Saturday, 24 July 2010

The big society: My Childhood @ Okigwe

Joachim Ezeji

I can still remember events of days of yore, days of yesterdays. Then I was just a small boy, an infant still trying to understand my milieu. It was a memorable era as much as my memories can recede back to history, to the then little and serene town of Okigwe in south –eastern Nigeria. I was not born in Okigwe, but it is as good as if it was, because my parents had just had me, when the call of duty saw my father changing work station; departing the big commercial city of Onitsha, for Okigwe, a town just too minuscule to the gigantic size of Onitsha, a city of the timbres and calibres of trade and commerce.

As a bank staff in the then African Continental Bank ltd, my father had a job that had a fair wage that enabled him to adequately care for and take care of his young family. Before me was Vitalis, my senior brother who was just a year older than me. He, himself had been born in Uboma, a few years after the Nigerian- Biafra Civil War. My people were the Biafra’s and had suffered the atrocities of the war most. Before Vitalis, was Ndidiamaka, our supposedly senior sister, who unfortunately died even before her first birthday during those dark days in the village, where want and misery was the order consequent of the civil war that just ended.

Growing up in Okigwe was great. Though a small and serene town, Okigwe was a big society. People knew each other and easily identified who your father was wherever you are seen; you need not necessarily mention your surname. There was love, understanding and good neighbourliness. Crime existed, but at insignificant scales. Then, armed Robbery and kidnapping were alien vices and were rarely heard of.

Though a child, I can still remember events of those days when electricity first came into the town. Before then, there was no electricity. Houses had no electric wirings because there was no need for them. We lived in total darkness, only lighting candles and kerosene lanterns at night. The implication was that there were no television sets or the opportunity of watching one. Then, if you came to Okigwe at a time such as 9 pm, you would find every resident already gone to bed with doors securely locked.

Then my mother had a provision store that also sells liquor especially beer. The store had a big sign that welcomes customers to the store. The inscription on that sign had read:‘Mrs R.C. Ezeji Provision and Liquor Off-Licence Store’. The sign board then served a special purpose for most of the kids on our street as it provided the first learning board for pronouncing or reading english language words. Then, at less busy periods, me, my brother and our friends often gathered on its foot to gingerly read and pronounce its letters. It was an exciting ritual though often rowdy. The store was situated in Ike Road by the then Nne-Amaka buildings. Then, customers walked into the store in large numbers. It provided a gathering point and leisure to the bulk of the residents on Ike Road and beyond. One attractive bait in that store then, was that my mother was amongst a very few who sold cold drinks. My father had bought and equipped the store with a fridge that used both kerosene and electricity. Since there was no electricity, she used kerosene in running the fridge. Low and Behold, the fridge produced well chilled drinks and ice blocks. As a consequence, customers came in droves. Most of the residents were traders, teachers, council workers and other civil servants.

The absence of electricity in Okigwe in those days constrained growth and made Okigwe to be so heavily dependent on other towns such as Enugu, Onitsha and Umuahia; all nearby towns. But, I think that Enugu and Onitsha had the greatest influence as the bulk of the confectionaries such as bread and snacks (e.g. Chinchim) were all made and conveyed from those towns to Okigwe. Nevertheless the efficiency of delivery was great as Okigwe never lacked any of them in good quantity, but for quality, I cant tell. Then we knew all the Bakery trucks by their names and time of arrival.

When electricity finally arrived Okigwe, a new kind of life came with it. The new kind of life includes the luxury of watching a television. Then, landlords had no quarrel in supporting their tenants reap this dividend as they immediately wired their buildings without delay. Also, my father did not hesitate to purchase a television set for our leisure. The necessity was brought to the fore when it almost became a routine to move from house to house of those who had television, searching for my brother, who in the course of watching late night movies in other neighbour’s homes often slept off. To arrest that problem, my mother insisted my father must buy a television for the children. And when the television came, Vitalis promptly colonized it.

As usual water and sanitation in Okigwe was a big challenge. Then, residents generally had to source water from raw sources. As a hilly and rocky down, Okigwe had a geology that is blessed with good aquifers. There are thousands of springs supplying clean water supplies to Okigwe residents. It was only distance that determined which one you used. As kids we preferred going to distant springs out of curiosity or to further have fun. Then, you often have to queue for hours to get water. When there are delays in our returning home, our mother will come looking for us. Often, it would be neighbours who would often reveal where they last saw us. With such tips we were easily located and brought home with or without the water, but for sure we must have had some good fun.

Ironically, most of those springs were developed and protected with spring boxes built by colonial administrators of the past. Present day government in Nigeria is not keen in investing in such infrastructure even when the World Health Organisation (WHO) lists protected spring as an acceptable water supply source. The sustainability of those springs now is under threat everywhere in Okigwe. As far as my memory can go, no further maintenance has been carried out on them except self-help group efforts by locals. In some places, lands hosting springs had been sold and new owners opting to destroy the springs and setting up residential buildings with diesel powered boreholes.

The only semblance of utility supplied waters where those that came with the public taps which had people queuing for long hours with containers waiting for the tap to start ‘running’. Whenever it does, out right struggle often sets in. Then, your ability to get water from those taps was a case of survival of the fittest. Fights, quarrels and verbal abuses were common though they were easily resolved and people became friends again. However, the consequence was that the infrastructure often gets damaged, and water supply from them ceasing for some time. But even at that response by the utility was often prompt.

On the other hand, sanitation was a concern. As was typical of major towns in Nigeria then, including Port Harcout, Lagos, Warri, Owerri, Enugu and Kano etc most houses in Okigwe then had bucket latrine systems. It was only in the 1980’s that this system was abolished in parts of Nigeria. Then, as you squat to use the system, you see the faeces of others before you. It was a sorry sight and most unhygienic but that was what we had. Night soil men were also common as we knew who one was. They thrive only in the night, taking the buckets away and emptying them in the ‘Iyi- echu’ stream, a small but perennial stream that drains the town. As a result of this activity, most residents refrained from eating big species of fish especially the Tilapia, which then was very common in the stream, saying that the fishes were big in size because of the abundant faeces they ate. But for us, as young as we were then, we had fun fishing in the stream and catching those Tilapia. Catching and frying tilapia was a childhood garland.
To be continued!

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