Obiano has moved several steps further to tighten the screws on crime in the city and tackle the challenge of urban waste management head on. In March last year, he demolished and evacuated a high mountain of refuse in Okpoko that had stood tall in that neighbourhood for thirty years. At the same time, he also deftly handled the huge island of refuse that had threatened to eat up the ever-busy Onitsha – Owerri Road for decades. Then he rolled out hundreds of street sweepers who routinely strip major parts of the city bare to evacuate garbage and preserve its emerging squeaky clean image.
Viewed from the skies, Onitsha cuts the picture of a colourfully dressed woman, sunning herself on a riverbank with her face tilted towards the setting sun. As you draw closer, however, you realize that her face is heavily made up and her colourful dress could do with some ironing to straighten the creases.
But seriously, beyond the implied allegory in my opening paragraph, no Nigerian city in living memory has suffered as much injuries of harsh storification as Onistha. For so long, this idyllic city on the Niger was the subject of mindless titillations by a breed of reporters whose only understanding of journalism revolves around absurdity. To them, if the story is not grotesque, phantasmagorical and “jaw-dropping”, it is not a story yet. And if there is no news material, they simply invent one. That explains the incidence of headlines announcing incredulous stories about restaurants where human flesh is sold in Onitsha and other such stories that even Amos Tutuola, Nigeria’s pioneer of magic realism, could never have conceived in his creative best. Walahi, Onistha don suffer! I tell you!
Let’s be honest though, there are few Nigerian cities that hold the same fascination as Onitsha. Fewer even hold as much signification to literature and the arts in general. The modern history of Onitsha shows that this riverbank city with its iconic bridge began its journey to renown when in the mid-1850s it became an important trading port for the British Royal Niger Company which opened it up to the world of high commerce. For a considerable length of time in the 19th Century, Onitsha lived up to the expectations of the colonial masters as the boom in the trade in palm oil and palm kernel eased in to replace the Slave Trade. The arrival of Bishop Ajayi Crowder and Rev. John Taylor in Onitsha around 1857 marked the beginning of missionary activities in Eastern Nigeria and with it, Western education. And when Onitsha formally became a part of the British Protectorate in 1900, its illustrious future and the role it would play in the lives of the peoples of the Lower Niger was assured.
It is therefore no wonder that Onitsha has continued in this trajectory of pointing out the future for the people of South Eastern Nigeria and beyond. For most discerning folks, the enchanting story of Onitsha however is not just that it is the cradle of commerce, Christianity and Western education for the South East but also its significant contributions to the development of literature and the arts. As the birthplace of the popular Onitsha Market Literature, this great city on the Niger played a historic role in shaping the literary sensibilities of Nigeria’s post-independence generation and laying a strong foundation for leisure reading.
The place of Onitsha Market Literature in the evolution of the Nigerian letters is indeed a watershed in our literary aesthetics as the post-independence generation slaked its reading taste with a diet of fantastic titles like – The Way to Make Friends with Girls, My Seven Daughters are after Young Boys and Elekero Agwo the Quack Doctor and memorable ones like Ogali Ogali’s Veronica my Dauughter and Helen Ovbiagele’s Evbu my Love to serious works like Respect for Human Dignity: An Inaugural Address by Nnamdi Azikiwe. To my mind, those publications represent an important period in the evolution of the Nigerian literary tradition in much the same way as Christ the King College and Dennis Memorial Grammar School, both in Onitsha; represent a milestone in the educational advancement of South East Nigeria.
Interestingly, even with the brutal onslaught of fantasy-chasing journalists, Onitsha’s cultural significance never quite declined as the phenomenon that is today known as Nollywood also took its roots from Onitsha. Feeding from the same imaginative fibre that had given birth to Onitsha Market Literature, Nollywood flowered from Onitsha even at a time when Upper Iweka was the buzzword for crime in the region. In fact, most Nollywood movies of the time proudly announced addresses in Upper Iweka as the location where demands for copies of the production could be met. Nothing demonstrates the resilience of Onitsha as clearly as that – the uncanny co-existence of opposites. While cutthroat armed robbers dragged the city to its knees with their devilry, the birth of Nollywood provided the counter story on Onitsha across the continent. And as millions of home video lovers across Africa feasted on the fantastic tales spewing out of the fictive imagination of Onitsha, the sublime message that glows on the television screens is that sometimes a rose can grow from concrete. Or perhaps more directly, that Onitsha never offers us single stories.
Apologies to Chimamanda! There is always something else besides whatever is manifesting itself in Onitsha. An idyllic setting where gritty crime flourishes alongside big business; an intricate tapestry of hope and despair! Perhaps it was this bristling ebullience, this irrepressible energy that great Achebe tried to capture in his description of Onitsha as an “esoteric region where creativity sallies forth at will to manifest itself.” Achebe’s description of Onitsha is, in itself, a fitting garland to the grand old city whose hardworking inhabitants are never slowed down by time or adversity. Something new must happen in Onitsha; good or bad!
Happily, it has been more of the good in recent times. The recent opening of a modern shopping mall is one such instance. The event marked the full manifestation of a bold effort to move Onitsha into the 21st Century. It had been something of an irony all along that Onitsha, which pioneered modern commerce in Eastern Nigeria had no properly established and efficiently run shopping mall. But many thanks to Governor Willie Obiano for completing the mall started by his predecessor, Peter Obi, in record time. Onitsha needs such facilities to make a gradual transition from the poorly constructed post Biafran War markets with no provisions for parking and toilets, to super deluxe malls with all the glamour to boot. The now dazzling motorway that slashes through the city to the Niger is another great effort in the massive urban renewal that Obiano and his predecessor have also accomplished.
Obiano has moved several steps further to tighten the screws on crime in the city and tackle the challenge of urban waste management head on. In March last year, he demolished and evacuated a high mountain of refuse in Okpoko that had stood tall in that neighbourhood for thirty years. At the same time, he also deftly handled the huge island of refuse that had threatened to eat up the ever-busy Onitsha – Owerri Road for decades. Then he rolled out hundreds of street sweepers who routinely strip major parts of the city bare to evacuate garbage and preserve its emerging squeaky clean image. And while it may take some time before hope finally rises on the promised Second Niger Bridge, there is a growing feeling among the residents that the sun may in fact have risen on the rubble already!
- Eze is SSA Media to the Governor of Anambra State.