Just recently, “Ukwu-Mango,” lost one of its best landmarks – the mango tree from which the popular eating spot was named.
Besides taking its name from the tree, the mango cooled the air and provided a natural air conditioning in the scorching sun. But the tree is no more because some “NEPA” operatives didn’t know they could trim the mango instead of cutting it down, even if it was blocking power lines. By the way, where’s the power?
Many Ukwu-Mango customers who once enjoyed their meals in the open are now forced to sit on the inside, since the demise of the tree, eating and sweating. All that’s left are of the once-covering Mango are stumps, good only to be chopped up with an axe and used for firewood.
But it’s still business as usual for the two widows- Angela and Josephine Uwaoma, who own and run the restaurant.
“I went to the village the day they cut down the tree. Had I been there, I’d have begged them to cut down some branches rather than the whole tree,” a displeased Josephine, the older of the two women, told Face2Face, cleaning beans and looking exhausted.
The younger Angela concurred, managing to smile but also looking tired and seating. The Uwaoma’s are wives of the late Emmanuel-Uwaoma, a well-known furniture maker whose showroom now houses the two restaurants, each belonging to one of the wives and bearing the name Ukwu-Mango.
The two eateries exist side by side and are only separated by plastic curtains. They cook and sell similar foods – egusi, okro, vegetable, fried plantain, rice and stew as well as their signature “nkwobi” – which draws patrons – young and old, rich and poor.
Ukwu-Mango does its best to provide good food but struggles with hygiene as most places in a Nigeria, where government pays lip service to sanitation. Like most homes and business places, Ukwu-Mango has to buy water daily from someone else’s borehole to cook, clean, wash and flush their toilets. For an eating place that caters for dozens of people, the restaurant needs regular water supply and electricity which the country doesn’t have.
Notwithstanding, the owners are united in their plight and determination to do good business. Their tested culinary skills keep customers coming and filing for their food. In some instances, I understand, customers volunteer to wash the plates themselves so they can get quick food. The women love and respect each other, which has worked well for their business.
But like everything in life, they have detractors – people who are jealous of their progress and accuse them of doing business with “charms” – a common but never-proven accusation. Face2Face visited Ukwu-Mango and found that the charms the women have are the mutual respect they have for each other, coupled with discipline, hard work and the fear of God.
None of the women was working prior to 1983, when their husband and bread-winner died. Josephine the second wife had eight children and the younger Angela, the third wife, three children.
Raising the family constituted a big challenge for the mothers, and through good counsel, Angela hit the road running, with a wheel barrow selling rice and stew while Josephine fried akara and sold from home.
“I was going around with a wheelbarrow selling food – after a while I started staying at home here then I came to the front of the house and started selling food. I was the one who first started to sell food and that was after our husband died,” said Angela. The younger Uwaoma explained that she had trained to become a patient medicine dealer but was forced to channel her resources into selling food, which was considered a more profitable business.
“My people said that it will not give me enough money to raise my three children so I started to cook. My brother and uncle gave me start-up money and helped me build a truck with which I carried the food around. By the grace of God, I started and gradually the business grew. I will cook the food and Jehovah will bring people to buy,” Angela concluded.
In the meantime, Josephine herself had gradually switched from frying akara to also selling food. She said God told her to make the change.
“I went to church one day and received a message that God said I will raise my children through selling food. I struggled with it for a while but later moved to the front of the house and started cooking and selling food. As you see me, I am so tired; I can hardly stand up or even walk around and serve my customers anymore as a result of so much work and exhaustion. But God has glorified his name,” Josephine added.
The two businesses have co-existed for over two decades and the widows, who attend the same church, have nothing but goodwill towards each other.
Josephine made it clear that Angela had never disrespected her. “If she is selling plantain or anything and hers finishes, she will come here and get some. I too will do the same thing,” she explained.
Both women have raised and educated their children and some of them have even graduated from the university.
“Through this business, my three children are now university graduates. Although I have not bought a car and do not have piece of a land, God has been good to me,” said Angela.
Josephine added: “God has given me life and good health, we get sick we recover. My children–those who want to study have studied and those who do not are home. I have done my best. There isn’t much more any mother can do.”
The women complain about the rising cost of living and the challenges of buying things from terribly unionized traders in the Owerri market. Another challenge is water and electricity but it’s a nation-wide problem.
“When we started selling food, we used to sell rice, beans, plantain and meat for 50 Naira. Today we sell rice at N150 and N200. We have to buy water every day from those who have borehole, we also buy firewood. Things have changed but God is good,” they said in unison.
The Uwaomas are not happy that their trade mark mango tree was cut down but they refuse to let it discourage them. Instead, they are defying the heat and pressing on, perfecting their meals.
Additionally, they are telling their detractors to shut up and boldly declaring – “we have no skeleton in our cupboard. All we have is Jesus.”