The Itinerant Herbal Doctors of Lagos
The women selling agbo (medicinal herbal mixtures) divide opinion. Some, including professionals, swear by their skills in curing a variety of ailments, from piles to baby rashes, able to deliver almost instant relief where orthodox western medicines fail. Many others regard them as quacks who supply powerful substances without dosage, often damaging the livers of their patrons. Their no-frills remedy is indeed uncomplicated- lightening-speed diagnosis, no vitals (temperature, blood pressure etc.) taken. The truth may lie in between the extremes; with standardization and regulation of training and practice, they may offer better and safer services to the people, mainly poorer Nigerians, they serve, better complementing the orthodox healthcare system. We talk to four agbo sellers, including an old woman who has a fairly large store, not about regulation but the trade and their lives.
Working Lives: The Agbo Seller who Always Cried Because Her Parents Couldn’t Afford JAMB Forms
We have two kids. Two wonderful boys. They will surely do very well more than I did. I am going to make sure they finish secondary school and further with their education to the university. I am never going to make the same mistake my parents did. This is why I told my husband that we can’t have more than two kids since we are not rich. We have done family planning.
Where are you from?
I am from Ogun State, Ijebu Ode.
When did you arrive in Lagos?
I got to Lagos in 2014 after I finished secondary school at Our Lady of Apostle in Ijebu Ode. My parents are not really well to do but they were able to sponsor my education up until secondary school at least. That was the limit of their ability.
What made you come?
When I finished secondary school, my parents sat me down and told me they could not afford a university education for me. I was really eager to write the JAMB exam. They could not even afford to pay for the JAMB form then. So my dad told me to think of a trade I could learn and begin with that. But I told him I didn’t want to learn a trade. We argued about that for a long time in the house and I just made up my mind one morning that I was coming to Lagos. Everything was planned. I had been saving money for a long time. So when I got to Lagos I was staying with a family friend at Oshodi. So she took me in and advised that I learn at trade like my dad had said earlier. I didn’t have a choice. I just had to accept my fate and move on with life.
So what happened next?
I stayed with the family friend for 6 years in Oshodi. I then started working for her at her tailoring shop. I learnt tailoring during the years that I stayed with them. It was a very good experience; she was so nice to me. Sometimes when her kids are leaving for school, I would go to my room and cry because I really wanted to further my education. She was also managing herself, so I understood the fact that she could not sponsor my education.
How did you start selling agbo?
I was just a little girl that was really after furthering her education when I came to Lagos. I didn’t even think about the fact that I might start selling agbo. As at when I was learning tailoring at this family friend’s place, there was this woman that sells agbo, alongside gin. So we were always gisting and hanging out at her place in the evening. The woman was also from Ijebu Ode, so we would normally speak to each other in our dialect and just reminisce about things back home. Out of curiosity, I asked her one day to teach me how they make agbo, and she agreed. That was when the journey started.
So when did you start selling on your own?
I started selling agbo in 2017. I was doing that alongside my tailoring job. At this time, I was already good at sewing. I was getting different gigs from people to sew for them. It was such a big moment for me. I had hope that maybe I could save and still further my education but that didn’t happen because I got pregnant. I am still doing my tailoring gig still though. I just do the agbo business alongside since I am now big in the business and people really patronize me. So why should I stop?
For how long did you train?
The woman that I mentioned had her shop beside where I was learning tailoring so during the weekend when I didn’t have to be at the shop or after doing all the work for the day at the shop, I always go to her place to help out. She was always sending me to the market to get raw materials. I did for two years.
What ailments do you treat with the agbo you sell?
I have the one for malaria, body pain, typhoid, even infection. Once you use any of the agbo for the ailment, trust me it works. Most of these people around know me very well.
What’s the most expensive?
All are actually very expensive, I sell the real deal. The most expensive is the agbo jedi, a big bottle costs N5000. The reason why they are so expensive is because the materials are not easy to get. We have to order them from our suppliers and they come from very far distanceS.
What do your customers complain of most, which is the fastest selling agbo?
Most of my customers are always complaining of malaria or pile. Whenever they come and tell me they are not feeling too good and they need something to take, I mix the agbo jedi and agbo iba for them together. So both the agbo jedi and agbo iba are the fast selling agbo. Many people take them in combination. My current stock should be exhausted in 2-3 days. As you can see now, two customers that just came asked for agbo jedi and agbo iba. Malaria is really one ailment that people tend to have from time to time so that’s why the agbo sells out fast.
Where do you get the raw materials?
I have a connect from the village in Ijebu Ode that brings them for me to Lagos. I order for raw materials twice or thrice in a month. I always make sure I buy enough in bulk so I won’t have to be going back and forth with the orders. I sometimes buy raw materials in Oshodi but that’s only on rare cases though. Maybe when my supplier can’t make it to Lagos in time and customers are really asking for a particular agbo. I quickly run down to Oshodi and get them. But they are always so expensive. That’s why if you ask any agbo trader, they will tell you they buy their raw materials from the village. It’s always cheaper.
Who are your customers?
I have a lot of customers. Apart from the regular people that would come and buy in the evening, I also deliver to offices. There was this lady that came to buy agbo from me. She works in the bank. I don’t know whether she has been battling with typhoid for a long time but since she came across me and bought agbo from me and felt better, she has been referring me to her colleagues. In fact, I don’t think she buys oyinbo medicine anymore. Anytime her kids are sick, she just calls me to bring agbo to her at home.
Do you consult more learned people to treat people with agbo?
Yes, I do. Whenever I don’t understand anything I put a call through to my boss or I just go over to her place and she puts me through. We have an association and we discuss about new ways of making agbo at our meetings.
How much do you make in a day?
I make an average of N5000 in a day. This place is a very busy place, so I get to see a lot of customers come by and patronize me. And before the coronavirus lockdown I was always delivering to offices like I said. So, on days when I deliver to offices I making nothing less that N10000-15000. Sometimes I make more.
How much do you spend in a day?
I always stock up the house with food monthly so I don’t spend on food daily. When I am leaving the house, I give my kids little change to buy biscuit or sweet. So that should be roughly N1000 daily. I don’t spend anything on transport; I just take a walk to the bus stop daily and get the day started.
I pay all these omo itas N200 daily. That permits me to sell my market here. You know how Lagos is now, you shouldn’t be surprised. If you don’t pay they will scatter your goods and claim your father does not own the post and they are the “omo itas”, that they oversee “the outside”. In all, I spend roughly about N1500-N2000 in a day.
Where do you live and how much is your rent?
I live with my husband. We stay in a 2-room apartment at Iyana Ipaja. The rent is N6000 monthly. We share toilet and kitchen with other neighbors. We have 2 kids. Two wonderful boys. They will surely do very well more than I did. I am going to make sure they finish secondary school and further with their education to the university. I am never going to make the same mistake my parents did. This is why I told my husband that we can’t have more than two kids since we are not rich. We have done family planning.
Do you have a bank account?
Yes, I do. In fact I have two bank accounts. One is for my strict savings then other for emergency funds.
How has the Coronavirus pandemic changed affected your business?
Well, God has been seeing me through. Even if business has not been moving like before, because normally if you come here in the evening this place is always crowded. People will always come out and do faaji in the evening and of course they will patronize me but that hasn’t been happening because of the restriction on social gathering. I just hope it ends soon.
Do you want eran dindin? (Fried meat) I really enjoyed the interview with you!