Working Lives: The Babaringa Tailors of Northern Nigeria
Many of our WLs interviews have featured Nigerians from the North – porters in Lagos markets, people serving tea and noodles on the street (Mai Shais). We decided to talk to the people who make those flamboyant agbada from Northern Nigeria, known as babaringa, made globally famous by Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje of Kano State. We had to “go” to the North to meet with them. The socioeconomic background of our new interviewees is strikingly different from our compatriots from the North we had previously interviewed for the WLs series – 3 out of 4 of them have university degrees. Yet, Nigerians have certain things in common, no matter how different their lives e.g. sending money home.
Working Lives: The Graduate Who Sews Babaringa But Plans to Teach Biochemistry
“I never believed in this ‘female privilege’ thing until I started sewing. I tend to get a lot of customers simply because I am a lady and I am also very good at what I do. My customers go to parties, office functions or wherever and when their friends ask them who sewed this for you, they tell them “oh a lady made it”. Many of them just want the lady to sew for them too”.
Mrs Zainab Shehu- Kaduna State
114, Kajuru Rd, kaduna
Where are you from?
I am from Katsina State, but I started living in Kaduna in 2004 when my father was posted here. He was a military officer.
Tell us about your education please.
I attended Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. I have a degree in Biochemistry. I graduated in 2010.
And your family?
I come from a family of 6. My father was a military officer, like I said earlier. He is retired now. My mother is also a tailor but she doesn’t specialize in sewing Babaringa, she sews women’s dresses. All my siblings are graduates, just like me, apart from the last born who is in his final year.
Where do you live and how much is the rent?
I live with my husband in Kogoro. We live in a three-bedroom flat and we pay N200,000 for a year as rent.
How did you start working as a tailor that sews Babaringa?
My mother wanted to teach me how to sew dresses but I was not interested. I was really interested in men’s wear – Babaringa, Kaftan etc. So, I enrolled into one of the tailoring schools in Kano to learn to sew for men. I have always been fascinated by Babaringa. I used to go with my father to have his measurement taken at the tailor’s as a teenager. I was always amazed at different styles and designs of Babaringa that they had on display.
So, what was the training like?
The learning process was like an adventure for me, a dream come true. I started to learn how to sew babaringa after my 200 Level in the university. I knew how Nigeria was and getting a job in my field might be difficult, so I placed my focus on learning to sew very well. It took me about 4 years to learn and become a true pro. By the time I was serving, I had started to get commissions to sew for people.
Have you done anything else?
Not really a business or job. I was posted to a small school in Kano for my service, so I was always organizing home lessons for the kids. They paid N100 daily.
How many hours do you work in a day?
I mostly work from home so it is difficult to keep track of the hours. We have 3 male kids who share one room while my husband and I use the second room. So the third room is my workshop. I just get up from my bed in the morning, do the necessary chores at home, take care of the kids and get to work. Let me just say I spend roughly 7 hours in a day working.
How do you source for customers?
I never believed in this ‘female privilege’ thing until I started sewing. I tend to get a lot of customers simply because I am a lady and I am also very good at what I do. My customers go to parties, office functions or wherever and when their friends ask them who sewed this for you, they tell them “oh a lady made it”. Many of them just want the lady to sew for them too. So I do not really bother myself sourcing for customers. In fact, someone just called me not quite long ago, through a friend. He said he wants me to sew a babaringa. Though he has a tailor who is also his friend, he still wants me to sew for him simply because I am a lady and he liked the work I did for his friend. So, you see what I am talking about.
What is your best day like on the job?
This might sound funny, but my best days are when the boys are not at home. They tend to fight each other and they disturb me all the time. Having to settle their squabbles slows my work down. So, on days when they are not at home, I work so well I am able to finish 2 or 3 complete sets of babaringa. I sometimes tell my sister to come and pick them up if I have a lot of work to do.
Have you had any shocking encounter with a customer before?
No. I always do a neat job and also deliver to my customers on time. On days when I know I won’t be able to meet up, I put a call through to the client and tell him I can’t deliver. So, there will not be any form of disappointment or misunderstanding between us.
How much do you charge to sew a complete Babaringa?
I charge N30,000 – N40,000 depending on the type of material you are using or the design you want on it. The design is what makes it expensive. A lot of people want flashy designs.
Just out of curiosity: does your husband have any issues with you dealing with male clients?
Hahaha. No, he doesn’t. He is a very calm and understanding man. And me on my part also, I do not tolerate nonsense from my clients that are trying to make advances. It is strictly business.
How much do you make in a week?
In a normal week, when there is no celebration (Muslim festivity) of any sort I get to sew just 2-3 Agbada in a week. So that’s roughly N60,000 income for the week. But during busy festive periods, I make about N100,000-N120,000 every week.
How much do you spend in a day?
You know I am always at home. I work in my house so I hardly spend any money. Apart from just buying petrol for the generator or buying snacks for the kids – and that costs me about N4,000 daily – there is always food at home. My husband stocks the house every month.
What other things do you spend money on?
Recharge cards, and then I also send money to my parents and sibling – N60,000 in a month. My mom gets N20,000, my dad gets N10,000, and then the rest of my siblings share the remaining N30,000 amongst themselves.
For how long have you been in the business?
I started in 2011 on my own during my service year, so that is about 9 years now.
Do you have savings and how much do you save in a month?
Definitely. I do not joke with my savings. Emergency funds are very important; you really don’t know what the future holds. I save N30,000 every week.
Do you have plans to venture into something else?
The only thing I am thinking of is teaching. I really do not want my biochemistry degree to go to waste so I would love to teach in one of these private secondary schools here. But the problem is it might affect my tailoring which brings me more money than whatever the teaching job would bring in. So that is why I just had to pause on that for now until when I get someone that can oversee things while I am not around. I mean someone really good. I do not want to ruin the business. It won’t make sense if I start the teaching job, then my workers start messing up clients’ clothes.