To get the full intent of my piece it is imperative that we first of all grasp the circumstances under which we lived then. And by "then" I mean the early 70's when Eastern Nigeria was still recuperation from the vicious flogging she had received during the Biafran war.
At Umudike where Government College Umuahia sits it was no different. Functioning under the dilapidated infrastructure of a Campus sacked repetitiously by Federal Troops, the school continued to flourish due to the amazing spirit of teacher, student, Founder and Old Boy.
How it did this is another story because believe me when I say that at times it was sheer hell on Earth with one indisputable fact being, that the food served to us boarders was absolutely horrible.
It lacked so much imagination in terms of presentation, substance and preparation -especially for us Igbo's who know a thing about ingenuity- that had even a starving Oliver Twist lived in our time -he would rather have settled for a blind fold and firing squad instead of asking for seconds.
True to God ...it was that bad!
Name me any meal served and I can guarantee you that it sucked with the sour bite of an unripe Mango Granted some with more potency than others, but nevertheless all bound by one common thread namely the term "Tufiakwa"!
I can still remember the combinations almost 4 decades later. The Yam and Beans pottage that looked more like the contents of an infants Number 2 deposit complete with both scampering and dead Coleoptera and Curculionidae weevils, while tasting like dust.
Then there was RB (pronounced aRuu Bee ) ÔÇô which for the record had nothing to do with Rhythm and Blues, but was the abbreviation for the vile Rice and Beans. In most cases it was embedded with so many stones that had GCU been say in the US, The American Dental Association would have donate money each year to the school for the amount of patients we sent them. That slosh damaged so many teeth one would need assorted spread sheet just to keep track. Same could be said for Surgeons and the appendicectomies sent to them courtesy of the GCU kitchen staff.
If I remember correctly Nigeria East of the Niger then was in the initial stages of experimenting with growing actual Post war rice herself and loosening the noose of dependency being plaited both Uncle Ben's in the US and the import Agents with their absurd tariffs who now controlled the accessibility ports that had been stripped from a defeated Biafra.
In any case while the farmers did a marvelous job on the field by creating perfect ponds and coaxing a stubborn alien plant to full fruition, the Administrators blew it in the packaging and quality control. Somehow "Grade A" gravel and tender white almost sugary grains were filled into foul smelling hemp bags many recycled, and oft still impregnated by the smell of their previous contents like stock fish and kerosene lamps. Needless to say, the rice acquired the smell while sitting and soon developed that horrible Cologne that only Maggi, Yeast powder and Geisha could hide.
And then there was the every popular "Bread and Kwo-Kwo" (incomprehensibly also spelled QuoQuo by the "I-too-knows" from Fisher House) or simply put Bread and Tea.
Now let me state for inquiring minds that I have never eaten a Hausa slipper. But I know for a fact that if "Nothing" and a "Hausa slipper" married and had a child it would taste, and have the texture like the bread we were served for breakfast.
And the Tea?
Even the muddy Imo River tasted better and did not contain the occasional dissolved remnants of lizards or rodents. That concoction was so potent and complicated that it defeated anything Peak, Horlicks or Carnation threw at it to make it taste better
I could go on but wont.
So it is these conditions that forced the crayfish as they say in Aba to bend, and for most of us to seek solace else where namely at the two "Bukas" within walking distance of the School simply called the "Upper and Lower Shacks", because that's what they were - virtual Shacks.
The Upper Shack
The Upper Shack stood within spitting distance of the main gate and since it was the first it also went briefly by the name Original Shack. It was my favorite for 2 main reasons. First of all one of the cooks had lived in Benin before war and could therefor reproduce plantain fritters or "Dodo" as only people from that region could. The caramelized wedges with a faint hue of salt and Palm Oil could compliment anything including raw bark.
Secondly it boasted of a wider variety of soups. So in addition to the regular fare of Egusi, Okoro and Ogbono on certain days you could also be offered more exotic concoctions such as the Umuahian delicacy Achara, or my personal pick Ofe Owerri thickened with Cocoa Yam.
Nevertheless it was also more dangerous to visit. That quick sprint from the gate across the Main road while being totally exposed till you reached the safety of the front room, was oft the equivalent of walking through a mine field. But to most of us used to dodging MIGS and Ilyushin bombers just years before, it was just another inconvenience that we scoffed off over and over.
To make matters worse there was no true water source up hill (Unless that taps were running and you wanted to walk to the Seminary). This meant you could not lie about the reason for being "Out of Bounds" when caught by one of those sadistic Masters and Prefects always seemingly on the prowl.
I remember being caught in the Headlights of a certain Toyota Crown with the Tags 1907 and being rooted to the spot like a deer. Of course for those of you who can remember, it belonged to Chief Nwuche our Principal then and he made me pay dearly. And by dearly I mean that instead of dancing up close with the visiting Ladies from Owerri Girls and Queens at the YCS bash that Saturday - I was cutting grass in the Lower field.
But who cared? I ate at "The Shack" that same Saturday evening and cartooned him in the "Red Star" that following Monday.
Upper Shack also had "stimmung" and by that I did not mean that plastic table cloth and equally depressing flowers. No Sir's ÔÇô it had true character. For instance its walls were plastered with various Almanacs bearing testimony to the Great Enugu Rangers and The Green Eagles. Years ago while at a Flea Market here in Washington, I ran across some old Nigerian. Newspapers, Magazines and Posters and nearly fainted when I saw the one below.
Though yellowed by age, next to Yekini making love to the Net after scoring against Greece in our first WC, Ikpeba somersaulting in Atlanta after beating Argentina In the Olympics, and Chukwu presenting President Shagari with our first ANC Cup while carrying it on his head like a bucket and saying.. "Oga I don go stream fetch Gold" this has to be the greatest picture relating to Nigerian football.
Still wearing our original Red it is a photo of the Nigerian Team Pre Eagles known as The Devils, barefoot and showing players like Henshaw, Thunder Balogun and from my own Village Nkwere, Dan Anyam. It instantly transported me back to the confines of "The Upper Shack" and the zillion debates we had especially how a sleek looking Balogun (1st Standing from the left) could have killed someone with his shot despite having a frame like a Cattle Egret.
Evenings at the Shack was like a Bazaar. This was because of the renters in the rooms behind it that added their flavour to the whole experience. So instead of just satisfying your hunger, smokers could also acquire their Saint Moritz and Benson and Hedges, while the drinkers could quench their thirst with frosty bottles of Star, Gulder or Maltex.Somebody also owned one of those portable Phillips Hi Fi sets so you could also hear anything from Okukuseku to The Brothers Johnson in the back ground.
The Upper Shack also came with its set of rules which sometimes bordered on the absurd. For instance I could be sitting right next to a Senior with both of us breaking the law. Yet if I attempted to say smoke, I would be soundly warned with statements like
"OjinmahÔÇŽ.Kpomo is one thing, but Ciga in front of me? Na lie!"
Ignoring this quasi arrangement between Senior and Owner was often detrimental. I say this because this is how I was introduced to a certain Anyah (Cozens) AKA "Wickedness" - who flattened my head with such a crack after I continued to practice the smoke rings Charles Aniagolu had taught me in his presence - that I could now balance my bucket on it with no towel.
Make no bones about it, even in the relative safety of "The Shack", we Juniors all realized that we were still mere Goldfish swimming with Sharks and that the discipline and dogma of "Up Umuahia" still prevailed even under different conditions. So thread lightly we did, and that alone was how we made it.
The Lower Shack
The Lower Shack was located on the left hand side of the Calabar road if you were walking towards "The School of Agriculture" and on the right, if you walking from it towards our lower gate. It sat circa 300 yards from the oft idling pumping stations that in turn faced our precious stream.
Housed in 2 crude rooms rented in one of the many Bungalows hastily being constructed by the locals, it stood on an elevated red mound and served to most of us :rebels more as an Official "Ogbu Oge" watering hole, than an actual Restaurant per say.
Unlike the Upper Shack the food here if I remember correctly still had to be coaxed with the usual accessories like Maggi. Furthermore the plantain was often too soggy and the meat a little too tough and rubbery. You know just the way we liked it when we were younger and didn't mind chewing for a whole week just to get it tender and swallow able.
Having said that - It was also a paradise for those who loved those special parts of the animal we Igbo's refer too as delicacies. You know the gamey ones that go well in fiery broths eaten with chilled beer or palm wine and with names like "Round About" and "Towel".
Getting to the Lower Shack was child's play in comparison to the gauntlet one needed to run at the Upper gate. You could either simply stroll out the lower gate with a towel wrapped around your neck or with a bucket in tow, or even hide behind the herds of Cows en route to "Agric" and within minutes you were virtually there. And just in case it was Christmas, New Year and Easter all rolled into one and the taps and showers were actually working, all you needed to do was walk through the lower field, hang a sharp left and then cross the road..
As I insinuated earlier on, what The Lower Shack lacked as a true in and out "Buka" it made up with as a time killing spot, complete with Draft and Snakes and Ladder boards, WHOT cards as well as its famous freezer that produced drinks in near Arctic conditions ÔÇô something that was priceless in sweltering Equatorial West Africa.
Anyway Monkey "Kpomo" or not, freezing Iced drinks or not - what remains burned in my Mendula was the Music that we listened too in the back rooms where we had access to not one but two battery powered Stereos to play our LP's on. And what a variety we played. Our selections were as random as they were varied.
It was here that my love for music was fanned from smoldering coals to a full out blaze. Like a sponge I soaked up everything from Fela to The Crusaders, from Oriental Brothers to U Roy finally carving out my favorites from the continuous phalanx of hits that people kept bringing by.
It was also here that we at Umuahia first coined the term "Aba Rock" which loosely stood for anything African. For obvious reasons -namely her huge Market and the wealth of her traders- Aba at that time churned out more Bands than the rest of Eastern Nigeria put together. So in a nutshell, we had two categories regardless of genre namely "Imported" and "Aba" Of the latter I will, pick just five that easily come to mind . One was the Band "One World" that simply put, was way ahead of their peers. Originally strictly a Cover Band they were not content to just mimic the likes of Elton John and James Brown, but actually insisted on doing some of their own recording. The success was unparallel allowing each band member to have their own Volkswagens Beetle and to be elevated to instant royalty. With adopted names like Stanley Mathews (Vocals) and Ian Hoffna (Guitar and Vocals) they were out true first Super Stars other than Soldiers or Footballers, and like a moth to a flame we all drawn to them. I say Moth and Flame because I personally would be suspended for going to watch them at the launching at the aforementioned Album entitled "Victory" in Umuahia. Regardless, "Look at the World" then and now, still speaks for itself.
Another of my favorites was the Afro Funk band " Mono-Mono" which means "Black Lighting" in Yoruba I am told ÔÇô and that's exactly how they delivered their riffs, like an Electric shock.. Drawing richly from their background with Fela, I was simply bowled over by their delivery and till today almost four decades later "Kenimania" remains one my all time favorite tracks.
And then there were "The Funkees" know for their humorous Mega Hit "Akula " by which many people seem to solely judge them. Truth to the mater is that they have a much more comprehensive body of work including the flip side of "Akula" which was a remake of The Group War's "Slipping into Darkness". I remember that Long Play version being in excess of half an hour and being played by NTA Aba Channel Six with almost religious devotion.
I also remember Dan Satch but not the more famous one of Oriental Brother's fame, but the other one from Aba who played with Bobby Benson at the Copacabana for years. A wicked trumpeter with an ear for arrangement, he was the front man for the Atomic 8 Dance band ."Egwu" a song anchored by absolutely delicious percussions, a wicked base line as well as well placed horns remains an absolutely superb achievement complete with a hyperactive embedded Ogene. .
Finally there was the pre "Grazing the Grass" Hugh Masakela and his first Album " The Boys Doing It" another gem. Fresh from his internship in Ghana under Hedzoleh Soundz where he played and became friends with another student named Fela, we had yet to witness the Trumpet being played the way he did. Dedicating the LP to Anikulakpo, it was South African Jazz played over West African rhythms and produced a slew of hits none more enjoyable than Ashiko.
So in conclusion this is how we learned ! About the History of Football in The Upper Shack, about Music in The Lower, about Shakespeare in Class, Sports of the Field and about building Character in the dorm. Each different element complimented the other, turning us from Mice to Men and for those experiences we will always be glad and count ourselves lucky.