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Onitsha: Home of Exiles, Place of Dreams by Chimezie Chika

I emerged from the big Diamond Bank branch where I had gone to withdraw a token for my mother and went towards the overpass (or crossover, as some people called this bridge that did not cross the road horizontally but followed the road's vertical trajectory). ​

Photo Credit : me  "A bridge opposite New Parts market Nkpor at dusk"
The evening sky, giving way to the encroaching night, was tinged a pink-orange and, against it, with the dark outlines of the ubiquitous electric poles and telephone pylons, electric lights from streetlights shown along the busy road, lock-up shops, and along the numerous closely packed three-, four-, five-, and six-storey apartment buildings, some of which were so old the plumbing dripped with sewage and weed grew luxuriant on the roofs.​
Photo Credits : Me

There were many new ones too: with their neat façades and Greco colonnades. Trailer trucks groaned overhead on the bridge and carried their mammoth vehicular mass with remarkable speed; but beneath the huge concrete pillars of the bridge there was life happening.   Just under the bridge, men were standing around the rickety wooden kiosk of a newspaper vendor arguing about Buhari and politics; people ran up and down, trying to cross the car-infested road and sometimes there was a loud screech when a hasty pedestrian stepped into the road without looking; bread-Gala-beverage sellers shouted and besieged vehicles and they were also helped by overzealous bus conductors going back and forth, jumping up and down, and screaming for passengers; an LP seller who had mounted a TV and compact disc player and loudspeakers on a big square wheelbarrow blasted Lucky Dube's House of Exile.  

 As a boy growing up in the second floor flat of an old three storey tenement building, my father used to fill the whole flat with the echo of Lucky Dube's songs. Whenever he was around he kept the VHS or VCD player busy with ‘Prisoner', ‘Slave', and ‘House of Exile' which were his favourites. Looking back now, I think that song, 'House of Exile', has a particular resonance to the situation of Onitsha as a city. More than seventy percent of the residents of this riverside city are either from the hinterlands of Anambra or from another state. Even I, so sentimental and partial to this city of my birth, am not originally from this city. But, by a combination of several elements and factors of my upbringing, I have come to see this city as my city and my artistic centrepiece, the things that have come to matter to my roving imagination, are set within its enormous dirt space.   ​

Upper Iweka: the enormous octopus. Photo credit: google

Roads leading to Nkpor, Obosi, Head Bridge. Iweka Road, Owerri Road. The enormous octopus. Photo credit: google.

Onitsha is the home of exiles, sucking in people from all over Nigeria-and even Nigeriens and other West Africans. All these people seek freedom-financial freedom-in this monstrous market city where every second pulsates with amazing events of unforeseen and foreseen happenstance.


Onitsha, as much as I love it, is that offspring with a bad reputation and so my relationship with it totters at times into this side of anger. But I love it all the same, with the visceral ferocity of one trying to protect a beloved sibling from danger. A city of noise and commotion and aggressive-macho showmanship. Boys will tell you: You gas be on your G oo or umu iyoo ewelu gi lie lice  

 Ah! That natural lisp that we all seem to have, substituting the ‘r's for the ‘l's and vice versa. The lisp increase when there is a fight-and there usually is-or some kind of aggressive scenario, especially in the motorparks, where you must say your own or face the stigma of being a victim. At Main Market one day,  while I was leisurely trudging the tarred spaces between closely packed shops, angry voices reached me from the direction of Ose-the food/groceries section-and I rushed over on time to witness a not uncommon sight: a thief who was caught stealing pepper was beaten to a pulp and burnt alive with a car tyre. That night I had a nightmare about the Bakassi Boys vigilante group who turned the city into a smouldering mayhem of rancid black smokes mushrooming upwards at every road junction, seething with the charred remains of decapitated bodies found guilty of sins and guillotined and incinerated in broad daylight when I was growing up in the late 90's and early 2000's.   ​

A tentacle of the octopus at night. Photo credit: me

In my last year of secondary school, I returned to Onitsha after having spent a year in a boarding school in Owerri. The school I began to attend, Prince Memorial High School, was poor and decrepit then in comparison to schools like Dennis Memorial Grammar School with its delightful Georgian architecture. But both are equally old- established 1938 and 1928 respectively. My twin brother and I would wake up early to catch the cheap, rickety, danger-courting monster, the molue bus, to school. The normal yellow-with-white-and-black-stripes commercial Mitsubishi buses cost more. So we had no choice, since Dad's long gone. (RIP).   ​

Across the road from DMGS. Photo credit: me
I hated the molue buses anyway. They were dirty and rusty and the market women, breeding like pigs, were loud like the drivers: they chattered and laughed and fed babies on shrivelled breasts and ate okpa in a very annoying, nauseating sloppy way, using the same hands they used moments ago to wipe their babies' shit-smeared buttocks. Most annoying was when a man-yes, usually and unfailingly a man-would rise from nowhere and say: lets us pray. He would launch into a long interminable prayer, casting and binding, and invoking phantom ghosts. Afterwards he would bring out plastic bottles containing dirty-looking brews and begin in Igbo: I know what is worrying some of you. Oya! Sickness! You have been suffering from gonorrhoea, syphilis, staphylococcus aureus . . . and you are hiding? Now is the time to claim the medicine that God has sent to you from heaven . . .


In early 2013, after finishing Faulkner's Light in August, I decided quite strangely that I was going to stop teaching for free and find a real paying job, no matter how arduous the work, or paltry the pay. A writer needs a job, whichever way you look at it. I hadn't entered varsity then and so I thought I must gain experience if I must write, following Nabokov's words in his Paris Review interview: The artist must know the given world.  

And so that Harmattan I began work at a sachet water factory, travelling all over the city in the ailing company lorry selling bags of ‘pure water', as everybody around here calls sachet water. I wasn't even yet twenty. That was when Onitsha opened herself to me. We toured (could I use that word, considering that it was not so much touring as toiling under an exceptionally harsh midday sun?) GRA, Three-Three, Fegge, Omagba, Marina, Venn Road North, Awka Road, Zik's Roundabout and from there to the area around Central Police Station and Divisional Library; Head Bridge was not left out too. We went to Awada occasionally but never the ghettoised, suppurating cauldron of Okpoko slums. Mbakwa oo!   ​

The first time we were in Marina, which was behind the ancient gothic structure of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, to supply a shop I was awed by the endless expanse of motionless silver that exhaled a cool breeze. It was my first encounter with the River Niger at close quarters and I never forgot it. There was a police garrison on the banks with speedboats painted in police colours moored off the jetty. ​

River Port area. Photo credit: google

The high walls of the Onitsha Prisons were close by along the steep incline to the fairly affluent Three-Three with gated compounds containing wonderful architectural legerdemains. As we passed the prisons later I saw some prisoners digging at some hedges watched closely by two warders. I guess that's where my story ‘Prisoner' came from. The company driver would stop from time to time to buy shots of kai-kai like most other men like him in this chaotic city.   ​

Image result for onitsha bridge picture
The Niger bridge connecting the city to Asaba just across the river. Photo credit: me


Onitsha is a wild wide market and cacophony is the music that accompanied it with resounding encores. The ubiquity of markets would baffle anyone not born here, I guess. There are not just the big markets, Ochanja, Relief, Main Man, weedirigawazia . . . there are thousands of small mushroom markets on every street, every neighbourhood. They make Onitsha a perpetual beehive of noise and aggression and resilience and will to survive. If there is any place in this damned country where a poor man has the chance to be rich, a place of dreams, the Nigerian Dream (if there is one, that is), it is here. Is it not true that Onitsha has the highest number of three-four-five-six story tenements in the country?

People joke a lot here though, despite the minute fights and the randomness and recklessness of things, of life, here. The weekends are loud and eventful. The joints and thatched bush bars are full with revellers gurgling bottles of beer and grilled meat and listening to the latest jams. Mehn, can you beat Runtown's Mad Over You? And the football viewing centres ring out with Goal! or Onye Ara! Why can't he score? Just negodu open chance. Anuofia!-and arguments over transfer gossip. Sometimes sounds of gunshots tear through the fragile night sky. But it's all good. A place of smoking imagination, a place of a thousand stories.

People from Ebonyi are notorious. We all know them as Abakiliki boys or girls. The boys are all stereotyped thieves and robbers-okada riders with a peculiar funny accented Igbo. The girls? Ah! They have the same reputation as Calabar girls! Only, perhaps, much cheaper. Free, in fact. Stereotype.

One of them became a flame for a time. Fair, pretty, plenty of tiny pink freckles around the face, and very pink lower lip. The dark space under the staircase with a jalousie window that let in a little light became the amorous rendezvous. I would grab her like a mad man and kiss her and pin her hands to the wall and push her up a bit, while still kissing her, and take her there with her hands weighing down my neck and her legs wrapped around waist, making suppressed noises, heaving.

Onitsha. Postscript. I love you.


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