‘I am she who is called Pelewura…. . I will not starve in the country I was born in.’Alimotu Pelewura (1938)
Erelu Alimotu Pelewura (born circa 1865) was a Nigerian fish trader and political activist, a member of the Awori chieftaincy tribe (a Yoruba subgroup traditionally located in both Lagos and Ogun State; who are believed to be the direct descendants of Oduduwa, the father of the Yoruba people). She was born in Lagos to a large polygynous family and was the first-born of her mother, who had 2 children. Her mother was a highly regarded fish trader and under her tutelage, Pelewura followed in her professional footsteps to become an even more successful and influential fish trader. There is no record of her having any formal education; she got married once but was sadly widowed soon after the union. She never had any children.
In the mid-1920s, Pelewura founded the Lagos Market Women’s Association (LMWA) along with a few other market leaders. As the Alaga (Yoruba for ‘Chairperson’) of Ereko market, she became LMWA’s premier President. As the leader of the association, she led protests against taxation and price control, issues she strongly believed would negatively impact the livelihood of women. She also led protests against the British monopoly in the distribution of foodstuff. She took her campaign throughout Lagos and even as far as Ijebu-Ode and Sagamu (both located in Ogun State) where she enlisted the women she worked with to make sure that foodstuff was not transported to Lagos until the demands of the women against the taxation were met.
Another one of her major protests was in 1932, when she led the market women against the direct taxation of women by the colonial government. When rumors started to spread about the proposed tax on women, Pelewura and a committee of women marched to the government house to protest against this proposed plan. She was recognised for the leadership of this demonstration by the Oba of Lagos at the time, who appointed her the women’s representative of the Ilu Committee, an advisory group set up to advise the Oba of Lagos (Oba Eshugbayi Eleko).
More notably, a few years later, in the mid 1930s, she led another protest, again against another one of the colonial government’s policies. This time, there was a plan to relocate the Ereko market (that she was the head of) to the Oluwole area of Lagos Island. In response to this, knowing the impact it would have on the market women, she and some of the Ereko market women attempted to physically block any relocation actions taken by the colonial authorities. Unlike the protest mentioned previously, this did not result in positive recognition but instead led to an arrest. However, similar to when Margaret Ekpo was threatened with deportation, the market women of Lagos rallied to support Pelewura and the other Ereko market women detained as a result of this protest. Due to their support, all the detained women – including Pelewura, were released by the authorities.
Later on in December 1940, at around the age of 75 (yes, 75!!!), Pelewura led another notable protest. At the time, the colonial government had a price control plan in place to tax women who earned more than £50. This type of price control plan was known as the ‘Pullen Scheme’, named after Captain A.P. Pullen, the British officer who designed it. Pelewura led about 7,000 women to the Glover Memorial Hall to protest the taxes levied on the women. It is important to note two things about this specific taxation:
- It was imposed due to the failure of their husbands and male relatives to remit their taxes
- Not many market women earned more than £50 but Pelewura felt it was necessary to protest it immediately so that it did not become a slippery slope to full taxation on women
Unfortunately, this did not result in the desired outcome as the colonial government didn’t stop the taxation and also retaliated by increasing the taxable income to those who earned more than £200. Pelewura did not let this deter her. In 1941, in the thick of World War II, inflation rose in Lagos due to food scarcity. To control the wartime economy, the colonial government imposed a flexible price control policy on certain goods. There was a lot of opposition towards this as many did not follow this policy so the government made plans to control the sale of food products through multinational corporations. Knowing how deeply this would deprive the market women of some much needed income during the war, Pelewura openly objected to the policy for this reason. The colonial government didn’t budge and as a result, conflicts between LMWA and the colonial government ensued.
Although, on a few occasions the outcome of her protests were not as desired, it is inspiring to see how her tenacity never died down. She knew what was wrong and was not scared to make her voice heard regardless of the outcome. She also didn’t just fight for things because they had a direct impact on her personally. She fought against what was wrong for the greater good of the community. In addition to her activism and trade, Pelewura was a strong political ally of Herbert Macaulay (the founder of Nigerian nationalism). She was also an Executive Member of the Nigerian Union of Young Democrats and worked with the Nigerian National Democratic Party. She served as President of LMWA until her death in 1951.
It is also quite comforting to see that she was recognised for her courage by those that truly meant the most: the women she was fighting for and with. As previously mentioned, she was appointed as a member of the Oba’s Ilu Council – the group set up to advise the Oba of Lagos during the colonial era. In addition to that, In 1947, she was conferred by the Oba of Lagos with the ‘Erelu’ title, one of the top female chieftaincy titles in Lagos, for her contributions to society and her courage. Finally, a popular market, the Pelewura market, was named after her and it is described as being ‘named after the fish seller who wrote her name in gold through her rare courage’.