Lagos, Nigeria – There is a steady flow of customers, the dirt car park is filled with vehicles, and the stalls at Oluwo market in Epe outside Lagos city are full. The market is one of the biggest in this West African country where bushmeat is sold.
The mood is festive and everyone from traders to customers appears to have a smile on their faces.
“Business is really good now. The market is open seven days a week and we always have customers. We cannot keep up with the demand for bushmeat,” Tope Akeyu, a mother of two, told Al Jazeera next to a fresh antelope carcass.
But it was not always like this. In March 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. The epidemic soon became the deadliest since the viral disease was first discovered in 1976, killing five times more than any other known Ebola outbreak.
The outbreak affected Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – killing a total of 11,315 people, according to WHO. But on January 13, 2016, the UN body declared the region Ebola-free.
In Africa, particular species of fruit bats are considered natural hosts for the Ebola virus. Infected bats are believed to transmit the disease to humans, or indirectly through other animals that are hunted for their meat.
The family of the first victim of the outbreak, a two-year-old child, hunted bats and it is believed bushmeat was the origin of the outbreak.
Authorities warned people to stay away from bushmeat until the outbreak was over. Most heeded the warning and kept away. But they are now slowly returning.
“It was hard. Many people were scared to eat bushmeat. There were not many customers coming to us. But now they are back and business is good. We can support our families like before,” Akeyu, 30, said.
She said it was the hardest time since she joined the industry in Nigeria more than 15 years ago. Customers had a genuine reason to fear meat in Africa’s most populous country. At least eight people died from Ebola here, according to WHO.
It is midday and popular bushmeats – such as monkey and bats – are no longer in stock. But crocodile, grasscutter, and antelope are readily available to anyone willing to pay the right price.
“They go fast. If you want monkey you have to come early morning. They are very popular,” said Toyin Badmus, a tall slim lady with neat braids wearing dark red lipstick.
She’s worked in this market since she was 16 and is glad the bad times are now behind her.
“This market supports us. Without customers, we have no life. Now it is good. Even government officials come buy from us now. Before, everyone was fearful,” Badmus added.
An estimated five million tonnes of bushmeat is consumed on the continent every year, according to the Centre for International Forestry Research.
Mama Sunda Nsin-Victor is a longtime client of Badmus and these days her only worry is the price of the bushmeat.
“The meat is getting expensive. Very expensive. I want to buy antelope but I don’t have enough money. It costs $40. I cannot afford that,” Nsin-Victor said while looking at cheaper options, including a crocodile carcass on the meat stall.
“My children prefer antelope meat to cow meat. It is good for them. The meat is softer, tastes better and makes them strong,” she said.
Bushmeat is not only back on the stalls at Oluwo market. For the first time in months, meat sellers are back on roadsides targetting drivers and their passengers, just like before the Ebola outbreak.
On the busy Ajegunle to Ikorodu highway, about a dozen small stalls have popped up selling cooked bushmeat to passers-by.
“Ebola was bad for us. Business is better now,” Vivian Latif, a mother of seven children, told Al Jazeera, sitting underneath a parasol to hide from the blazing afternoon sun.
Latif, 51, has been selling bushmeat for more than 30 years.
“During the time of the Ebola, everyone was scared even to touch bushmeat. They all thought they will die if they touched the meat, let alone eat it,” Latif said.
With no union or labour associations, there was no one to speak on behalf of the thousands who depend on the industry, but that is changing for the first time.
Chinedu Eluwa is the president of the Grasscutter Farmers Association and is upbeat about the future.
“The market is now stable. The demand is there and the supply is there, too. We have started exporting to Ghana, Togo and Liberia. We hope to start exporting to other countries soon,” Eluwa told Al Jazeera.
But Akeyu, the mother-of-two, does not have cross-border business ambitions.
“I pray that Ebola does not return. That is all I want. I pray to God Ebola does not come back,” she said.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa