Its one of those quiet event-choked Saturdays, where the sun is tired but the cloud isn’t quite full.
I’m at a lounge in The Protea hotel, Ikeja, with no make-up except for a eye-liner. My maroon skirt and cut-outs tail-top deserve a lot more effort, but the skin on my face is accustomed to breathing on Saturdays, so I let it.
Hours well gone, after we were scheduled to meet, I don’t see Maryam arriving as my eye dart regularly to the entrance. But the awkwardness of sitting alone at a hotel’ lounge is diluted by the fictive stories I tell, in my head, about everyone who approach the front desk.
Maryam arrived sporting a smile, an apology, a midi dungaree worn over a teenage tee, with suede cutout sandals, in black, and a drawstrings bucket bag in the same color.
I went through the pleasantries, absentmindedly, as I scan her arms, neck and face for scars.
I don’t see any.
Weeks before, Maryam had been in an accident. Her car had erupted into flames while in motion, on Eko bridge, Lagos. She was rescued through the window. She told me she cried so hard that day.
“I wasn’t just crying because my car got burnt. I cried because I almost died in that car; I was stuck inside. Some guys had to break the window to pull me out. Then (after I was rescued) I had to watch the car I bought, with my hard-earned money, burning before my very eyes…But I’m grateful to be alive”. She said, as a twinkle in her eyes, flattered by her winged eyeliner, is doused by a mastered smile.
Discomfort washed over me and I fiddled with my notepad, waiting for the emotion to stroll off.
Stories about princesses have always been fascinating to most girls. I look up, at the thought, and steered the conversation to beauty pageants and queendom. Maryam change-crossed her legs at the ankle, and I imagined her adjusting her crown.
Her journey to being made a beauty queen began on her way to school.
“…a young man walked up to me and asked if I’m a model. I said no. He said I think you can be a good model. I said, I don’t think so. He asked to speak with my parents. I gave him my sister’s contact. He came to my house. Met with my sister and she agreed that I try”
Her first job was the face of Soulmate hair cream. The second was for V-mobile. There were others, before she contested and won Miss Valentine beauty contest in 2007, where she “had the opportunity to wear the most amazing dresses”
That’s the seed Rikaoto by ME grew from.
“…These were dresses from international designers and I decided to design those same looks here, so Africans can have access to them easily, and at an affordable price…Africans are also a very creative people. So, why go all the way there, when we can make it here and boost our economy?”
Maryam started designing by learning how to mend her clothes with her Mom’ sewing machine.
From mending, she began to make. “…When I saw a dress I want but can’t afford, I used to get the material and try to achieve the style. Gradually, I started getting it and my friends would ask where I got my clothes…I started making clothes for them, then my friends’ friends. It grew from there and I went for a formal training… Here we are.” She gestured and my eyes fell on her hands. They showed no sign of ever touching a thread. I told her what I was thinking and she smiled.
“I’m involved from start to finish. Most times, as a supervisor. I do most of the detailing. And when there’s an emergency, I do it myself so I can achieve the level of perfection, I want, in the available time. You need to see me in my factory.”
Maryam’ Rikaoto has in its resume dressing Former Miss Tourism, Nigeria; Collete Nwadike, for the Exquisite Face of the World pageant, where she won.
Unoaku Anyadike made it to the top five at the model competition, during Miss World in 2015, dressed in Rikaoto.
A Google photo folder, shows others (Beauty Queens) who have dazzled in the brand. And I buried my heart into determining the ratio of queens to regular people in that folder.
“I’m glad to contribute to the glory of beauty… Putting our girls in great dresses, that flatter their features, can raise their chances of winning on international stages” she told me and excused herself.
Few minutes later she returned, sporting flats. Some strands of her hair fell where they would. And she muttered,
“Regality is internal. Sometimes you want to kick off your heels to feel the ground.”