Flashing a warm grin as she exchanged pleasantries with guest after guest as they made their way into the modest hotel in Yaba, an ever bubbling suburb in the heart of Nigeria’s commercial powerhouse – Lagos – last Wednesday evening, her bright complexion and lanky frame still stood her out even from the slightly dark corner where she and her 16-month-old daughter, Precious, were seated. Donning a black tank top, a pair of fitted denim jeans on top of a black pimsole sneaker to match, you would be forgiven if you thought her smashing looks that evening was always the norm.
But shockingly, it has not always been this good for 27-year-old Jumoke Orisaguna. About one week earlier, she was hawking freshly-baked bread across the streets of Sabo, Yaba and environs in almost tattered dresses and worn-out slippers. Every day since she made the long journey from her native Ire, an agrarian community in Osun State, to Lagos with her little daughter in January 2016 in search of a new life, she had worked at least nine hours a day, many times under the ferocious and scotching afternoon sun that sweeps across the city, to earn a decent living.
The second child in a family of four children born to a poor farmer and a mother who sold vegetables to provide extra income barely enough to sustain the home, Jumoke knew the meaning of hardship even as a little girl. The loss of her elder brother, the first child of the family, meant that she had to provide direction for her three remaining siblings and also play a significant role in helping to bring food to the table. While many her age savoured the experiences of early puberty, Jumoke, by virtue of her humble background, had to grow up fast – and into an adult, too. For her, there was almost no childhood.
“While the other girls would run around to play in the stream and engage in all sorts of games, I was either selling vegetables for my mother or helping my father on his farm because it was from these two areas that our daily bread came,” the young mother of two recalls with nostalgia during a rare encounter with our correspondent earlier in the week. “The opportunity for running around like the other girls wasn’t just there,” she added.
With two wives and four children to feed, it became increasingly tough for the poor farmer to support the education of his children. As a result, Jumoke had to drop out of school after completing her primary education. Even though she knew if she must realise her childhood dream of becoming a renowned lawyer in the future she had to study further, the love for her younger siblings meant she had to sign up to a hairdressing training for them to also have a chance of becoming something big through education.
“I had to choose between me continuing my education and my other siblings sitting back at home,” the 27-year-old revealed. “It was a huge sacrifice I had to make for them to also have a chance of becoming great in life through education. I always feel sad each time I see my childhood friends who are educated and have become successful professionals today. If I had someone to sponsor me, of course I wouldn’t have ended up as a hairdresser or even ever had to hawk bread. I still nurse the pains till this moment.
“But instead of idling away at home or just selling vegetables for my mother and helping my father on his farm, I decided to learn hairdressing and make a meaning out of my life,” she said.
And for the next three years, Jumoke horned her skills in one of the best hairdressing salons in the community, hoping to hit it big by the time she would become her own boss. By 2013 she had successfully completed the rigorous training and had rented and equipped a shop with the help of family members and the little amount she had managed to save during her first stint in Lagos hawking bread in 2011 for six months. But every hope of instant success soon fizzled into frustration and utmost disappointment. The reality on ground was a distant contrast to the result she had long envisaged.
“Things became tougher after I opened the salon,” she cuts in. “You know since Ire is a town whose economic activities largely depend on the presence of the students of the Federal Polytechnic in the community, sales get very bad when they are not on campus.
“So, money wasn’t coming at such and even to feed or send our eldest daughter to school became a big problem for me and my husband. That was why I decided to come back to Lagos to give bread hawking a trial again in January this year. I felt it was the best option for now rather than just sit and idle away in Ire,” she said.
Luckily for the young woman, that decision has today turned out to be the wisest step she ever took. On the evening of February 2 while hawking her bread as usual, she crashed into something big – something that would change her life forever and write her name in gold. Celebrity photographer – TY Bello – was conducting a street shoot for Nigerian-born British singer, Tinie Tempah, on one of the streets dotting Yaba that evening when suddenly, from nowhere, Jumoke, with the heavy ‘baggage’ on her head, harmlessly sauntered into the scene. For her, it was another evening to service her many clients in the area especially at a nearby mechanic workshop where a handful of customers were already waiting for her.
“I only wanted to walk through the scene to take bread to my customers at the mechanic workshop around the place the shoot was taking place. I never had the intention of appearing in the photograph. It was while I made my way that the camera captured me,” she revealed.
Unaware of what had just or was about to happen to her, the young mother retired home – to the bakery where she, her daughter and about 40 other women including their little children slept on mats, enduring mosquito bites and freezing temperatures all through the night. The entire group shares only two toilets and bathrooms. On their luckiest days, many of the hawkers like Jumoke who sleep and wake up at this bakery where they collect stocks ranging between N4,000 and N5,000 each day, make a paltry N700 as profits after pounding different street corners for about nine hours. On days when such luck deserts them, the revenue could plummet to as low as N300. It is from such meagre income that many of them feed, take care of their children, buy medications sometimes, and also do daily savings.
“Many of us who don’t have relatives in Lagos sleep at the bakery with our children. On several occasions, all the money I managed to make in a day goes into eating and buying drugs for my daughter who is always falling sick at the bakery. Sometimes I would sit and wonder when this suffering would ever end. Each time I see her cry, it breaks my heart the more. But I trusted God and was always waking up by 5:00am to communicate with Him. I knew and believed that one day, He was going to change my story,” she said.
By the break of dawn that day, 7:00am to be precise, Jumoke had positioned the remaining few loaves left from the previous night on her head to quickly sell that morning. But as she moved from street to street, she found out something was wrong – people were staring at her unusually. Not having the slightest knowledge that her photograph had gone viral on the Internet especially on social media platforms like twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the 27-year-old could not understand why almost everyone who came across her that morning was gazing towards her direction strangely.
“I was afraid that morning because wherever I turned to, people looked at me unusually,” she said. “It was as if I was a wanted criminal that everybody was looking for. One guy stopped me in the process to tell me that some people were looking for me and that he saw me on the television and Facebook the previous night. I simply ignored him because I felt he was crazy. How could I have been on the television when I didn’t pose in front of any camera, so I thought. Throughout that day, people told me the same thing in all the places that I went.
“By the third day, as I entered one estate where I used to sell to some of my customers, an Hausa man ran after me immediately he saw me. He said his madam had been looking for me and that she wanted to help me. That was how he took me to his madam who happened to be TY Bello. Immediately she saw me, she welcomed me specially into her home and paid for all the bread in my tray. She told me it was the end of my hawking bread and that I was going to have a new life,” she said.
Since that emotional meeting with the celebrity photographer, life, indeed, has not remained the same for the young mother from Ire. Jumoke’s story of remarkable transformation has gone on to be featured in some of the world’s leading news publications including the Huffington Post, The Independent and Telegraph of United Kingdom. This is aside equal mentions by respected news network, CNN and other prominent media organisations. And like many around the world, the gravity-defying metamorphosis has also shocked the young mother herself.
“To be honest, I was dumbfounded, I almost could not believe I was the one in that photograph after the photo shoot for Thisday Style. I still feel as if I am dreaming,” she said. “Up till that point, I never could have imagined myself looking that elegant. It is a transformation that I am still very surprised about. I told my husband about it immediately and he was very happy to hear. I am learning how to walk on the runway now because of the modelling job that I shall soon be undertaking and I am really happy for where God is taking me,” she said.
Today, the young lady is in the final stages of completing a mouth-watering modelling deal while a handful endorsement and advertisement deals await her signature.
But while the world continues to celebrate a new star shot straight from obscurity and the trenches of poverty to global reckoning, Jumoke, a homely woman who radiates love and hope all around her, has not forgotten the most important people in her life, especially her husband and best friend of six years, 34-year-old Sunday Orisaguna, also a native of Ire. An aluminium installer by training, the young man has had his own fair share of troubles trying to taste success himself.
“I trained as an aluminium installer and I graduated in April 2015. But because there is no money, I have not been able to fully establish myself,” Sunday told Saturday PUNCH during the engaging and emotional encounter. “In fact it was until my father rented out a part of his house that I was able to get the money for my graduation.
“I came to Lagos in 2009 to work at a car wash after the death of my father and I worked there for four years, sleeping at the place for most part of the period. I returned to Ire briefly before coming back to Lagos again to operate as a commercial motorcycle rider for another three years. But things never fell in place. Out of frustration I returned to Ire where I remained and trusted God for a breakthrough,” he said.
But even with the hardship and challenges they faced as a unit, the couple’s love for each other never waned thin at any point. Though, the quest for survival had created a massive physical distance between them at different points over the last few years, the trust and love they shared had kept them going – the same feelings Jumoke would later reveal made her fall for Sunday six years ago when he came calling for her heart.
“When I was still learning hairdressing, he would come around our shop and chat with all of us,” she recalled. “He could crack jokes very well, so that endeared him to many of us. But one day he came to me and said he liked me and that he would love to marry me. I told him I was going to think about it. This was in 2009. It took about six months for me to agree to his love and marriage proposal. There were so many of us young ladies learning hairdressing together at the place and I felt really special for him to have expressed love for me,” she said.
Sunday joined his now famous wife in Lagos earlier in the week on the invitation of Jumoke’s present handlers who thought it right that he be a part of the entire transformation story as the head of the family. Though, he revealed that he initially had reservation about the whole idea, he has now found peace since he realised that it was God showing His greatness through them.
“I felt so excited even though I feared that it could be an expensive prank. I asked if she knew the people who wanted to help her very well and that if she was sure they were not planning to kidnap her, I asked several questions just to be sure of the situation before leaving Ire for Lagos. It was until T.Y Bello called me that my heart found peace.
“I am at peace now that I have seen her and realised that it was real. I cannot count how many calls I receive on a daily basis from family and friends since they all got the news. It was I didn’t know what is called Facebook until now, because many people keep telling me that they saw my wife’s picture and news on Facebook.
“Each time I take a look at her since God intervened in our situation; I would just be filled with happiness. Our situation was so bad that sometimes for an entire day, the whole family survived on N100 and at most N200. We could not afford a decent meal but my wife never complained; instead she stood by me and gave all the support she can. But today, look at what God is doing for us. I am grateful to God for giving me a woman who loves and accepts me the way I am,” he said.
The Orisagunas as part of the new life fortune had bestowed on them will also have a new apartment to themselves. At the moment, Jumoke is due for an adult evening class to sharpen her writing and speaking skills while more positive outcomes have continued to berth on her doorstep.
In a world where ‘grass to grace’ stories are fast fading and largely considered to exist only in fairytales these days, the giant leap of 27-year-old Orisaguna, a poor, countryside girl whose sudden emergence from anonymity to international fame, could just go on as one of the most amazing stories of this generation.
Sources: CNN, ThisDay, PUNCH