Heroines R Us: “Conquering Bode Thomas”

One of my goals for this blog was to showcase and celebrate everyday sheroes.  All too often celebrities and well known people receive the world’s accolades, but there are so many unsung sheroes who do all the work behind the scenes, put food on the table, educate and raise children, make ends meet, lift up communities, save lives…..in other words, they make the world go round. These are the women I want to lift up. They are me and you, they are “ordinary”, and in as much as we get motivation and advice from famous people who have “made it”, our own stories are no less worthy and telling them will strengthen others who may be in the same situation and needing to hear that story to find their inner worth and to keep them going.

And so begins the ‘Heroines R Us’ Series of The Woman Hood Blog.

We will meet our heroines and travel with them through their three ‘B’s – Background (where they come from), Battles (what they’ve been through) and Blossoms (what they out with) and learn valuable lessons that we can incorporate into our own lives.

I hope you enjoy the experience.

Here is Heroines R Us episode one: “Conquering Bode Thomas”

Lagos, Nigeria – April 2019

A year before the pandemic caused absolute turmoil and upheaval all over the world.

I had returned to the city I grew up in for my 25th College Graduation Anniversary celebration. It had been nine years since I was last here and that visit as well as the ones before it had been for funerals and goodbyes, not celebrations.

Stepping out of the airplane into the familiar heat and humidity, the noise and commotion at the passport check counters and baggage claim, followed by the chaos and stand still traffic outside the airport, all made me realize how much I had missed home.

You think New York is a hustle? You have not been to Lagos!

It is said that if you learn to drive in New York City, you can drive anywhere in the U.S. but the truth of the matter is that if you learn to drive in Lagos, you can drive anywhere in the world.

Anyway, here I was, back home. Met by friends at the airport, I was excited and ready to experience everything I had missed for the last nine years.

I could write at length about my numerous experiences, but to take us to the Heroine of today’s story, we will focus on the experience of Food!  One thing I absolutely love is Nigerian Food!

The College of Medicine of the University of Lagos is located in the Idi Araba, Surulere area of Lagos and not too far from its main gate, a quick bus ride could take you to a bustling commercial street called Bode (pronounced ‘Baw-day’) Thomas Street. As a student, my friend and I would make this trip frequently to visit a friend of her mother’s, who owned a small cozy eatery there. We loved those moments in her company, and we loved her food. Going back there now 25 years later, the “small eatery”, though still on Bode Thomas, had grown into a fully-fledged restaurant with two other branches in Lagos offering catering, an onsite bakery AND a boutique. Welcome to Mama Delta’s Kitchen and in the middle of it standing tall, proud and beautiful is the woman who birthed, nourished and raised this dream.

I knew I had found my first Heroines R Us Interview!

Background

Mrs. Martha Oghenerume Okhifo is the Founder and CEO of Mama Delta’s Kitchen Ltd. The restaurant name pays tribute to the featured cuisine from Delta state in Nigeria, her parents’ home state.

Although her parents are of Delta state origin, Sister Martha, as we fondly call her, was born and raised in Ibadan, Oyo state located in the Yoruba south of Nigeria. Another area rich with its own cuisine, also served at Mama Delta’s Kitchen.

During the Nigerian Civil War (1967 – 1970), her parents moved back to Delta state and after the war, relocated to Lagos, the booming commercial center and then capital of the country.  

She had her secondary education at St. Teresa’s College, a Catholic all-girls boarding school in Ibadan and went on to study Fashion Design. Hence, the boutique at Mama Delta’s Kitchen.

She had big dreams of becoming a fashion designer but she got married at the tender age of 18, and even though she had always enjoyed cooking, it was cooking for her family that led to a discovery she had not expected – a passion for cooking. As luck would have it, cooking turned out to be not just a lifeline during a trying time for her family, but a life-long successful career.

Battles

Discovering a passion or talent is never the end of the story. It is where the story begins. It is when the trials come, when you must prove yourself, when you must hold on to your dream even if it means rocking the boat in a relationship.

Remember how I said we used to visit Sister Martha when her restaurant was just a small eatery? Well, even then, she had already come a long way. The first time she sold food, it was from a small table set up in front of the apartment building on Bode Thomas where she lived with her family.

Her husband had gone back to school to finish his studies and the local economy was bad for her fashion business, so she took the initiative and began to sell a product that was in higher demand than fashion – she began to sell her food. It was not long before she was supporting the family through cooking.

From that small table in front of her flat, her food sold so well that the landlord of another building down the street asked her to set up her food table in front of his building in order to reach a larger customer base.

She would need more food, more plates, more utensils, and more money to get started but her husband did not support the idea. Much as she loved and supported her husband, supporting the family was paramount so she went behind his back to borrow the money on her own. This is a big deal if you think about it.  We are talking about the days when women stayed home, had to obey their husbands, were not allowed to have opinions of their own and certainly did not own businesses.

She was 28 and was starting her business with 400 Naira (approx. $200 in those days) she had borrowed against her husband’s wishes and would have to pay back as soon as possible. The pressure was on!

Being new to this area, she had to promote herself by going up and down the street inviting passersby to ‘come and eat her hot rice and stew’.

Word spread and her food table under the Guava tree became a breakfast and lunch favorite as she worked from 6am till 1pm or till all the food was gone.

But her success did not win her husband’s approval. He was not pleased.

“You have disgraced me”, he said to her, not liking the idea that his wife should be standing under a tree cooking and selling food to all and sundry. This was not his idea of success for a well-educated woman married to a well-educated man.  

This was a tough time in their relationship because she stood her ground and they could not agree. But having made it through this trial, she says that it was the only time they ever disagreed. Over the continuing years of her increasing success and the financial support she was able to contribute to the household, he saw and accepted that she was doing the right thing and had indeed been right all along. He finally became one of her ardent supporters.

From the table at 129 Bode Thomas, she moved her business into a family plot at 122 Bode Thomas which gave her more room to expand. So much so that she had to move again and spend some time at a larger location just off Bode Thomas street.

Her next and last move was the one that brought her into the present location, occupying an entire building at 123 Bode Thomas. Spacey enough to include, as previously mentioned, an eat-in restaurant, a boutique featuring high end couture and fashion accessories, a bakery run by her daughter which offers snacks and sweets as well as baked to order cakes AND parking in front of the building.

Apart from her husband’s initial lack of support, other obstacles she has had to overcome include finding and keeping loyal and trustworthy staff and dealing with Government Taxes and Legislature which are often corrupt, do not favor small business owners, and are especially unkind to women. She has waged most of these wars on her own, armed only with resolve and resolute Faith but her real test of character came in 2004 when her husband suffered a stroke and she became his primary care taker while still running the business, now as the sole breadwinner. After three months of prayer and sheer determination, her husband was mostly recovered, and her business was still on top.

Blossoms

It is clear that Mama Delta’s Kitchen is the first and most visible blossom but apart from Sister Martha’s triumphant success in business, it is worthy of note she has a thriving family life. Still happily married to her husband, all her children have grown up in the business and have become successful contributors to it. Her daughter, having inherited her mother’s passion, attended culinary school and now runs the bakery part of the restaurant.

She is also an active member of her church and leans heavily on her Faith in all her day to day activities and interactions. It is undeniably the source of her incredible strength but also endows her with a beauty that emanates from within. You would be hard pressed to meet her without a smile on her face and she is always dressed to impress.

A fellow church member complimenting her on her style had recently told her that she never looks like someone who ever has problems. She laughed. Her philosophy is simple:

“Look, whatever makes me happy and is not a sin, I do it! I do what makes me happy! It makes me happy to take good care of myself. I like to dress. I like to look and feel good.”

“…once I make up my mind to succeed, I take everything not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity” and “…when you have no other option, you just know that you have to do it”

And above all, “…just put God at the center of it all!”

So what have we learnt?

We can learn so much from Sister Martha.

1)

For one thing – Everything starts with a decision! A Vision! She said she made up her mind to succeed and stuck with it.

Many times we say to ourselves “let me TRY this or that” Noooo!!! As Master Yoda teaches in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not. There is no TRY”

We have to make a solid decision about what we want to be or achieve and then doggedly hold on to that vision.

2)

Sister Martha welcomed every obstacle as an opportunity. Yes!!!!

The obstacle is not the part where you say “oh, this isn’t meant for me, I give up!”

The obstacle is the part where you dig in your heels and find that something inside yourself that you didn’t even know you had but that was there all the time and seize that opportunity to become more and better.

This is the part where you learn your lessons!

3)

She said “when there is no other option, you just know you have to do it” Yes!!!!

Don’t look for the plan B, Success is the only option. You know you have to do it, you know you should do it and you know you CAN!

4)

Put God at the center of it all.

You may not be the religious type, but there is something greater than you and if you focus on that, the energy and wherewithal will be provided for you to succeed.

5)

And most importantly, you need to know that YOU DESERVE IT! And YOU ARE WORTH IT!

I love that Sister Martha puts herself first. She cares for herself. She fully appreciates that it makes her happy to look and feel good! Hello!!!!

It does not mean that she does not have problems and worries. Those are a part of life. You can not escape them. But those should not be your reason for being. They are distractions.

YOU are the reason you are here. You! So you need to take care of YOU!

You can not give what you do not have. You need to fill your soul first. Make yourself happy. Make yourself feel good. THEN your life will make meaning to others.  

And hey, you are amazing, you are beautiful, you are capable and you ARE a heroine, even if no one has told you so, and YOU ARE WORTH IT!

Special Thanks to Sister Martha for sharing her story with us and Thanks to all the heroine readers. Sending you Love!

Mrs. Martha Oghenerume Okhifo and the writer

Come enjoy a meal at Mama Delta Kitchen, 123 Bode Thomas St, Surulere 101241, Lagos, Nigeria

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