Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world usually converge on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia for the hajj. It is a pilgrimage done annually by Muslims to fulfil one of the tenets of their faith, as prescribed in the Holy Quran.
But even as many Muslims, among them thousands of Nigerians, visit the holy land as a religious obligation and for spiritual rejuvenation, there are others who make the annual ritual for totally commercial purposes.
Many Muslims, mostly from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries, usually go to the holy land annually, during the hajj and Umurah (the lesser hajj) to make good money for themselves. They are businessmen and women, who, for years, have been doing well for themselves by trading in the holy land. Like the popular saying, they usually strike while the iron is hot. For them, Saudi Arabia is always a conducive environment to make good money during hajj when pilgrims literally invade the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. They explore the entire cities, selling virtually everything that would make the visitors comfortable while observing the hajj rites.
Alhaja Toyin Amidat is one such woman. For close to a decade, the woman, more popularly known as Iya Oyo, has had a rich experience doing business in the holy land. Every year, she travels to Saudi Arabia during the hajj. She operates a cafeteria, and many Nigerians make regular trips to her canteen for gastronomic purposes.
While in Mecca, she daily prepares local Yoruba foods, especially amala, with the accompaniment of gbegiri and ewedu soups. Her food is one that appeals to most Nigerian pilgrims in the holy land. Over the years, she has enjoyed good patronage from Nigerian pilgrims. Indeed, she agreed that the holy land has been the place where she makes good money each year, as most of the pilgrims prefer to eat their native foods while in Mecca.
She told the reporter: "Here In Saudi Arabia, most Nigerian pilgrims like to eat their traditional foods like amala and gbegiri, semolina, rice and beans and other foods. Even pilgrims from the North prefer Tuwoshinkafa, Wanke and other indigenous foods. And all these foods are readily available. That is what we do every year."
But this year, she diversified. She partially abandoned the catering business and embraced another trade that yields even more profit.
While in Saudi Arabia this year, Iya Oyo was into fabrics. She was selling assorted clothes. Why did she veer into another trade? She told the reporter.
"I decided to change my line of business because of the difficulty and stress involved in preparing the local food for my customers. Most times I do it all alone and I attend to many customers, mostly from Nigeria. But now, the Saudi authorities have stopped us from doing this kind of business because they believe we are not doing it the way it is supposed to be done. So I had to change my line of business. That is why I do this business now. And to God be the glory, I have been making good sales. I know where to get all the supplies in bulk and at cheaper rates and there is a ready market for all these clothes in Jeddah," she said.
Like Iya Oyo, Samira Muhammad, a Ghanaian lady, was also in Saudi Arabia for business, besides her religious obligations.
During the hajj this year, she sold African food at Mishfala, a popular area in Mecca, where Nigerians pilgrims live. Samira actually lives with her family in Saudi Arabia where she is a teacher in a small town close to Mecca. But, according to her, she opted to go into the food business as a part time venture mostly during the holidays, which usually coincides with the hajj. She stated that the hajj usually gave her ample opportunity to make more money.
"Daily, I make several thousands of riyal (the Saudi Arabian currency) selling different kinds of foods to Nigerian and Ghanaian pilgrims. This is what I have been doing for over five years now. So as soon as the hajj is over, I would go back to the school," she said.
Muhammad also said that though it was lucrative to do business during the hajj, it was becoming very difficult, noting that the Saudi authorities were making things very difficult for foreigners.
"They are very strict, and they don’t tolerate nonsense from any non-nationals. Once you are caught messing around without a permit, you are a goner," she said.
Many of the pilgrims who spoke with the reporter said they were comfortable eating their native foods in Saudi. They expressed joy that some Africans were operating traditional canteens in Mecca that were satisfying their needs.
Alhaji Ahmed Ajao, from Lagos told the reporter that whenever he felt like eating, he preferred to eat Amala or Semolina.
"This is the kind of food we are used to in Nigeria, but unfortunately those native foods are not always available in Mecca here except you visit the food vendors who prepare the food for pilgrims during hajj," he said.
Pilgrims coming to Mecca from all over the world usually boost the Saudi Arabia economy during that period. The Saudi authorities are also aware of this. That is why they do everything possible to make all pilgrims comfortable while in the holy land.
Ahmad Samad is a Palestinian. He lives in Mecca and has a shop very close to the Haram where he sells assorted gold materials like rings, wristwatches, and necklaces. He told the reporter how pilgrims from Nigeria and other African countries have been boost the Saudi economy.
"During the hajj and Umurah, we make good sales because most of the pilgrims from Africa, particularly from Nigeria patronise us and we are always happy to see them every year," he said.
And as soon as the hajj is over, most of these food vendors and other businessmen and women retire to their various countries immediately, obviously to get themselves prepared for the following year.