By Ekpali SAINT
AT about 5:30 p.m. on Friday of May 2019, Khadijat Yunusa was heading home on a motorcycle after she closed from work where she sells drinks in Kubwa, which was about 20 minutes ride from where she resides in Byazhin ward, Ijayapi Abuja.
The next minute, the motorcycle carrying her fell while trying to dodge potholes, and Yunusa was on the ground. The hot exhaust pipe of the motorcycle rested on her legs, leaving her skin burnt.
“It was a terrible experience for me. Thank God people quickly came to my rescue,” 45-year-old Yunusa said, raising her skirt to show the reporter where the exhaust pipe had burnt her.
“Earlier, when I was going to my shop that morning, I witnessed how a motorcycle carrying a woman fell. I pitied the woman because she had a serious cut on her lap. Unfortunately, I never knew I would have a similar experience the same day.”
While on treatment, Yinusa started thinking of how the road could be repaired. Days after, she visited her friend, Bola Shitta, who stays five minutes away from her house to share her concern.
“I did not regret going to meet her [Shitta]. I was happy when she said she has been thinking of what could be done to fix the road,” she said, smiling.
“After [brainstorming], we decided to raise money to start the road construction as a major project. From there, we started thinking of mobilising other women to join us because we could not do it alone.”
When Yunusa and her friend successfully gathered 17 other women to join them, they called for a meeting immediately. At the meeting, the women decided to name the group “Able Women”. They discussed strategies to go about raising money. After mapping out all plans, the project started on September 9, 2019, with Yunusa and Shitta leading the group.
“I’ve not had more than four hours sleep in three years”
Every morning, at precisely three o’clock, Yunusa gets a phone call from her friend, Shitta. When she wakes, she quickly put her house in order before going to her friend’s house. When she arrives there, the two women pray together.
In their prayers, which last till 4:30 a.m., the two leaders ask God to bless their efforts and grant them strength never to give up on the project “because we only trust in God for strength to continue,” Yunusa said.
Immediately after the prayer, the two leaders, wearing boots and T-shirts with an embossment: “Able Women”, and then a small bag around their neck, would move to the road to supervise the road construction and also to receive financial support from motorists, motorcyclists, and auto-rickshaw (Keke) drivers passing the road.
“We come out that early because vehicles do pass that period too,” Shitta, mother of four, said.
“If we don’t go out that early, we will miss their supports.”
While on the road, the women have a small card they give to motorists or auto-rickshaw (Keke) drivers after contributing money of at least N50 ($0.12). The card is to show they have supported the project for the day.
“But sometimes, we receive support of more than N50 ($0.12) from people. We are grateful to these drivers for, without them, we would not have gone far,” Shitta said, adding that “we get over N500 000 ($1,221) every week.”
When it’s 8 a.m., other women in the group will join the two leaders on the road. While the women would focus on collecting money from drivers, the two leaders supervised the project. At 1 p.m., other women will leave for their businesses, but the two leaders would remain till around 4:30 p.m., or anytime the workers close for the day.
“We do this daily because we want things to be better. I have not had four hours of sleep in three years since we started this project. I wake up then call her (Yunusa) on phone to wake her up. She comes to my house latest by 4 a.m.; we do morning devotion together, and we come out [to the road] that morning without considering the risk. When we are done from the road, I come back to the house to face my business,” Shitta, who sells cow skin, locally known as “ponmo“, explained.
“It has not been easy but we have the passion. We need the support of people to continue. If you go up, the road is terrible, but we intend to complete the work. We intend to reach the end. But we cannot achieve this without the help of the people.”
Driven by passion
The women commenced the project from Byazhin police station and intended to reach the end which leads to Niger state.
To fix the road, the women observe five stages: digging of drainages that will help water flow; filling the road with sand; grading the road; adding gravel, and then casting. At this stage, the women use cement for the casting and not coal.
“[To do the casting], we use cement because that is what we can afford,” Yunusa, who had a two-year working experience at Julius Berger, explained. “We would have loved to use coal, but during our market survey, we realised that per ton of coal will cost us N32, 000 ($77.52). This is too much for us. We then decided to use cement.”
Meanwhile, experts say using cement for casting is not a good option as it will not last long.
“The road won’t stand the test of time when cement is used,” said Tony Mukolu, owner of Campanile Investment Limited, an Abuja-based construction and engineering company. “Coal is the standard, and you get a perfect road using coal.”
Not a new project
Ijayapi is one of the 35 communities in Byazhin ward in Bwari Area Council. It existed before formally registering as a community in 2006. Since then, lack of a good road network that will enhance vehicular and human movement has remained a significant challenge. It becomes worst when there is a persistent heavy downpour.
Collectively, residents of the community swung into action. But while they contribute to the community leaders to have good road network, success is still far.
“We have been contributing for more than 19 years now, but the project is never completed,” 60-year-old Isola Bashiru said. “Sometimes, you will see the leaders bring construction equipment to the road, but nothing will be done at the end.”
He added, “the money the leaders collected had no meaning to us. It’s just like a situation where you continue to give someone money, but nothing good is coming out. But God is using the women to help us. We are now enjoying what these women are doing.”
Bashiru, who came into the community in 1999, explained that the dire state of the road has affected both lives and businesses; especially as it discouraged investors from coming to develop the area. Since he retired from the landlord association in 2014, Bashiru has been working as a bricklayer. But it has not been easy for him.
“As bricklayers, sometimes we just sit and wait for jobs all day but nothing,” the father of five lamented.
“It was worst before these women started work because rather than have people come here to build houses, they move out. This is because the road is nothing to write home about. But thank God, people are coming back now. These women are giving us joy.”
Bashiru is not alone. Motorists who ply the road daily lament the poor state of the road.
“Passing this road is a headache on its own,” said an auto-rickshaw (Keke) driver who pleaded anonymity. “But we have to continue our business. We are grateful these women decided to rescue us by helping us construct the road.”
But there are challenges the women face.
“We’ve been arrested four times.”
When the women started the project in September 2019, there were claims that the community leaders, under the leadership of the chairman at the time, Luke Efon, called the police to arrest the women for taking up the project.
“The community leaders have arrested us four times since we started the project,” Yunusa said.
“The community leaders said we are doing illegal work that the work is not for us. But we stood our ground and said the work was for us because we are the people living in this community. We feel the pain and many lives and businesses are at risk. So we continued because our aim is for people’s businesses to move.”
Meanwhile, the situation resulted in a misunderstanding between the community leaders and the women; leading to a call for new leadership.
“The immediate past chairman indeed arrested the women,” Nurudeen Aromona, the community’s task force acting chairman, confirmed. “So there was a misunderstanding, and the community said there should be another election to elect a new chairman for the community.”
For this, “a meeting was held and Luke Efon stepped down. Later this year, Sali Danjuma was appointed the community’s interim chairman,” 47-year-old Aromona said.
“There was never an arrest”
On his part, Efon said he never arrested the women. What people said was an arrest was an invitation by the officer in charge of the police station in the community to question the women for putting a barricade that hindered vehicular movement, he said
“There was never an arrest,” Efon insisted.
“What happened was that the women blocked the road with ropes. The officer in charge of the police station then invited them for questioning for blocking the road without permission. So I did not arrest them.”
However, Efon said the lousy state of the road pushed him to give the women the necessary support to construct the road.
“The road was bad and the women and my administration made an effort to fix the road. I wrote a letter of appeal to landlords and churches. [For instance], the Church of God Mission in Byazhin promised to give N150 000 ($364.82). But it was later converted to materials and the women received it. So we have never been an enemy of progress. We supported them.”
Also, he mentioned that his administration was the first to grade the community road.
“My administration never collected money from the people. I sourced for money from other places and we graded the road, which has never been done before,” he said.
Initially, 19 women started the project in 2019. But the workforce dropped to four due mainly to fear of arrest. But after some months, six women joined the group.
“If we go out to call other women, they will tell us their husbands asked them not to be involved again so as to avoid a problem,” said Shitta.
“But six women later joined us. They said they like what we are doing. This work needs more hands, so we ask more women to join us.”
Despite this, the women remain focused: “We expect all these challenges. But we put all behind us to help us focus. We are moving forward. There is progress, and we are happy. We don’t have a problem with anyone,” Shitta, who has lived in the community for 18 years, said. Apart from the support from motorists and auto-rickshaw (Keke) drivers, the women have also received support from individuals and churches in the area. Some of the churches include Saint Monica Catholic Church, Church of God Mission, Living Faith Church, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Redeemed Christian Church of God (Byazhin), and Deeper Life church (Byazhin).
“If not for the support, we would have been frustrated,” Shitta confessed.
Notwithstanding, adequate funding has been a major challenge slowing the pace of the project. Yunusa is happy that things are getting better in the community and hopes that women will get more financial assistance to help them complete the project.
“We don’t want to give up on the project,” she said. “That is why we call on everyone to support us.”