started trooping to our apartment to ask why I suddenly stopped. I told them about my neighbours’ attitude towards me and since I didn’t have a place to keep the gruel without attracting more flies to their rooms, I could no longer continue. So, those officers that usually came to my house very early in the morning to drink the Kunu, stood behind me and insisted that I must continue with the business; people like the late Hassan Katsina, our current President, Muhammadu Buhari, Yakubu Gowon and one senior officer from the east whom I can’t recollect his name again.
This was in Kaduna, the officers instructed the young officers who also loved taking the gruel(Kunu) to build tents (Bacha) for me behind the barracks. It was boldly written in Hausa language that, ‘Welcome to barracks, let’s branch at Mammy market and drink Kunu.’ From there, I started selling the Kunu again. When we moved from Kaduna to Zaria, they still allocated a place where they built bachas for me. We left Zaria for Ibadan, the soldiers still built bachas for me again. We moved from Ibadan back to Kaduna, I still built bachas. That was the beginning of Mammy Market across military barracks in Nigeria. And when we retired and got back to settle down in Lagos, I established a supermarket, pure water factory and the gruel joint. Then my friend’s mother who worked with the Corporate Affairs Commission advised me to register them as a company and when I asked my husband which name to give my business, he told me to name the company ‘’Mammy Market’’ That is the meaning of Mammy Market.
But in those days, soldiers’ wives were practically idle with no other preoccupation than cooking thrice a day. What motivated you into doing that business of making gruel (Kunu)and selling to the soldiers?
It is part of the training my father gave us as his female children on how best to assist our husbands in taking care of our house. You couldn’t just sit down and be watching your husband or waiting for him to give you money all the time. When he didn’t have to give you, you would have nothing to fall back on. So, we were taught that we must do petty business so that when your husband was not at home to give you money for food, you should have something that would assist you in cooking for the children.
You said officers like Muhammadu Buhari, Yakubu Gowon and others patronised you, it means that you knew Buhari up close, what can you say about him?
Most of the officers who patronised me, drank my gruel (Kunu) on credit and I usually booked them down. So, once they received their salary, they would settle me and we would start afresh. But one thing I like about Buhari, our current president was that, he never owed me. He always paid me each and every day he drank my (Kunu) gruel. Buhari started drinking my gruel when he had two stars. Buhari was always very neat and someone who didn’t like trouble at all. We lived together in same block at the NDA, Kaduna and he was in charge of environment and landscaping. As my customer, we related very well with each other. We stayed together in peace and in harmony.
You described Buhari as a good man, whereas people always think he must be a very tough person…
When we were at the Nigeria Defence Academy, Kaduna, I remember my husband travelled to Cameroon after he was posted to Lagos. You know, soldiers hardly stay in one place. Then, there were not many soldiers on ground to evacuate the heap of refuse and dirt around our block. Buhari came to our block and asked of my husband’s whereabouts because he so much admired our block due to the way I usually maintained the flowers and the landscaping. If you grew up with white men or lived with catholic priests, you must know how to take care of flowers. So because of my background, I was very good at that. Each time soldiers came to our block, they would want us to park out of the place and probably for them to take over. So when Buhari asked of my husband and I told him he had travelled to Cameroon, he said why was I still staying at the quarters when I was supposed to have relocated to Lagos where my husband had been posted to before he travelled out of Nigeria. I told him that I wanted my first daughter and my first son who were in boarding school in Gwusasa, Zaria to finish so that by December of that year, I would relocate to Lagos and he said okay, I could stay as arranged by my husband. Then, my son, who is now a professor, Yakubu Ochefu, was someone that Buhari loved so much. In fact, Buhari liked Yakubu very well. My son always went out with him. Whenever he came to the house, he would ask ‘where is Yakubu?’ ‘’Inna Yakubu, inna Yakubu, inna Hassan’’ and I would reply him and say look at them over there. One of my sons was named after Hassan Katsina.
As someone that got married at 14, what would you consider as gains of early marriage?
I was 16 years when I gave birth to my first child. It enabled me to take care of my children and lived a humble and fulfilled life. But early marriage is something you need to manage.
Having experienced it, would you still encourage young ladies between the ages of 14 and16 to venture into early marriage?
Yes, I am even advising the upcoming girls that even though you are educated, you must understand the culture and tradition of your fatherland, especially in Idomaland. If you marry and you take care of your husband in a humble manner, he would not be jumping from one place to another. So early marriage depends on where you come from, the family you belong to. In my place, if your family is good and you have good upbringing, then there is the possibility of you getting married early and having successful marriage.
Today, no barracks is complete without a Mammy market. How does that make you feel as someone who started it?
The problem that I have now concerning that name Mammy is that each time I go out especially to functions and I am introduced as Mrs. Mammy Ochefu, people would shout in exclamation and ask me, ‘’oh, are you the Mammy market?’’ and when I say yes, they would shout ‘Oh my God’. So, people are embarrassing me too much with that name now. They would express excitement saying this is the Mammy Market woman, Mammy market has come.’ Recently, I travelled to Zaria to visit one of my friends and I went to the market to buy some goods. When I purchased those items and I wrote down my name, the owner of the shop told me that the name sounded like where the market was located and asked me if I knew anything about the market and I said yes. The person was shocked. What I normally did then was that each time I established the Mammy Market in any barracks we were posted to, and when we were going on transfer, I looked for a trusted friend and handed over the market to her to manage. I always encouraged my fellow barracks women to engage in one business or the other in order to assist their husbands. With that market, I have assisted so many people and I am happy that the Mammy Market still exists in virtually all the barracks you go to in Nigeria. Therefore, I am fulfilled just that the military authorities are yet to honour me, including the Federal Government.
How many children do you have. Why is it that none of your children became a soldier?
That is a big question. I have seven children but my son who is the second to the last was so desperate to join the army. My husband didn’t want any of his children to join the military. His reason was that soldiers suffered too much. He suggested that even if any of them wanted to join the military, they should acquire some good level of education first. But by the time they all finished school, none of them was ready to join the military again. My son called Ejiga wanted to join the army by all means and he took the NDA exams several times. They would say he didn’t pass and I told his father to assist the boy through his connection but my husband would say no, that his children would not join the army because apart from the fact that soldier’s job is strenuous, people believe that one must be dubious to be a soldier and he didn’t want any of his children to be seen as wicked and dubious. In a nutshell, it was my husband who vehemently discouraged the children from joining the military.
What would you do to get military authorities to give you recognition as founder of Mammy Market?
Actually, my recognition by the military is long overdue. The military authorities ought to have invited me; the Federal Government is supposed to have honoured me in a colourful manner for achieving that feat. But I believe Saturday Punch has done a great deal by coming to interview me on what I have achieved while in the barracks. Nigerian government in collaboration with the military authorities is supposed to have done something tangible for me. Now that all my children have grown up, the Federal Government needs to recognise them. Buhari should remember that his lovely boy, Yakubu Ochefu, is now a professor and I will be very happy if Buhari can do something for him so that he will continue to take care of me.
When your husband retired, what did you start doing as a means of livelihood?
During our time, whether you were a governor or not, there was nothing like tapping money from government. So we retired home empty handed and my husband brought home nothing. But when we finally settled down at home, I went into farming because my father was a farmer. I was into yam, beans and rice farming. I also had orange and cashew orchards and started managing the farms with my husband till he died. And when he died, I started from where he stopped. I continued to take care of the children until they all became mature. So for now, I am doing nothing again, the children are absolutely taking care of me because old age has set in.
How do you feel when you realise that one of your children is a university vice chancellor?
Despite being a brilliant person from his childhood, I never envisaged that he would one day become a Vice chancellor, but you can see what God can do. An uneducated woman has given birth to educated personalities and I am happy for them. Yakubu is now a professor and a vice chancellor of a reputable tertiary institution. His elder brother is a medical doctor, while others are wonderfully doing well in their various endeavours. They have wiped away my educational deficiency. I remember when I used to take Professor Ochefu and his sister to school by carrying them on my bicycle. Because he was very smart from the beginning, he stayed at the back, while the sister was in my front and when they closed from school, I would ride the bicycle back to their school and pick them home. That was in Kaduna in those days.
Did anyone make jest of you when you had many children or it was a normal thing then?
In fact, my husband as a person told me that he didn’t want many children; he feared that we would not have enough to cater for them. So when we gave birth to six children, we stopped. But Doctor Olusola Saraki, the father of the current president of the senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, who was our private doctor advised us on how to do proper spacing. He actually said even if I wanted to have 10 children, there was no problem but that we should have them gradually through child spacing and he advised us on how to go about it. Then, my husband and myself also took a personal decision not to have children more than seven.
At a point that your husband became a military governor, what happened to your popular Mammy Market business, did you still run your gruel(Kunu) business or you abandoned it?
At the time my husband was appointed a military governor, majority of us women in the barracks didn’t know what governor was all about. When they took him to Enugu State as governor, I still remained in Lagos doing my Mammy Market business. I didn’t know there was something like military governor until the military authorities called me to come to Enugu and see my husband. Throughout my husband’s tenure, I went to Government House, Enugu once and I slept there till the following day, then I lost my father and I came down to Otukpo for my father’s burial. The good thing was that most of his colleagues who were governors then, attended my father’s burial.
Culled from Punch.