Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

“Enu-Onicha” (“High-Onitsha”, the “Inland Town”)

Note:  On this page we provide the briefest of pictorial and written introductions to this part of the city.  A much more detailed and illuminating description appears in Chapter Two, under an almost identical heading.  Here we merely open the door so speak.

When, in 1960-62, we depart from the streets near the Main Market and enter these Heights with their intensified vegetation, we encounter places that contrast sharply with the Waterside (Otu): as you see below, we suddenly encounter bodies of forest, garden spaces, scenes much quieter than the Otu;, mostly-unpaved streets dotted with small buildings painted white to indicate specific loci of spirituality, and others of similarly “non-functional” character:

Both of these buildings in center-image are shrines, the white one dedicated to Ojedi, a famous woman associated with UmuDei Village, the red one dedicated to Omumu, a childbirth-supporting Spirit venerated by the people of Ogbe-Onira (a sub-village within Umudei).

And Below, dress styles and behaviors in the Inland Town tend to contrast sharply with those typical of people whose current activities focus in Otu.  Much more wealth is displayed in clothing worn, styles are more diverse, and behavioral patterns tend toward the collectively dramatic:

 Parades of dancing groups in stylish uniforms, richly attired men and women in expensive suits meet in spaces dedicated to rituals of fairly massive scale:

And they accommodate themselves in decorated halls, carry objects whose meaning testifies both to holders’ wealth as well as to more esoteric symbolic values:

In terms of meaningful heights and depths, these people of “High Onitsha” tend to reject any claims to social equality with their neighbors who have come to Onitsha from similar uplands to the east (the Ndi-Igbo), but affirm instead ancient connections with those of the floodplains (Ndi-Olu), yet they also state that (historically) they “cannot swim”.  They claim to own the lands immediately around them in all directions, yet also boast that they came from far away, over uplands far to the West across the Niger.  For their part, the migrant Ndi-Igbo traders who live now (most of their time) in the lowland floodplain and vicinity  of the city called Otu, reject any suggestions of their own inferiority to Ndi-Onicha, and (this is 1960-62) call themselves “Non-Onitsha Ibos”.

Finally, should we turn more closely to examine the affairs of  Ndi-Onicha, we will find that internally, they themselves have highly divided identities: while some Ndi-Onitsha villagers claim they can swim at birth, call themselves Ndi-Olu and on occasion sass their fellow Ndi-Onitsha as being  “Ndi-Igbo” in contrast to themselves.  Others regard various sub-divisions of Enu-Onicha as secretly Ndi-Igbo (though those so-labeled staunchly deny it and may label their accusers as Ndi-Igbo as well.  Chinua Achebe’s observation that Onitsha contains “a zone of occult instability” would appear to apply in a number of personal, social, and cultural dimensions.

Bear in mind here that so far we are looking at an Onitsha of the past.  The city was largely destroyed during the Biafra-Nigeria Civil War of 1967-70, most of its occupants dispersed , and it was described in elegaic terms by one of the most insightful chroniclers of its pre-Civil-War Onitha market literatures, Dr. E.N. Obiechina, who wrote these words shortly after the end of the War1:

“Onitsha market… was totally gutted and its many thousand colorful and adventurous denizens scattered near and far.  Onitsha itself… lies battered and in ruins, drained of its vitality.”

“Onitsha was a unique town.  It attracted to itself all types of adventurers, self-confident and imaginative people… a town with a highly developed sense of its human consciousness…. Everyone there was acutely aware of his human relevance whether he was rich or poor, trader or artisan, professional or casual labourer….

“Onitsha attracted both the good and the bad, but mainly those young men and women who were running away from the rigours of traditional life and tribal village custom. It held an umbrella of anonymity over their heads and allowed them to give free play to their individualities.”

It drew into its bosom an assortment of peoples from beyond the immediate neighbourhood….  The Hausa ivory trader… Nupe and Igala clothdyer and dealer in bric-a-brac… Ijaw fisherman and canoe-puller… Yoruba petty-trader…Edo produce merchant.. Sierra Leonean professional. Each of these brought his peculiar calling, his peculiar habits and customs and his peculiar psychology to add to the colour and diversity of life in Onitsha, to enrich its general pool of human experience.”

We will briefly examine some of this history in later parts of this work.  For now, let it suffice to say that city and market were rebuilt during the 1970s, and Onitsha has grown massively in population since the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war, but to what extent it has recovered its 1960 dynamism so admired by Achebe, Obiechina, and other writers describing those earlier times is problematic. The next chapter will now focus on more detailed views of that late 50s-to-early-1960s, hyper-energetic past.

  1. Obiechina 1972, pp. 27- 9. Return ↩
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