OFALA ONITSHA – AS KING AND PEOPLE MEET
In his book ‘ONITSHA’ the Nobel laureate for Literature, J.M.G LeClezio has the beautiful phrase, ‘When we are together again in Onitsha …’ This was the statement of Geoffroy Allen (remember Allen Lane, Onitsha) of the UAC fame. He is in Onitsha already and has been missing his mistress – Maou is her name. He writes to Maou about his dream of reuniting with her and their son, Fintan, ‘together again in Onitsha.’
Onitsha is known for buying and selling, for commerce. Commerce brings people and big ideas together. That was what Geoffroy Allen left England to come and do in the forties.
But today Onitsha is not a business city like Dubai or a cultural city like Paris or seat of education like Oxford. The big businesses like UAC, Bata Shoes, Donna Lernnard, Rex Cinema, Gaumont Cinema, Channrai, GBO, Leventis, PZ – such no longer exist here. They are gone with the wind, with their job-giving potentials and big ideas. Onitsha is left with petty-trading and mad rush. Yet Onitsha has all the potentials to do things better and bigger – stifled potentials.
Onitsha has no amusement park, no holiday resort, no museum, no permanent Trade Fair centre, no Art Galleries, no zoo. Like Nigeria, Onitsha refuses to grow and open up from what the colonial master made it. Onitsha market that gives it its renown, the largest market in West Africa, is not maintained, not modernized, not heard of on the BBC or CNN or CNBC or Bloomberg Tv or on the stock market. A city of only petty-trading with petty things may not welcome the things that really matter most.
Yet we should remember that the Onitsha Market used to have a Disney Park fame that led to what is known internationally as ‘Onitsha Market Literature’ (remember the late Prof E. Obiechina).
Instead of forward moving, the city slides backward, losing what it has been endowed with – allure, impressiveness, and excellence.
Onitsha’s public water supply is gone, including the forestry, the cemetries – all gone. The two stadiums at Onitsha North and South were rescued (by the Peter Obi government) from whom they were sold to and from what they were converted into. The Zik’s mausoleum will never be completed and when it will be ready, reluctantly ready, it may never be made the best of. The petty-trading mentality throws the big things away. The Niger Bridge is enough tourist attraction, but who cares to organise it? Who cares for big ideas and big things?
Yet, Onitsha is monumental and rings a bell. Again, Onitsha has no rail-line leading to it. Imagine Munich or Liverpool without a rail route. The planned Oba-Onitsha airport was not to materialise, in spite of money collected for it from various sources. Onitsha’s waterways are all in disuse. The sea-port is yet to be put in use after years of being constructed (by the Goodluck Jonathan administration). There are no more swimmers at the River Niger or at the Nkisi, because there are no more provisions as before – no more divers and diving facilities. And the Otumoye lake is overgrown with shrubs – where is the resplendent Otumoye water we were familiar with as kids? Where is tourism?
And all roads will lead to and from Onitsha, in spite of all.
Allison Anderson, translator of LeClezio’s ‘ONITSHA’ writes in the back-cover comment: ‘ ‘ONITSHA’ is remarkable for its ”almost mythological evocation of local history and beliefs”.’ He also says: ‘Fintan is initially enchanted by the exotic world he discovers in Onitsha, a bustling city prominently situated on the eastern bank of the River Niger’ – remember this was in the forties. LeClezio is French and the book in question, ‘ONITSHA’, is originally in French, translated into English by A. Anderson, an American. In this book, Onitsha is presented as a rallying city of diverse world cultures.
The great exception to Onitsha’s seeming neglect and lack of awareness of its exotic beauty and grandeur is the Ofala festival – the annual solemn outing ceremony of the Obi of Onitsha, Agbogidi, to meet his people. Ofala is for big ideas and big things.
This year, Ofala holds 8-9 October. People will fill up the city, majestically dressed, trooping to the palace arena, and eminent Nigerians as well as visitors from various other countries of the world will be there for the two-day event. Indeed, while neglect is a second culture in Onitsha, the Ofala remains the sunrise that calls on the city-dwellers to get up from their long sleep and think bigger. Ofala contrasts with Onitsha’s anorexia. It makes the people think of the many untapped treasures in the room, and people will see the city as a trust given to them by God to take care of. Ofala seems to say to all Onitsha dwellers, ‘Know your beauty and care for it.’
The Egwu-Ota, the unique royal drums, will play. The king, accompanied by the red-cap chiefs, heads to the arena to greet the people. The royal tunes will get to a crescendo pitch when the king will stop, change steps, and do the royal and majestic dance, as the crowd cheers enthusiatically. The king will dance in thanksgiving to God, as well as in honour and love for his own people and the assembled visitors. The red-cap chiefs will also do their various turn-by-turn styles.
Ofala makes Onitsha glow again. It will make it interactive again. It will bring representatives of other cultures together. Beginning with the Ofala lectures it will remind the city of its academic potentials. At the Ofala banquet the city will be reminded of its need to be self-caring. At the Ofala thanksgiving Mass or Service in one of the city’s churches, the dwellers will be reminded of their faith in God who builds and guards the city, as well as their duty to raise the moral demeanor of the city.
Apart from Ofala, Onitsha needs: economic summits, national and international; conferences on Marketing and Finance; Law summits; National Unity seminars; seminars on Architecture, Art and Sculptoring; book fairs; Literature seminars, Science and Technology summits. Hotels in Onitsha are not getting the right clients, because such seasoned events are not taking place here. Yet, those are the events that should define Onitsha, not excluding of cause its commerce, petty-trading and big business.
So far, it is only the Ofala festival that seems to project Onitsha city as it should be – impressive and majestic; a home of grandeur, a meeting of national and international socio-cultural importance.
At Ofala we are together again.
Long live the Agbogidi!
This Piece Was Creatively Put Together By Rev. Fr. Austin Oburota.