If the profession of meat butchering is exclusively for men, women of Erema Community in Rivers State are saying no; they butcher, sell and as result become their families' bread winners.
Sharp, glistening blades of machetes sway in the air, catching the sunny lights of the Niger Delta. Seconds later, they come down on big, bloody chunks of meat, turning them into affordable sizes for buyers. It is a sight mostly associated with the male folk in many Nigerian markets, especially in far north.
It is not so in far away in Erema community, Rivers State. As one approaches the community market, the chatter and laughter of women on bicycles, motor bikes and others bagging yams or cassava are the first things you see. Just as one begins to take that in, the ears hear are confronted with the thumping of machetes, almost like a chorus of sorts. What makes this sight more spectacular is the fact that the machetes are not in the hands of men, but women.
In Warri axis, meat sellers are generally referred to as 'butcher men'. The thought of "butcher women" doing as good as butcher men is more than enough reason to want to speak with them.
One of the butcher women, Ruth Felix said she has been selling meat for at least six to seven years now. "I was introduced to it by a friend when I needed another means to support myself and my family. She introduced me to a market in Owerri where I go to buy from meat at cheaper rates than I could have got here in Erema."
Ruth makes daily trip of no less than two hours by road from Erema to Omoku, about 50 kilometers away. On days when she has to go to the market, the trip takes four to five hours in very rickety taxis and roads worn out and dotted with accidents. "I go twice a week to buy meat," said the mother of four. "I have to wake up at five, get my children ready for school before I embark on my journey. I am so exhausted by the time I get to the market. I sell what I can and close up for the day at about six.
"It makes no difference how they sell to us women. For an area which believes that a woman is to be seen and not heard, we are equal with the men when it comes to that."
On how she regards herself being in a business that is synonymous with men in many parts of Nigeria, she said, in-between a smile and hiss, "here na women get the show o. Make you count us na, see how we number take pass their own. It's the men who areintruding if I can say so and whether them dey or not, e no threaten us."
Starting off by hawking meat in a tray on her head, Nkem Osuagwu said it has been ten years since she started the business. "I come here dey sell meat, because I didn't have anything to do at that time. Somebody took pity on me and employed me. I have been in it ever since then."
Like Ruth, Nkem also has to go out of Erema to get her supplies. Covering the distance twice a week for the past ten years has become a part of her so much so that she does not consider the trip to Ebrikom nor the state of the road an issue at all. "I have to go and buy market whether road good or not; under rain or shine. The earlier I make up my mind that it is near here, the better for me. There are people who come to supply somebody from whom I then buy. So I don't have to trouble myself too much about sorting out parts I want and all that. They would already be laid out."
Newcomer Chinwe Michael started meat selling about nine months ago. "I buy at Egbema twice a week. I get a better deal there and I noticed that the sellers seem quite sympathetic to me. Not sure if it is because I am a woman."
A little reluctant to speak, somebody screamed "don't mind her my sister. She is still new in the business. The shyness never comot for her body." This caused a roar of laughter from all those standing nearby.
When asked how much they make in profit, the women seemed to look over their shoulders as if they didn't want to let out that piece of information. Eventually, after eye contacts, they gave a picture of their profit margins. "If say we buy N20,000 meat, after we remove all expenses, we can make about N10,000 extra.
The women are very savvy, with some tapping into the oil wealth of the region by catering to well-paid working class clients.
Ruth said "meat selling does not end here in the market for us. I do supplies to hotels and other business that have demand for it. I also supply food stuff. I buy the foodstuff from Omoku where I live and get the items at very reasonable prices. I decided to come here to sell meat, because it is more profitable."
Ruth explains further that it is an expatriate community with a lot of oil workers living there. "I make a lot to maintain my needs. Where I fall short the other things I do supplement, but I will stop in another two years. By then, I go don hustle well. I will open shop and stay there. That time my children can come and stay with me. I will be able to better regulate their movement. This is a 'bush' market."
Hurting backs and arms was general complaints the women have. "Our backs and right hands dey hear am," they said at intervals. "Panadol is what we take and our husbands help us massage our bodies from time to time, which gives a lot of relief."
A common feature of women in this region is to have their children next to them almost all the time, regardless of the nature of their work places. This, they say is to have an eye on them and monitor their activities. However, none of the 'butcher- women' had their children with them in the market. Each woman's initial response was a near violent shrugging of their shoulders followed by a chorused "tufiakwa", "God forbid" or "No way. Them go spoil. They will be disrespectful."
"No," said Nkem. "The only reason they come here is if I want something and I call to them to bring it over. They are pupils and at this age they are easily corruptible. I see how some children here talk back to their parents. I don't want that with my own. I prefer that I am the only one suffering the pains of market life. When the time is ripe for them to decide what they want to do and it's the market place they find their joy, they are free to decide on that, but as for now they are little children. I can't allow them to come here."
As they say, what men can do, Erema women butchers had proved they can do just as well.