My exposure to artistic, theatrical and costuming from my days in primary school – Staff School, University of Ibadan (UI) and The Polytechnic Ibadan Staff School, through secondary school in Ilorin – Queen Elizabeth School - must have prepared me for what I am doing today: shoes.
In fact, had I been allowed, instead of the law that I went to read at the University of Lagos (Unilag), I would have opted for theatre arts but I could not bring up that topic, certainly not to my late father Matthew Olufemi Eperokun, a proper Ekiti man (Ekiti people are reputed for academics). You know that there were houses where you had certain conversations and there were houses you had assumptions. I am not quite sure how my father, who was then Registrar of Unilag, would have been able to tell people that ‘my daughter is reading theatre arts….’ My older brother was good with science, so he read medicine and I was good in arts, so I had to read law, besides that I not only loved reading but I was also a good communicator.
I was born fifty-eight plus years ago between two boys. I was a tomboy, played football with my brother, rode bicycles and did other boys' stuff outdoors but while in primary school, I was exposed to foreign girls’ comics, which had paper dolls at their backs and cut-outs of dresses, and this stimulated my interest in fashion and creativity. I did a lot with the cut-outs. I also had a lot of exposure to artistic performances at UI Theatre, live stage performances by the likes of Duro Ladipo and Hubert Ogunde, in Ibadan – I was at St Teresa’s College from 1974 to 1976 - and Ilorin. At Queen Elizabeth, we had students from all around the country, and at the end of the year, we had traditional dances from these diverse cultures where the dancers were appropriately costumed, and I enjoyed all that. The academics and the artistic part of me was properly balanced and allowed me to flourish.
My name is Abimbola Monalisa Azeh, founder of Mona Matthews which, as you can see, is a mix of my dad’s name and mine.
When I finished my A-Level at Federal Government College (FGC), Ilorin, my mum, Yetunde Oluwasesan Eperokun, a trained secretary, persuaded my dad to allow me to go to England for a holiday. While there, I received a message from him that I made only two of the three papers I sat for – History, English Literature and Bible Knowledge. That was impossible because I performed well in our mock examinations. With his experience at the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) – he had worked there for two years as Senior Deputy Registrar/Head of Lagos Office – he knew that there was a system where candidates could ask for the review of their results but the request must come from their schools. So, FGC wrote to WAEC, and when the review was done, although the marker gave me my right scores but their tabulation was wrong. So, indeed, I passed my three papers and with that I got into Unilag in 1981 to read law and graduated in 1984 with a second class lower grade.
In my Year 1, I was playful, attended all the parties there were but I attended all my classes. Year 2, I was more serious and had B+ average from all my courses. Third and final year, I must have fallen into the cracks somewhere.
I went to law school, did my law office attachment with the firm of Mrs Funlayo Adebo-Kiencke, Chief Simeon Adebo’s daughter, at Western House on Broad Street, Lagos. I had visited the building to see a family friend who is also a lawyer and she it was who introduced me to her. I also did my national youth service with her, after I sought redeployment from the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB) – which became Bank of Industry (BOI) - where I had been posted to originally. I was at NIDB for just three months. They thought I was not all right; how could I have rejected working in a banking environment which others desired? But, that environment was too predictable for me; it was too structured for my creative spirit.
I worked with Mrs Adebo-Kiencke after youth service, and spent two years with her, and, left when it became too predictable: I would wake in the morning and knew what exactly would happen in the office. I could not be creative unless I would have to create chaos.
So, I left to start my own law firm: Mona A Eperokun & Co.
I soon found out that though I knew law I did not know much: the finer details of how one built a legal practice beyond just being a brilliant lawyer. I wrote letters to banks, asking for their briefs, and none gave me any work. It was years later when I attended Fate Foundation that I realised how deficient my education was in the business side of things.
I then went back to my friend who had introduced me to Mrs Adebo-Kiencke to tell her that I needed to broaden my knowledge in practice. She again introduced me to another senior lawyer, Ms Jackson Steel, a West Indian, who had her practice in Ikeja. Our agreement was that I would continue with my own practice while working with her. Truly, while working with her, my knowledge base was broadened; I was more involved with other aspects of the practice beyond law. We also had a good working relationship and till date a cordial human relationship.
I did not get bored with my practice; I got born again…in 1994. I was involved in property law and it was becoming difficult for me to do a few things regarding filing tax papers for my major client. Though I continued to practise till about 1997, but it was not as it had been.
I moved my practice to my residence in Anthony Village because we somehow lost the tenancy of our shared offices at Adeniyi Jones, Ikeja.
I became a full-time church worker, running the music department, at This Present House founded by Pastor Tony Rapu. We had a band of eight musicians employed by the church. We had a Worship Team. We had the Lagos Community Gospel Choir (LCGC). We used to hold concerts with known gospel artistes such as Panam Percy Paul, Ben Okafor from the UK, Adekunle Fuji, and Olufunmi. My role was administrative but in a creative way.
The good thing about Pastor Tony was that he would give you a brief and allow you to develop it. So, for the LCGC, we designed the costumes, lighting, stage arrangements. I had a stint with Uncle Steve Rhodes, where I sang with the Steve Rhodes Voices for a while, and then I got to also, not knowing what I was doing, but understudy him a little bit. I also designed costumes for Steve Rhodes Voices for their twenty-first anniversary.
It was while at This Present House, that I started making shoes – for the first time.
It so happened that I could not find my shoes’ size. My feet are wide but not long. My friend introduced me to a shoemaker, who, however, said he only made shoes for men. I insisted that he must make my shoes. He did. I wore them, then someone else saw them and said they were horrible and that she could introduce me to another shoemaker who could do nicer work. So, I designed what I wanted and the shoemaker was able to create it as I imagined it. It was comfortable. A friend saw them on me and loved it, and I said I made them. She took them off me and said I should go and make another pair. I went back to the same shoemaker and got another pair made, and more…even for people. But as far as my dad was concerned, her daughter was a lawyer.
I left The Present House.
I worked briefly for Megascreen.
The new church I went to join, Living Waters, at Anthony Village, asked me to work as their Church Office Administrator. I cannot remember how long I worked here for, but I think I left at the end of 2001. I was there when 9/11 occurred because that was my birthday.
After this, I ran an events management company with my friend who had introduced me to Mrs Adebo-Kiencke and Ms Jackson Steel. At some point, I was doing outdoor, concerts with a group of friends.
I soon got into full time shoemaking whereby I designed the shoes and outsourced production under the Mona Matthews brand, established in 2002: yes, we are twenty years old this year.
We are now ready to change the model, to having a Production Centre, here in Lagos, for our shoes and other shoes’ brands, training shoemakers and exporting. It is simply about scaling up.