Fatima Ibrahim, a 32-year-old widow in Maiduguri, Northeast Nigeria, has been using proceeds from the sales of Zobo, a local soft drink made from roselle flower, to fund the education of her son. And she has succeeded in keeping him in school from nursery classes up to his final year at primary school.
Since her husband passed away seven years ago, Fatima vowed to do everything legitimate to ensure her son, who is now 10-years-old, gets a quality education. But her dream of a brighter future for her son, Ibrahim, seems to be hitting the rocks, no thanks to terrorist attacks.
“I can no longer sell Zobo drinks, which have been my main source of income for the family,” she explained.
Apart from the harsh impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and hikes in the price of most commodities, Fatima said the biggest setback for her small-scale business has been the lack of electricity to power the little refrigerator that cools her Zobo drinks.
It is common in Maiduguri and northern Nigeria to find people selling iced soft drinks like Zobo. Many who are in such businesses largely depend on refrigerators or iced blocks to keep their products cold.
Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, and environs have been cut off from the national grid since mid-Jan. 2021 when insurgents of the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) attacked a major power installation leading to the city. The state capital has since remained in perpetual darkness as all efforts to restore the destroyed power lines were frustrated by the terrorists who had vowed to perpetuate the blackout.
Many medium and small-scale enterprises are struggling to survive, with some resorting to alternative sources of energy like gasoline generators and solar power installations.
But the small-scale enterprises that largely depend on electricity to power their businesses are the most affected by the situation. Fatima is one of such budding entrepreneurs who have lost their jobs due to the power outage that has dragged into its seventh month.
“I have not been able to make Zobo drinks to sell like before because I have no means of chilling them now,” she said with tear-filled eyes.
“Since January when the lights were destroyed, preparing and selling local soft drinks has become a big problem for me and other women in that line of business. To chill the drinks, you must buy iced blocks at exorbitant prices. And the ice doesn’t last long before it quickly melts and becomes hot. When we have unsold drinks, we can’t refrigerate them for preservation. No matter how you try, the drinks would become fermented due to excessive heat. So, we have to discard them and run into a loss.”
Fatima said she kept losing money because sometimes she runs out of funds to continue the business.
But that is not her major concern.
“Now I am out of business due to lack of electricity to power my little refrigerator; which means I have not been able to make and save money to support the education of my little boy who is supposed to enrol for secondary school in the coming session,” she lamented.
Fatima, who was widowed by the ongoing Boko Haram conflict, said the government has not done enough in providing for women who have become breadwinners.
“We need support and care to be able to run our families and provide for our orphaned children,” she said.
“We have heard of how the government distributes scholarships to students in secondary and tertiary institutions. But no one bothers much about children of widows who are left by families and relatives to fend for themselves alone. We need scholarship support for our kids too. We may have been impoverished by circumstances, but our dreams of a brighter future for our children should not be allowed to die.”
Fatima, who now resorts to plaiting hair for women in her neighbourhood to feed herself and her son, faulted the government’s concentration on Internally Displaced People in camps when it came to providing palliatives.
“This insurgency affects us all, and we truly need support to survive,” she said.
“The mistake the government makes every day is the thinking that only those widows at the IDP camps need support. I lost my husband to a Boko Haram attack here in Maiduguri and since then no one has come to give me support in terms of taking care of my son’s education and upbringing.”
Her plight represents that of many other women, especially widows, who are now playing switched roles as heads of households.
Maiduguri, a city with nearly three million people, has continued to groan under suffocating economic hardship now worsened by the 12-year-long insurgency.
Amidst the unforeseen hardship brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, prices of commodities and services have skyrocketed to an unbearable height in local markets within the city.
Since the mid-January attack on electricity installations along the Maiduguri-Kano highway, the insurgents have kept the embattled city in perpetual darkness by rendering repeated attempts by the government to restore the power lines futile.
HumAngle contacted Fatima after she had made a call to a local radio station during a phone-in talk show. “Let government consider our children for scholarship support; giving scholarships to the children of well-to-do members of the society or senior civil servants is wrong. People like us should be supported to help educate our children,” she said.
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