Magdalene Okon is from Akamkpa Local Government Area of Cross River State. Even if she has been a widow in the last nine years, she looks and talks like a happy person. She has five children to feed and provide for. But that is not a major concern for her. At least she does not have any reason to lose sleep over this. The only thing that may be disturbing her now is how she can sew something good enough for her governor, Prof Ben Ayade, to wear.
For her, that is one way she can show gratitude to the man that initiated and built the Calabar Garment Factory, where she now works and earns salaries with which she takes care of her children, having lost her husband.
She is not joking about it. Everything around her underscores this: Magdalene is grateful that she now has a steady means of livelihood as a trainee at the garment factory. She is even happier that in the next few months when she would have been through with her training, she would be employed and her pay hopefully increased. This explains why she told TNN that she will remain eternally grateful to Ayade for establishing the factory and giving hope to people like her.
“My late husband's friend directed somebody to take me down here after I told him that I didn't have anything doing. I didn't know about this place,” she said, as she recalled how she got into the factory.
She spoke of the trauma she had to go through when she lost the husband and how her story changed. “It was God that was taking care of us. My elder sister also assisted us. She took us in and accommodated us. Since then I didn't have anything doing. It was when they started this garment factory that God just passed through my late husband's friend to fix me here.”
Magdalene said so many pathetic things happened in the absence of her husband that she wished he was alive to take care of those challenges that life threw at her.
“Even my father also died. Because after I lost my husband, at least I ought to have my dad to take care of my children. But after my husband died, my dad died also and there was nobody to take care of us, apart from my elder sister. In order to cope during that trying moment, I was doing a little business. They gave me money to run a little business. I was supplying clothes to the secretariat, governor's office, selling office dresses and shoes and handbags. That was what I depended upon and God kept me and my children going.
“There were times that sometimes I will stay without any hope because it is not every time your sister will give you. You will remember the past. And when I do, tears will drop from my eyes. I always thought about how I will send my children to school and for how long will I be like this? Luckily, my late husband's friend just fixed me here. Since then my life has changed. Now with this job, I am managing to survive with my children.”….
She has not worked for up to two years yet. But Magdalene said she can now sew perfectly well and could sew for any big man such as her late husband's friend who is a lawmaker that gave her a job at the factory.
Just like Magdalene, the Calabar garment has restructured the life of so many others in the state. The factory has salvaged the seemingly hopeless situation in which some employees especially vulnerable women such as widows, found themselves until mother luck smiled on them through their employment in the factory. That was the situation another widow and mother of four, Regina Ogar, found herself when she got a job at the factory as a complete novice in sewing, but who has now picked the pieces of her life.
Narrating her story to TNN, she said “I came here through one of my in-laws. They called us for interview and I was selected. When I started, I did not know how to pass the thread through the machine. So, I came here like a starter. I started from the scratch. I started learning how to pass the thread. We were on that for like two to three days. After that, we were taught how to sew in straight line for up to two months. After that it was in stages. From straight line, they taught us how to sew zigzag. From zigzag they taught us to sew square. We picked up gradually and now I am a team leader.”
She also told TNN that she didn't have any job at the time the opportunity to join the factory came her way. “I was idle for about three years because I left my job in Port Harcourt and relocated to Calabar. When I was here, I wasn't doing anything.” She said she lost her husband four years ago and was left with four children to cater for, single-handedly.
“Life wasn't easy. But with this job now, gradually, I am beginning to stabilize a little. With the support of my people, my in-laws, other people and friends, I have been able to cope. Well, it wasn't easy any way, but with God I know all things are possible. Before I came here, I was just doing snacks to sell, just to keep my life going. But when I came here, it was like leaving the house every day and meeting people around. So, it really helped me improve on my social life, how to interact with people. So many of us are from different local governments and you meet a lot of people from different backgrounds, those who are educated and those who are not. So, you learn how to cope and accommodate a lot of things. I have met a lot of people. I am not leaving here the same way I came,” she said.
Regina expressed delight that she was being paid monthly, even as a trainee. Asked what would happen after the training, she said they will be issued their appointment letters.
According to her, “everybody here is undergoing training. Only our supervisors are the professionals. They are the professionals and they are the ones in charge of our training. Right now, we have uniforms we are making. We have 20,000 uniforms we are making. That is what we are doing every day, right now. The uniforms are for public schools. “
She told TNN that they sew uniforms for the police and other paramilitary agencies and the one they made for peace corps had just been collected.
She said after her training, “I will need money to start up on my own. I can start up on my own and still be here. I can put somebody in the shop and still be here because I was told all of us will be retained.”
In a similar vein, the factory job has changed the life of another widow, Tina Yaya, from Bekwara. She was married to an Efik man who later died and left her with two children.
She told TNN that she got the job in 2016 and since then, her life has never been the same again.
According to Tina, “they called us for interview in August 2016. We went to the stadium for the exercise. After that they called us for the opening of the factory. We came here on the 7th of October 2016 and started the work. I was not doing anything before I got this job. I was idle for a long time. I was just managing with small business, selling things before I landed this job. Since then, things have been getting better than before, 100 per cent.”
She said she lost her husband on the 20th of March, 2014 and was saddled with task of raising their two children. And between 2014 when her husband died and when she got the garment factory job, she and her children relied on her in-laws for survival.
“My in-laws were supporting me. I came in here through my in-law. Even up till now, I am still living in my husband's family compound. My in-laws helped me pay my children's school fees. Working here as a widow has helped me achieve many things. For instance, I didn't know how to sew men's clothes but now I can do so. I feel very good about working here because the place is even helping us in terms of finance and learning a trade. We are being paid N20,000 stipend and N5,000 transport allowance. It helps me a lot. We even have a staff bus that conveys us here in the morning and takes us back after we close.”
The factory, one of the signature projects of the Ayade, was bustling with activities last Friday when TNN visited on assessment of the much talked about factory. The workers in their hundreds occupied the entire sewing machines in the factory and were frenetically producing 20,000 uniforms for schools in Calabar. Ayade was to distribute the uniforms free of charge to the schools as his Children's Day present.
Workers in the factory that runs two shifts, day and night, had to work round the clock to meet the production target. Indeed, the impact of the factory can be felt not by only those who are direct beneficiaries by virtue of their employment there. By the time the backward integration, through the cotton farm that will produce cotton for the factory, comes into effect, thousands of others will also be gainfully employed directly and through the value chain.