It had been a while since I visited the eastern side of the Niger. Two years earlier, I had embarked on a memorable and successful mission – I led a family delegation to harvest a maiden around Oji River in Enugu State for my younger one. Thus, when another opportunity of reconnecting with the wise men and women of the east presented itself, I had no restraints in reorganising my schedules to have the event possible.
Also too, there was a compelling necessity to empathise with a close family over the passing on of a well beloved and legendary great grandma called Mama Rhoda. Her tale merited celebration. Despite the daunting sins that keep denudating the biblically rationalised three scores and ten years, Mama Rhoda so pleased God that she bestrode this terrestrial terrain for over five score years. Before passing on, she had her genes migrating beyond Africa to three – four other continents - thanks to her two children, 14 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren!
I was not alone, close to a hundred people took a break from the customary hustles and bustles of Lagos to be with the families of her only two biological children - her son and daughter. Besides, on ground were hundreds of her kinsmen in Umuduruimo - Ata environ - a quiet commune outskirts Owerri and parishioners of St Mathews Anglican Cathedral, Ata. People from all works of life and far flung geographical divides made room to bid the legendary Mama farewell.
I also needed to reconnect with adventure. Lagos has its congestions; but don’t tell that to any Omo Eko gan gan (true Lagosian). Whatever betide, for the Lagosians, Eko laiye wa (Lagos is where fun resides). They wouldn’t trade the fast life and fun that the city offers for a perceived sloppy living elsewhere. Yes, this journey was going to be a long and dreary one. Yes, predictably, the roads would be rough and yeah; there existed the possibility of an ill occurrence. Que sera, sera, I wasn’t going to give in. This is the language in this city that toughens.
The ride from Lagos to communes barely beyond Ijebu Ode was rough and bumpy. Thankfully, the chauffeur was familiar with the terrain and glided on as skilfully as he could. Sadly, the barely two hours into what should have been an eight hour trip was soon to come to an abrupt disruption. Ahead of us was a long stretch of vehicles enmeshed in a discomforting logjam. We crept for barely a meter in about 30 minutes. Worse yet, there weren’t prospects that end was in sight. There were no explanations, neither was there any law enforcement agency in sight. It’s barely 9.00 am. Don’t expect them on duty this early.
As would be expected, people were growing impatient. More frustrating, there was hardly any room to escape. The median was either cast in concrete or metal railing. Vehicles were sandwiched ‘’bumper to bumper’’ hardly allowing escape routes. This is the way it goes in our clime.
We were eventually lucky to find space to veer off the double carriage way, the chauffeur positive that we would reconnect with the road after a ride through an alternate road in the jungle. We deluded ourselves expecting it to be all over in minutes. Hardly did we realise that we would be unto some roller-coaster in a pristine forest. We were soon to be ushered unto a stretch of rain forests in their elements – thickets, shrubs, creepers and tall huge trees. They seemed involved in a rivalry and show of might in reaching the skies. If you would appreciate the kind of jungle that was home to Tarzan and his Apes, this is one. We were face to face with nature. This is home to Iroko trees and its endangered tribe – thanks to sustained logging for export and internal use.
This alternate road is over fifty, long abandoned since the dreary Lagos – Shagamu – Ore – Benin expressway was constructed. It had become really narrow- underlay shrubs had found through it, an escape from completion to seek sunlight in the sustained rivalry of foliage for photosynthesis. It was so narrow that commuters in opposite directions mandatorily always had to come to halt to give way. The asphalt coating on the road was for a larger proportion of the journey worn, metamorphosing unto muddy slippery terrain. A number of vehicles got stuck in the mud, most times dictating careful drives pass if you wouldn’t have to suffer a similar fate.
There was an interesting discovery of scores of villages domiciled on this road. They were adapted to nature; their homes manifestly so. They were mostly cast in mud or thatches. Their means of livelihood was of course farming. We saw their plantain, pineapple, maize and palm oil mills. They had to be organic –whatever the innovation in distributing fertilizers, government agricultural agencies wouldn’t reach these ones. The larger concern of these people would be the methodology of getting their products across to the neighbouring cities. If you need a description of poverty of materials visit this place. Electricity? These people long heeded the counsel - never expect power always, please light candle (nepa, plc).
Most of my co-travellers were relatively younger. They were frightened, but revelled in the unfolding melodrama, pulling out phones to document the adventure. Some almost passed out when we had to cross a number of narrow rickety bridges that only allowed a vehicle at a time. These were so narrow - you see rivers flowing deep below, gorges and ravines adding to the fright – dreading the prospect of the vehicle skidding off bridges. For me, it was an interesting reminiscence of my journeys through the same road in the mid-seventies as a young secondary lad. It made me to appreciate the God who saw me through those dangerous trips between Lagos and Benin for half a decade. How true that the God, who kept me then and now, neither sleeps nor slumber.
We eventually had a relink with civilisation. After stretches of plantation agriculture – largely Teak, Gmelina and Rubber plantations, we emerged from the jungle about thirty minutes’ drive from Ore. After another round of hiccups on the famed road that popularised Diezzani Alison-Maduekwe, then Minister for Transport we made it to Ore. Reports had it that emotions overwhelmed Dame Alison-Maduekwe. She could not sustain tears as she beheld the criminal negligence of that all-important road by the Nigerian state. As we travelled on, I kept pondering why there was such failure of the state. How could the People’s Democratic Party alias Pin Din Pin (thanks to that garrulous sage - Aare Alasa of Ibadan, the late Chief Bola Ige) allow the Honourable Minister weep for nothing - failing to right a wrong of these 15 years of controlling Federal resources?
We were relieved to have left the pot hole ridden and rough rides of the Ogun and Ondo state ends of the road driving unto Edo state. Sanity was obvious from the Edo State - the road smooth and well-marked. This development was sustained up to Benin City and the bye. Thereafter too, there were no markings but the road was smooth. I kept wondering why the special treat of the Edo end of the road? I postulated three theories. First, what was to be seen at the Edo end is a manifestation of the actual plan for the road. Secondly, I reasoned that Chiefs Tony Anenih and one of his successors Mike Onolememen, respectively ministers for works had schemed to be able to render accounts to their Edo State people. Third was that the Federal government fears that Lilliputian titan of Edo state – Comrade Governor Adams Oshiomhole and wouldn’t court his troubles. In ensuring that the road had no problems was simply letting the sleeping dog lie.
Thereafter, the road was clear and free from complications till we arrived Owerri about 9pm. I was later to realise that hundreds of other wayfarers who didn’t attempt our diversion into the jungle were less fortunate arriving close to midnight.
There were aspects of the journey across the Niger that merit comments. Co-travellers found solace killing the boredom discussing politics and insecurity in the east. Like tales in the barber’s shop discussions engaged us all. From Benin, we could observe Police road blocks which for Inspector General Mohammed Abubakar are now a taboo. I should be nursing the hope that this isn’t the situation in most parts of Edo, but then I recall that Mike Ozekhome, the effervescent human rights activist had just had a dose of insecurity – suffering pitiably in the hands of kidnappers. There were also road blocks in Anambra mounted by the Police, but by the time we reached Imo state, soldiers complimented Police men. It had to be guns all over. I learnt in the vehicle that those celebrating in the east are compelled by wisdom to arrange private security. This proved true.
Umuduruimo commune had to be under siege. There were soldiers, police men and members of the village vigilante to assure that Lagosians and other visitors went back to their homes safe. VIPs took turn in announcing their arrival via sirens and frightening gun-toting men, disturbing the peace and tranquillity of the “Trinity” commune of Umuduruimo, Umuezeala and Umuihe. Mind you this is the east, the land of wise and rich men who have the wherewithal to pay for whatever would be requested for security. No doubt Governor Owelle Rochas Okorocha had stepped up security, even then, wisdom requests indigenes to sleep having at least an eye open. This is sad.
Two developments caught my attention as we approached Onitsha. First was the beautiful airport at Asaba. The Delta state government has played smart. Siting an airport close to the commercial city of Onitsha is a relief for many travellers to nearby Anambra state. There was also the now visibly wider River Niger. It’s been dredged for an inland port, which could be sighted – under construction. Much as I agree with the need to increase commercial activities on the Niger, I kept pondering over the environmental implication of such adventure. What would be the socio –economic impact on several communities that fish and farm around the Niger? What erosion of rare species that would have for long been exterminated by the greed of man. We have seen vengeful nature fighting back when it is stirred by the tail. If even advanced countries can hardly cope, pray, how would we cope?
At Onitsha, there were campaign posters announcing the forthcoming elephantine battle between the political parties – APGA, APC, Labour Party and PDP. There were predictions that the Labour Party candidate has great chances. However, there was also consensus that Governor Peter Obi would not go down without giving a hard fight. PDP is enmeshed in one of those peculiarities of Anambra Politics. One party, two candidates for the same post, and rather than settling, they have dragged themselves to court. PDP’s loss is gain for others. I kept asking about the flamboyant Dr Chris Ngige of APC. I discovered that party loyalty could cost him much. The people are displeased with him over his perceived endorsement of the ill-timed and ill-advised deportation of mentally challenged Igbos by the Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola. They predict that support for the inhuman act of Fashola would account for the would-be shellacking of Dr Chris Ngige at the polls.
Owerri did not disappoint. I fell in love with that city at first sight over two decades ago. I was impressed by its serenity and cleanliness. Although the city has quite grown, it seemed above board. The city was much more expanded with new buildings dotting the terrain, indicating a quiescent development. There was also the noticeable greenness of the city. This certainly is an extension of the Igbo philosophy of dispersed settlement. This rich tradition no doubt facilitates longevity as people easily have a romance with nature. It’s so beautiful and fresh that even residents of Ikoyi, Lagos would go green with envy.
The larger part of the visit was spent in Umuduruimo a member of some three villages christened Aladinma Umuohi Trinity Village. Umuduruimo along with its other two relatives - Umuezeala and Umuihe are all in an area called Ata, barely twenty minutes from Owerri city. Umuezeala is home of the Political chieftain and Publisher of Champion Newspaper, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, whose sprawling estate announced that he is a man of no mean repute.
The funeral of Mama Rhoda betrayed rich funeral traditions of the Igbo. There were rich traditional music and dances – from the solo flutist who entertained for pecuniary reasons, to array of drummers and trumpeters. There was a convenient accommodation of local and religious cultures. The Boys Brigade made Lagosians feel at home with their familiar tunes. Evidently, hardly would any wall divide a people of a common faith. The larger marriage of the local and foreign culture was demonstrated by the Mothers’ Union of St Matthews Cathedral, Ata. They donned specially designed wrappers, singing the praises of the departed and cheering the bereaved.
After a soul searching hard-to-come by sermon by the officiating Priest of St Matthews, Ata, our guests treated to the customary lavish entertainment of visitors by the Igbo. I returned to the Mayfair Hotels, Owerri in the dark. Throughout the trip back to Owerri, there was the looming thought about the possibility of being kidnapped, especially when the taxi we had hired was penchant on taking dark routes. I was unperturbed. Living becomes meaningless if shrouded in fears.
The trip to Umuduruimo afforded an opportunity to see hitherto unfamiliar destinations in Igbo land and the way the Igbo man lives. I passed through Okija, a town popularised by the patronage of its famed gods and fetish oaths-taking by politicians - the little minds that curiously wield such power. Oh, the evil that men of dark minds commit. It was also interesting coming across one or two of the towns that make up the pentagon of towns called Mbaise. One of them did reveal the roots of that famed female journalist – Chris Anyanwu. I was also glad coming across Emekuku, a town I had heard much about since my days as an Agricultural officer with the National Youth Service as having a large hectarage of oil palm plantation, developed by Youth Corps members. I was to confirm this at the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport which is surrounded by Eleas guinesis - the Oil Palm. The airport revealed the commendable efforts of the Goodluck Jonathan leadership to touch up our airports.
Looking back, the trip to Umuduruimo, was quite educative and challenging. More important, I will ever appreciate the relieving adventure that my choky schedules in Lagos wouldn’t allow.